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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 Three: Conclusions
A Biblical Assessment of an Essentials Only View
Now that we have completed our survey and exegesis of the relevant biblical passages, we are ready to give a summary of the New Testament teaching on doctrinal unity and separation (excommunication) as part of a total assessment of an Essentials Only View. Our assessment will demonstrate the illegitimacy of an Essentials Only View in regard to three areas of evaluation: biblical, historical, and logical.
Very early on in our study we referred to an article published by CRI written by Dr. Norman L. Geisler which defined the Essentials Only view. Of these three areas of evaluation, only two were offered by Dr. Geisler and CRI. Part Two of Dr. Geisler’s essay on CRI’s website begins with the following statement. Notice that it lists only the historical and logical approaches to this issue. It is noteworthy that, for whatever reasons, Dr. Geisler and CRI apparently do not feel that the bible itself comments directly on the question of which topics are indispensible for Christian fellowship and must be divided over when there is deviation.
What are the essential doctrines of the Christian faith? One way to answer this question, as noted in part one of this series, is to take a historical approach: the essential doctrines are those found in the early creeds of the church. Another way to answer this is to take a logical approach. This approach is better, since it avoids many of the pitfalls of the historical approach, especially the debate about which creeds and councils should be accepted.” – Norman L. Geisler, The Essential Doctrines of the Christian Faith (Part One), A Historical Approach, JAE100-1, http://equip.org/articles/the-essential-doctrines-of-the-christian-faith-part-two-
Before we proceed with that evaluation we first should review the defining elements of an Essentials Only View. In his article, Dr. Geisler defined essential Christian doctrines as the only truths over which Christians can rightly divide or break fellowship.
“…the essential doctrines are the only truths over which we rightly can divide (i.e., break fellowship).” – Norman L. Geisler, The Essential Doctrines of the Christian Faith (Part One), A Historical Approach, JAE100-1, http://equip.org/articles/the-essential-doctrines-of-the-christian-faith-part-one-
Dr. Geisler also provides a list of what he considers to be the only doctrines which Christians can rightly break fellowship over. There are fourteen of them.
(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, JAE100-2, http://equip.org/articles/the-essential-doctrines-of-the-christian-faith-part-two-
By comparing Geisler’s list with CRI’s own list of essential doctrines we were able to compile the following basic list of the limited doctrinal issues that an Essentials Only View asserts Christians can break fellowship over.
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.
13. That Christ is the only means by which men can be saved.
According to a common and popular version of an Essentials Only View offered by well-known modern Christian leaders like Dr. Geisler and CRI, Christians cannot rightly break fellowship with other Christians for anything besides these 13-14 doctrinal issues. As we noted earlier there are a lot of doctrinal issues that an Essentials Only View, therefore, prohibits Christians from breaking fellowship over. In Geisler’s words, to break fellowship with other Christians over anything besides these 13-14 essential doctrines “is a great error.”
“…it is a great error for those who hold the truth to be divided where nonessentials are concerned (e.g., Eph. 4:3).– Norman L. Geisler, The Essential Doctrines of the Christian Faith (Part One), A Historical Approach, JAE100-1, http://equip.org/articles/the-essential-doctrines-of-the-christian-faith-part-one-
The first criterion for evaluating an Essentials Only View is whether it is consistent with or contrary to biblical teaching. This criterion is of course the most important for us as Christians. So, we will address it first. There are several major biblical issues showing that an Essentials Only View contradicts New Testament teaching.
1. The first, major biblical problem with an Essentials Only View is that is prohibits us from breaking fellowship over issues the bible itself requires us to separate over. We have already reviewed the limited doctrines that an Essentials Only allows separation over. Likewise, we have already performed a lengthy and comprehensive examination of the New Testament teaching on doctrinal unity and excommunication. Having completed these two tasks we are now in a position to state decisively that an Essentials Only View is woefully inadequate and severely inconsistent with biblical instruction. Put simply, we have seen that the New Testament provides numerous instructions for Christians to excommunicate over many doctrinal issues that an Essentials Only View prohibits Christians from breaking fellowship over.
New Testament instruction on excommunication begins with Jesus. Jesus instructed his apostles to carry out excommunication in an open-ended manner. He did not specify a limited list of essential doctrines which alone could be excommunicated over. Instead, he allowed excommunication for general issues of sin, personal offenses, and regarding any topic the apostles witnessed him teaching and themselves passed on to all men everywhere. Jesus’ broad instructions contradict the idea that Christians can only break fellowship over a limited set of doctrinal issues.
The rest of the New Testament gives us a clear picture of which doctrinal issues that the apostles understood excommunication must necessarily be applied to. New Testament writings provide an extensive list of excommunicable doctrinal issues that far exceeds the limited list of 13-14 issues allowed by an Essentials Only View. A basic list of the doctrinal issues that the apostles explicitly named as excommunicable includes at least the following:
1. Fornication (including: adultery and homosexuality) and teaching that fornication is acceptable.
2. Covetousness and greed and teaching that covetousness is acceptable.
3. Idolatry and teaching that idolatry is acceptable.
4. Speaking abusively or inappropriately
5. Drunkenness (intoxication) and teaching that drunkenness is acceptable.
6. Lying and teaching that lying is acceptable.
7. Stealing/theft and teaching that theft is acceptable.
8. Speaking evil (blaspheme and false accusation) and teaching that speaking evil is acceptable.
9. Violent retribution (wrath), and malice and teaching that such things are acceptable.
10. Murder and teaching that murder is acceptable.
11. Church leaders (and other Christians) not having a job to provide for themselves but instead being totally supported financially by the church.
12. False views of end times’ events (including the rapture, the resurrection of the dead, the coming of the Antichrist, and Christ’s return) and their sequencing and timing.
13. The teachings of Greek philosophy, Gnosticism, and Neo-Platonism (Platonism) in general.
14. False understandings about God’s will regarding the salvation of all men and not willing that any should perish.
15. Denying that Jesus is the same as and is the Christ.
16. Denying the Father and the Son.
17. Denying the incarnation, that Christ came in the flesh.
(Scriptural references for these lists are: 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, Galatians 5:19-21, Ephesians 4:17-32, Ephesians 5:1-11, Colossians 3:5-10, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 with 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5 and 15, 1 Timothy 1:1-11, 18-20, 6:2-10, 20-21, 2 Timothy 2:18, 3:1-8, 2 Peter 3:9-16, 1 John 2:18, 22, 4:1-3, 2 John 1:7, Colossians 2:2-8, Ephesians 4:17-18, 5:6-8, Romans 1:20-22, 28, 1 Corinthians 2:4, 13, 3:19-20.)  
This simple New Testament list of excommunicable issues is sufficient to show the biblical illegitimacy of an Essentials Only View. An Essentials Only View prohibits Christians from breaking fellowship over at least 13 of these issues that the bible itself requires us to break fellowship over. (Numbers 3 and 15-17 are included within an Essentials Only View’s list of essential doctrines.)
We must point out the severe problems this New Testament list of excommunicable doctrines poses for an Essentials Only View.
