Sunday, February 25, 2007

Dispensationalism as a Model

"all models are wrong, but some are useful" George E. P. Box

Science is largely devoted to developing models. A model is a representation of the world to explain something. We develop models as explanations of the world around us. It has been famously said "all models are wrong, but some are useful". This is taken to mean that none of the models we create are the world we are trying to study, but they can still be helpful in understanding it.

As an aside, this is why "creation science" is a bogus effort, in my opinion. Science in and of itself is not good or bad, atheistic, theistic, or Christian. But science is limited to models, and models all fall short of reality. When an evolutionist says Christianity is "unscientific", he is perfectly correct; not because Christianity is irrational, but because we have assumptions in Christianity that are incompatible with assumptions in science.

Science can not disprove God. But unless God chooses to reveal Himself visibly in a physical way (again!), science cannot possibly find Him either. Science, in order to work at all, assumes a materialistic world. It has to: there is no possible way for us to scientifically (mathematically) account for the spiritual, the supernatural. As a result, we must assume in our scientific models that the supernatural doesn't exist. This isn't because we think that's necessarily correct, it's just that we can't possibly use scientific techniques unless we make that assumption. It's a pragmatic assumption to make a rigourous study possible.

So when a scientist uses science to conclude there is a materialistic explanation for how we and the world around us came to exist, it ought not to surprise anyone: it's petitio principii. Of course that is the conclusion! It has to be, because it is the starting assumption! But proving your assumption is not proving anything: it's circular reasoning. Since science necessarily assumes there is no supernatural, it can't possibly conclude there is one!

The problem comes in, when people confuse their model with reality.

What "creation scientists" have done is, demonstrate Christianity is reasonable. But they cannot prove it is correct. And when evolutionists appeal to science to demonstrate the world is purely materialistic, they prove nothing: they appeal to a pragmatic assumption, not a logically necessary conclusion.

But that is not what I wanted to discuss right now.

Theology is like science in the sense that it too is concerned with building models. Only unlike science, it doesn't build models to try and explain the real world: theology builds models to try and explain the Bible. Or it would, were it purely Bible-based. But let's give them the benefit of the doubt (heh).

Building a model is simply trying to build up a consistent explanation for known facts. It's like trying to play "connect the dots", but the dots aren't numbered. So instead of simply drawing a line from dot to dot, you have to try and determine the best shape that touches every dot. Of course, the word "best" makes it difficult.

Model-building gets harder as there are more and more dots. Any fool can see that there's really one "best" way to connect two dots: a straight line. But three dots get a lot harder. And 3,000 dots are very difficult indeed. And the word "best" gets ambiguous very quickly. There is a general principle out there called "Occam's Razor", which boils down to this: when there are two or more explanations for a known fact, go with the simplest. OK, that's not really what it says, but it's a decent layman's version. This helps incredibly in "connecting the dots".

In Bible study, the "dots" are the assertions (the propositions) that the Bible makes. God is love, God is eternal; those are two of the "dots". As we try and connect more and more of the dots, we get more and more complicated models. But just like in science, we need to be careful not to confuse our models with reality.

I am Dispensationalist. I'm not going to apologize for that: I firmly believe Dispensationlism is the model that best "lines up" with what the Scripture teaches. I've examined alternatives: Reformed Theology is the most popular contender (indeed, a much more popular model than Dispensationalism is), but there are others. I've looked into many of them, but I find Dispensationalism satisfies Occam's Razor the best: I firmly believe it is the simplest model to explain the propositions of Scripture.

I am sure Christ Jesus rose from the dead in the same body in which He was crucified. I am sure He ascended to Heaven to sit at God's right hand. I am sure the Church began in Acts 2. I am sure Jesus Christ is returning physically and visibly to earth to establish a literal thousand-year reign. I am sure He will come and take His bride away before Daniel's seventieth week (which I am sure has not yet started). I can accept the destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in AD 70 was a foreshadowing---a partial fulfillment, if you like---of day of Jacob's trouble, but the real thing is yet to come. I hold to all these Dispensationalist beliefs, but I am endeavoring not to confuse those propositions (which I hold to be true from Scripture) with my theories on how that will all work out.

