Guilt By Association
(Editorial - November 2002)

One of the barriers to the current unity efforts is the fear of including in fellowship wrong doctrine.  The fear is the Lord will hold us guilty for associating in fellowship with those who teach error.

The Problem

Following are three passages which give reasons for the fear.

1. The message to Pergamum (Rev. 2:12-17 all quotes from RSV).

Many in the ecclesia were commended because “you hold fast my name and you did not deny my faith even in the days [when] Antipas…was killed among you.”  But the Lord had a “few thing against you: you have some there who hold the teaching of Balaam…So you also have some who hold the teaching of the Nicolaitans.  Repent then.”

As a whole, the ecclesia had failed to take a strong enough stand against teachers of error and was thus rebuked by the Lord.

2. The message to Thyatira (Rev. 2:18-29).

Again the message begins with commendation: “I know your works, your love and faith and service and patient endurance, and that your latter works exceed the first.”  And again the Lord has sharp criticism for the ecclesia: “But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and beguiling my servants to practice immorality…”

Their toleration of “Jezebel” was causing some of the meeting to go astray and this tolerant attitude was rebuked by Christ.

3. The warning of the apostle John (II John 7-11).

“For many deceivers have gone out into the world, men who will not acknowledge the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh…Any one who goes ahead and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God…If any one comes to you and does not bring this doctrine [the truth about the nature of Christ], do not receive him into the house or give him any greeting; for he who greets him shares his wicked work.”

Rather obviously, the apostle is not talking about acknowledgment on the street, but of extending the courtesies of hospitality and fellowship extended to true brethren.  In other words, those guilty of active support for teachers of fundamental error shared in their sin.

While in our case, the true nature of Christ is fully agreed to by all, other issues are part of “the elementary doctrine of Christ,” including “the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment” (Heb. 6:2).  Matters touching on the resurrection and judgment seat are central to present discussions and thus cause some to worry we might come under the warning of II John.

A Guide to Action

In reviewing the pertinent scripture, it strikes us there are four guides to action which are very applicable to our dilemmas.

1.  No guilt by association ‑ the message to Sardis (Rev. 3:1-6).

“I know your works; you have the name of being alive, and you are dead…If you will not awake, I will come like a thief…Yet you have still a few names in Sardis, people who have not soiled their garments, and they shall walk with me in white, for they are worthy.”  While the ecclesia was largely defiled by iniquity, the faithful, according to our Lord, were not spiritually contaminated even though they broke bread regularly with the defiled ones.  While there is “guilt from active support,” the Lord assures us there is no “guilt by mere association.”

2. Christ’s criticism was to those personally involved with teachers of error.

The rebuke regarding conditions in Pergamum and Thyatira was to those who were members of the respective ecclesias.  No rebuke was given to the nearby ecclesias for conditions only a few miles away.  (And we know first-century ecclesias in close proximity had regular contact with each other, cf. Col. 4:13-16).  The strong words of II John were to those who personally supported and showed active hospitality to those of the anti-Christ teaching.

Why should this be?  Why is there no condemnation for not acting on what’s going on outside one’s own ecclesia?

Many of us know the answer from our own ecclesial experience.  Second-hand information is largely of little help in evaluating teachings which are supposedly astray.  Only the members of one’s own ecclesia know the person or party well enough to appropriately handle the situation.  Many have right ideas but convey them in such an awkward manner they are readily misunderstood.  Only by hearing the person in all settings does one understand what he really means.  Further, some of us are eccentric and like attention even if we gain it by ambiguous or misleading statements.  In such cases, ecclesias have been accused of harboring a teacher of error when, in fact, the local brethren know full well they must deal with a difficult personality, trying to save him, and not cut him off from the brotherhood.

3.  Failure to root out all error does not cost us eternal life.

Look at these words: “To the rest of you in Thyatira, who do not hold this teaching, who have not learned what some call the deep things of Satan, to you I say, I do not lay upon you any other burden; only hold fast what you have, until I come.”  But what about that woman “Jezebel”?  Who was going to take care of her?  Christ would handle her, I will throw her on a sickbed, and those who commit adultery with her I will throw into great tribulation, unless they repent of her doings…”  In Thyatira, the Lord took responsibility for clearing up the errorists.  He laid no further burden on the faithful other than to hold fast to their good works which were growing better as they matured in the faith.

Look, too, at the words to Pergamum.  After reproving their failure to eliminate false teachers, the Lord said: “Repent then, If not, I will come to you soon and war against…”  And we expect him to say he will war against the ecclesia and remove its lampstand.  But he says, “…I will war against them [the teachers of immorality] with the sword of my mouth.”

In fact, the Lord’s words are less threatening to Pergamum and Thyatira than to Ephesus and Laodecia where no false teachers existed.  Why should this be?  Why wouldn’t he demand, in the most severe terms, that the brethren attack the errorists?

Again, our own ecclesial experience provides the answer.  There is inevitable collateral damage in attacking teachers of error.  Almost inevitably wheat gets torn out with the tares.  Sometimes false doctrine can be cleanly removed, but in many cases getting rid of it requires skill beyond our capacity.  In such cases, the Lord indicates he will put upon us none other burden than our personal discipleship.

4.  The ecclesia is the Lord’s and he runs it.

I will war against them…I will strike her children dead” is the Lord managing his ecclesia.  Do we believe he does this?  Do we believe “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction?”  Or do we believe the Lord was present in the late first-century ecclesia but now is absent?

This sounds like a first principle issue to us.  There are far too many times when we act like the ecclesia is ours and we are the Lord’s vigilantes to police it as we deem appropriate.

From these scriptural considerations we can surely draw some conclusions: We are guilty when we actively assist teachers of fundamental error, not when we break bread with them.  Guilt by association is not the Lord’s doctrine.

Our responsibility is within our ecclesia.  When we welcome ecclesias to our fellowship who accept a sound position, we should let them handle their own affairs.

We don’t need to panic about rooting out all error.  Ultimately it’s the Lord’s ecclesia, and he will take care of it.  Our job is to teach what is true, oppose what is wrong and walk in love, faith, service and patient endurance seeing our latter works exceed our first.

Don Styles

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