Fellowship – What is a church?
Lesson 4: The basis of unity
When the Gospel was first preached in Tanzania by the Christadelphians it was fairly easy to keep unity. Everyone knew everyone else by name, they knew the circumstances of every other member. They knew everyone’s strengths, they knew everyone’s weaknesses. They knew everyone’s beliefs. It is easy to keep unity when there are few to unite.
As numbers increased however this became far more difficult. By 2018 it became impossible, and in reality the Christadelphian community was reaching a critical breaking point where it was impossible to unite everyone; there was a very real danger of the community fragmenting.
This situation is nothing new. In fact the exact same thing happened with many of the other Churches in Tanzania, and an identical issue was identified in the establishment of Christadelphians across the globe (including Great Britain, America and Australia). Something had to be done to unite.
In the United Kingdom in 1871 the Birmingham Ecclesia adopted a statement entitled “A statement of the ‘one faith’” upon which the Christadelphian Ecclesia of Birmingham was founded. This document united an Ecclesia that had nearly 1,000 members.
In a special meeting on Thursday, July 22 1886 this statement of faith was adopted by all Christadelphian Ecclesias worldwide as the Birmingham Statement of Faith. Small modifications were made on September 14th, 1908 and a revision on September 10th, 1968 such that this document became known as the Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith or B.A.S.F. as it is commonly abbreviated to. Although attempts to circulate the document in Tanzania had previously been made it was only on February 16th 2019 that this document was fully adopted by the Ecclesias of Tanzania.
Why is this document, so very important? Surely our unity comes from belief and following of the Bible. Therein is our unifying document. Whilst that is true, the Scriptures themselves are open to interpretation. The B.A.S.F. clearly states the doctrines that Christadelphians believe and the doctrines that are rejected by the Christadelphians.
Brothers and Sisters who do not believe and follow the B.A.S.F. will be rejected from fellowship with the Christadelphian community. Not only will the memorial emblems be withheld from them, but they will be asked to step down from any positions (forcefully if necessary) and they will be treated as no more than a “contact” - and in some circumstances fully withdrawn from. Having unity in our fellowship is that important.
A highly privileged position
We are in a highly privileged position by our knowledge of God’s revealed purpose. Many earnest religious people are in darkness concerning God’s truth. We owe our present position to the fact that, under God, Dr. Thomas was instrumental in reviving the gospel from the traditions in Christendom. Those traditions had held sway over the minds of men as the result of the corrupting influences of teachers who had overlaid the truth of God with human theories. Dr. Thomas went back to the Word of God and as the result of much study and discussion he found the Truth. When we reflect on the fact that the Truth had been lost and darkness had overcome the light, we see the need for heeding the apostle’s counsel to hold fast that which has been wrought. We cannot read the epistles without feeling the sense of foreboding that pervades them and the history of the early centuries only too sadly shows how truly the Spirit had guided the apostle’s utterances. In our turn we have the responsibility of “guarding the deposit”, as Paul describes the Truth in his letter to Timothy, seeing that, like a deposit in a banker’s hands, it must be preserved without loss. What are the essentials of saving truth? These essentials are formulated in the Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith.
Not that other Statements may not also give a true outline but the Birmingham Statement is the one most widely known. It is recognised by all in what we call the Central Fellowship. In Great Britain it has been acknowledged by both Central and Suffolk Street groups of Ecclesias as the one to which all could subscribe as setting out the First Principles of the One Faith.
A Statement of Faith is essential for any community of believers to define their beliefs to ensure harmonious working together and consistent testimony to those Without. To decry a Statement as man-made and to speak of the Bible as alone sufficient reveals a marked failure to perceive the problems of ecclesial life and its duties. All the sects of Christendom claim to base their beliefs on the Bible, a fact which in itself demonstrates the need for a Statement of what we understand to be the teaching of the Word of God. The Ecclesias in Australia, America and elsewhere also use the Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith. As an indication of the unity of the Faith that is enjoined upon believers. May we commend this to your earnest attention.
