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Particulars of Christianity:
312 The Church Ethic

Unity and Excommunication

Introduction: Unity, Excommunication, and Essentials Only
Excommunication: Historical Context, the Gospels (Part 1)
Excommunication: the Gospels (Part 2)
Excommunication: Acts and Romans
Excommunication: Corinthians
Excommunication: Galatians
Excommun.: Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, Thessalonians
Excommunication: Paul’s Letters to Timothy
Excommunication: Titus, Hebrews, James, Peter’s Epistles
Excommunication: John’s Epistles, Jude, and Revelation
Excommunication: Biblical Assessment
Excommunication: Historical, Logical Assessments, Conclusions

Part One: Introduction
The Realities of Christian Separation and Division
As Christians in the modern church we must face the unpleasant reality that we are separated from other Christians. This separation may take one of several forms, some of which are more common than others.
The least common form of separation that most Christians encounter in the church today is excommunication, which is the formal act of refusing fellowship. Merriam Webster’s Dictionary defines excommunication as follows.
1: an ecclesiastical censure depriving a person of the rights of church membership
2: exclusion from fellowship in a group or community
- Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary, merriam-webster.com
The English word “excommunicate” is a compound word formed from the prefix “ex” and the word “communicate.” In the New Testament communion meal gatherings constituted the cornerstone and central act of Christian fellowship. (For more on this topic please see our study on Church Gatherings and Leadership.) By gathering together for the sharing of this meal, Christians expressed and exhibited their communion with Christ, with each other, and with the church universally. To excommunicate someone was to cut them off from the fellowship gathering, community, and communion meal of the church.
In past eras of the church, excommunication may have been more commonplace. But today it is rare for a church organization, denomination, or group of Christians to actually enact a process of excommunication and officially refuse fellowship and communion to other Christians.
Excommunication Formal expulsion from the communion of the faithful, from sacraments and from rites of a religious body. Largely abandoned by Protestants, excommunication has been retained by Jewish congregations and by the Roman Catholic Church. – World Encyclopedia
Perhaps the closest thing to modern excommunication is seen in the exclusion of Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians, Oneness Pentecostals, Seventh Day Adventists, Unitarians, and Mormons. While these groups all identify themselves as Christians, most denominations separate from them for doctrinal reasons and label them as cults or heretics or both.
The most common form of separation that most Christians experience today is denominational separation. Denominational differences over doctrine and practice separate Christians of one denomination from those of another. This denominational division may or may not involve or imply a formal declaration that other denominations are false Christians to be refused fellowship (excommunicated.)
Nevertheless, one significant result of denominational division is that Christians do not share the fellowship of the communal meal with Christians of other denominations. Furthermore, this lack of communion and fellowship is formally established. It is intentional and based entirely on the doctrinal disagreements that separate one denomination from another. So, while the formal act of excommunication has become something of a rarity, a sort of default, passive separation from fellowship between one denomination and another along doctrinal lines is somewhat universal today.
Another form of separation that some Christians today may have dealt with is of a more personal nature. Many of us may be familiar with situations where we ourselves or someone we know has decided not to associate with other Christians out of an objection to their lifestyle or behavior. (We may even have been recipient of such separating action.) In some cases the persons who are refused social contact may sincerely consider themselves to be followers of Christ. Maybe someone explained to them that they were being disassociated from and why. Maybe they were given a chance to change first. Or, maybe nothing was said to them. Whatever the case may be, this kind of separation from other Christians does occur. And while in most cases it does not include any declaration that the outcast is being excommunicated for violating Christ’s teachings, the result is the same. There is a display of disapproval expressed most prominently by ending personal contact and no longer sharing fellowship and communion.
The point we are making is that all Christians today participate in some form of separation from others who call themselves Christians. This separation may not be intentional or the result of direct action. But it does occur for reasons related to beliefs, behaviors, and practices. Closely related to this is the fact that the modern church exhibits a wide variety of doctrinal disagreements and differences on a host of biblical issues.
This study will explore the biblical teaching on the relevant and related topics of doctrinal unity and Christians separating from other Christians. Of chief concern will be determining when separation is biblically required and when it is biblically prohibited. Along the way we will gain some important biblical and historical insight into what caused the denominational and doctrinal diversity that we see in the modern church today.
As we examine this subject, we will be assessing the biblical legitimacy of the common, modern view that we can and should only separate from other Christians over differences related to essential Christian teachings. For the purposes of our study we will call this position the Essentials Only View.