Of course, the important thing is not to confuse the model (Dispensationlism) with the reality (the Scripture). "All models"---even Dispensationalism---"are broken". But I find Dispensationalism is very helpful.

I remember when I first read J. N. Darby---frequently called "the father of Dispensationalism"---I was surprised by how little he clung to what I considered Dispensationalist dogmas. It took me a long time to realize that what he was doing was building a model; and he was able to see the difference between his model and the Scripture. He did a good (not perfect) job of distinguishing between the Word of God and his understanding of it. Whenever we adopt a model, we tend to try to force Scripture into it, rather than forcing it to fit the Scripture. This is confusing the model with reality, or worse; it's trying to change reality to fit the model.

So I've been endeavoring to keep the model subject to reality, and it isn't easy. All too often "exposition" means "explaining away", rather than "exposing". Too frequently I hear someone "teaching", who is really trying to defend his model. We can't move the dots to fit the shape we think they should make. We need to accept the shape because of the dots, not the dots because of the shape.

Sadly, I think Dispensationalists, who pride themselves on a "literal, grammatical hermeneutic", frequently act contrary to that. For example, many Dispensationlists restrict the Scriptures to Romans through Philemon, claiming these are the only Epistles to the Gentile Church. John's Epistles, Peter's, Jude, James, and the Gospels are all rejected as "not for today". It's not difficult to show the problems in this hermeneutic, but so many buy into it; with good intentions.

What we can't compromise on, are the propositions of Scripture. We sometimes have trouble figuring out how to connect them: they often seem impossible to connect with any shape, never mind a simple one. But they are correct, they are true. I may just fail to understand them correctly.

I was intending to write more specifically about some Dispensationlist abuses I've heard recently, but I think I'll stop here for now. Those will have to wait for another day.

Saturday, February 10, 2007

Don't let the door hit you on the way out...

My intention is not to be negative on this blog, but there is a tendency to do so when we discuss problems. I am specifically endeavouring to avoid airing dirty laundry publicly. I re-read posts frequently before and after I post them, to try and make sure I'm not crossing that line on this blog. Nevertheless, it's easy to slip into the negative.

I wanted to take an opportunity to try and express something a little more positive today: why I don't just leave. There are a lot of problems in "brethren" circles, but there are some other things happening too. Good things. Wonderful things. The problems I'm discussing with myself on this blog aren't a list of reasons (or excuses) to leave "brethren". They are issues---problems even---that I am trying to work through. It's possible that I might someday leave "brethren", but that's not what this is all about.

Nevertheless, frequently when someone points out a problem, there is a reaction of "if you don't like it, leave". I don't think that's a very helpful reaction, but there you have it. So I wanted to explain why exactly I don't "just leave".

First, I don't "just leave" because I think the whole issue of fellowship and where a Christian gathers with other Christians is bigger than personal preference. I am "bought with a price" I don't belong to me, and I need to be submissive to the Lord in this. I believe right now that the Lord has put me in the "brethren", and it's not my place to remove myself. He may guide me out at some time in the future, but I can't leave of my own accord.

Second, I don't "just leave" because I believe the "brethren" are onto something. The combination of worship-centered gathering and informal freedom found in "brethren assemblies" is something I've never seen anywhere else. And I've been plenty of other places. One thing that eventually drove me from "open brethren" to "exclusive brethren" was reading 1 Cor. 14. In "open" assemblies, the meetings are pretty much planned in advance, except for Breaking Bread (which is more and more frequently being scripted). In "exclusive" assemblies, most of the meetings are unscripted. This is exactly what I see in 1 Cor. 14:26 "How is it then, brethren? when ye come together, every one of you hath a psalm, hath a doctrine, hath a tongue, hath a revelation, hath an interpretation. Let all things be done unto edifying." (KJV). There is a spontaneity in Scripture that I've only ever seen in "brethren assemblies"---and more so among "exclusive" or very "conservative open" meetings.

Third, I don't "just leave" because I am in doctrinal agreement with 95% of what "brethren" teach. My frustration comes not from what they teach, but from their lack of walking according to it.

