Posted by: chuckbumgardner | April 30, 2009

Ecclesiastical Separation: “All or Nothing” or “Levels of Fellowship”?

Some argue that a church can practice no ecclesiastical fellowship whatsoever with a party that disagrees with what the church understands to be a Scriptural doctrine or practice.(1)  Instead, ecclesiastical separation is seen as “all or nothing”: persistent violation of any “clear teaching” of Scripture is grounds for a complete break of ecclesiastical fellowship.  Is this “all or nothing” position or a “levels of fellowship” position correct?  Combining observations about the clarity and importance of various aspects of the teaching contained in the New Testament will help to provide an answer.


First, it must be observed that various teachings of Scripture have different levels of clarity.  It is too simplistic an approach to say that a given body of Scriptural teachings are “clear” and the rest are by implication “unclear,” drawing a sharp dichotomy between the two categories.  Seeing a sliding scale or continuum of exegetical certainty is more realistic.  Why is this the case?

The New Testament churches enjoyed an advantage over contemporary churches in that they had the potential of authoritative apostolic arbitration regarding questions of interpretation or theology.(2)  This sort of arbitration, in fact, forms a large part of the Pauline letters, as Paul combats false teaching and clarifies deficient understanding.  If it be argued that no such advantage exists because the contemporary church now has that apostolic teaching preserved in Scripture, it may be answered that while the apostolic tradition contained in the New Testament is enormously valuable, it is neither systematic nor exhaustive.(3)  This answer reflects the standard observation in New Testament studies that the canonical writings of Paul and others are occasional as a rule, addressing particular questions ad hoc.(4)  While the New Testament communicates the general contours and many specifics of the apostolic tradition – all that God has chosen to preserve for the church – it is obvious that it does not and cannot contain direct rulings on every possible point of theology or practice.(5)

This limitation is reflected in much of the variety among Christian denominations, the existence of which demonstrates that churches will differ, sometimes considerably, about what Scripture “clearly teaches.”  It is not the case that a correct understanding of any of Scripture is impossible without the direct intervention of an apostle.  However, while not denying that Paul specifies certain issues as adiaphora, other issues which presumably would have been grounds for excommunication in the NT church (once clarified by an apostle) might be better approached as open questions today, as they have not been clarified in the NT documents.  For example, if Paul were present today, he could definitively settle the question of non-salvific infant baptism vs. believer baptism, and presumably disobedience to his clarified teaching would be grounds for excommunication. As it stands, however, the lack of a clear command or prohibition regarding the baptism of infants has led to differing positions on the question, with each side able to recognize the other as Christian while strongly maintaining their distinctive understanding.


A second observation is that various teachings of Scripture have different levels of importance.(6)  This is not to say that certain teachings of Scripture are unimportant, for “all Scripture is profitable” (2 Tim 3:16).  However, Paul himself notes in 1 Cor 15:3, using the technical terminology of passing along traditional material, that he “delivered” (παραδίδωμι) to the Corinthians certain teachings inextricably linked to the gospel, and did so ἐν πρώτοις – “as of first importance.”(7)  This passage suggests not only that different levels of importance are attached to various Christian teachings, but that the highest level of importance ought to be attached to doctrines and conduct whose repudiation would invalidate the gospel.(8)  The more closely a differing doctrine or practice is connected to the gospel, therefore, the less fellowship is warranted between two Christian parties.  Further, when a differing doctrine or practice is judged to have invalidated the gospel, no Christian fellowship is warranted because none is possible by the nature of the case.

These observations regarding varying levels of clarity and importance of Scripture suggest that a church may rightly recognize as Christian an external party whose doctrine or practice, while compatible with the gospel, does not precisely match one’s own.  Commonality in the gospel in turn suggests that agreement in every point of doctrine or practice is not necessary for ecclesiastical cooperation at every level.  The “levels of fellowship” approach to ecclesiastical separation would thus seem to be superior to the “all or nothing” approach.(9)


(1) John F. Brug argues strongly for the model of “unit fellowship” on behalf of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod in Church Fellowship: Working Together for the Truth (Milwaukee: Northwestern, 1996), 33-50.  This model teaches that “all outward expressions of church fellowship should be practiced only among those who agree in all doctrines of Scripture,” and “agreement in all the doctrines of Scripture forms the necessary prerequisite for the joint practice of all expressions of church fellowship” (50).  It should be noted that Brug considers agreement in adiaphora to be unnecessary for fellowship, and in that category includes such things as worship styles, mode of (infant?) baptism, church polity, and the moderate use of beverage alcohol (35).  It should also be noted that Brug differentiates between Christian fellowship [“the spiritual ties that we have with all believers as members of the invisible church”] and church fellowship [“all activities in which Christian join together as members of visible churches”] (19-20).  See also Wilbert R. Gawrisch, “‘Levels of Fellowship’ – Scriptural Principles or Rules of Men?” Wisconsin Lutheran Seminary online essay file, .