Our study will proceed through the course of three major sections:
1. Part OneIntroduction:
Explaining and defining the basic issues and questions involved in this study. There are several sections to Part One of our study.

The Realities of Christian Separation and Division
Defining an Essentials Only View
Considering Doctrinal Unity: An Exercise
The Canon and Sola Scriptura

2. Part Two – Biblical Study:
A comprehensive and in-depth look at New Testament teaching on doctrinal unity and excommunication from the Gospels to Revelation. There are several sections to Part Two of our study.

Historical Context: The First Century Jewish Practice of Excommunication
The Gospels: Jesus’ Teaching on Separation and Excommunication The Gospels: Jesus’ Instructions Regarding Doctrinal Unity and Doctrinal Tolerance
Acts: Requirements for Doctrinal Unity and Excommunication
Romans: Requirements for Doctrinal Unity and Excommunication
Corinthians: Requirements for Doctrinal Unity and Excommunication
Corinthians: Requirements for Doctrinal Unity
Galatians: Requirements for Doctrinal Unity and Excommunication Ephesians: Requirements for Doctrinal Unity and Excommunication
Philippians: Requirements for Doctrinal Unity and Excommunication
Colossians: Requirements for Doctrinal Unity and Excommunication

Thessalonians: Requirements for Doctrinal Unity and Excommunication

Paul’s Letters to Timothy: Requirements for Doctrinal Unity and Excommunication
Titus: Requirements for Doctrinal Unity and Excommunication
Hebrews: Requirements for Doctrinal Unity and Excommunication
James: Requirements for Doctrinal Unity and Excommunication
Peter’s Epistles: Requirements for Doctrinal Unity and Excommunication
John’s Epistles: Requirements for Doctrinal Unity and Excommunication
Jude: Requirements for Doctrinal Unity and Excommunication
Revelation: Requirements for Doctrinal Unity and Excommunication

3. Part Three – Conclusions:
An assessment of an Essentials Only View using biblical, historical, and logical criteria. The biblical assessment will include a summary of the results of Part Two. There are several sections to Part Three of our study.

A Biblical Assessment of an Essentials Only View
A Historical Assessment of an Essentials Only View
A Logical Assessment of an Essentials Only View
Study Conclusions
Defining an Essentials Only View
The Christian Research Institute (CRI) is a well-known evangelical Christian organization that today is headed by author and apologist Hank Hanegraaff.  On their website equip.org, CRI reproduces a two-part article called “The Essential Doctrines of the Christian Faith” written by the renowned bible scholar and author Dr. Norman L. Geisler. As its title reports, the article provides an explanation and listing of the essential doctrines of the Christian faith and an explanation of what it means for these doctrines to be essential. Both Dr. Geisler and equip.org are widely known among Christians today and are generally considered to be reputable and dependable authorities on Christian theology and history. Their conception of which doctrines can be separated over and which cannot is a reliable representation of the Essentials Only View.
In the first part of this article Dr. Geisler uses an old maxim which states that Christians need to have a unified agreement and understanding on essential doctrines, but are permitted liberty regarding their view on nonessential doctrines. He uses this maxim to articulate why we need to identify the essentials of the Christian faith. And most importantly, Dr. Geisler explains what it means for a doctrine to be essential. 
“The ancient dictum ‘In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; and in all things, charity resonates’ with practically everyone. The question is, What are the essentials?  There are three main reasons for seeking the answer to this. First, the essential doctrines are the basis for our unity, since true unity is unity in the truth, and these doctrines are the essential truths. Second, the essential doctrines distinguish cults of Christianity from true Christianity, since these groups claim to be Christian but deny one or more of the essential doctrines of the historic Christian Church. It is not possible to identify these cults, however, unless we know what the essentials are. Third, the essential doctrines are the only truths over which we rightly can divide (i.e., break fellowship). It is better to be divided over truth than to be united in error where essentials are concerned (e.g., Gal. 1:69 ; 2:1114 ; 1 Tim. 1:1920 ; Titus 1:9; 1 John 2:19), but it is a great error for those who hold the truth to be divided where nonessentials are concerned (e.g., Eph. 4:3). It behooves us, therefore, to know the difference; otherwise, we may find ourselves dividing from those with whom we should be united and uniting with those from whom we should be divided.” – Norman L. Geisler, The Essential Doctrines of the Christian Faith (Part One), A Historical Approach, http://equip.org/articles/the-essential-doctrines-of-the-christian-faith-part-one-
As we can see, Dr. Geisler (and CRI) define essential doctrines in relation to uniting in fellowship and dividing (or breaking fellowship.) According to Dr. Geisler and CRI, the essential doctrines are “the only truths over which we can rightly divide (i.e., break fellowship.)” If, therefore, someone shares our understanding of the “essential doctrines” we must unite with them in fellowship even if we disagree about “nonessential doctrines.” To, divide from other Christians because of disagreement on nonessential doctrines is, according to Dr. Geisler and CRI, “a great error.”
