For many people, membership in a religious movement is a major part of their identity. The doctrinal framework, services, and activities associated therewith are regarded as being of God. Therefore, the loyal members come to regard anything less than wholehearted support of the movement and its leadership as disloyalty to the Most High, and the leadership repeatedly reinforces this view by appealing to examples from the Bible. The message is: Do not be like rebellious Dathan, Abiram, and Korah. Remember what happened to them. Submit to God’s arrangement.
The result is an environment where people begin to doubt their ability to make sound judgments, and the expressions heard within the group are conditioned responses. While some may sense within themselves that something is amiss, they suppress this by rationalizations derived from the environmental conditioning. When, however, the rationalizations no longer calm the internal discomfort, the tolerable becomes increasingly more intolerable. A sense of fear, alarm, and disquieting aloneness, coupled with doubts, may create tremendous emotional and mental stress. Depending on the policies of the movement respecting those who leave it or are expelled for not conforming to its unique doctrines or directives, the person who comes to see that the group’s claims are seriously flawed may be terrified about the prospect of losing dear friends and becoming an outcast even among close family members, perhaps being cut off from seeing parents, grandparents, children, or grandchildren. At the same time, having been subjected to the repeated conditioning that the group’s leaders are divinely appointed, those struggling with matters of conscience may also be plagued by the unsettling feeling that they may possibly be in error — in danger of jeopardizing their eternal future.
Many decades ago, David Thomas (in a homiletical comment on Revelation 17:1-6 found in the Pulpit Commentary) was moved to write about the intolerant and loveless spirit existing in “conventional Christianity” with its numerous sects and denominations. After mentioning that “Christianity corrupted has always been cruelly intolerant,” he continued, “True, it does not shed blood so much as of yore, but if it does not take away life it may inflict life annoyances and disabilities in many respects more painful than bloodshedding.” In his view, each sect has an intolerant spirit, “each according to its measure as a persecutor, and as a rule, the smaller and more virulent the spirit. Curs snarl and bark more as a rule than mastiffs. Large and affluent congregations can afford to overlook denominational circumstances that irritate the smaller and the poorer to wrath and rage.” Untold thousands today by reason of what they have experienced through association with religious movements would not consider the comments of David Thomas outdated or exaggerated. Any victims of the kind of abuse to which he alluded are in desperate need of love and compassion, and any who may see themselves as potentially facing such abuse need comfort and reassurance.
The Source of Unfailing Comfort
For individuals to thrive spiritually outside religious movements, it is essential to distinguish between what is of men and what is of God. The famous English mathematician and physicist Sir Isaac Newton who chose not to be a church member recognized this distinction: “The authority of Emperors, Kings, and Princes, is human. The authority of Councils, Synods, Bishops, and Presbyters, is human. The authority of the Prophets is divine, and comprehends the sum of religion, reckoning Moses and the Apostles among the Prophets; and if an Angel from Heaven preach any other gospel, than what they have delivered, let him be accursed. Their writings contain the covenant between God and his people, with instructions for keeping this covenant; instances of God’s judgments upon them that break it: and predictions of things to come. While the people of God keep the covenant, they continue to be his people: when they break it they cease to be his people or church.”
To benefit from the assurances contained in the Scriptures, we cannot afford to let another human or group of humans reinterpret them and nullify their power to bring comfort. God’s view of us as individuals is what counts, not some humanly devised standard based on unqualified acceptance of a particular belief system that goes far beyond divine revelation.
The apostle John’s first letter can be of great help in calming any uneasiness and assuring us of the abiding love of our heavenly Father. This love is not based on our being part of a particular movement. It is a love for us as individuals, persons for whom his Son died. Our living in harmony with his Son’s teaching and example serves as tangible evidence that we, in faith, have accepted his sacrificial death in our behalf and him as our Lord. Consequently, we are no longer alienated from his Father and under condemnation of sin but are members of the family of God’s beloved children. (Romans 8:1-4, 12-17) Therefore, as trusting children, we rightfully accept what is set forth in plain language in the Scriptures instead of any reinterpretation originating with uninspired humans (however plausible or impressive their argumentation may seem to be or despite their claiming to have been divinely appointed).
John tells us: “See what love the Father has given us, that we should be called children of God.” (1 John 3:1, RSV) The fact that we flawed humans could be called “children of God” is something to look at in wonderment. It is truly amazing that the One who is so pure, so loving, and so good accepts us as his own children because we, in faith, have accepted his Son and all that he has done in our behalf. The very thought that this is so seems overwhelming. Yet, according to the most ancient manuscripts, the apostle’s statement is followed by unquestioning assurance, “and we are,” that is, we are indeed God’s children.
Our being loving as God and Christ are loving is the means by which to reassure ourselves of our standing as beloved children, dispelling from our “hearts,” our deep inner selves, doubts and feelings of unworthiness. As the apostle John wrote: “Children, let us love not in word or speech but in deed and truth. Now this [by our thus loving in the real sense of the word] is how we shall know that we belong to the truth and reassure our hearts before him in whatever our hearts condemn, for God is greater than our hearts and knows everything.” (1 John 3:18-20, NAB) Though we may be assailed by self-doubts, we can take comfort in the fact that our heavenly Father is far more generous with us as his children than we are in our deep inner selves.