(2) Of course, the Roman Catholic Church looks to the Magisterium (Dei Verbum 10) to settle questions of doctrine or practice, but independent churches have no such contemporary teaching authority, a point emphasized in Roger E. Olson, The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity and Diversity (Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 2002), 41-42.

(3) It is likely that systematic and organized teaching was provided to new catechumens, and Paul probably refers to this at various points in his writings (e.g., 1 Thess 4:2; 2 Thess 2:15).  If such a body of teaching was set down in writing, however, it apparently is not included wholesale in the New Testament.

(4) See, e.g., Gordon D. Fee, “Reflections on Church Order in the Pastoral Epistles, with Further Reflection on the Hermeneutics of Ad Hoc Documents,” JETS 28:2 (1985): 141-51.  The ad hoc nature of Scripture should not, however, be overemphasized, a point brought out in George W. Knight III, “The Scriptures Were Written for Our Instruction,” JETS 39:1 (1996): 3-13.

(5) This statement is not meant to support the extreme postmodern stance that knowledge of a text is impossible.  It must be acknowledged, however, that all readers of a text approach it from a particular cultural perspective which may bring misunderstanding of that text.  Nor is this statement an attempt to undermine the doctrine of the sufficiency of Scripture.  Any particular question of belief or practice can be informed by the teaching contained in the NT.  It seems obvious, however, that some aspects of the apostolic tradition are more clearly elucidated in the NT than others.

(6) This observation is reflected in various schemas of levels of doctrine and practice which have been proposed.  Calvin (Institutes 4.1.12) contrasts doctrines which are necessary to be known with others which do not destroy the unity of the faith but are matters of opinion.  Olson (Mosaic, 44-45) delineates among “dogmas” (Christian essentials), “doctrines” (denominational distinctives), and “opinions.”  See also A. Philip Brown II, “Categories of Truth vs. Categories of Exegetical Certainty: What Really Matters and How Much Does It Matter?” paper presented at the Bible Faculty Leadership Summit, August, 2005, online: ; Kevin T. Bauder, “Separation from Professing Brethren: Notes Toward an Understanding,” workshop notes at 2006 National Leadership Convention, Calvary Baptist Theological Seminary, Lansdale, Penn., online: toward-an-understanding/#more-452; Al Mohler, “A Call for Theological Triage and Christian Maturity,” Dr. Mohler’s Blog, entry posted 20 May 2004, online:  Of note, Mohler avers that “the misjudgment of true fundamentalism is the belief that all disagreements concern first-order doctrines”; this is not true, however, within the present fundamentalist milieu, much less of early fundamentalism which was interdenominational in composition, insisting on the “first-order doctrines” (the “fundamentals”) while allowing some degree of latitude regarding “second-order doctrines.”

(7) For a defense of this understanding of ἐν πρότοις against a temporal one, see Gordon Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 722; Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 1186. For the notion that the gospel defines the boundaries of the Christian faith, see Kevin T. Bauder, “Thinking About the Gospel, Part Five: The Gospel and Christian Fellowship,” In the Nick of Time (13 July 2007), .

(8) That the denial of certain doctrines (heterodoxy) invalidates the gospel is indicated in, e.g., Gal 1:6-9; 1 John 2:22-23; 2 John 9.  That the persistent practice of certain sins (heteropraxy) invalidates the gospel is indicated most directly in 1 Tim 5:8.  It should be noted as well that the absence of certain affections (heteropathy) also points to a denial of the gospel, as indicated in 1 John 2:9; 3:14; 4:8, 20.

(9) For articulations of the “levels of fellowship” idea in fundamentalism, see Bauder, “Separation from Professing Brethren”; Rolland McCune, Promise Unfulfilled: The Failed Strategy of Modern Evangelicalism (Greenville: Ambassador,  154; Ernest Pickering, Biblical Separation: The Struggle for a Pure Church (Schaumburg, Ill.: Regular Baptist Press, 1979), 218-19.  The “levels of fellowship” model also solves the challenge posed by Michael M. Canham (“Ecclesiastical Separation: Towards a Biblical Balance” [Th.M. thesis, The Master’s Seminary, 1995], 112-13, original emphasis): “anything that is regarded by believers as a matter of ‘apostolic tradition’ becomes grounds for separation whenever another believer does not follow it. . . . The practical effect of this is that there is no room for godly believers to disagree on Biblical matters and still have fellowship.  This would render the interdenominational character of historic fundamentalism impossible.”


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