In the article, Dr. Geisler identifies the following doctrines as “essential doctrines.” Again, according to Dr. Geisler, these are “the only truths over which we can rightly divide (i.e., break fellowship.)”
(1) human depravity,
(2) Christ’s virgin birth,
(3) Christ’s sinlessness,
(4) Christ’s deity,
(5) Christ’s humanity,
(6) God’s unity,
(7) God’s triunity,
(8) the necessity of God’s grace,
(9) the necessity of faith,
(10) Christ’s atoning death,
(11) Christ’s bodily resurrection,
(12) Christ’s bodily ascension,
(13) Christ’s present high priestly service,
(14) Christ’s second coming, final judgment, and reign.
– Norman L. Geisler, The Essential Doctrines of the Christian Faith (Part Two), The Logical Approach, http://equip.org/articles/the-essential-doctrines-of-the-christian-faith-part-two-
On its website (equip.org), CRI provides a similar list of essential Christian teachings.
“First, we believe in the authority of Scripture, which is another way of saying that the Bible is God's inspired, infallible, and inerrant Word. It's the ultimate source for knowledge about God, as well as the definitive guide for our daily lives. Next we affirm the existence of a triune God or one God in three distinct persons - the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This God is self-existent, eternal, unchanging, omnipotent, omnipresent, holy, righteous, and loving. God created the universe from nothing and He rules over His creation sovereignly including both human and angelic beings. We also hold that man is a physical and spiritual being who is created in God's image. But because of his sin or transgression, man has lost his fellowship with God. The extent of sin is so great that its effects continue to this very day in the form of cruelty, suffering, and death. By God's grace, Jesus Christ - Who is fully God and fully man - was sent to save us from our bondage to sin. We believe that Christ was born of a virgin, died for our sins, physically rose from the dead, and will one day return to judge the world and deliver His people. Faith in Christ is the only means by which mankind can escape eternal damnation and judgment. Finally, we recognize the church as God's ordained institution headed by Christ. The church is composed of all believers, and is organized for worship, for fellowship, for the administration of the sacraments, for spiritual growth and support, and for evangelizing the world.” – equip.org, The Essentials, What Are The Essentials? The Essentials of Christianity, http://equip.org/site/essentials
The list of essential doctrines provided by Dr. Geisler in his article and CRI’s own list are not identical to one another. But they do strongly correspond to one another. From these lists we can identify the basic doctrines that an Essentials Only View would typically assert to be “the only truths over which we can rightly divide (i.e., break fellowship.)”
Here is a basic list of the essential doctrines of the Essentials Only View:
1. The inerrancy and authority of Scripture.
2. The Trinitarian nature of God.
3. God as Creator of the universe out of nothing (ex nihilo.)
4. God’s sovereignty.
5. Man as a physical and spiritual being created in God’s image.
6. Man’s sin causes him to lose fellowship with God.
7. Jesus as fully divine and fully human.
8. The virgin birth and sinlessness of Christ.
9. Christ’s death, physical resurrection, and ascension into heaven.
10. Christ’s return to judge the world and deliver his people.
11. Faith in Jesus Christ is the only way to be saved.
12. Eternal damnation and judgment of the unsaved.
The purpose of this list isn’t to be absolute or precise. It is simply meant to reflect the basic beliefs that are typically included in an Essentials Only View of unity and excommunication.
In order to determine whether an Essentials Only View is supported biblically, it is critical to identify the doctrines an Essentials Only View identifies as nonessential, or in other words, the doctrines which cannot be divided over. If the New Testament requires separation over doctrines that an Essentials Only View says can’t be divided over it then the Essentials Only View will have to be discarded (or at least significantly modified) in order to avoid violating biblical teaching.
Using Geisler’s article and CRI, we have summarized the essential doctrines of an Essentials Only View. It follows, that any doctrine not included in this list of essential doctrines, is therefore, a nonessential doctrine which Christians cannot rightly divide over.