Fourth, I don't "just leave" because I am guilty of the same sins. There is nothing I see evil in the "brethren" that I'm not guilty of. No doubt that's the same with any other group of Christians too. We all have the same flesh in us, and we ought to be very slow to set ourselves up as judges. Yes, the Scripture calls us to judge (1 Cor. 5:12--13), but we ought to be mindful of our own weaknesses and sins when we see those same things in others (1 Cor. 10:12). The Lord Jesus condemned the Pharisees in these words: "they bind heavy burdens and grievous to be borne, and lay [them] on men's shoulders; but they [themselves] will not move them with one of their fingers" (Matt. 23:4 KJV). We need to be careful we're not guilty of the same thing.

Fifth, I don't "just leave", because I don't think there's anything better anywhere else out there. I've been a Baptist, I spent years in the "open assemblies", I've gone to Charismatic, Lutheran, Episcopal, and non-denominational services. I see the same problems everywhere else: the symptoms might be different, but the root problems are the same. We're all plagued with the same flesh.

Sixth, I don't "just leave" because I really don't want to. Not a very spiritual reason, but maybe not a bad one. The fact is, it's not some desire to leave that motivates me. It's a desire to work through some issues. I'm setting out to articulate to myself exactly what problems I see, and what issues I'm having. For example, in my post on reception, the whole point was for me to work through exactly what I see as the biblical model. Yes, I think the "brethren" are pretty much wrong on this issue, but that's not really what I was setting out to prove. Don't get me wrong, there are days... But the Christian life is an uphill battle. Get used to it.

None of these make disobedience OK. None of these are excuses to sin. But for me, they're all good reasons to stay.

So please don't misinterpret my blog as a grumbling session. I'm trying to be careful with what I post: trying not to air dirty laundry publicly. But on the other hand, there are definitely issues: some are mine, others are "ours". My goal here is to give myself a place to think them through "on paper", and maybe get some other people thinking too.

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Sola Scriptura

I remember reading Francis Schaeffer's The Great Evangelical Disaster in the late 1980's. Little did I realize at that time, just how relevant that book would turn out to be.

If you haven't read the book, it's Schaeffer's caution that the evangelical world had started down a dangerous path in the early 20th Century: that we ceased to regard the Bible as the infallible, inerrant, authoritative Word of God. Obviously I can't articulate in a couple hundred sentences what someone much more intelligent and better educated than I articulates in a few hundred pages: but his caution is that, once we no longer have a received standard of objective truth, we have nothing. In typical Schaeffer style, he illustrates the dangers of unbounded subjectivism and Christian mysticism. One interesting point he makes is the dangers of statements like "The Bible contains the Word of God", rather than "The Bible is the Word of God."

It is a terrible "sign of the times" that Christians in the 21st Century don't accept the absolute authority of Scripture. I met this, of course, when I was in University: that's just the sort of place one expects to meet this sort of thing. But the sad thing is, I've found through painful experience this sort of thing isn't just "out there". It's not only on University campuses, or in liberal churches. It's not just in the "seeker-friendly" postmodern churches---this sort of error has found a serious toehold in "conservative churches," including so-called "brethren" assemblies.

Of course, it's hard to believe that someone in "assembly circles" would actually stand up and say "Well, the Bible contains the Word of God" or anything else so overtly heterodox. "Brethren" are too conservative as a race to say something so untraditional. "Brethren" don't attack what is traditionally held; and Satan doesn't work that way. Satan doesn't start where he intends to finish. Let's not confuse the two. Sodom and Gomorrah didn't start with rampant immorality. Romans 1 is clear that the Gentile path to depravity started in ungratefulness: everything else was a development.

Similarly, attacks on the authority of Scripture start small. Consider the medieval Roman Catholic Church: they never attacked the authority of Scripture directly; rather they undermined it much more successfully by raising up other---supposedly equal---authorities. Those authorities were given their place, because the people were considered incapable of understanding the Holy Scriptures. Eventually, of course, the "co-authorities" displaced Scripture entirely.

I suppose we could generalize those who deny the authority of Scripture into two groups modelled after the opponents of Christ:
  1. the Sadducees: "the Sadducees say that there is no resurrection, neither angel, nor spirit: but the Pharisees confess both." (Acts 23:8, KJV); and
  2. the Pharisees, who "have... made the commandment of God of none effect by [their] tradition". (Matt. 15:6, KJV)

There are two different paths frequently traveled to undermining the authority of the Word of God: the Sadducee path, which denies its truthfulness, and the Pharisee path, which simply buries the Word of God under traditions and "other" authorities. Liberal theologians follow the former path, the Roman Catholic Church followed the latter.