In keeping with the spirit of the apostle John’s words, we can allay our troubling doubts by asking ourselves: Do we want to be more like our heavenly Father and his Son in attitude, word, and action? Is the desire of our hearts to imitate their love? Has our faith in God and Christ made us loving, caring persons?
In view of our possessing only imputed righteousness, however, our walk as God’s children is not flawless. Because of our repeated failings, we may at times question whether we really are his children. Especially Christians who have sinned grievously in the past may be plagued by serious doubts about their standing before the Most High. They may be burdened with feelings of shame and guilt. In this case, too, one needs to keep in mind that our heavenly Father is much more forgiving than “our hearts” are.
There is a big difference between choosing to live a life of sin and, in times of weakness, giving in to the powerful craving of fallen human nature. The apostle John made this distinction very clear in his first letter. “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all. If we say, ‘We have fellowship with him,’ while we continue to walk in darkness, we lie and do not act in truth. But if we walk in the light as he is in the light, then we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of his Son Jesus cleanses us from all sin. If we say, ‘We are without sin,’ we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we acknowledge our sins, he is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing. . . . My children, I am writing this to you that you may not commit sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous one. He is expiation for our sins, and not for our sins only but for those of the whole world.” (1 John 1:5-2:2, NAB)
Our heavenly Father “is light” — pure, clean, holy — in the absolute sense. There is not the slightest taint of darkness — evil, depravity, corruption, ignorance, impurity, or uncleanness. Accordingly, for God’s beloved children, a habitual walk in darkness (impurity, uncleanness, and corruption) is inconceivable. Still, our walk in the light is but a poor reflection of our heavenly Father’s holiness. We continue to be in need of the cleansing power of Jesus Christ’s blood, and that blood purifies us from all sin, that is, from all defilement resulting from our failure to meet the divine standard of holiness in word, thought, and action.
If we confess our sins, we can rest assured of complete forgiveness. This is because God is faithful, dependable, trustworthy. Since he has declared that forgiveness is possible on the basis of his Son’s shed blood, we can have absolute confidence in what he has said. The Most High is also just or righteous. He will always act in harmony with what he has revealed himself to be. He has manifested himself to be forgiving and merciful to repentant sinners. So his righteousness guarantees that we will be forgiven.
While giving assurance that the blood of God’s Son makes possible cleansing from all wrongdoing, the apostle’s words serve as an encouragement for us not to sin but to maintain upright conduct. If we do sin, aid is available in the person of a paraclete, a helper, an intercessor, an advocate. This one, Jesus Christ, enjoys an intimate relationship with the Father, and his righteousness is absolute, not imputed. Because he is righteous, his intercession for repentant sinners will always receive his Father’s favorable attention.
Dealing with Hurt and Anger
Upon discovering serious flaws in a particular group or movement, one may become angry and feel deeply hurt about having been deceived. One may be inclined to see the decision-making members of the movement as sinister, deliberate manipulators. Often, however, some of the staunchest defenders of a particular organization are pitiable victims themselves, acting much like family members who shield and cover over for an alcoholic father or mother. Even when one has firsthand knowledge about the individuals involved and their distortion of the facts, care must be exercised that one’s strong feelings are not vented against individuals. There is a tremendous difference between exposing serious misrepresentation out of genuine concern for the welfare of others and condemning individuals. All final judgment rests with our heavenly Father and his Son.
Group dynamics are complex. The pressures and restraints exerted on individuals are great indeed. With few exceptions, individual conscience seems to be in a state of suspended animation, and often sound reasoning is supplanted by emotion. No one appears to take personal responsibility for group decisions (which may not even be unanimous) and for any negative effect such may have. The collective whole takes on a personality all its own and a power greater than the sum total of its parts. In the collective whole, whether ethnic, national, tribal, religious, or commercial, everything becomes subservient to what is perceived as its interests, either real or imagined. In its extreme form, the conscienceless collective whole commits atrocities. Yet, the individuals involved may not see themselves as guilty of heinous crimes against humanity. Thus, as members of a group, people may act without any compassion and in ways that would be impossible for them individually.
An outstanding champion of Christian freedom, the apostle Paul, once found himself in that pitiable state as a zealous Jew desperately fighting against a perceived threat — the growing number of his own people who had accepted Jesus as the promised Messiah. It would have been easy to judge the vicious persecutor as a horrible, merciless man who deserved to die. What happened to him, however, should give us pause for serious reflection in the case of anyone who might mistreat us.
Our Master called upon us to pray for those who seek our injury, not to vent expressions of ill will toward them. (Matthew 5:44, 45) Heeding Christ’s teaching, Stephen made his appeal, “Lord, do not hold this sin against them.” (Acts 7:60, NIV) The compassionate appeal of the dying Stephen was answered, as confirmed by Paul’s own words: “I was once a blasphemer and a persecutor and an arrogant man, but I have been mercifully treated because I acted out of ignorance in my unbelief.” (1 Timothy 1:13, NAB)
When we feel very much alone, we can benefit greatly by reflecting on what servants of the Most High faced in ancient times. A remarkable example is that of a young girl. Captured by a Syrian marauder band, she found herself ripped away from everything that was dear to her — family, friends, and familiar surroundings — and reduced to the position of a slave in the home of idolaters. While the Scriptural record is silent about the death and destruction that the Syrian marauder band may have left in its wake and what may or may not have happened to her parents, there is little doubt that this young girl witnessed scenes of horror. Moreover, compared to what the Christian has today for comfort and encouragement, she had very, very little.
