Make it your aim to be one in the Spirit, and you will be bound together in peace. There is one Body and one Spirit, just as it was to one hope you were called. There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is the one over all, the one working through all and the one living in all. (Eph. 4:2-6 Phillips)

There is an interesting event that has been going on in my life recently. I have been reading a book by G.H. Lang about the life of Anthony Norris Groves. This book is both a biography on Groves and a history of the early Brethren movement in Ireland and England in the 1800’s. I definitely recommend this book to anyone wanting to learn the history of Christians who walked outside of organized Christianity.

The interesting thing about the Brethren (sometimes called the Plymouth Brethren) is that they set out to meet outside the religious system in a biblical way and one of their strongest founding principles was that of unity and acceptance of all true believers. However, later on in the movement, the Brethren became the most divided movement among all the groups outside the system. How could this happen? I have become determined to find out. I believe it is very important to learn from their mistakes.

The other interesting thing that is going on in my life to coincide with the book is that there have been several believers who have come to me recently who have either left or considered leaving their groups because of doctrinal differences. Hmmm . . . very interesting! Historical lessons being learned in the fires of current dilemmas. So, for me, this has brought up the question (again and again) of when and/or if Christians should ever separate from one another. So I will be quoting from the above mentioned book and the scriptures to share some of my thoughts with you.

What is the Source of Our Unity?

In the very beginning of the Brethren movement, unity was of the utmost importance. Later on in the movement, when John Darby was separating from certain brothers, Anthony Groves wrote him a letter. In 1845 Groves wrote:

One point only is fixed on my mind; to receive all, as Christ receives them, to the glory of God the Father. More than twenty years this point has been deepening in my mind; and all I hear and see makes it more precious: indeed amidst so much weakness and infirmity, with such partial and imperfect views of truth, I see no other way but committing all judgment to the Son, to whom the Father hath committed it.

One common slogan among the Brethren at the time was “life not light is the basis of union.” This makes perfect sense to me. If I make light (or revelation) the basis of union then I would need to separate from all Christians who do not have the same revelation of truth as I have. That would be a lot of separating! But if life is the basis of union then I would receive all those who have the life of Christ within them. But how will I know who has this life and who doesn’t? Usually we can sense these things. However, I really don’t know, so if someone professes to have His life then I must receive him because I am leaving all judgment to the Son. He who has the Son has the life. So, if life is our basis, then it’s all about the Son.

A Difference of Opinion

In 1848 problems arose within the Brethren assemblies in Plymouth and Bristol. Some leaders in Plymouth were accused of erroneous teachings and others rose up to stop them. This problem was not dealt with scripturally and some others traveled to Bristol and spread the controversies to that assembly. This “virus” continued to spread and divided the assemblies into two camps; the Exclusive Brethren and the Open Brethren. The Exclusive groups would only fellowship with those who agreed with their doctrines, and Open groups would receive all believers. These two “camps” still exist to this day. Ironically, many divisions have since occurred within Brethren groups over the issue of light or life. Do we receive believers based upon the light they have or the life they have?

In 1932 eight believers from Exclusive Brethren groups in England, Australia, and the U.S. went to visit the assembly in Shanghai, China and other places. These were some of the churches that Watchman Nee and his associates had raised up. The Brethren invited Nee to come and visit them overseas the next year which Nee did. However, on his trip, he also visited several other groups of Christians not of the Exclusive Brethren circle. This action by brother Nee was deemed by these Exclusive Brethren as having compromised his fellowship with them. The brothers in China wrote them a long letter about their position on this matter. Basically, it was a plea for open fellowship among all the saints everywhere. This, however, was unacceptable to these Exclusive Brethren and later that year it was decided that they would break off all fellowship with the saints in China.