First, the sheer number of doctrinal issues that the New Testament requires excommunication for doubles the list provided by an Essentials Only View. It would be one thing if an Essentials Only list simply omitted an item or two. However, this list shows that an Essentials Only View has erroneously omitted at least half of the doctrinal issues for which the New Testament requires excommunication. This is a serious flaw. The New Testament requires us to excommunicate over various doctrinal issues and, in utter contradiction of biblical instruction, an Essentials Only View has literally cut that list in half.
Second, the nature of many of the doctrines included in the New Testament as excommunicable issues poses serious problems for an Essentials Only View. Consider that an Essentials Only View does not include a requirement for repentance from sinful behaviors or any allowance for excommunication for Christians who continue to persist in sinful behaviors. And yet, the New Testament is clear that Christians can and must be excommunicated for ongoing involvement in: fornication, covetousness, blaspheme, murdering, lying, and stealing. Likewise, a prohibition against fornication includes a prohibition against any sin identified biblically as a form of fornication. In the New Testament this includes sex between two unmarried people, homosexuality, as well as various forms of adultery including sexual or even marital relationships where one or both persons is not legitimately divorced from a previous marriage and whose legitimate spouse is still alive.
In addition, while the biblical list above includes what might be considered major sinful violations of Jesus’ teaching, right alongside these major issues the New Testament clearly includes what today might be considered sins of less severity including: drunkenness (intoxication), speaking abusively or inappropriately, speaking evil and falsely accusing, and violent retribution. The modern church and an Essentials Only View do not permit someone to be excommunicated over these types of matters. In fact, an Essentials Only View in theory and practice deems compliance with biblical teaching on these issues to be nonessential regarding Christian fellowship. And yet the New Testament requires excommunication on them just the same as it does for denying the incarnation or for murder.
Even more difficulties arise from the fact that the New Testament requires excommunication over false understandings of subjects that are not directly theological in nature. In particular, the New Testament requires the excommunication of long-term, local Christian leaders who do not follow Paul’s example of providing for himself by means of his own working trade but instead draw full financial support from the church community. An Essentials Only View can make no sense of Paul’s application of excommunication to this issue.
Similarly, the New Testament requires excommunication for teaching false views on “end-times” subjects. Specifically included in the New Testament list of excommunicable doctrinal issues are erroneous understandings of eschatological events and their proper sequencing including: the rapture, the resurrection of the dead, the coming of the Antichrist, and Christ’s return. An Essentials Only View contradicts this directly by prohibiting Christians from breaking fellowship over eschatological issues of this nature. Furthermore, these are the very doctrines that are responsible for a great deal of church and denominational divisions that exist today.
Likewise, the New Testament requires excommunication for teaching false views on soteriological issues such as God’s will with regard to the salvation of all men, particularly the fact that God is not willing that any should perish. Contrary to biblical instruction, differences regarding soteriological doctrines are allowed by an Essentials Only View. In addition, along with eschatological differences, soteriological differences concerning whether God wills for all men to be saved and how men come to be saved are at the very heart of denominational divisions separating Calvinist/Reformed churches from Free Will/Arminian churches.
Beyond this, modern doctrinal differences in both these theological areas (eschatology and soteriology) are inherently connected to whether biblical teaching on these subjects is congruent with or opposed to classic, Greek philosophical thought. The New Testament is highly critical of ancient pagan philosophical systems including Gnosticism (and the corresponding philosophy of Neo-Platonism.) New Testament texts consistently require Christians to avoid the teachings of these worldviews and not to fellowship with those who advanced them.
The main tenets of Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism were a denial of free will and a conception of salvation that denied an earthly kingdom and instead asserted a non-earthly, immaterial, eternal existence in heaven. In these religious systems men were saved through divine determinism working through a divine, internal awakening that did not involve free will, hearing the gospel, or rational contemplation of scripture or evidence. The Gnostic belief that matter is inherently evil (flawed) brought them to deny that the Christ actually became a man. Rather they distinguished Christ from the human Jesus and taught that the divine Christ spirit merely rested upon the man, Jesus. The Gnostics dressed their teachings in biblical language and twisted the scripture from its original meaning in order to attempt to deceive Christians into accepting their views (1 Timothy 6:20-21, 1 John 2:18, 22, 1 John 4:3, 2 John 1:7, Colossians 2:2-8 with Acts 17:18, Ephesians 4:17-18, 5:6-8, Romans 1:20-22, 28, 1 Corinthians 2:4, 13, 3:19-20.)
Reinstating New Testament instructions to dissociate from those who interpret biblical teaching on eschatology and soteriology through Greek philosophical conceptions would completely undermine an Essentials Only View and wreak havoc on our modern sectarian church system. The nature of some of the doctrines that the New Testament requires excommunication over clearly conveys that Jesus and the apostles did not limit breaking fellowship only to a narrow set of basic concepts. Rather, for Jesus and the apostles whatever the apostles had witnessed Jesus teaching was necessary for new disciples to believe in order to be saved and to obey in order to remain in church fellowship. There is simply no way to reduce the New Testament’s list of excommunicable issues down to a small, select set of essential doctrines.
Derived through comprehensive New Testament analysis, this brief assessment is sufficient to show the complete inadequacy and illegitimacy of an Essentials Only View. Put simply, an Essentials Only View prohibits Christians from breaking fellowship over doctrinal issues that the New Testament itself explicitly requires us to break fellowship over.
However, the above list is only a list of those doctrinal issues which are specifically named in New Testament passages requiring excommunication. It does not take into account passages like Romans 16:17, which clearly instruct Christians to excommunicate (break fellowship, separate from, avoid) anyone who taught any doctrinal view that was different from what the apostles themselves taught in the churches. Taking into account just the items that Paul himself taught about in the book of Romans adds even more topics to our list of doctrinal issues for which the bible mandates excommunication.
Throughout his letter to the Romans, Paul taught on the following doctrinal issues:
1. Jesus as the Christ, God come in the flesh as a descendant of David;
2. Physical resurrection from the dead;
3. That the same gospel was taught to Jews and Gentiles alike;
4. The prohibition of various sinful behaviors including: fornication, murder, covetousness, idolatry, lying;
5. What is and isn’t required in the New Testament in relation to the Old Testament;
6. The end of the Law of Moses and the changing of the covenants;
7. The process by which people come to faith by means of hearing the message of those who preach;
8. Salvation through Christ’s atoning work;
9. Inheritance in the kingdom of God and the renewal of the earth;
10. Adultery and remarriage;
11. God’s foreknowledge and how it works with regard to who will be saved and God’s purpose in Christ;
12. How election works; resisting God’s will;
13. God’s plan for Israel;
14. Conditional adoption by faith and being broken off conditionally based on disbelief;
15. The church as a body;
16. Pacifism, living at peace, not participating in civil administration of justice (government), obeying government, paying taxes;
17. Being honest;
18. Allowances and openness regarding keeping or not keeping Old Testament dietary laws and feast days;
Of these 18 doctrinal issues, an Essentials Only View only allows for breaking fellowship on item numbers 1 and 8. (These items concern Jesus Christ and salvation through his atoning work.) We must note that several of the doctrinal issues taught about in Romans are specifically named elsewhere in the immediate context of New Testament passages requiring excommunication. The list of behaviors which contradict Jesus’ teaching provided in item number 4 above corresponds to other passages naming these same behaviors as excommunicable. The same is true for number 10 above because adultery is a form of fornication. In addition, Jesus himself instructed his apostles not to allow divorce and remarriage in the church. This is an implicit instruction not to allow these practices to be permitted by Christians. (For more on Jesus’ teaching on marriage, divorce, remarriage and adultery please see our articles on Divorce and Remarriage.) Number 11 concerns God’s foreknowledge and God’s will in regard to the salvation of men. This is a subject Peter has mentioned in his epistle as one of the issues that Paul wrote about which, if twisted and misinterpreted, would lead to destruction. The fact that several of these doctrinal issues are identified as excommunicable in other passages confirms that Paul’s instructions in Romans 16:17 are meant to apply to all these issues that he taught about in his own writings.