Nevertheless, she maintained her faith in God and, remarkably, a spirit of deep compassion for a man who was a prominent representative of the very people responsible for the terrible tragedy that befell her and her parents.
The man was Naaman, the commander of the Syrian king’s army. He was afflicted with a loathsome, disfiguring disease that, in Israel, would have required his living in isolation. Moved with compassion, the Israelite girl very much desired that he be cured of his dreadful disease and said to his wife: “If only my lord were with the prophet who is in Samaria! He would cure him of his leprosy.” (2 Kings 5:3, NRSV)
Truly, the faith of that nameless young girl sparkles like a costly gem, for she was an exception among the Israelites of her day, the vast majority of whom had no regard for YHWH nor his prophet and, instead, venerated lifeless idols. (For an explanation of the divine name represented by the four consonants YHWH, see Psalm 1 in the Commentary section.) Imagine her joy on seeing her faith rewarded! Naaman returned from Israel physically healed and, more importantly, as a humble worshiper of the true God.
Who could have conceived of such an outcome for what started out as a terrible tragedy? As in the case of Joseph who was not abandoned by God when sold into slavery, this girl also was not forsaken. Never, no never, will our heavenly Father abandon anyone who is loyal to him. (Psalm 27:10; Romans 8:38, 39)
Then, too, aloneness can benefit us. We may find that we have more time for reading the Scriptures and for undistracted reflection, drawing us closer to our heavenly Father. In the case of Joseph, his experiencing enslavement and imprisonment tested his faith in God’s word that had been conveyed to him through prophetic dreams. (Psalm 105:17-19) Doubtless because Joseph maintained his faith under trial, his confidence in God’s promise to Abraham remained strong throughout his life. His final words were an expression of faith: “I am about to die; but God will be sure to remember you kindly and take you out of this country to the country which he promised on oath to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” “When God remembers you with kindness, be sure to take my bones away from here.” (Genesis 50:24, 25, NJB; Hebrews 11:22) Years later, during Israel’s wandering in the wilderness, the bones of Joseph were a silent testimony to the faith that the people should have had in the sure fulfillment of the divine promise. (Exodus 13:19; Joshua 24:32) Aloneness, therefore, is not to be feared but may be looked upon as something that can contribute to our spiritual advancement. (Compare James 1:2-4, 12.)
The Right Foundation
To grow spiritually, we must make sure that our foundation is solid. Pointing to this foundation, the apostle Paul wrote: “There can be no other foundation than the one already laid: I mean Jesus Christ himself.” (1 Corinthians 3:11, REB) Our aim should be to have a strong, firsthand faith based on our personal examination of the evidence contained in the Gospel accounts.
Some who have become embittered by treatment received from members of a particular group never have given, nor do give, careful thought to the testimony of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. While perhaps expressing belief that Jesus is God’s Son, they do not have a strong personal conviction based on the evidence and are easily influenced by unscriptural teachings. One Christian said to a young man in this situation: “If, on the basis of the evidence found in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, you are convinced that Jesus was raised from the dead, proving to you undeniably that he is indeed the Son of God, then his example and teaching should govern the way you live your life.” More fascinated with the mystical aspects of Eastern religions, this young man brushed that comment aside, feeling that more had to be involved.
Individuals who have undergone any kind of mauling within a movement professing to be Christian are in a vulnerable condition. They can ill afford not to put forth effort to confirm and strengthen their faith.
For many, letting the Scriptures speak directly to them is not easy. Long accustomed to repeatedly using and hearing the same passages, they may find it hard to look at each Bible book as a whole, with the familiar verses being just a small part of the message. Not infrequently, one’s past use of isolated texts may cause one to miss the important relationship of the individual passages with the words that precede and follow. It is important to jettison the “proof text” method when considering the Scriptures, especially since this very method may have originally been the means that persuaded one to accept mere interpretations as God’s revealed truth.
Each book of the Bible needs to be examined as a whole so that one does not use individual passages out of harmony with their context, which includes their historical setting and the audience to which the words were originally directed. To this end, one should keep in mind that the chapter divisions often are not in the best places. So it is advisable to treat them as nonexistent when reading the Scriptures, preferably stopping only at points where the subject matter does indeed change. For Christians, the study of the Scriptures as a whole serves as the best safeguard against error and, when the instruction is applied, makes them truly wise, noble, compassionate, and loving.