The following doctrines are not included on the essential doctrine lists of Geisler and CRI. Therefore, according to Geisler and CRI the following doctrines must be considered nonessentials which Christians cannot rightly break fellowship over:
Teaching on Behavioral/Moral Issues, Repentance from Sin:
Note: none of the above lists of essentials includes “repentance from sin” or compliance with teachings prohibiting sinful behaviors as a requirement for Christian fellowship. As such an Essentials Only View does not indicate that Christians can rightly break fellowship with Christians who persist in:
1. Fornication, homosexuality, adultery, murder, covetousness, thievery, lying, bearing false witness, abusiveness, drunkenness, etc.
2. Teaching that fornication, homosexuality, adultery, murder, covetousness, thievery, lying, bearing false witness, abusiveness, drunkenness, etc. are acceptable for Christians to engage in.
Teaching on Creation:
3. Whether God created through evolutionary processes taking billions of years OR in 6 literal, 24-hour days.
4. Whether Adam and Eve and the early biblical figures were real, historical persons involved in actually historical events or whether these are just morality tales and illustrations. 
Teaching on Soteriological Issues Related to Reformed/Calvinist Theology and Free Will Theology:
5. Whether salvation is the joint result of God’s atoning work through Jesus Christ and each man’s free choice to believe and repent OR is solely the result of God’s divine choice without man’s willing involvement in any respect.
6. Whether man has free will and is capable of choosing to believe and repent or not OR whether man is totally incapable and belief and repentance are solely the irresistible work of God without regard for or the involvement of man’s will. 
7. Whether all men are born innocent OR are born guilty through the sin of Adam.
8. Whether Christ’s atoning work was intended to be available for any and all men OR only for a select set of men that God unilaterally chose to save.
9. Whether men can, after believing and repenting, later discontinue their belief and repentance and forfeit salvation OR whether salvation is guaranteed because it is not based on anything a man can do, does, or will do in regards to belief or repentance.
10. Whether man is capable of resisting God’s will in regards to his own salvation OR not.
Teaching on the Kingdom of God:
11. Whether Old Testament and New Testament saints receive the same salvation in Christ Jesus OR if they receive something different.
12. Whether Old Testament and New Testament saints receive an eternal inheritance in a real, political kingdom on the earth OR an eternal, non-earthly (heavenly) inheritance, OR whether one group receives one and the other group receives the other.
13. Whether Jesus Christ’s physical presence on earth, the compliance of the nations to his will, and the deliverance of his people from oppression and injustice are necessary components of the kingdom of God.  
14. Whether the gospel includes an earthly inheritance in fulfillment of promises made to Abraham and salvation requires belief in those promises OR if the gospel is simply that through Christ we can be saved and live forever with God in heaven.
Teaching on End Times Prophecy (Eschatology):
15. Whether Jesus Christ has already returned in fulfillment of end times prophecy OR has yet to return and will return in the future.
16. Whether end times figures and events are to be understood as real or figurative.
17. Whether Christ will come back to remove and rapture his followers several years before he returns to establish his kingdom on earth so that his followers do not have to experience trials that will occur at that time OR whether Christ will only return to remove and rapture his followers before the destruction of the ungodly after the period of tribulation at the onset of the millennium as he establishes his kingdom on the earth.
18. The nature, relationship, and sequencing of various end-times events including Christ’s return, the rapture of the living, the resurrection of dead saints, the coming of the Antichrist, the tribulation, and the onset of any earthly Messianic kingdom.
Other Issues:
19. Whether the soul lives on after the death of the body.
20. Whether the miraculous gifts of the Holy Spirit are still being distributed to individuals in the church today.
21. Whether water baptism is required for salvation and what manner it should take.
22. Whether women are allowed to be pastors, teach men, or speak during church gatherings.
23. Whether men are to be the head of their households OR if husbands and wives have equal authority over one another and the family.
24. Whether men are permitted to wear head coverings while they pray and whether women are permitted not to.
25. The nature, format, and context of church services.
26. Whether it is acceptable for Christians to participate in war, government, and the execution of civil law and justice.
27. Whether Christians are permitted to use pagan religious customs in their worship of God (i.e., the celebration of Christmas.)
28. Whether Christians must tithe under the New Covenant OR participate in a system of voluntary sharing to meet each other’s material and financial needs.
29. Whether permanent, local Christian leaders (pastors) can make a living solely through the financial support of the church without having to have another job as a means of income and providing for themselves and their families.