Romans 16:17 is not the only New Testament verse to provide open-ended instructions to excommunicate for any divergence from what the apostles taught on any subject. Other passages of this nature include: Titus 1:9-13, 3:9-11, James 5:19-20, perhaps Hebrews 10:24-29, and 2 John 1:1-11. Moreover, earlier we saw similar inclusive language in Paul’s epistles to the Thessalonians. In 2 Thessalonians 2:2, 15 and 3:14, Paul instructs Christians to excommunicate keep to what was written in his epistles and to excommunicate anyone who did not obey the words in that epistle. It is clear that Paul was including all of the subjects he taught on throughout any of his epistles, including “end times” events and their chronological sequence.
The New Testament’s open-ended authorizations to excommunicate over any subject have their roots in Jesus’ own teaching on excommunication. Like his Jewish contemporaries, Jesus instituted a strict practice of excommunication which required excommunicated persons to be avoided and treated as outsiders who had no part in the community of God’s people or the things of God (Matthew 18:15-17, Luke 17:1-4.) Jesus’ descriptions of excommunication included the unpleasant and undesirable notion of cutting off and casting away a part of the body. This language shows that although unity (of the body) is highly prized it is not the highest priority. Rather, preventing the spread of sin and error is the most important factor (Matthew 18:6-9.)
The apostles apply Jesus metaphor of the body to the church itself (Romans 12:5, 1 Corinthians 12:12, 27, Ephesians 3:6, Ephesians 4:12, Ephesians 5:23.) As established by Christ, excommunication included three steps which were taken in the hopes of persuading a sinning Christian brother to repent. The sinning brother was approached and “rebuked” (“elegcho” 1651) first by one individual, then by two or three witnesses, and ultimately by the entire church (Matthew 18:15-17.)
Jesus’ use of two or three witnesses is borrowed directly from Deuteronomy 17:6 and 19:15 which required such witnesses in order to establish the occurrence of sin in the case of a capital crime (a sin requiring execution.) This precedent shows that the two or three witnesses did not themselves create the truth. Rather the standard was already established and understood. The witnesses were able to uphold the established standard primarily by testifying that a violation had taken place. In the case of excommunication, two or three apostles served as witnesses of what Christ had taught them and thereby established the standards of excommunication for any persons who violated that understanding in belief or practice.
As we can see, Christ’s instructions on excommunication were not doctrinally limited or specific. Instead, they were open-ended and broad in their application including even personal offenses and “whatsoever” the apostles witnessed him teaching.
The sheer number of passages that teach on excommunication shows the high degree of importance that is given to this practice in the New Testament. In contrast, today’s church is almost completely unaware of excommunication and rarely (if ever) applies it to anything, let alone applying it to all the issues that the New Testament requires it for. A count of passages that discuss excommunication totals at around 30 passages in at least 15 different New Testament books.
Matthew 18:15-22
Luke 17:1-4
Romans 16:17
1 Corinthians 2:4, 13, 1 Corinthians 3:19-20, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13
2 Corinthians 10:1-8
Galatians 5:6-12, 19-21, Galatians 6:1
Ephesians 4:17-32, Ephesians 5:1-11
Colossians 2:2-8, Colossians 3:5-10
2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 with 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 15
1 Timothy 1:1-11, 18-20, 1 Timothy 6:2-10, 20-21, 1 Timothy 5:19-20
2 Timothy 2:18, 2 Timothy 3:1-8, 2 Timothy 4:1-5
Titus 1:9-13, Titus 3:9-11
James 5:19-20
(Perhaps Hebrews 10:24-29 and 12:5-11)
2 Peter 3:9-16
1 John 2:18, 22, 1 John 4:1-3, 1 John 5:16-18
2 John 1:1-11
We must take a moment to come to terms with this information. This is a significant amount of time and effort dedicated to excommunication in the New Testament. There are around 30 places in at least 15 books of the New Testament that instruct Christians to break fellowship over particular doctrinal issues as well as in general for any divergence from New Testament teaching on any subject. These instructions are given by Jesus Christ himself as well as 6 of the New Testament authors (Matthew, Luke, Paul, James, Peter, and John). Five of these men were apostles. And the instructions are given to Christians in at least seven different church communities (Rome, Corinth, Galatia, Ephesus, Colossae, Thessalonica, Crete) as well as two men who were in charge of overseeing various churches (Timothy and Titus.)
These statistics confirm the critical importance and significance of excommunication in the New Testament church. These facts draw a stark contrast to the exceedingly low level of importance and small range of application given to excommunication in the modern church. Likewise, the broad and far reaching application that the apostles gave to excommunication directly contradicts the Essentials Only View that is prevalent among Christians today. It is alarming that a subject that is given this much treatment in the bible could be so unheard of and so neglected today. And these are just the number of passages that discuss excommunication (breaking fellowship.) An equally large number of passages will be compiled below regarding New Testament requirements for comprehensive doctrinal unity.
2. A second, major biblical problem for an Essentials Only View is its conception of doctrinal unity. There are at least three major problems with the Essentials Only requirements for doctrinal unity in the church. The first problem is that an Essentials Only View places unbiblical limitations on the number of doctrinal issues that the church is required to have a unified (and uniform) understanding of.
As we have seen, for any given person, the range of issues that they view as excommunicable is inherently tied to the number of doctrines that they believe Christians are required to have unity and agreement on. This natural relationship between essential doctrines, doctrinal unity, and excommunicable doctrines is articulated clearly and succinctly by Geisler in his article. According to Geisler, “essential doctrines are the only truths over which we rightly can divide (break fellowship.)”
The question is, What are the essentials?...the essential doctrines are the only truths over which we rightly can divide (i.e., break fellowship). – Norman L. Geisler, The Essential Doctrines of the Christian Faith (Part One), A Historical Approach, JAE100-1, http://equip.org/articles/the-essential-doctrines-of-the-christian-faith-part-one-
As we have seen, according to Geisler and CRI there are only 14 doctrinal issues over which Christians can rightly break fellowship. This means, that Christians must have doctrinal unity and agreement only on these particular 14 issues.  
In contrast to the Essentials Only View offered by Geisler and CRI, the apostles required excommunication on a large scope of doctrinal issues spanning New Testament teaching. Since the New Testament applied excommunication to such an all-inclusive amount of doctrinal issues, we would expect that it would also require doctrinal unity and agreement on the same large scope of doctrinal issues. In fact, this is the case. As we have seen throughout the New Testament, the apostles repeatedly instruct Christians to have comprehensive doctrinal unity, agreement, and shared understanding in anything the apostles had taught to the churches. Some of these passages are the same passages that discuss excommunication. In other cases, the apostles require doctrinal unity without mentioning excommunication. However, the two subjects are inherently connected. This is demonstrated by their conceptual link as well as by the fact that some of the passages discussing doctrinal unity also require excommunication for doctrinally divergent beliefs and behaviors.