B. F. Westcott, in his book, The Bible in the Church, made this perceptive comment: “No temptation is more subtle or more potent than that which bids us judge everything by one standard. Practically we are inclined to measure others by ourselves, other ages by our own, other forms of civilization by that under which we live, as the true and final measure of all. Against this error, which is sufficient almost to cloud the whole world, the Bible contains the surest safeguard. In that we see side by side how God finds a dwelling-place among nations and families in every stage of social advancement, and recognizes faithful worshippers even where they are hidden from the eyes of prophets. The absorbing cares of daily life, the imperious claims of those immediately around us, tend to narrow our sympathies, but the Bible shows to us, in an abiding record, every condition and every power of man blessed by the Divine Spirit. It lifts us out of the circle of daily influences and introduces us to prophets and kings and deep thinkers and preachers of righteousness, each working in their own spheres variously and yet by one power and for one end. It may be objected that devout students of the Bible have often proved to be the sternest fanatics. But the answer is easy. They were fanatics because they were students not of the whole Bible but of some one fragment of it to which all else was sacrificed. The teaching of one part only, if taken without any regard to its relative position in connexion with other times and other books, may lead to narrowness of thought, but the whole recognizes and ennobles every excellence of man.”
To thrive outside religious movements, individuals must be willing to take personal responsibility for their spiritual life through regular and prayerful consideration of the Bible, patiently letting it teach them progressively. Having looked to others without putting forth much effort to grasp the meaning of the Scriptures, one may be spiritually impoverished. When a person acknowledges being spiritually destitute and makes this a subject of prayer, a spiritual life follows only if there is a willingness to act in harmony with the appeal. This is clearly set forth in the book of Proverbs (2:2-5, Tanakh [JPS, 1985 edition]): “If you make your ear attentive to wisdom and your mind open to discernment; if you call to understanding and cry aloud to discernment, if you seek it as you do silver and search for it as for treasures, then you will understand the fear of [YHWH] and attain knowledge of God.”
Although a person may have great difficulty in reading and, consequently, limited comprehension, he or she does not need to lose out. By repeatedly listening to the reading of the Bible (for example, by means of electronic media) and then thinking about what is heard, many have been spiritually enriched. It was, in fact, primarily through hearing, not reading, that first-century Christians became acquainted with the contents of the inspired Scriptures.
Not Limiting Oneself to One Translation
Because of familiarity with the words and phrases of a particular translation, a person may fall into the trap of just reading or hearing words. One thing that has aided many to minimize this is to consider the same account in several translations (even possibly including versions in languages with which they may not be as proficient as their native tongues). By reading the same section in a variety of translations, one is more likely to have one’s attention arrested by thoughts expressed in ways other than the familiar terms and phrases.
Whereas no translation is perfect, one does not need to be apprehensive about reading or listening to the reading of various commonly used translations. For the most part, translators have been keenly aware of the seriousness of their difficult task and have proceeded accordingly. As evident from an examination of their forewords, translators vary in their approach and objective. Some paraphrase or present a very loose rendition of the text. These versions may not be suitable for serious study but can be useful in getting an overall view of a particular Bible book.
Whether choosing a more or less literal method, translators are faced with the challenge of preserving as much of the flavor of the original as possible without obscuring the meaning in another language. To be benefited, people need to be able to understand what they read or what is read to them. For many Christians in the first century, the situation differed little from that of the majority today. They did not understand the Hebrew text and depended on a translation (the Septuagint). Extant manuscripts of this Greek version contain wording in some texts differing considerably from that in the extant Hebrew text. Still, the message is basically the same, and Christian readers or hearers of the Greek text enjoyed the same standing with the Most High as did their brothers who understood Hebrew. (Note: The commentary section of this site is designed to help English readers to see the differences in the Hebrew and Greek texts. See, for example, Habakkuk.)
Just as Hebrew and Greek differ markedly from one another, so do most of the languages into which the Bible has been translated. What adds to the difficulty is the absence of all punctuation marks in the ancient texts, requiring decisions about where to end sentences, to position or punctuate modifying phrases, or to break up one very long sentence into shorter sentences to facilitate easier reading and comprehension. (For example, the words of Ephesians 1:3-14 constitute just one sentence in Greek.) Since translators have not made the same choices, one’s reading a number of translations can make one more aware of areas that are open to question. Even when able to read the original text with reasonably good comprehension, a person, at best, may be able to present reasons for favoring one choice over another.
If we had personally heard the apostle Paul speak and were intimately acquainted with his expressions and all the circumstances that prompted him to write, we would be in a far better position to make the preferable decisions when translating his letters. Because no human is a definitive authority, we wisely avoid quibbling over precise details. Our focus always should be on what contributes to our having a stronger faith and being loving, obedient children in God’s family.
When it comes to Christianity in the first century, we are in possession of a comparatively small collection of writings and our understanding of these is limited by what we do not know because of what the written word simply cannot communicate. Therefore, the accounts about Jesus, the developments related in the book of Acts, the letters (of which most, if not all, were dictated), and the book of Revelation (presented in signs and symbols) must be read with an awareness that no one today can understand certain portions of the Bible as well as did the original readers and hearers.
Consider the account about what Jesus said in response to the question directed to him regarding the coming destruction of Jerusalem and its temple. Only four of the apostles heard Jesus’ words — Peter, Andrew, James, and John. The question that was directed to Jesus was framed according to the then-existing view of the apostles. As typical of other answers Jesus gave, he provided information they needed to know to guide them in their life as believers until the fulfillment of his words.