As a side note, I find it interesting that the High Priest in the Acts was a Sadducee (Acts 5:17). Apparently the time of Christ was much more like today than we might realize: the highest religious office in Israel was occupied by someone who denied the Scriptures, didn't believe in spirits, nor in the resurrection.

I'm afraid that we in "assembly circles" are following the Pharisee path. That's the path of ostensibly holding and defending the authority of Scripture, but burying it under other authorities. The Pharisees had the "traditions of [their] fathers"; the Roman Catholic Church had a myriad of creeds, dogmas, and papal bulls; the "brethren" have some interesting traditions too: perhaps examining them will be worthwhile.

First, there is the authority of extra-Biblical writings. There are some books that are held up as infallible by "brethren", here are just a few titles: Synopsis of the Books of the Bible by JND, Some Facts and Theories as to a Future State by FWG, Bible Treasury W. K. (ed.), and Notes on the Pentatuech by CHM. Of course this isn't an exhaustive list, but I think it's fairly representative.

Second, there are schools of thought, or common doctrines. These doctrines are probably correct, as far as they go; but they are not Scripture. Teachings like the pre-Tribulational Rapture, a literal Millenial Kingdom, or the Ruin of the Church. All these doctrines are based on Scripture (and I personally hold all three), but they are not---in and of themselves---Scripture. We need to learn to distinguish the words God spoke from what we understand them to mean. A failure to do so essentially elevates our understanding of Scripture to the same level as Scripture: it makes our understanding of Scripture infallible, rather than allowing God to be true, though every man be a liar.

Third, there are the "brethren" proverbs and pithy sayings. Sometimes these might even be Scripture, but wrenched so violently from context as to make them meaningless. One favourite example of mine is: "Association with evil defiles." This saying is held as Scripture by most in the circles where I fellowship, but it is wanting in several ways (just one example: it uses three terms "association", "evil", and "defile" with no real definition---and the first is not even in the Bible!). Another common one is [ostensibly] from Proverbs: "a man's gift maketh room for him". This one is used to mean that as a man (or woman) uses his (or her) spiritual gift, opportunities for ministry open up. Of course, a look at the context in Proverbs reveals that the word "gift" is a euphemism for "bribe". At best, this is Scripture out of context.

Fourth, there are men (and women) who are given unquestioned authority in matters of doctrine and practice. Sad to say, in a group that claims to eschew the practice of clergy, there is a tendency to elevate certain men to infallibility. There are men in "assembly circles" that make statements bolder than any "clergyman" in an evangelical church would dare to utter.

Fifth, (and this is more of a problem in "exclusive" circles), "personal exercise" is given a level of authority that vies with Scripture. I struggle with this, because I spent years among purely "objective" Christians: people who lived strictly by the letter, and had no clue that there could be something more. But the sad truth is, that as much as I value and believe in a subjective reality to our Christianity, it must always be under the authority of Scripture. In other words, there is undue weight given to personal conscience, and not enough examining it in the light of Scripture. There is no doubt in my mind that the Scripture teaches a Christian life full of personal conviction and exercise; but it's not our authority: our authority is the Word of God.

All of these conspire to undermine the authority of Scripture as the infallible Word of God.

If you've been in "assembly circles" for any length of time at all, you eventually hear a lament that sounds more or less like this: "Brethren used to be known for how well they knew their Bibles. Alas! we're not known like that anymore!" Eventually, one gets tired of hearing that; but there is perhaps some truth to the statement. At any rate, whether the statement is fundamentally true or not; I have become convinced that our weakness---our lack of Scriptural knowledge and understanding---is not due to our laziness in study, nor our failure to teach the Word, but is a result of our low view of Scripture. Like it or not, we don't treat the Scriptures as the inspired Word of God. It's systemic: it comes out in public ministry, in personal exhortations, in comments in the Bible Readings.