We can see therefore that an Essentials Only View contradicts the New Testament by prohibiting Christians from breaking fellowship over doctrinal issues for which the bible itself explicitly requires excommunication and by only requiring Christians to agree on a limited set of biblical doctrines while the New Testament itself requires much more comprehensive doctrinal unity. But these are not the only problems for an Essentials Only View regarding doctrinal unity.
A second problem regarding an Essentials Only View and doctrinal unity concerns the definition of the gospel. As we have seen, a typical Essentials Only View of the gospel (such as that offered by Dr. Geisler and CRI) limits the gospel to include only a select set of doctrinal issues. According to an Essentials Only View the gospel does not include issues that many modern churches disagree over today such as the nature of the kingdom of God, the timing and manner of fulfillment for “end-times” prophecy, and the inheritance of Old and New Testament saints.
Salvation as described in the Bible, based in the deity, death, and resurrection of Christ—which is the gospel (1 Cor. 15:1–6) – Norman L. Geisler, The Essential Doctrines of the Christian Faith (Part Two), The Logical Approach, JAE100-2, http://equip.org/articles/the-essential-doctrines-of-the-christian-faith-part-two-  
Contrary to an Essentials Only View of the gospel, Jesus instructed the apostles to bear witness to and teach all things whatsoever he had taught them to all nations everywhere. And he required all who would be his disciples to remain in his teachings (Matthew 28:16-20, Mark 16:14-15, Acts 1:1-8, John 15:6-10, John 2:6-7, 14:24, 15:7.) According to Acts 1, this specifically included “things pertaining to the kingdom of God.”
A comparison of these parallel accounts of the same instructions from Christ to the apostles showed that “teaching all things whatsoever that Jesus had taught the apostles” is equivalent to “preaching the gospel.” This makes sense because the Gospels consistently conjoin and introduce the term “the gospel” with the kingdom of God. Likewise, the apostles also taught that the gospel of Jesus Christ clearly involved receiving the inheritance that was promised to Abraham, which was an earthly land inheritance (Genesis 28:1-4, 12:1-7, 17:5-10, Galatians 3:6-29, Hebrews 6:11-19, James 2:5.) In Christ, saints of both the Old and New Testament (whether Jew or Gentile) would receive this same inheritance along with Abraham in the kingdom of God (Matthew 8:11, Luke 13:28-29, Galatians 3:6-29, Ephesians 2:11-19, 3:6.)
According to Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 28, Mark 16, and Acts 1, in order to be saved new converts would have to believe what the apostles taught them on all things whatsoever Christ had taught them. This was the gospel. And the New Testament makes it clear that new converts did in fact have fellowship as they kept the teaching of the apostles (Acts 2:41-42, Philippians 1:3-5, 2:1-2.)
In the gospels Jesus is recorded as teaching the apostles on the following subjects:
1. repentance from sin;
2. the kingdom of God;
3. issues related to end times (eschatology) including: sequencing and events;
4. issues pertaining to the Old and New Covenant;
5. condemnation of murder, violence, blaspheme, fornication, covetousness;
6. instructions for nonviolence and pacifism;
7. definitions and prohibitions regarding adultery, divorce, and remarriage;
8. requirements to speak honestly;
9. instructions on giving and living contently rather than in greed and materialism;
10. forgiveness;
11. loving our neighbor;
12. protocols for traveling evangelists including financial support;
13. priorities related to following God and obligations to our biological families;
14. enduring in faith and departing from the faith;
15. setting aside biblical teaching for the sake of human traditions;
16. authority and service in the church;
17. physical resurrection from the dead;
18. excommunication;
19. the beginning and creation;
20. paying taxes;
21. the institution of the communion meal;
22. the gospel as equivalent to all things that he had taught and a commission for the apostles to give witness of and teach and preach these things and that new converts must believe these things in order to be saved;
23. prayer;
24. issues related to the Sabbath;
25. life after death;
26. angels;
27. God, including statements regarding the Father and the Holy Spirit;
28. baptisms (in water and in the Holy Spirit);
29. eternal punishment and hell.
The gospels also present teaching on topics that are not directly attributed to quotations from Christ. These teachings are clearly things the apostles felt obligated to bear witness to, teach, and preserve in their writings (including the gospels.) These topics include:
1. the incarnation;
2. the virgin birth;
3. the transfiguration;
4. Jesus’ trial, death, resurrection, post-resurrection appearances, and ascension;
5. Jesus’ miracles;
6. the kingdom of God and its nature;
7. Jesus as God and Christ;
8. communal sharing.
Furthermore, Jesus’ teaching on end times events and his warning about being deceived in regards to these matters demonstrates that he felt understanding these matters correctly was of the utmost importance and critical to his followers’ faith and salvation (Matthew 24:3-4, 14-18 , Mark 13:4-5, 22-23.) Likewise, Jesus and the apostles required repentance for those who would be Christ’s followers. This required turning from their sinful acts (Matthew 3:2, 4:17, Mark 1:15, 6:12, Luke 17:3-4, Acts 2:38, Acts 17:38, Acts 26:20, Matthew 9:9-13, Mark 2:14-17, Luke 5:27, Luke 19:5-10.) It is no wonder then that the apostles identified diverging from any of Christ’s teachings on these matters as an excommunicable offense.
In accordance with Jesus’ commission for them to teach all things whatsoever he’d taught them to all men in all nations, the apostles taught the same things to all Christians and church communities so that those churches, although separated geographically, would all rightly believe the same things and be saved (Mark 16:20, John 21:24, Acts 15:1-30, Acts 20:17-35, 1 Corinthians 4:17, 7:17, 11:1, 16, 14:33-38, Colossians 1:23-28, 1 Thessalonians 2:9-13, 3:1-2, Romans 1:4-6, 1 Timothy 2:3-7, 2 Timothy 1:11-14, 4:16, Titus 1:1-9, Hebrews 2:1-3, 4:1-2, 1 Peter 1:12-13, 25, 2 Peter 1:1-3, 12-21, 1 John 1:1-4, 2:20-21, 5:13, 20, 2 John 1:1-11, Jude 1:3.)
In 1 Corinthians, Paul includes teaching on gender related issues (the headship of the husband, head coverings, submission of women, and a restriction against women teaching in churches) as well as the format, activities, and content of church gatherings among those things that the apostles taught everywhere. Other New Testament passages confirm that the apostles consistently taught about these same things in all church communities (1 Corinthians 4:17, 7:17, 11:1, 16, 14:33-38, Ephesians 5:22-25, Colossians 3:18-19, 1 Timothy 2:12, 1 Peter 3:1.) In 1 Corinthians 14:37, Paul identifies what he is writing and teaching about as the commandments of the Lord. This parallels Matthew 28, Mark 1, and Acts 1 in which the apostles were to teach all men of all nations everything whatsoever that Jesus had commanded. (For more information on New Testament teaching on gender roles please see our study on Church Gatherings and Leadership and New Testament Protocols Regarding Men and Women.)