What has been preserved for us of Jesus’ answer? A written account, in another language, by believers who did not personally hear his answer. What is missing? We do not know which words or phrases Jesus stressed. We do not know where he paused. We do not know how he drew a distinction between the events preceding the destruction of Jerusalem and the points about not knowing the day and the hour.
Throughout the centuries, there have been those who have treated the account as much more than what it is and even used it as a basis for identifying the very generation that would witness Christ’s return in glory, leading to disappointments among those who accepted their interpretations and creating an environment in the movements that developed around these interpreters that proved to be spiritually, mentally, and emotionally damaging.
Although Jesus did not say there would be wars, earthquakes, and famines on a larger scale than ever before as “the sign” of his coming, there have been those who read that into his words. The words that have been preserved in Matthew, Mark, and Luke are, “the end is not yet,” and these are “the beginning of the labor pains,” and “the end [will not come] immediately.” In other words, such developments were not the indicators of his imminent return. Not until much later in Matthew’s account is there a reference to the “sign of the son of man.” For the disciples, their focus was to be on proclaiming the “glad tidings” (and how that was done is clearly set forth in the book of Acts, with accounts about the basic message that was proclaimed about Jesus Christ). The proclamation of that message would bring upon them persecution, and that persecution is described in terms of a first-century setting.
One event that Jesus said to watch for concerned a development respecting Jerusalem, a development that should prompt speedy flight from city. For us today, just how these words were understood by those who originally heard them and how they were later acted upon do not have the same relevance.
As to his return, the emphasis was, nobody (only the Father) knows the day and the hour, and the parables that Jesus thereafter related provided guidance for what would be expected of those who would be found approved upon his return. He warned against abusing fellow believers, urged spiritual wakefulness, highlighted making full use of entrusted “talents,” and emphasized the importance of responding compassionately to those in need, with particular stress on those who are most likely to be neglected — the least or most insignificant of his brothers.
Strangely, one of the parables which warned against assuming an authority greater than a slave has been interpreted by some as authorizing the existence of an administrative body whose officially recognized beliefs and directives must be accepted without question and any conscientious objection based on prayerful and careful contextual study of the Scriptures is regarded as meriting excommunication and shunning. To the loyal membership, the individual who is mentally and emotionally “beaten” and “abused” because of not being able to reconcile an official belief and directive with his conscience and the Scriptures is, as an excommunicated heretic, represented as the perpetrator of the beating and not as the victim. And the loyal membership, completely unaware of the facts in the case, faithfully perpetuates the misrepresentation.
When correcting a wrong view about Christ’s return in glory, Paul wrote in his second letter to the Thessalonians (2:3-6, NRSV): “Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you? And you know what is now restraining him, so that he may be revealed when his time comes.” No one today knows what additional details Paul shared with the Thessalonians when he was with them. On the basis of what the apostle said, they knew what was then serving as a restraint, but we are not privy to that information. This illustrates the importance of focusing also on what we do not know and cannot possibly know in order to avoid reaching wrong conclusions or being led astray by ministers or religious writers implying that they are in possession of unique knowledge respecting future developments.
The resources for the pursuit of Biblical study are legion. Hundreds of commentaries have been published in English and other languages, and there are numerous study Bibles, lexicons, and a great variety of other reference works. Many provide helpful insights, opening doors for productive thought and contributing to an increased understanding of the Bible’s message. Others, however, marred by dogmatism, wild conjectures, and theological concepts that are foreign to primitive Christianity, have greatly reduced value. Once individual Christians have absorbed the Bible’s message through careful consideration of the Scriptures, they are in a far better position to be judicious in selecting and using reference works. The sheer volume of what is available and the wide gap in the quality of what has been written make selectivity imperative.
No reference work should ever be allowed to be anything other than what it is — a reflection of limited human knowledge. Ernest Best, in the preface to his commentary on Ephesians, made these observations: “All exegesis [exposition or critical interpretation of a text] is controlled by the situation of those who write. They will necessarily view the text on which they work from the angle of the age in which they live and this may lead them to see new aspects of it and put fresh questions to it. They will also be affected by their church allegiance, if any. . . . The coloured glasses we wear, usually without realising we do so, affect the way we read texts.” Church loyalty can seriously impair one from seeing what the Bible says or often, even more importantly, what it does not specifically state.
Since there are limitations in what humans have written, we wisely let ourselves be guided by the principle set forth in the Scriptures: “We know only imperfectly.” “We know partially.” (1 Corinthians 13:9, NJB; NAB) A vigilant awareness of the partial nature of all human knowledge can restrain us from making mere assertions or accepting as facts the conjectures, theories, or interpretations of others.
For children of God to want association with fellow believers is only natural. The basis for fellowship, however, must be rooted in our relationship with our heavenly Father and his Son. Our hearts need to be wide enough to embrace all who acknowledge Jesus Christ as their Lord, recognize God as the One who raised him from the dead, and, in word, attitude, and action, seek to be imitators of God and Christ. (Romans 10:9, 10; Galatians 5:13-26; Ephesians 4:17-6:10; 1 John 1:5-5:21)
Because of the traditional mentality that has been perpetuated over the centuries, many are not able to grant full acceptance to another person who is not identified as approved by their particular group standard. Therefore, their aim will always be to have others become members of their movement — denominational or nondenominational. Sadly, this sectarian spirit makes it difficult for them to accept as children of God persons who do not belong to their movement and often confines them to association that narrows their love and stunts their spiritual growth.