30. The circumstances under which a Christian can rightly marry, divorce, or remarry.
This list may not be exhaustive. Its purpose is simply to convey the various types of issues that are labeled as nonessential doctrine and for which Christians are not allowed to divide over according to an Essentials Only View. The fact that these doctrinal issues (above) are not considered essentials by an Essentials Only View is confirmed by the fact that Essentials Only advocates approves and accepts various churches and denominations as orthodox no matter what their respective doctrinal understanding is on these subjects.
It is worth noting that some of these denominational disagreements over what are deemed to be “nonessential doctrines” do concern important doctrinal issues. More importantly, even though Essentials Only advocates like Geisler and CRI would prohibit Christians from separating over these “nonessentials,” it is nonetheless absolutely the case that church denominations are divided and historically have divided from fellowship with each other precisely over disagreements they have concerning these particular nonessential doctrines (and perhaps others.)
Having become familiar with the limits of an Essentials Only View we are now ready to determine whether the bible likewise prohibits Christians from separating over teachings that an Essentials Only View would identify as nonessential and not to be divided over. If the bible includes a few items that an Essentials Only View omits it may perhaps only be necessary to augment the list of essentials to include any additional doctrines. If, however, the bible includes a host of doctrinal issues that an Essentials Only View omits, it will be necessary to discard an Essentials Only View entirely.
Later in our study we will take a closer look at some of the reasoning and argumentation that is often used to support an Essentials Only View. But a crucial evaluation of an Essentials Only View can only come by first examining biblical teaching on the issues of doctrinal unity and separation from other Christians.
As we turn to our biblical examination of these issues in Part Two of our study below, we want to keep in mind two main considerations as we evaluate an Essentials Only View.
1. Division –
What issues does the bible teach Christians to divide over?
a) Does the bible teach that Christians can only divide over the essential doctrines listed by an Essentials Only View? If so, where and how does the New Testament define or identify doctrinal issues which can and cannot be divided over?
b) Does the bible teach that Christians can and should divide over doctrines not included among the essentials of an Essentials Only View?
2. Unity –
Which doctrinal issues does the bible require Christians to have a particular, agreed upon understanding in order to be allowed into fellowship?
a) Does the bible require Christians to be united in a shared and agreed upon understanding only over those issues that have been deemed essential doctrines by an Essentials Only View? If so, where and how does the New Testament list and confirm the set of essential doctrines articulated by an Essentials Only View?
b) Does the bible require Christians to be united in a shared and agreed upon understanding of doctrines not included among the essentials of an Essentials Only View?
For the purposes of clarity, we wish to be upfront and lay out the conclusions that were arrived at through this study which will be presented below.
It is our understanding that:
1) An Essentials Only View constitutes an inherent contradiction of biblical teaching by prohibiting Christians from breaking fellowship over doctrinal issues that the New Testament itself requires Christians to excommunicate (break fellowship) over.
2) An Essentials Only View relies on and requires a biased, highly selective, inadequate, and erroneous view of relevant post-biblical historical facts and developments and that this erroneous view fundamentally misunderstands both the problem and the cause of modern denominational and doctrinal diversity. 
3) An Essentials Only View’s list of doctrinal requirements for fellowship is entirely too limited and omits important doctrinal issues that the New Testament itself requires for Christian fellowship.
4) Modern church practices of excommunication (breaking fellowship) are severely deficient and contravene clear biblical teaching.  
5) An Essentials Only approach is logically untenable, circular, and constitutes a self-serving attempt to justify current church norms.
6) In practice, an Essentials Only approach is a contradiction in terms. It prohibits division of Christian fellowship on particular doctrinal issues, but then it approves of a denominational church system that is both created (and inherently maintained) by a division of fellowship over the very same nonessential doctrines for which an Essentials Only View says fellowship cannot be rightly divided.
7) An Essentials Only View effectively side steps the canonical authority of the New Testament and instead establishes and relies upon an alternate, unbiblical canon with a more limited doctrinal scope.    
More generally, an Essentials Only View and a modern approach to fellowship minimizes the importance of broad doctrinal agreement. Contrary to this, the New Testament contains approximately 30 passages in at least 15 different New Testament books on the subject of excommunication alone. These instructions are provided by Jesus Christ as well as 6 (of the 8 total) New Testament authors (Matthew, Luke, Paul, James, Peter, and John), 5 of which were apostles. These requirements to excommunicate are imperative for Christians and include broad applications to all biblical teachings as well as specific references to a wider range of doctrinal topics than an Essentials Only View allows for. These instructions are given to Christians in at least 7 different church communities (Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Colossae, Thessalonica, and Crete) showing their universal necessity.