In accordance with Jesus’ instructions for them to teach all men all things whatsoever Jesus had taught them, the apostles likewise required that all Christians teach and retain a unified agreement in the same understanding that the apostles had proclaimed on all doctrinal topics. The number of passages where the apostles articulate this requirement for comprehensive doctrinal unity is vast. They include: Romans 15:5-6, 1 Corinthians 11:1, 2 Thessalonians 2:15, 1 Timothy 1:1-11, 1 Timothy 3:6, 11-13, 1 Timothy 4:6, 11-16, 1 Timothy 6:3-4, 2 Timothy 1:11-13, 2:2, Titus 1:9-16, Titus 2:1, 7, 15, Hebrews 13:7-9, Galatians 1:6-9, Galatians 5:6-12, Galatians 6:12-18, 2 Corinthians 13:11, 1 Corinthians 1:9-11, 1 Corinthians 15:1-4, Ephesians 4:4-20 with Romans 12:5, 1 Corinthians 12:12-13, 27, 1 Corinthians 1:12-14, Ephesians 3:6, 4:12-16, and 5:23, Philippians 2:1-2, 3:15-17, 4:2, 9, Colossians 2:2-8, James 1:16, 21-22, 1 Peter 1:12-13, 25, 2 Peter 3:1-2, 1 John 1:1-4, 2:3-7, 14-17, 2:3-7, 20-28, 2:1-6, 9-11, 3:22-24, 5:2-3, 2 John 1:1-11, Jude 1:3, 17, 20.
The conclusion demanded by such passages is that the apostles did, in fact, require Christians to have doctrinal agreement on every topic area that Jesus taught them about. These passages demonstrate that, from a biblical point of view, an Essentials Only conception of the gospel (and doctrinal unity) is far too limited. In contradiction of an Essentials Only View, the New Testament consistently states that the gospel was equivalent to the things pertaining to the kingdom of God as well as anything else whatsoever that the apostles were taught by Jesus and commissioned by Jesus to testify to and teach to all men everywhere.
A third problem for an Essentials Only View regarding doctrinal unity is seen in the New Testament passages expressing intolerance for doctrinal divergence and differing understandings. While an Essentials Only View is highly tolerant of doctrinal divergence in the church, the New Testament instead is highly intolerant and prohibitive of doctrinal divergence among Christ’s followers. There are several biblical indications of this intolerance toward sectarian divergence of understanding among Jesus’ followers.
The first indication of the New Testament’s intolerance for sectarian doctrinal divergences comes from Jesus’ reaction to the sectarian groups of his day. First-century Judaism was divided into sectarian groups created by differing understandings of Old Testament teaching. The two major sects were the Pharisees and the Sadducees. These groups provide the earliest use of the New Testament word “heresy” and therefore they inform us of how the New Testament authors intended that term to be understood.
In the New Testament context, “heresy” refers to sectarian divisions based on divergent understandings of biblical teaching (Acts 5:17, Acts 15:5, Acts 26:5.) These sectarian differences are described in the New Testament using the Greek words which denoted their disputes and varying theological opinions. These Greek words include: “hairesis” (Strong’s number 139), “schisma” (4978), “schizo” (4977), “stasis” (4714), and “dichostasia” (1370) (John 7:43, John 9:16, Acts 14:4, Romans 16:17, 1 Corinthians 3:3, Galatians 5:20.)
Differences between these Jewish sects included important subjects like the resurrection of the dead, life after death, the existence of angels and spirits, and the authority of oral traditions (Acts 22:30-23:10.) Despite these and other differences, the Pharisees and Sadducees were quite tolerant of one another. In fact, they had unity despite these significant doctrinal differences. Together they formed the judiciary council known as the Sanhedrin (4892) which governed the religious affairs of the Jewish people (Matthew 26:57-59, Mark 14:53-54 and 15:1, Luke 22:66, John 11:47, Acts 5:21, 27, and 34, Acts 6:12.) But they also practiced a strict form of excommunication upon those who disagreed with them regarding doctrinal issues on which they agreed with one another (John 9:22, John 12:42, John 16:2.)
This situation with the Pharisees and Sadducees is highly relevant to our study of the biblical perspective on tolerance for doctrinal differences. It is of the utmost importance that we pay attention to Jesus’ response to these groups because, in fact, it demonstrates that Jesus was highly intolerant of doctrinal diversity. Rather than being open to their differing doctrinal views and opinions, Jesus prohibited his followers from adopting the teachings and practices of the Pharisees and Sadducees. He condemned the Pharisees and Sadducees for contradicting biblical teaching and replacing it with manmade views. And he prohibited his followers from engaging in similar practice. (Scriptural references for this include: Matthew 16:6, 11-12, Mark 8:15, Luke 12:1, Matthew 15:5, 9, and Mark 7:7, 13.)This is intolerance for other doctrinal views.
Likewise, Jesus condemned these Jewish groups for the sectarian differences of opinion that they themselves exhibited. Their sectarian doctrinal differences were the direct results of diverging from the original intent of biblical teaching. Jesus clearly forbids his followers from repeating this same error and diverging from the original intent of his own teachings. By making this prohibition Jesus shows his intolerance for doctrinal diversification and deviation.
Furthermore, Jesus labeled the practices of the Pharisees and Sadducees as hypocritical. This hypocrisy was expressed in at least two ways. First, both groups had themselves diverged doctrinally from biblical teaching. And yet, they excommunicated others for doing the same thing. Second, they accepted each other in spite of doctrinal views they felt the other group had wrong. And yet, they excommunicated anyone whose views didn’t fit into either of their theological systems. Clearly, the Pharisees and Sadducees express a unity despite doctrinal diversity. And yet, with good reason, Jesus doesn’t hesitate to call this type of unity, hypocrisy. It was hypocrisy. And we must recognize that Jesus forbid his followers from engaging in this same type of hypocrisy. We can see that Jesus’ intolerance toward doctrinal divergence and toward “unity with doctrinal diversity” directly contradicts an Essentials Only View which, in fact, parallels the model of the Pharisees and Sadducees.
A second indication of Jesus’ intolerance of doctrinal divergence is demonstrated by his condemnation of false prophets who would teach things contrary to his own words. Christ warned his followers about such persons and their secretive and deceptive tactics (Matthew 7:15, 24:11, 24, Mark 13:22.) Likewise, Jesus expressed that those who were his followers must be careful to faithfully do what he taught and remain in his teachings (John 8:30-31, John 15:6-10.) Jesus also expressed intolerance for those who would call themselves his followers, but who did not keep his teachings (Matthew 7:21-24, Luke 6:46-47.)
Jesus’ teachings leave little room for the suggesting that he advocated tolerance for doctrinal diversification among his followers. Indeed, his instruction that all of his followers must only teach and remain in what he’d taught on all subjects means that the only way for doctrinal diversification to occur in the church would be for false doctrinal views to have been allowed into Christian theology.