There are, I suppose, many examples I could give; and it seems wrong not to give any at all. Nevertheless, I am wary of "airing dirty laundry" in public. Thus, I think it's better to exercise discretion on this head. Suffice it to say, my experience in "brethren" has taught me that (in practice) they hold Scripture as a "co-authority", rather than the sole authority.

I suppose that means, we see the Scripture as infallible, but not sufficient. This is very much the position of the medieval Roman Catholic Church: the Bible is the Word of God, but it's not enough by itself---you need us to help you understand it.

As I have commented elsewhere, I once tried to read all of the writings of J. N. Darby. JND (for those who don't know) is the heaviest of "heavies." He is to "brethren" what Luther is to Lutherans, or Spurgeon to Baptists. Darby was a great man, and reading his books is a great experience. But he's not God. Nevertheless, I sank a lot of time into reading Darby. I never finished, but I've read well over half of his total writings.

At any rate, as I was reading Darby, I was struck by his constant assertions that Scripture is both authoritative and sufficient: he repeatedly said that Scripture was given to be read and understood; that a normal, common Christian can pick up a Bible, read it, and learn what God has to say. It took me quite some time to realize I didn't actually believe that. Oh sure, I knew that it was the "right answer", but I didn't act like it was true. (That's the difference between knowing the answer and actually believing it, right? What we believe actually affects us...)

There is an irony here that hasn't escaped me: JND is the one man above all others that "brethren" have vaunted to a place of co-authority with Scripture. And yet he most strenuously taught that the Scripture is infallible and sufficient: we need no other book, no other guide. (See Scripture, the place it has in this day by J. N. Darby, as one example.)

At any rate, it was when I was reading JND that I realized I had fallen in the Pharisaical error: I had begun (slowly, unintentionally, unconsciously) to "make the Scriptures of no effect through the traditions of [my] fathers." Perhaps the most telling experience for me was when someone made a point in the assembly. I can't remember who it was, or what they said, but they were wrong. Rather than quoting the Scripture, I quoted JND. What is that? That is (very simply) appealing to the writings of man, rather than the words of God.

Obviously this ties closely with my comments about Nehushtan---I'm sure idolatry is closely related to ignoring the authority of the Word of God. How can it not be? But I think this is a problem wide-spread enough to deserve special attention.

In conclusion, I have observed the same problems in "assembly circles" many others have. Like them, I have lamented our lack of power, our sad spiritual state. And I by no means believe that a grasp of the authority of Scripture is our only problem. But it's certainly one of them. We all give the correct answer when asked: the Bible is the infallible, authoritative, sufficient Word of God. But we oh-so-subtly undermine its authority in so many ways. As we see this in ourselves, may we make every effort to give the Scripture the place of authority in reality, not just in our dogma.

Monday, February 5, 2007

No Magic Bullet

The following is the edited text of an email I sent to another Christian who is a real help to me. I wanted to post on this topic, but I finally decided this email was the best articulation I've been able to come up with on the topic.

Just a note on terminology: "OB" means "open brethren", "EB" means "exclusive brethren", and "TOB" means "tight-open brethren".

I'm not sure what the Lord is trying to teach me, or what exactly I'm doing wrong in learning the lessons. Or maybe nothing, maybe this is just as tough as it is.

I identify completely with your quote about people who learn (or try to learn) intellectually. I personify that. I'm sitting here, with books by all these guys who have been dead 100 years or more, and more inbound (I just placed a pretty large order with Dover Bible Fund); and I have to say that I've learned the hard way, the answers aren't there. Not that they're without value, but what I was looking for (and what I suspect a lot of "brethren" types are looking for) isn't found in a lot of books.

I'm sure I shared with you before, the Lord has really had to work on me to show me that I made an idol of people like JND. About two years ago now, I stopped reading "ministry" and limited myself to Scripture. It was a good move.

At any rate, I spent most of my life looking for the Magic Bullet to make me spiritually mature. I tried legalism (for me it was Gothardism), ecclesiasticism (starting with OB, then TOB (only VERY briefly), then finally EB), knowledge (I've read over half of JND's ministry, and substantial parts of CHM, WK, etc.) and some mysticism (JBS, CAC, FER, and Watchman Nee). But in the end, it's all a waste of time as far as pursuing godliness. In the end, the God who loves us isn't to be found by shortcuts.