They are much like many disciples of John the Baptist. Despite John’s clear identification of Jesus as the bridegroom, they allowed their personal attachment to John to interfere with their acceptance of Christ and his disciples. (Mark 2:18-22; John 3:25-30) Even after John’s imprisonment and death, they continued to be a group separate from Jesus’ followers. (Matthew 11:2-5; Acts 19:1-7)
Whatever form a sectarian spirit may take, it is spiritually detrimental and is one that all seeking to be loyal disciples of Jesus Christ must resist. When the fragmentation of professing believers into distinct groups manifested itself among the Corinthians in the first century, the apostle Paul exposed this as unspiritual, infantile, and injurious. (1 Corinthians 1:10-13; 3:1-9, 21-23; 11:17-34)
Many people do rise above extreme manifestations of the sectarian spirit but are still negatively impacted by theological views that developed after the first century. A conditioned doctrinal orientation may interfere with their being able to develop a heartfelt appreciation of Christ’s role in leading them to the Father. (1 Peter 3:18) As a result, they may not see themselves in the family arrangement as both sons of God and brothers of Christ. (Galatians 3:26-29; Hebrews 2:10-18) What is often lost sight of is that teachings considered to be based on the Bible and accepted by many millions as truth were formulated centuries ago by a single individual or by a comparatively few men and only had the support of a small majority of them. Thereafter the all were required to accept these teachings, and any dissenters were faced with severe punishment. Religious movements that blur the distinction between the clear statements of the Scriptures and their particular statement of beliefs often create an environment that is spiritually toxic.
A proper recognition of who we are can prevent elevating any individual or group of individuals, attributing to them the kind of teaching authority that belongs exclusively to Jesus Christ. No human has the right to claim preeminence, for Christ alone is “the firstborn among many brothers.” (Romans 8:29, NIV)
Individually, we are fellow brothers, listening to our Lord’s teaching. While some of us may grasp his instruction a little better and, in turn, may be able to teach fellow believers by calling to their attention what he taught, we remain fellow learners. Any fellowship among members of the family of God’s children should harmonize with Jesus’ words: “You are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ. The greatest among you will be your servant.” (Matthew 23:8-12, NIV)
This teaching of God’s Son is often ignored, and much of what is labeled Christian today would be incomprehensible to the apostles. This does not mean that the first-century congregations enjoyed an ideal situation. They did not. The preserved letters reveal the existence of serious problems and that individual choice had to be made about the kind of fellowship which would or would not be spiritually beneficial. (2 Thessalonians 3:6-15; 2 Timothy 2:20-22; 3:1-7; 4:1-4; 1 John 2:18; Revelation 2:1-3:22)
When it comes to fellowship, many today are inclined to think in terms of a fixed place or a specific routine. They may recall that Jesus customarily went to synagogues on the Sabbath and to the temple for the annual festivals. Still, Jesus’ doing so did not identify him as belonging to or being supportive of a particular division of Judaism. His being among worshipers in a synagogue or at the temple in no way distorted his true identity but provided opportunities for teaching the truth about his Father. Today, however, membership in a movement professing to be Christian may involve taking on a denominational identity. Even members of “nondenominational churches” take on an identity that sets them apart from individuals who are members of either denominational or other nondenominational groups. The services customarily follow a fixed routine and provide no opportunity for visiting strangers to address assembled worshipers as did the apostle Paul and others in various Jewish synagogues. (Acts 13:15-45; 14:1; 17:1-4, 10-12; 18:1-6, 19-22, 24-26)
For Paul, what counted was being able to share his precious hope with assembled worshipers. Once the opportunity for doing so ended in a particular city, he stopped going to the synagogue there and made arrangements for those who wanted to hear the glad tidings about Jesus Christ. (Acts 18:7-11; 19:8-10) Nevertheless, Paul and other believing Jews did not deliberately choose to be outcasts, which would have made it difficult for them to share the Scriptures with fellow countrymen. They knew, however, that being disciples of God’s Son could lead to their being expelled from the synagogue, but they chose to remain loyal to him regardless of what men might do to them. (Matthew 10:17; 23:34; Luke 8:22; 21:12; John 9:22; 12:42, 43; 16:2) Those who valued their relationship to their Lord responded to mistreatment like the apostles when flogged at the order of the Sanhedrin. They “left the Sanhedrin rejoicing because they had been counted worthy of suffering disgrace for the Name.” (Acts 5:40, 41, NIV)
Because denominational and nondenominational movements are frequently identified with buildings and activities conducted therein, many lose sight of the fact that externals actually belong to a past arrangement for worship. To a Samaritan woman, Jesus revealed that true worship would not be dependent upon nor confined to any fixed geographical location or edifice. “Believe me, woman, the hour is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain [Gerizim, the site of a Samaritan temple that had been destroyed about a century and a half earlier] nor in Jerusalem [the location of the original temple and its replacement]. . . . But the hour is coming — indeed is already here — when true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth: that is the kind of worshipper the Father seeks. God is spirit, and those who worship must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:21-24, NJB)