Likewise, Paul provides repeated instructions and commentary on doctrinal requirements and excommunication to Timothy and Titus, two men who were charged with overseeing and setting in order the religious affairs of various churches and Christian communities. An Essentials Only View does not often mention, address, or take these biblical texts and instructions into account when discussing unity and division. Instead, the Essentials Only View typically relies entirely upon post-biblical history significantly removed from the apostles and purely philosophical arguments as if scripture itself did not greatly touch on the topic in much detail.
It is inconceivable that the average Christian today can know almost nothing of this widely discussed New Testament practice. Just as troubling is the fact that the modern church system gives virtually no role to such a well-established New Testament practice. Any teaching that receives the treatment and prominence that the New Testament gives to doctrinal unity and excommunication cannot rightly remain ignored, uninvestigated, and passed over. Rather, it deserves our careful and studious attention and compliance. There is no way to reconcile the minimalist approach of an Essentials Only View of the modern church with teachings that are plainly and consistently presented in the New Testament. We must instead return to the full application of New Testament requirements for comprehensive doctrinal adherence for fellowship and excommunication for those who persist in divergent belief, behavior, or practice.
Considering Doctrinal Unity: An Exercise
As we have seen the issue of Christian separation is inherently connected to the idea of Christian unity.
One common perception of the relationship between unity and separation envisions a tension between these two issues. It is often thought that more separation will result in less unity. In other words, the more we separate from other Christians the less unified the church is as a whole. Therefore, within this conception of unity, greater unity among Christians is generally conceived of as a matter of less separation. There are several things that must be realized about this conception of unity and separation.
First, we must recognize that this conception presupposes the existence of a legitimate form of church unity that does not involve total doctrinal agreement. Second, we must realize that this idea that the church can be unified despite doctrinal differences is only one view. Other conceptions of unity and its relationship to separation are available. For instance, it could be argued that the more we separate from those whose beliefs and practices differ from our own, the more unified we will be with those we do fellowship with. In other words, we will have more beliefs in common with those we fellowship with and therefore, greater unity, even though there are less people sharing that unity. This alternate view measures the degree of unity by the amount of agreement rather than the number of people involved. In this way greater unity (doctrinal unity) is achieved by a greater degree of separation from those with differing views.
Our point here is that there are different ways to conceive of church unity and its relationship to separating from other Christians. Likewise, how we conceive of these issues impacts what we consider to be necessary to achieve whatever notion of unity we value. We must be aware of these issues as we consider the question of dividing fellowship from other Christians.
An Essentials Only View involves a particular concept of unity and separation in which church unity is a limited kind of unity. By limiting the number of doctrinal issues required for fellowship, a larger amount of people will be accepted into fellowship despite disagreement over certain issues. In this way fellowship will be less limited. However, doctrinal unity will be more limited in that it pertains only to a smaller, select set of issues. On issues not deemed essential for fellowship, there is an allowance for differences of opinion. But, these differences of opinion constitute clear disunity and discord within the church. Therefore, in an Essentials Only conception of unity and separation, unity is quite limited. In fact, it is even un-unified.
On the other hand, anyone who requires doctrinal agreement over a larger set of issues proportionately reduces the number of Christians that are available to fellowship with. Their fellowship will be more limited. But, the unity of those in fellowship will be much greater and express a high decree of harmony and agreement within the church.
These observations demonstrate that within Christian circles unity is not an only child. It is not the only important factor in and of itself. If unity were our sole priority or our highest priority, we could easily join in fellowship with Christians (or even non-Christians) of all kinds. We could fellowship with other persons of monotheistic faiths (Judaism and Islam) that are associated with biblical tradition. We could gather together for communion and worship with any organization which teaches Jesus Christ is divine and the Savior of mankind (such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christadelphians, Seventh Day Adventists, Oneness Pentecostals, Unitarians, and Mormons.)
If unity was our only goal, Christians could be united in fellowship with as many of these groups as we like. But we do not. The reason we are not united with such groups is because Christian unity isn’t simply social unity. It is ideological unity. Our fellowship, our unity, and our social connections are limited by doctrinal considerations. Our unity is not an unrestricted unity, nor is it unity for the purposes of social cohesion. Instead, it is a unity governed by doctrinal agreement to the teachings of the Christian faith. Our delineation of the doctrinal requirements necessary for unity and fellowship is what determines when we, as Christians, separate ourselves from fellowship with others, whether they call themselves Christian or not. Our goal is unity, but it is not unity for unity’s sake. It is a unity in Christian teaching. And if we sacrifice doctrinal integrity for social cohesion then we risk forfeiting any valid, principled means of excluding anyone from our fellowship and we invite being criticized as hypocrites.