A third indicator of the New Testament’s intolerance for doctrinal divergence among Christ’s followers can be found in work of the apostles. We have seen that Jesus condemned the sectarian divisions and divergences of the Pharisees and Sadducees. And we have seen that Jesus required his apostles to teach the same things everywhere. In accordance with Jesus’ instructions, the apostles likewise forbid sectarian differences and divergent doctrinal views among Christians. And they also prohibited Christians from accepting divergent doctrinal understandings and, when doing so, they used the same Greek words (“heresy,” “schism,” “stasis,” “division,” and “dissension”) that describe the sectarian differences of the Pharisees and Sadducees (Romans 16:17, 1 Corinthians 1:9-11, 1 Corinthians 3:1-3, 1 Corinthians 12:25, Galatians 5:19-21, 1 Timothy 1:1-11, Titus 3:9-11, Jude 1:17-20.) Views that diverged from what the apostles had taught were identified as unapproved (reprobate,) as damnable, corrupted understanding, as erring, as the antithesis to Christian teaching, and as subverting, perverting, overthrowing, and destroying faith, and making faith vain or purposeless (Acts 15:24, Acts 20:28-30, 1 Timothy 1:1-11, 6:3-5, 20-21, 2 Timothy 2:14-18, 3:1-8, Titus 1:9-16, 2:16, Galatians 1:6-9, 2 Peter 2:1, 3:17-18.)
Similarly, the apostles attributed doctrinal diversification to such causes as: seeking after things that were contrary to sound doctrine (being carnal,) to being influenced (knowingly or unknowingly) by false doctrinal views or worldly philosophies, to immaturity, to arrogance, to not being sufficiently familiar with apostolic teaching, being unskilled at interpreting the scriptures, and to twisting the scripture to unintended meanings (John 3:19-21, Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-3, 14:20, Ephesians 4:1-20, Philippians 3:15-17, Colossians 1:23-28, 1 Timothy 6:3-4, Hebrews 5:12-6:2, James 1:16, 21-22, 2 Peter 2:13-18, 3:9, 15-16.)
Following Jesus’ own statements, the apostles expected followers of Christ not to remain in darkness and misunderstanding regarding Christian teachings (John 8:12, John 12:46, John 3:19-21, 1 Corinthians 2:16, Ephesians 1:13, 18, Ephesians 4:17-20, Philippians 3:15-17.) And like Jesus,
Rather than indicating that Christians shouldn’t be concerned about these issues, the apostles similarly warned Christians about men from outside or inside the church who would teach new and divergent doctrinal views and ideas (Matthew 7:15, 24:11, 24, Mark 13:22, Acts 20:17-35, 2 Peter 2:1, 13-18, 1 John 2:18-19, 4:1, 1 Timothy 4:1-3, 2 Timothy 3:1-17, 4:3-4, 2 Peter 2:1, 1 John 2:18-19, 1 John 4:1-3, Jude 1:4, 12.) And the apostles instead instructed Christians to pay attention to these things and to excommunicate (rebuke, separate from, shun, avoid, withdraw, remove, take away, purge, not company with, not partake with, and not even eat with) anyone who taught, behaved, or practiced anything that differed from the understanding of Jesus’ teachings in which the apostles had taught to the churches on all doctrinal topics (Romans 16:17-18, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 2 Corinthians 10:1-8, Galatians 5:6-12, 19-21, 2 Timothy 4:1-5, 1 Timothy 6:2-5, Titus 1:9-13, Titus 3:9-11.)
Throughout the New Testament, we can also see that apostles allowed and instructed Christians to dispute with fellow Christians whose views diverged from what the apostles had taught to all churches on all doctrinal subjects. In fact, the apostles themselves engaged in these sorts of disputes from time to time. (Acts 15:1-30, 1 Corinthians 11:18-19, Galatians 2:1-3:1 and 4:11, 1 Timothy 6:12, 2 Timothy 4:7.) We must also recognize that all of the New Testament passages and texts, which were written to address and correct a false doctrinal view or misunderstandings, are further examples of an apostolic intolerance of doctrinal differences.
What we see in the New Testament are not the words and actions of men who were open to doctrinal diversity. Rather, the apostles clearly and consistently demonstrate that they understood Jesus to be intolerant of doctrinal diversification and to have prohibited his followers from engaging in it. This they did and they required later Christians to do the same.
In fact, there are only a few issues that the apostles forbid Christians from judging and separating from one another over. These prohibitions specifically dealt with whether a Christian did or didn’t keep Old Testament dietary laws, feast days, or laws on circumcision. The reason Christians were prohibited from separating over these issues is because Christ allowed his followers the choice of making their own decision on these matters. After all, the Law of Moses had come from the pre-incarnate Word and the New Covenant, which ended the need for Moses’ Law, certainly came through the incarnate Word. So, keeping the Mosaic Law was not a violation of Christ’s teaching but a continuation of it. And the only way that keeping the Law of Moses would contradict Christ’s teachings in the New Covenant was if someone insisted that the Law of Moses must be kept in order to be saved. Consequently, the only restrictions were that Christians couldn’t require others to keep these Old Testament ordinances or teach that they had to be kept in order to be saved. More specifically, Christians were not required to be circumcised or keep Old Testament dietary laws and feast days (Acts 15:1-21, Romans 14:1-15:2, Galatians 2, Colossians 2:16-17.) The reality is that the only thing the New Testament forbid was breaking fellowship with Christians who are faithfully keeping Christ’s teaching (Hebrews 10:24-25, 3 John 1.)
3. A third, major biblical problem for an Essentials Only View is the fact that the New Testament is completely absent of support for limiting excommunication and doctrinal unity to only a few select issues. We have seen that there are a vast number of New Testament passages which instruct Christians to excommunicate Christian brothers who diverge in belief or practice from the doctrinal views that the apostles taught in all the churches. In contrast to this, Essentials Only advocates (like Dr. Geisler and CRI) assert that Christians are prohibited from breaking fellowship over any doctrinal issue outside a small set of “essential” teachings. Dr. Geisler says that breaking fellowship over a nonessential doctrine is “a great error.” If it is, in fact, a great error we would expect that the New Testament would clearly and repeatedly identify it as such. And yet Dr. Geisler only mentions a single verse to support his claim that Christians cannot rightly divide over the large set of doctrinal issues that he identifies as “nonessential.
…it is a great error for those who hold the truth to be divided where nonessentials are concerned (e.g., Eph. 4:3). – Norman L. Geisler, The Essential Doctrines of the Christian Faith (Part One), A Historical Approach, JAE100-1, http://equip.org/articles/the-essential-doctrines-of-the-christian-faith-part-one-
It is noteworthy that this lone passage, Ephesians 4:3, doesn’t actually say anything about separation being a sin, let alone a grave sin, or an error. Nor does the passage actually address whether or not there might be legitimate reasons to break up the unity that Christians are normally supposed to strive for.
In contrast to the solitary mention of Ephesians 4, Geisler mentions five passages in support of separating over issues he deems to be essentials.
It is better to be divided over truth than to be united in error where essentials are concerned (e.g., Gal. 1:6-9 ; 2:11-14 ; 1 Tim. 1:19-20 ; Titus 1:9; 1 John 2:19) – Norman L. Geisler, The Essential Doctrines of the Christian Faith (Part One), A Historical Approach, JAE100-1, http://equip.org/articles/the-essential-doctrines-of-the-christian-faith-part-one-
We have already seen that these 5 passages and many others demand excommunication for doctrinal divergences in belief and behavior. However, contrary to Geisler’s list of essentials, the New Testament explicitly applies these instructions to a large host of doctrinal areas that are outside of Geisler and CRI’s “essentials.”