Since the Father “is spirit,” he desires worship of a spiritual kind. While the Law given to Israel did fix upon one central location for worship that involved ceremony and ritual, this was to be temporary. Through Malachi, the Father, in terms of the then-existing arrangement for worship, revealed that the time would come when non-Jewish peoples from one end of the earth to the other end would worship him acceptably in their respective locations. “My name will be great among the nations, from the rising to the setting of the sun. In every place incense and pure offerings will be brought to my name, because my name will be great among the nations.” (Malachi 1:11, NIV) With the coming of the Messiah, the “hour” or time for this change arrived. For the child of God, therefore, worship is not a matter of looking for or going to a place, there to follow some traditional routine or a program outlined by human authority. Worship “in spirit and truth” does not consist of externals. Being “in truth,” such worship is genuine, real, not just an expression of the lips. (Compare 1 John 3:18.) Our heavenly Father, in fact, has never been pleased with mere ceremony — festivals, fasting, prayer, and sacrifice — devoid of love for him and his ways as manifest in compassionate care for the needy and afflicted. (Isaiah 1:10-17) For our worship to be “in spirit,” it must of necessity be an acknowledgment of who he is and reflect our highest regard for him as our loving Father to whom we owe everything we have and are. (Colossians 1:12; 3:17; Revelation 4:11; 5:13; 15:3, 4; 16:5-7) The genuineness of our praise, thanksgiving, and appeals directed to him would be evident in our daily life. (James 1:22-27)
The apostle Paul encouraged fellow believers: “As long as we have the opportunity let all our actions be for the good of everybody, and especially of those who belong to the household of the faith.” (Galatians 6:10, NJB) We are not to blind ourselves to the needs of fellow humans. Our duty is to respond in a loving, caring way to all persons. Members of “the household of the faith,” however, have a prior claim. As members of the same spiritual family, we are obligated to assist one another in time of need. (Matthew 25:34-40; Acts 9:36, 39; 1 John 3:17, 18)
Where are the children of God to whom we have a prior obligation? Where is this spiritual family? Jesus’ explanation of the parable of the wheat and the weeds provides the answer: “He who sows good seed is the Son of Man, the field is the world, the good seed the children of the kingdom. The weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil.” (Matthew 13:37-39, NAB) Accordingly, true children of God are to be found in the world of mankind, growing as genuine wheat in the midst of weeds. They are, however, not identifiable by the application of a humanly devised standard and may even be mistakenly identified as “weeds” by misguided humans who presumptuously assume the role of weed pullers. (Matthew 13:24-30) Thus, children of God may be associated with what is commonly called “the visible church,” which consists of the various denominational and nondenominational groups professing to be Christian, or they may be individuals without such affiliation or membership.
The situation in which God’s children find themselves differs little from that existing in ancient Israel. Not all were Israelites, God’s people, in the real sense of the word. The prophet Elijah, on one occasion, was so disheartened that he felt he was the only worshiper of YHWH in the ten-tribe kingdom. Unknown to him, there was a faithful remnant — “seven thousand in Israel, all who [had] not bowed the knee to Baal.” (1 Kings 19:9-18, REB) Centuries later, not long after the return of a remnant from exile in Babylon, many did not prove to be genuine worshipers of YHWH. Nevertheless, faithful Israelites did find others who shared their love for the Creator, and their association with one another did not go unnoticed by our heavenly Father.
The contrast between mere professors and genuine worshipers of the Most High is revealed in the book of Malachi: “‘You have said harsh things about me, says Yahweh. And yet you say, ‘What have we said against you?’ You have said, ‘It is useless to serve God; what is the good of keeping his commands or of walking mournfully before Yahweh Sabaoth? In fact, we now call the proud the happy ones, the evil-doers are the ones who prosper; they put God to the test, yet come to no harm!’” “Then those who feared Yahweh talked to one another about this, and Yahweh took note and listened; and a book of remembrance was written in his presence recording those who feared him and kept his name in mind. ‘On the day when I act, says Yahweh Sabaoth, they will be my most prized possession, and I shall spare them in the way a man spares the son who serves him.’” (Malachi 3:13-18, NJB)
While many went through the motions of worship and looked enviously at the prosperity of the “irreligious,” those who had a profound awe for YHWH made heartfelt expressions about how they felt. Being familiar with the psalms and the words of the prophets, they doubtless talked about aspects that fit the then-existing situation, resulting in mutual upbuilding. (Psalms 37 and 73; Isaiah 58:2-14) Similarly, centuries later, the aged widow Anna, who was divinely privileged to see the infant Jesus, found those with whom she could share this joyful news. “She talked about the child to all who were looking for the liberation of Jerusalem.” (Luke 2:36-38, REB)
Trusting in our heavenly Father’s providential care and leading, we can rest assured that, in the world of mankind, we will find others who want to be exemplary, obedient children and who will be delighted to associate with us. Like first-century Christians, we can eat meals at one table, read God’s Word, talk about the Scriptures, share in expressions of praise and thanksgiving, raise our voices in song, and, in remembrance of what Jesus Christ has done for us in laying down his life in sacrifice, partake of the one loaf and the one cup as members of his body. (Acts 2:46; 1 Corinthians 10:16, 17; Ephesians 5:19) All can contribute by expressing themselves spontaneously from the heart, not in the stilted manner common to arrangements devised by human authority.