Duties and responsibilities
There are ecclesial duties and responsibilities in regard to the Revealed Purpose, duties which turn inwards and outwards. Inwards— in that we have a duty to nourish the Gospel in the minds of our members, to build them up in the Faith, to promote mutual love and obedience to the commandments of the Lord. But we also have a duty to protest against error. What a number of the epistles in the New Testament were written in discharge of this duty by the apostle! How Paul yearned over his converts, that they should be steadfast to the things he had preached! If he thought of the believers as sheep, he also regarded the false teachers as wolves that devoured the flock. If he thought with gratitude of the faithful men who toiled in the work with him, he also spoke with apprehension of those he called false apostles. We make these references not to apply this language to anyone but to point the lesson of our duty and responsibility within the fold. We have an ecclesial responsibility to the Lord, in Dar-es-salaam, in Mbeya, in Nindi, or in any other place. And that responsibility is ours in our own Ecclesia. We must have the right of judging the position of our members, with their weaknesses and idiosyncrasies and in doubtful cases each Ecclesia must decide. While this belongs to us (and we should see that none takes it from us) we have a duty to other Ecclesias. While an individual Ecclesia, we are also a part of the One Ecclesia—the Christ body, and our duty to other Ecclesias is to preserve on our part the Truth and let the light shine unobscured by vain speculations. But the converse is sadly true—if an Ecclesia wilfully and persistently preaches error, how can we avoid responsibility except by disclaiming association? If this principle has on occasion been pressed too far, we must not therefore fail to give it its proper place. It is the duty of all to seek to promote unity. We must avoid the things that make for disunity, contentions and strifes of words. Unity is a unity of faith, however, and that involves agreement on essentials.
Here perhaps we may be permitted to speak plainly. In our efforts to seek unity and peace in Great Britain brethren abroad have reminded us in various ways of the problems that exist in other lands where there are extensions of the troubles here, aggravated by their own local differences. If we have a duty to avoid putting any stumbling block in your path, is not the duty reciprocal and should not you seek to remove grave hindrances to unity, either by so instructing your members that you can happily declare there is oneness of Faith, or by removing from your association, sad though it may be to have to do it, the teacher of error. “Purge out the old leaven” is apostolic counsel.
In pursuing this thought, we would make clear that we should not “make a man an offender for a word”. We would eschew slick labels which are easily used but often do not truly define. We must distinguish between true principles and uncertain details. Clichés of speech are full of dangers, as are also figures of speech pressed into the moulds of literal definitions. Wild charges exacerbate feelings and hinder understanding. To make local difficulties a world issue is the same as spreading germs of disease; local difficulties should be confined by faithful treatment to local situations and if the Ecclesia as a whole must be told, then just as it is a rule in law that a decision must not only be just but must also be seen to be just, so in any separation it must not only be Scriptural and faithful to Yahweh’s commandments but it must be seen to be such. It must be reasonable and be seen to be reasonable.
We believe there are hundreds of brethren separated as the result of the work of teachers who have been in error or whose speech and behaviour have fostered the view that they taught error. A grave responsibility rests upon such. But we should all seek to remove the hindrances and stumbling blocks in the way of those of one mind who are separated through no fault of their own. We should locally seek out those that are lost and (if at all possible) return them to the fold. When it is necessary in the interests of definition of a disputed item of doctrine, sound, simple, clear language should be sought and the basic principles set forth.
We take, then, this opportunity to ask your co-operation in the pursuit of peace and unity of those of like mind. If the Lord could hold against a first century Ecclesia that they held a doctrine which he hated, or suffered those who held such a doctrine, we see how seriously he views some things. Surely none of us would adopt a position where He would have to say it of us.
As, therefore, we hear reports of vocal protagonists of things which are not believed amongst us, making also stout charges against things we do believe, might we ask you to help us either by removing those brethren who make discord and division by their words, or by showing (after enquiry) that the charges made against them are not true. We feel sure that by so doing you will greatly help the cause of Truth throughout the world and the work of peace in Ecclesias of your land and of ours.
In the year 1900
In the year 1900, while on a visit to England and Wales, Bro Thomas Williams wrote "A Rallying Point" in response to "the divided state of the brethren of the British isles". Brother Williams challenged the English brethren to seek peace, quit "hair-splitting strife" and rally around the "Old Birmingham Statement of Faith and Basis of Fellowship", which he suggested be renamed "The Statement of Faith of the Christadelphians", thus ending its connection to local names. At that time Brother Williams commented, "The brethren in America have succeeded in keeping these troubles from their shores..." America suffered in a similar fashion to what we see in Tanzania now. None of these things are new. It is the way of flesh. However, much has happened to the Ecclesias in America in the 119 years since Brother Williams penned his appeal.