It's terrible to learn one's self. I've had some very Romans 7 experiences over the last few years, and more lately. There is a strange comfort in knowing it probably won't get better. But it's oh so hard to learn ( as JND puts it) that I am powerless over sin.

And as I find blogs and so forth of new believers online, I find myself pitying them the road ahead. It's tough.

I think I understand Peter "where else shall we go?" It's not the joy of the journey, but the realization that there's nothing else that keeps me plodding along. Or rather, that there's no One else. My life is hid with Christ in God, and while that's extremely comforting, it's terribly final. Sometimes I wish I could just throw it all away and let myself fall into apostasy. It just seems like it would be easier. Or at least, it wouldn't be harder, and it might be more fun.

The Lord Jesus, eternal God, eternal Son of God, came down here to live with wicked sinners; and He died for us too, and actually became sin for us. And now He's gone back---for us!---and invites us to come in as purged worshippers. This is an incredible thing, that God wants worthless trash like me to see Him face to face. It's really my only link with sanity sometimes.

I think that's really what it comes down to. My life alternates between extreme enthusiasm and bleak desparation: I make a fantastic living in a job I dislike, I live relatively comfortably in a city I hate; and I find myself wishing I could actually enjoy the assembly where we fellowship. And behind it all, there's God who loves me. But somehow I keep getting in the way of my enjoyment of it.

You told me last year that it's a mistake to NOT follow the Lord just because we can't see where He's leading. I really appreciate that bit of wisdom. I'm completely unsure whether He wants us to stay with the assembly here or not. I'm loathe to try and "fix it" myself: I've done that too many times, and it always makes things worse. So we're trying to be patient and honour Him where He's put us.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

Thoughts on reception

Reception has been historically a difficult topic in so-called "assembly" circles. There are two general schools of thought on the issue of reception. While there are certainly degrees within each position, the two general positions are "closed" and "open" with regard to reception. In general terms, "open" reception is the idea that anyone claiming to be Christian should be welcome to participate in assembly meetings (usually the breaking of bread, although that's by no means the only meeting that's implied); while the "closed" position is that participation is reserved for certain specific people.

Interestingly, these two positions are by no means exclusively "brethren". Not long ago I read the blog of an [apparently lesbian] Episcopal (Anglican) rector boasting about her church's "open table". So the terminology is by no means a "brethrenism". Further, the infamous "closed table" position is not just a "brethren" thing either: Baptists, Lutherans, Roman Catholics; all sorts of denominations and churches require membership before allowing someone to "take communion".

So a discussion of reception in so-called "assembly circles" is really just a discussion of a sub-topic in the greater realm of modern Christendom. This isn't to be taken as a statement that all the various opinions out there are equally valid or anything: just that we're not the only ones who have this argument.

Typically, the argument against a "closed" policy goes like this: it is most unrighteous to reject a known godly believer simply because they aren't a member of our group. Limiting participation to just those in the group is setting up a de facto membership list. Rather than receiving people as those whom Christ has received, we are receiving them as members of our sect.

The argument against an "open" reception policy typically sounds something like this: receiving someone who is completely unknown to the group, based solely on the statement "I'm a Christian" is by no means described in Scripture. There is such a thing as being a partaker in other men's sins, and this is one way to do it. Anyone---a member of a cult, a false teacher, someone who is blatantly immoral---can make a glib profession at the threshold and be allowed in.

I've mulled this one over for the past 18 years or so, and have finally arrived at some conclusions that might not be popular with people holding either position. My personal conviction is, the only way to maintain a Biblical caution about fellowship on the one hand and sectarianism on the other; is to maintain "closed reception" and allow "occasional fellowship".

So to me, reception would look something like this: if a stranger were to appear at the door on a Sunday morning and want to remember the Lord with us, the answer should be "No". Not because there's anything wrong with him or her, but because they are unknown. On the other hand, if a stranger were to appear with a letter signed by someone who is known, the answer is certainly "Yes". So far, that is in line with everyone who holds to a "closed" reception.