Because unity is a central issue in this study, let us pause for a moment and consider what unity is. The following definitions from Merriam Webster’s Dictionary show that the essential notion conveyed by unity is singleness, agreement, and harmony.
Unity – 1a: the quality or state of not being multiple : oneness…2a: a condition of harmony : accord 2b: continuity without deviation or change (as in purpose or action) 3a: the quality or state of being made one: unification – Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary, www.merriam-webster.com
United – 1: made one: combined, 2: relating to or produced by joint action 3: being in agreement : harmonious – Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary, www.merriam-webster.com
Unison – 1a: identity in musical pitch; specifically : the interval of a perfect prime 1b: the state of being so tuned or sounded c : the writing, playing, or singing of parts in a musical passage at the same pitch or in octaves 2: a harmonious agreement or union – Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary, www.merriam-webster.com
These definitions suggest that the idea of unity offered by an Essentials Only View is perhaps an unnatural and uneasy one. An Essentials Only conception of unity is one which is characterized by multiple divisions, differences, disagreement, and disharmony on various doctrinal issues. It is a unity which seeks to preserve social contact by easing doctrinal requirements for fellowship. Such a conception of unity is very democratic. It resonates well with our modern political culture in which people of differing perspectives join together to form a cohesive society. In our contemporary political world, unity despite differences of opinion seems like a common sense and comfortable notion. It may even be thought of as gracious in its willingness to compromise.
However, we must remember that the writers of the New Testament did not live in our modern, post-enlightenment, democratic culture. We cannot, therefore, assume that their conception of unity would necessarily reflect one that we find so readily available in our pluralistic world today. As we turn to the scriptures, we will have to determine whether the biblical authors’ conception of doctrinal unity in the church was one of complete harmony on all teachings or a unity which allowed and contained competing doctrinal divergences for the sake of maintaining a larger sense of social connection.
Closely related to this subject is the idea of tolerance for different doctrinal views. As we will see the New Testament warns about false teachers who attempt to deceive the church. With this biblical observation in mind, it is important to consider what means the apostles would have given to the church to prevent the infiltration of false teaching. Various scenarios are possible.
First, let us consider that the apostles all taught the same things on all doctrinal issues giving the church a complete and uniform understanding of the correct teaching on all doctrinal issues. Additionally, this teaching was preserved in a written record of their teachings that the church could use as a reference point and standard. In this way, the church would be able to recognize false teaching simply because it differed from what the apostles had taught on all topics to all churches. If the apostles competently endeavored to accomplish this task and left a record of this teaching to the church it would be a very effective means to combat false doctrine and prevent it from infiltrating and corrupting the church and the Christian faith. It would be effective, that is, so long as the church was intent on remaining faithful to apostolic teaching.
Second, let us consider the alternative scenario in which the apostles did not teach the same things universally to all Christians and did not give the church a single, particular sound understanding on each and every doctrinal issue. How effectively would the church be prepared to heed scriptural warnings about being deceived by false prophets and false teachers?
It is a given that false prophets and false teachers will claim that their novel ideas are the result of either divine revelation, superior insight into the scriptures, solutions to yet unresolved theological questions, or all three. But without the correct view having been precisely determined and made known on any and all topics, the church would not be able to know whether any seemingly novel teaching constituted a false view or an improved understanding guided by God.
Finally, we must be aware of how we perceive the cause of the doctrinal disunity we observe in the modern church. Within an Essentials Only View, ongoing doctrinal disunity is typically understood to result from the church never having been given a correct understanding of all New Testament teachings. Therefore, disunity remains as the church continues to be unable to determine the correct understanding of various doctrinal issues. (For further discussion of the concept of unresolved doctrinal disagreements please see our article entitled, “Is Orthodox Doctrine Accumulated Over Time?”)

An alternative perspective would suggest that the New Testament church was given a correct understanding of all doctrinal issues, but that false views have infiltrated Christian theology over the course of church history resulting in the doctrinal diversity we see all around us. As we proceed, we will have to see which of these two scenarios (if any) is expressed by the authors of the New Testament. Closely related to this is the question of whether Jesus and the apostles felt that the Christian church would persist in doctrinal obscurity and misunderstanding for any lengthy period of time (such as 2000 years of church history.)