Against the mountain of biblical instruction to break fellowship over a large set of doctrinal issues, Geisler only mentions Ephesians 4:3. If this one verse is all that is available or necessary to show that Christians can’t excommunicate over most biblical doctrines, then it has a lot of work to do and it better be very explicit. In fact, it is not.
Ephesians 4:1 I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, 2 With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; 3 Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; 5 One Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 One God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all. 7 But unto every one of us is given grace according to the measure of the gift of Christ.
It is impossible to take Ephesians 4:3 as prohibiting excommunication for virtually any and all doctrinal divergence unless we first ignore the larger testimony of scripture and assume the very thing that Essentials Only advocates like Geisler are trying to prove. This verse merely tells Christians to work toward keeping the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. One of the standard principles of bible interpretation is that passages which contain greater specificity should inform passages which are worded more generally. The simple fact is that there are many other passages providing instruction (in some cases from Jesus himself) to separate in various circumstances over a range of doctrinal topics and behaviors. Consequently, when Ephesians 4:3 encourages Christians to “strive for unity,” it does intend Christians to maintain unity in situations where other passages require excommunication. By itself (and within the context of Ephesians 4 and the entire New Testament), it is quite reasonable to conclude that this verse is simply telling Christians to remain unified with one another in the doctrinal understanding that the apostles (by the power of the Holy Spirit) had taught to the churches. In that case, Ephesians 4 would constitute a condemnation of the doctrinal divergence rather than a condemnation of excommunication for doctrinal divergence.
As other passages indicate, it may be necessary to excommunicate those with divergent doctrinal views in order to preserve unity in the knowledge and understanding of Jesus Christ. The idea of remaining in Christ by keeping Christ’s teachings may be exactly what Paul is referring to when he encourages Christians to maintain the unity of the Spirit. And even if it did prohibit excommunication on some doctrinal issues, Ephesians 4:3 doesn’t identify which doctrinal issues could or couldn’t be divided over. Ultimately, there is nothing in Ephesians 4:3 that expresses any prohibition against excommunication on any grounds.
Because we have surveyed the New Testament on the topics of excommunication and doctrinal unity, it is easy to see why Geisler only mentions one solitary verse. As we have seen, the New Testament doesn’t advocate tolerance of doctrinal diversification and it doesn’t prohibit breaking fellowship over a large set of supposedly “nonessential” teachings. On the contrary, as we have seen, the New Testament repeatedly teaches excommunication for divergence on any topic and requires comprehensive doctrinal unity, rather than limited doctrinal agreement.
In fact, it is enlightening to consider that an established theologian like Dr. Geisler and an influential organization like CRI don’t even both to offer biblical arguments for an Essentials Only View. The articles they provide instead focus on historical and logical arguments for their position. Why not include a biblical argument? Perhaps no biblical argument is included because what the bible has to say is either not considered relevant or not considered a priority. Or perhaps no biblical argument is included because it is clear that the bible does not support an Essentials Only View.
4. The fourth, major biblical problem faced by an Essentials Only View is that Essentials Only advocates often attempt to justify openness to doctrinal differences by asserting that the biblical teaching on various subjects is difficult to understand. It is then argued that in recognition of this lack of clarity, Christians should graciously allow differing understandings on some doctrinal issues. The suggestion is that reasonable, educated, and sincere Christians may disagree on difficult doctrinal topics. There are several problems with this notion that lack of clarity and understandability may warrant a tolerance for doctrinal diversification.
The first comes from 2 Peter 3:15-16. We have already studied this passage in more detail earlier in our study. We mention it here because the apostle explicitly states his expectation that Christians must be careful to properly comprehend even difficult to understand New Testament issues. According to Peter, to misunderstand even difficult New Testament teachings will result in destruction. Far from allowing it, Peter instead gives no room to the idea that difficult issues warrant tolerance for false understandings. In fact, like the other apostles, in this epistle Peter is warning Christians to steer clear of erroneous understandings.
2 Peter 3:9 The Lord is not slack concerning his promise, as some men count slackness; but is longsuffering to us–ward, not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance…15 And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; 16 As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable (793) wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.
Second, we should point out that one of the issues that even Essentials Only advocates will agree is essential for fellowship is the Trinitarian understanding of one God in three eternal, distinct Persons identified as the Father, the Word, and the Holy Spirit. However, we must ask, is the Trinity an easily understood biblical teaching? Likewise, is the Trinity clearly taught in the scripture?
To be absolutely clear, we completely affirm with the utmost confidence that the Trinity is easily understood and clearly taught in the scripture. No room should be made for persons who refuse to accept the correct, biblical, Trinitarian understanding of God.
Our point here is simple. The Trinity is an essential Christian doctrine required for fellowship by anyone’s standards. Therefore, the nature, explicitness, and understandability of biblical teaching on the Trinity can be used as a standard for judging the clarity of biblical teaching on other topics. In other words, any biblical doctrine that is at least as explicit, clear, and understandable as the Trinity can be required for fellowship and conversely can be subject to excommunication for false understandings. Any honest and fair comparison of various theological issues will show that most doctrinal issues pass this criterion.
Almost all theological issues that Christian denominations disagree upon today are at least as scripturally clear, explicit, and understandable as the biblical teaching on the Trinity. And if the Trinity can be understood and we can excommunicate those who don’t have a correct understanding of it,  then we can certainly excommunicate people who hold to erroneous views on other doctrinal topics that are just as biblically clear as the Trinity. Biblical teachings on subjects like eschatology, free will, the nature of the gospel and the kingdom, and our inheritance in Christ, for example, are no more difficult or less scripturally clear than biblical teaching on the Trinity. Therefore, in order to be consistent, Christians who recognize the Trinity as a doctrinal essential for Christian fellowship cannot object to demands that Christians must also have the proper understanding of these other doctrinal issues.
Third, it must be recognized that biblical instruction to excommunicate over any doctrinal issue takes precedent over any personal hesitations we may have. Of course, before we can even begin the process of correcting someone else’s doctrine we first have to openly, carefully, and thoroughly study a subject ourselves. The requirement to examine ourselves and our views before taking action against anyone else is a clear part of biblical instruction on doctrinal accountability and excommunication.
While it is true that we cannot excommunicate others for views that we aren’t sure about ourselves, it is quite another thing to be convinced (after thorough consideration and study) that a particular doctrinal view is incorrect and then to refuse to excommunicate over it. (And the New Testament is clear that Christians aren’t to remain “unsure” and in the dark indefinitely on doctrinal issues and certainly not as a pretense to facilitate postponing excommunication.) Of course, as we have seen, the process of doctrinal accountability and excommunication does not always require immediate action to sever contact. Instead, opportunities are provided to allow correction and repentance so that fellowship may (if repentance and correction occurs) continue.
Both Jesus and the apostles allow Christians to have some social contact with unbelievers in order to try to bring them to repentance. However, both Jesus and the apostles make it clear that such an allowance was absolutely not granted for social contact with Christians who remained unrepentant and involved in sin or false teaching after being warned. Similarly, unbelievers who did not believe, repent, and receive apostolic teaching were not to be socialized with. Instead, Christians were to come out from them, be separate, and have no fellowship with them (Matthew 9:9-13, Mark 2:14-17, Luke 5:27, Luke 19:5-10, 1 Corinthians 5:1-13, 2 Corinthians 6:14-18, James 4:4, Revelation 18:4.)