But we can also consider the case where someone who is unknown comes without a letter. There may be several valid reasons for this: in my own experience, I often fail to plan adequately for a trip, and suddenly realize I haven't gotten a letter yet, and it's the day before I leave. What to do then? I would suggest the common-sense approach would be to call ahead, and explain the situation to both the assembly where I live and the one where I plan to be. That way, there can be communication between them about me before Sunday morning. Thus, there would be someone there waiting for me, who can vouch for me to the brethren at my destination.

Now, this scenario raises an interesting question: is the recommendation of someone in the assembly sufficient to receive someone? Obviously the answer is "yes": the Biblical precedent is the Jerusalem assembly's receiving Paul on Barnabas' word.

The next logical question would be, what of the person is known to the assembly already? For example, should a visiting preacher be expected to bring a letter? For the purposes of reception, I would say "no". Similarly, if there is someone visiting an assembly where they are known, the letter is really unnecessary. By the same token, if an assembly were to withdraw from someone for some moral or doctrinal reason, I would expect them to inform other assemblies where the person is known, precisely so he or she wouldn't be received based on personal acquaintance.

So in the case where someone is "in fellowship"---i.e. fellowshipping with another known assembly---I can't think of a reason not to receive them, with or without a letter, as long as we can be certain they really are who they claim. A phone call, email, personal acquaintance, or letter is enough for me to receive them gladly.

To my mind, that summarizes the scenarios involving someone "in fellowship". But what about someone who isn't "with us"? This is where I diverge from the brethren in the assembly where I fellowship. I have come to the conclusion that if we refuse to receive someone solely on the ground that they aren't "in fellowship", we are a sect. Or, to put it another way: as soon as we make membership in something besides the Body of Christ mandatory for fellowship, then we have created a sect. So, I have concluded that we must be "open" to receive any Christian walking with the Lord, regardless of whether he or she is "with us".

Now, before we jump to conclusions, let's add a caveat: a Christian walking in known evil is not to be received, whether he or she is "in fellowship" or not. This is a sword that cuts both ways: not only does it mean we are not to receive people from "out there" that are walking in known sin; it also means that being "in fellowship" doesn't remove the responsibility to walk uprightly. Sadly, I have seen a lot of concern on the part of brethren with the moral standing of people "out there", but very little with the people "in here". And to clarify, there might be a scenario where someone's other association might be problematic. But I cannot see Scripturally that there is ever any excuse to demand exclusive fellowship with someone.

So, for example, if someone in the meeting were to bring some friend or relative to the meetings, and were willing to vouch for him or her, that he or she is a believer; then there would be no sin in receiving that person, regardless of whether that person were planning to go back to their "other church" again the next week. We are not called to demand exclusive loyalty of anyone, except loyalty to Christ.

The principles of reception, in my mind, are summed up like this:
  1. we are not to lay hands suddenly on anyone: we only receive those we know, or who are recommended by people we know and trust
  2. we receive someone as a member of the Body of Christ, not as a member of our sect
  3. if we are confident that someone is a member of the Body of Christ, and that they are not walking in known evil, then we have no choice but to receive them.

There is a final note I ought to make: some of the brethren have taught in assemblies that 2 Tim. 2:22 applies here: "Now flee from youthful lusts and pursue righteousness, faith, love {and} peace, with those who call on the Lord from a pure heart." (NASB). According to these brethren, pure heart means "undivided heart", so that no one has a pure heart who might try and fellowship in two assemblies without leaving one. Or to put it another way, we've been called to walk with those who fellowship exclusively "with us", not with those who might drop in to visit.

This is wrong on many levels:
  1. I can find no evidence that "pure" means "undivided" in any translation, Greek dictionary, or Greek lexicon. In other words, the English word "pure" might mean "undiluted" in some sense, but that's equivocation: the Greek term here is speaking about moral purity.
  2. This reduces to an absurd position: if "pure" means undivided, then those who have undivided loyalty to their churches (say, for example, a devout Roman Catholic) are "of a pure heart", although it is impossible to fellowship with them: by definition, they will only fellowship with other Roman Catholics.
  3. This makes exclusive loyalty, rather than moral purity, the test of fellowship.

To deny "occasional fellowship" to those true believers walking uprightly with the Lord is nothing more than the sectarianism we condemn in others.