The example of America
Much of the contention and fragmentation within the U.S. Community evolved around perceived differences in the significance of divergent beliefs held by other "Christadelphian" communities, as well as upon perceived differences regarding believer relationships and responsibilities toward those who share varying degrees of Christadelphian understanding. In many cases, it is from understandings of conscience, as opposed to strictly doctrinal issues, that much of the "hair-splitting strife" within the Unamended Community resulted, and it is in these areas that the brethren of Tanzania must exercise caution and brotherly love as they assess and react to approaches different from their own.
This is not to imply that false teaching or sinful conduct is to be placated, nor should we embrace social relationships at the expense of our convictions and our ability to proclaim them, but differences in understandings of conscience outside tenets of faith should not be cause for rancour or separation in the Ecclesia. Prayerful consideration must guide brethren in reciprocally addressing and resolving these often-contentious issues, with particular attention to the commandments of Christ and the principles of fellowship.
The Commandments of Christ
"The Commandments of Christ" have appeared in the B.A.S.F. since the early part of the 20th Century. Their appearance serves as a helpful reminder as to the character and conduct that we expect to be called upon to give account of at the judgment seat. In regard to our responsibilities toward brethren, we are reminded to "grudge not, judge not… condemn not" and "put away anger, wrath, bitterness, and all evil speaking,"- among other commands. Even more specific regarding relationships between brethren, Christ said, "This is my commandment, that ye love one another, as I have loved you."
Admonitions for and examples of brotherly love abound throughout the scripture, and all brethren admit to the excellence and necessity of this expectation. When differences arise, we must guard against the flesh, against temper and heated argument that result in anger and strife. In cases where conscience leads one to disagree, to admonish, or to withdraw from participation in specific ecclesial activities or from the Ecclesia itself, we too often see parties so embittered that continuing rancor and vindictiveness displace the very brotherly love that all agree is essential. Fleshy impulses and reactions are common to all, requiring that we be ever vigilant to keep them in check, for both ours and our brother's sake. Considering that we are commanded to love our enemies, how much more should we love, bless and pray for our brethren?
Amos asks, "Can two walk together, except they be agreed?" Fellowship is more than the act of breaking of bread at the Lord's Table. Fellowship involves things held "in common", and John bears witness that doctrine ("that which we have seen and heard"), as well as walk ("if we walk in the light") constitutes fellowship. (1 John 1:3-7) Though there is "liberty" in Christ, it exists only within the framework and boundaries of the commands provided for our instruction. Conscience must guide that liberty, but as long as it remains within the prescribed boundaries, it should not be cause for offence. Paul asks, "why is my liberty judged of another man's conscience" and, "brethren, ye have been called unto liberty; only use not liberty for an occasion to the flesh, but by love serve one another. For all the law is fulfilled in one word, even in this; Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself. But if ye bite and devour one another, take heed that ye be not consumed one of another… Walk in the Spirit, and ye shall not fulfil the lust of the flesh."
The Tanzanian Community is truly at a crossroads.
Our community is fragile and subject to forces within and without that threatens our vitality as brethren in Christ and even our ecclesial communal existence. Though the vision of a united Household may not be embraced by everyone, surely peace and goodwill among brethren, based upon a shared understanding of like precious faith, will be endorsed. The return of our Lord is at the door. We must pull together to the extent possible to strengthen and encourage both individuals and Ecclesias; we must put away "all bitterness, and wrath… and evil speaking" while we have opportunity. Each one of us can contribute to healing rifts that exist in our Ecclesias and in our community through our words and our deeds. We are blessed to know and hold the Truth, and it is to this shared understanding, as represented in the Statement of Faith, that we must place our focus in our effort "to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace." (Ephesians 4:1-4).
We would end with the prayer that God would bless our efforts together to the praise of His name, to the uplifting of the hearts of His saints, to the knitting together of those who, believing God’s precious promises, look for the redemption to be brought by the Lord when He comes again. May the divine blessing rest also upon your gathering to that same end.