The apostle Paul provided the guiding principle for making any gathering of believers a faith-strengthening experience: “When you assemble, one has a psalm, another an instruction, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. Everything should be done for building up.” (1 Corinthians 14:26, NAB) Among Christians who assemble for mutual upbuilding, some will manifest themselves as possessing God-given abilities and wisdom and will be willing and eager to render unassuming service to fellow believers. Like the household of Stephanus in ancient Corinth, they will take upon themselves “the responsibility of a ministering service.” (1 Corinthians 16:15, 16, Wuest; compare the case of Apollos [Acts 18:24-28; 1 Corinthians 3:5, 6, 21-23; 16:12].)
As members of a loving family look for opportunities to be together, children of God, of their own volition, seek out fellow children and talk about what is dear to their hearts and pour out their concerns. Like first-century Christians, they value their times together for mutual upbuilding and, therefore, do not neglect assembling with fellow believers. This harmonizes with the inspired admonition: “Let us keep firm in the hope we profess, because the one who made the promise is trustworthy. Let us be concerned for each other, to stir a response to love and good works. Do not absent yourself from your own assemblies, as some do, but encourage each other; the more so as you see the Day drawing near.” (Hebrews 10:23-25, NJB)
Many believe that regular attendance at services in a particular building fulfills this requirement. Often, though, attendance at such meetings is primarily a matter of compliance with a prescribed routine and involves sitting in rows as passive listeners or as participants in controlled group discussions. Attendance is not really prompted by genuine concern for others, a concern that engenders spontaneous expressions which “stir a response to love and good works.” To be concerned about fellow believers and in a position to make expressions that are genuinely motivating, we need to know others as members of our beloved family. The prevailing spirit among those assembling should be one where no one is afraid to voice deep inner feelings, even doubts. (Compare how openly Jeremiah expressed himself to God [Jeremiah 15:15-18].)
While faith-strengthening fellowship serves an important role in our life as children of God, it does not always follow immediately upon one’s becoming a disciple of Jesus Christ. The case of an Ethiopian court official illustrates this well. “He had been to Jerusalem to worship God and was going back home in his carriage. As he rode along, he was reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah. The Holy Spirit said to Philip, ‘Go over to that carriage and stay close to it.’ Philip ran over and heard him reading from the book of the prophet Isaiah. He asked him, ‘Do you understand what you are reading?’ The official replied, ‘How can I understand unless someone explains it to me?’ And he invited Philip to climb up and sit in the carriage with him. The passage of scripture which he was reading was this: ‘He was like a sheep that is taken to be slaughtered, like a lamb that makes no sound when its wool is cut off. He did not say a word. He was humiliated, and justice was denied him. No one will be able to tell about his descendants, because his life on earth has come to an end.’ The official asked Philip, ‘Tell me, of whom is the prophet saying this? Of himself or of someone else?’ Then Philip began to speak; starting from this passage of scripture, he told him the Good News about Jesus. As they traveled down the road, they came to a place where there was some water, and the official said, ‘Here is some water. What is to keep me from being baptized?’ The official ordered the carriage to stop, and both Philip and the official went down into the water, and Philip baptized him. When they came up out of the water, the Spirit of the Lord took Philip away. The official did not see him again, but continued on his way, full of joy.” (Acts 8:26-39, TEV)
Philip did not urge this newly baptized man to return from Ethiopia as quickly as possible to be able to associate regularly with believers. Though this Ethiopian did not have all the answers and possibly not even all the existing books of the Hebrew Scriptures, he was a child of God, joyfully traveling far away from the nearest group of believers but doubtless eager to share what he had learned with others. Some in Ethiopia probably responded as he had, opening up opportunities for fellowship with others of God’s family. If our fellowship is comparatively limited, we, like the Ethiopian court official, can proceed on our way on the road leading to life, rejoicing that we have come to know the Son of God and his Father through him. In time, others will recognize who we are from the way we live our lives and the expressions we make, and many opportunities for wholesome spiritual fellowship will result.
As beloved children, we can rest assured of our Father’s loving care. His Son, as our Shepherd, will never fail to guide, protect, and nourish us as his dear sheep. When the man to whom he had restored sight was expelled from the Jewish synagogue, the Son of God looked for him and provided encouragement. Evidently, in the presence of the former blind man, Jesus identified himself as the good shepherd who would lay down his life for the sheep. (John 9:1-10:21) Just as the former blind man must have been comforted and reassured by Jesus’ words regarding his concern for the sheep, so can we be.
With God as our Father and Jesus as our brother, we will never be abandoned orphans. Perhaps our visible spiritual family may seem small — almost nonexistent when compared to sizeable movements professing to be Christian. Besides the many fellow children in the world of mankind, however, we also have a great host of angels in our family. They care deeply about any hurt experienced by believers who may seem insignificant in the eyes of others. Jesus said: “See that you never despise any of these little ones, for I tell you that their angels in heaven are continually in the presence of my Father in heaven.” (Matthew 18:10, NJB) As part of such a marvelous, loving family, we can flourish spiritually.
Revised edition, copyright 2006.