Obviously, these hypothetical scenarios may be oversimplified to a certain extent. But the purpose of considering these matters was to demonstrate how differing understandings of Christian unity and the development of doctrinal diversity can impact our assessment of which doctrines are required for fellowship and which doctrines may require separation for those holding differing views. We must be aware of these issues. And, we cannot simply assume one particular perspective on unity or the cause of modern doctrinal diversity and then use that assumed perspective as a criterion for evaluating whether a particular approach to essential doctrine and breaking fellowship is biblical or not.
The Canon and Sola Scriptura
One of the first steps in identifying the issues that require excommunication is to determine where we get our standards for fellowship and separation. Christians have a word that we use to refer to this sort of standard of faith. That word is canon. The English word canon is often used to refer to a standard or rule of judgment.
4a: an accepted principle or rule
4b: a criterion or standard of judgment
4c: a body of principles, rules, standards, or norms

Origin of CANON
Middle English, from Old English, from Late Latin, from Latin, ruler, rule, model, standard, from Greek kanōn
- Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary, www.merriam-webster.com
As we can see the English word “canon” originates from a Greek word “kanon” (Strong’s number 2853) that is used in the New Testament. Below is the lexical definition of its Greek usage.
2583 kanon
from kane (a straight reed, i.e. rod); TDNT-3:596,414; n m
AV-rule 4, line 1; 5
1) a rod or straight piece of rounded wood to which any thing is fastened to keep it straight
1a) used for various purposes
1a1) a measuring rod, rule
1a2) a carpenter’s line or measuring tape
1a3) the measure of a leap, as in the Olympic games
2) a definitely bounded or fixed space within the limits of which one’s power of influence is confined
2a) the province assigned one
2b) one’s sphere of activity
3) metaph. any rule or standard, a principle or law of investigating, judging, living, acting
These Greek and English words convey the idea of an authoritative standard or means of judging or measuring something. It is in this sense that Christians identify the books of the Old and New Testaments as canons.
3a: an authoritative list of books accepted as Holy Scripture
3b: the authentic works of a writer
3c: a sanctioned or accepted group or body of related works <the canon of great literature>
4a: an accepted principle or rule
4b: a criterion or standard of judgment
4c: a body of principles, rules, standards, or norms
- Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary, www.merriam-webster.com
Biblical canon – A Biblical canon, or canon of scripture,[1] is a list of books considered to be authoritative as scripture by a particular religious community, generally in Judaism or Christianity. The term itself was first coined by Christians,[2] but the idea is found in Jewish sources. – wikipedia.org
We apply the word canon to the books of the bible in order to denote that these texts are the authority, the measuring rod, and the standard for the Christian faith. In other words, beliefs and behaviors that contradict biblical teaching are unchristian and should be rejected. This concept of the bible as the sole authority for the Christian faith was one of the chief principles championed by Reformers and embraced by the Protestant Reformation as well as Protestant churches today.
Sola scriptura – Sola scriptura (Latin ablative, "by scripture alone") is the doctrine that the Bible contains all knowledge necessary for salvation and holiness. Consequently, sola scriptura demands that only those doctrines are to be admitted or confessed that are found directly within or indirectly by using valid logical deduction or valid deductive reasoning from scripture. However, sola scriptura is not a denial of other authorities governing Christian life and devotion. Rather, it simply demands that all other authorities are subordinate to, and are to be corrected by, the written word of God. Sola scriptura was a foundational doctrinal principle of the Protestant Reformation held by the Reformers and is a formal principle of Protestantism today. – wikipedia.org
So, the scripture (and particularly the New Testament) is the authority for judging, determining, and measuring what is and isn’t appropriate belief, behavior, and practice for Christians. As the authors of this paper, we recognize that this authority is vested in the first century writings of the New Testament which were penned by the apostles and their close associates. And we reject the idea that later documents, declarations, or traditions may supersede, improve, override, or truncate the authoritative standard held by the Old and New Testament texts alone.
The recognition of scripture as the sole and final authority of the Christian faith is important to our study. The New Testament texts are the record of apostolic teaching on all subjects that they discuss. As such, the identification of the New Testament as the canon of the Christian faith, itself goes a long way toward recognizing that the apostles sought to prevent false teaching by preserving what they taught on various topics in the books of New Testament. Still, at this point in our study, questions remain about the extent of doctrinal unity and uniformity that the apostles expected and established in the early church as well as what doctrine the apostles identified as excommunicable.
The next step in our study will be to investigate the New Testament as the authority, the standard, and the measure for determining which doctrinal issues are required for fellowship and, therefore, require separating from Christians with differing views.