Therefore, if time and effort have made it clear that another Christian (or an unbeliever) refuses to be corrected in regard to a doctrinal view or behavior that we sincerely believe contradicts biblical teaching, then we have an obligation to follow through on New Testament requirements to excommunicate and sever contact with them. To do otherwise is to contravene clear and direct biblical teaching for the sake of human preference and convenience. If, having carefully and considerately studied a topic, we are convinced that a particular doctrinal view is correct and other views are false we must be prepared to carry out the process of excommunication against others who persist in false views. And, for the sake of obeying God and protecting the church, we must expect our Christian brothers to do the same. We do not have license to set aside God’s commands or judge God’s commands to be unkind. Such notions may have a semblance of humility and graciousness, but what is the value of either virtue if they are employed in disregard of biblical teaching.
Contrary to our perceptions the bible consistently teaches that those who persist in false views do not do so purely out of sincerity. Instead, the apostles clearly portray that doctrinal divergence is always ultimately attributable to one of the following causes:
1. Seeking after things that were contrary to sound doctrine (being carnal),
2. Being influenced (knowingly or unknowingly) by false doctrinal views or worldly philosophies that have crept into the church,
3. Immaturity,
4. Arrogance,
5. Not being sufficiently familiar with apostolic teaching,
6. Not being sufficiently skilled at interpreting the scriptures,
7. Twisting the scripture to unintended meanings.
(For references see: John 3:19-21, Romans 8, 1 Corinthians 3:1-3, 14:20, Ephesians 4:1-20, Philippians 3:15-17, Colossians 1:23-28, 1 Timothy 6:3-4, Hebrews 5:12-6:2, James 1:16, 21-22, 2 Peter 2:13-18, 3:9, 15-16.)
If a person’s erroneous views are the result of not being familiar with New Testament teaching or knowing how to correctly interpret the bible, then their doctrinal divergence should be removed when they encounter sound interpretational methods and account for biblical material they previously have not carefully included. If doctrinal divergence does not dissolve at that point, then there is good reason to believe it is not the result of sincere misunderstanding, but rather one of these other factors. Most often, it will probably involve a desire to do something which the New Testament, if interpreted soundly, will prohibit – even if that simply means the desire to approve of and socialize with others who the New Testament condemns.
The point is that the New Testament does not recognize the legitimacy of remaining in false doctrinal views when correction is available. As such it provides no allowance for Christians who persist in such views to be admitted into church fellowship.
5. A fifth, major biblical problem for an Essentials Only View is that it either fails to recognize or wholly misunderstands how the modern church got into a state of such doctrinal divergence in the first place. The New Testament authors are not silent about this issue. Besides presenting some of the motivations that lead Christians to accept false doctrine, the apostles also clearly state that divergence from biblical teaching would eventually occur as false teachers secretly introduced unscriptural views into the church. The apostles even noted that, at a certain point, a significant portion of Christians would actually prefer incorrect teaching.
Following Jesus statements on the same subject, the apostles repeatedly warned Christians about men (from both outside and inside the church) who would teach new and divergent doctrinal views along with ideas borrowed from worldly philosophy. (See Matthew 7:15, 24:11, 24, Mark 13:22, Acts 20:17-35, 2 Corinthians 11:13-15, 2 Peter 2:1, 13-18, 1 John 2:18-19, 4:1, 1 Timothy 4:1-3, 2 Timothy 3:1-17, 4:3-4, 2 Peter 2:1, 1 John 2:18-19, 1 John 4:1-3, and Jude 1:4, 12.)
Acts 20:29 For I know this, that after my departing shall grievous wolves enter in among you, not sparing the flock. 30 Also of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things, to draw away disciples after them.
2 Corinthians 11:13 For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. 14 And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. 15 Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.
Colossians 2:8 Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ.
1 Timothy 4:1 Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart (868) (5695) from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils;
2 Timothy 4:3 For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall they heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; 4 And they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall be turned unto fables.
2 Timothy 3:1 This know also, that in the last days perilous times shall come. 2 For men shall be lovers of their own selves, covetous, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, 3 Without natural affection, trucebreakers, false accusers, incontinent, fierce, despisers of those that are good, 4 Traitors, heady, highminded, lovers of pleasures more than lovers of God; 5 Having a form of godliness, but denying the power thereof: from such turn away. 6 For of this sort are they which creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts, 7 Ever learning, and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth. 8 Now as Jannes and Jambres withstood Moses, so do these also resist the truth: men of corrupt minds, reprobate concerning the faith.
2 Peter 2:1 But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies (139), even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction.
1 John 2:18 Little children, it is the last time: and as ye have heard that antichrist shall come, even now are there many antichrists; whereby we know that it is the last time. 19 They went out from us, but they were not of us; for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued (3306) with us: but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us.
We can see that the apostles warned that after they departed, the church would be infiltrated by false teachers, false doctrinal views, and worldly philosophy. The question we must ask is did this ever happen? If so, when and on what issues? If not, why does the New Testament repeatedly predict something that did not happen?
Many modern Christians might comfortably think that the Christian faith has thankfully remained unscathed over the nearly 20 centuries since the New Testament. Protestants may think that, except for some egregious errors of the Roman Catholic Church, Christian theology has largely been uncorrupted. Theologians may suggest that our understanding of the Christian faith has gradually continued to grown, improve, and mature since the first century.
What none of these perceptions take into account is the biblical fact that the apostles all confidently warned that, like yeast in bread, the church would become permeated by false teachers, false doctrinal views, and unbiblical practices and behaviors. Today, Christians are typically unaware and unconcerned with the fact that history clearly documents serious doctrinal and practical changes which took place in the third and fourth centuries AD.
We have already discussed some of these issues earlier in our study and we discuss them in greater detail in our articles on the History of the Early Church and the Roman Catholic Church. We will not repeat all the references and resources now. We will only say that the church of the first and second centuries possessed far greater doctrinal unity than Christians have at any time since. One fact that is often unknown or ignored is that our modern doctrinal differences are the clear and direct result of reinterpretations of biblical teaching that began to occur more and more after the year 200 AD through the growing influence of Gnosticism and Neo-Platonism in prominent church leaders. These worldly religious ideas made major inroads into Christianity during the third and fourth centuries. Every doctrinal divergence that exists in the church today on any topic is traceable to those third and fourth century syncretizations, innovations, and alterations.
There is good reason to understand modern doctrinal diversity as the result of the infiltration of the false teachers and ideologies that the apostles warned us about. If this is the case, then it is irresponsible to allow those false teachings and ideologies to continue to have a place within the church as an Essentials Only View does. Instead, we must faithfully return to biblical teaching and use the tools for doctrinal accountability that the New Testament gives us. Since we have the biblical warrant and the biblical instruction there is no good reason to prohibit Christians from identifying false doctrinal views on any subject and removing from the company of the church the false doctrinal views as well as those who persist in them. Jesus and the apostles took things like doctrinal integrity, comprehensive doctrinal unity, excommunication, and sectarian doctrinal divergence seriously. We must be faithful to do the same. We must set aside any double-mindedness and friendship with the teachings and things of this world, including those that have become part of the modern church, and diligently pursue New Testament instructions for doctrinal accountability.