To me, it is unbelievable and inconceivable that believers would treat one another like this. Here is an excerpt from the letter that the Chinese brothers sent to the Exclusive Brethren:

The Scriptures plainly show us that the basis of our receiving one another is “even as Christ also received you” (Rom. 15:7). The reason why we receive anyone is because “God hath received him” (Rom. 14:3). Hence the command of God to us is: “him that is weak in faith receive ye” (Rom. 14:1). This command is explicit, distinctive and irrevocable. It is a sin to refuse acceptance of him whom God has received, however weak or lacking in light he may be.

I must stand with these brothers from China and say a hearty “Amen!” We cannot reject or separate from our fellow believers because of doctrinal, structural, or theological differences. I like the way that Augustine put it:

In the essentials – unity
In the non-essentials – freedom
In all things – love

I would say that the “essentials” are the Person and work of the Lord Jesus Christ. The Apostles Creed is a good basic guideline. However, someone could mentally agree on the basic tenets of the Apostles Creed and still not possess the life of Christ. Here again, it comes down to a matter of life. The early Brethren had it right! However, when they began to divide it was over matters of light. They didn’t all agree on their eschatology (study of end times). And this is definitely one of those non-essentials!

The Dilemma of Disagreement

I personally know of Christians who have separated from other believers because of their views on tongues, gifts, prophecy, end times, baptism, spiritual warfare, evangelism, leadership, hell and heaven, social action, tithing, ad infinitum. Yet all of these things are merely our own opinions of what the Bible teaches. And yet we are willing to take a knife and chop up the living Body of Jesus Christ for these opinions!

You see, herein lies the problem: We don’t believe they are opinions, we think they are facts! Our line of reasoning goes something like this: My view is fact; your view is opinion. My view is correct, you view is incorrect. And since your view is incorrect, that makes it erroneous. Therefore, I cannot fellowship with someone who is in such obvious error.

This was the line of reasoning used by some in the Brethren movement in the 19th century and that is why it became the most divided group of believers outside of institutional Christianity.

Life or Knowledge

Do you see this for what it really is? There were two trees in the middle of the Garden. One contained the knowledge of good and evil, right and wrong, truth and error. And the other contained God’s very own life. We chose to become judges over good and evil and it has brought us death ever since. Yet the Lord is calling to us and beckoning us to come to Him and partake of His abundant life.

I work with many groups of believers who want to experience organic church life. They want to live and function as the Body of Christ as did the early church. Most of them have been in the institutional church for many years. Some have been in various kinds of house churches. But they all have many opinions! More than once I have found myself sitting in a living room with half fundamentalists and half charismatics. How will this ever work? How can these people ever live as a community under the headship of Christ? There is really only one way.

They must lay down all of their opinions at the foot of the cross. They must present their bodies as a living sacrifice to God. They must be transformed by the renewal of their minds (See Rom. 12:1, 2).

Notice with me that Paul only recommended the separation of believers in two instances. One case was the brother in Corinth involved in extreme unrepentant immorality (I Cor. 5: 9-13). The reason for the separation was to bring the brother to repentance and restoration with the church. Paul also told the believers not to associate with those who cause divisions (Rom. 16:17). But nowhere does he tell anyone to separate from other believers because they have different opinions!

Dear reader, how will you ever find a group of people who agree one hundred percent with everything you believe? That will never happen. You see our oneness is based upon a Person. You and I are one with all of those who possess His life. We have not been made one in our opinions. We have been made one in Christ! He is our oneness. He is our unity. He is our life.

The believers in churches that Paul worked with all had many opinions. And then there were the opinions of those brought into these churches from the outside. In Galatia it was the opinions of the Judaizers bringing in rules and regulations. In Corinth it was the idolatry of the city and differing opinions of Christian workers. All of these opinions brought confusion and division into the churches. But what was Paul’s answer to all of this attention to opinion?

In the same way, my brothers, when I came to proclaim to you God’s secret purpose, I did not come equipped with any brilliance of speech or intellect. You may as well know now that it was my secret determination to concentrate entirely on Jesus Christ himself and the fact of his death upon the cross. (I Cor. 2:1, 2 Phillips)