Who Decides? Who Divides?
By Steven Harper
Years ago, within churches across this country, an issue arose as to whether or not the church was authorized by Scripture to take monies collected for the work of the church and send it to human institutions or for benevolence toward unbelievers. In the beginning, at least, the effort to find the answer revolved around the Scriptures and establishing what exactly the church’s work was, and how it was to be carried out. After many years of fruitless discussion, often hindered by those who were intent on doing certain things one way or another, one widely-respected publication decided the issue was “closed” and refused to print any more on the matter — at least anything from those who opposed them. Despite the pleas of honest men to at least discuss it so the truth could be found, the editors and publishers refused to discuss the matter any further and a “quarantine” was placed on those they now labeled as “antis.”
The results were devastating to the cause of truth-seekers everywhere, and soon churches across the country followed suit, putting the issue “off-limits” and labeling those who sought an answer as “divisive” and insinuating [if not openly stating] that some were bent on “binding where God has not bound.” Though many were honestly trying to get others to see what the Scriptures said — nothing more and nothing less, those who went beyond the pattern would not take part in open discussions even as they took part in a simultaneous effort to label those who opposed them as “dividers.” Those labels and those tactics are still being practiced by those who support institutionalism and the sponsoring church arrangement, as evident by the publications they write and distribute.
For that issue, some tried to define the discussion as a matter of “personal opinion” and “unnecessary division” rather than the matter of Bible authority, but when they were unsuccessful in doing that, they simply cut off discussions and faithful brethren left those churches to find others who were still interested in finding “book, chapter, and verse” for all they taught and practiced. Like old Ahab [the man led by his wife to adopt idolatry and bring God’s wrath on Israel] who accused Elijah [the man of God] by saying, “Is that you, O troubler of Israel?” (1 Kings 18:17), some accused the truth-seekers of being “trouble-makers” though all they sought was an open and honest discussion of the matter.
For those still interested in truth, the reply was often, “Who is doing the dividing?” And when they were accused of deciding what could be done based on their opinions, they asked, “Are we not speaking only the word of God?” Sadly, those words fell on deaf and apathetic ears.
Friends and brethren, the time may be different and the topic may be different, but the questions are still the same: Who decides? Who divides?
Who Decides? It is discouraging to hear this from some young preachers I have met within the last decade, if only as an indication they have not been taught properly by those who have gone before them. Unfortunately, some have been unwilling or simply too lazy to study God’s word to learn how to properly establish authority, and when discussions arose over unfamiliar issues, they improperly categorized these things as “opinion” or “matters of indifference” and neither supported nor denounced teachings and practices that were contrary to God’s will. And when issues arose within local congregations that demanded a stand for truth, some began asking, “Who decides what is right or wrong? How can we know when to draw the line?” as if it was a matter of personal opinion and not a matter of either having or not having the authority to teach or practice these things.
I remember a few years ago when I began working with a young man who was studying to become a full-time preacher. In the course of one discussion about marriage, divorce, and remarriage, I commented that I could not have any fellowship with a certain man because I knew for a fact that he was teaching error on that topic. It was then that the young man asked me with all sincerity, “How do you know where to draw the line?”
At first I was a little surprised, but realized that some simply have never taken the time to study this very matter. My simple answer was this: “When a man teaches anything that, as a result, leads men into sin, I must not have fellowship with him. That is not to say I completely cut him off without talking to him first, but I will not invite him to speak when I know he espouses error.”
This seemed harsh to the young man then, but he unfortunately saw the fruit of inaction just a few months later when the elders refused to take a stand on this same matter and condemned me for saying what they would not. They had somehow come to the conclusion that strict adherence to God’s will was “binding where God did not bind” though the Scriptures were plain. At no time did I offer my “opinion,” but kept trying to direct them to the Scriptures, and pleaded for an open discussion of the matter. I never got it.
The answer to this question is simple: God decides! When it comes to what is right or wrong in the sight of God, only God decides what is right or wrong — not man. God gave that authority to Jesus (Matt. 28:18) and we should respect that. Man has no authority to declare something wrong when God has not — but neither does he have the authority to say something is right when God did not. Pointing out error is not “binding where God did not bind” — it is called preaching the truth “in season and out of season” (2 Tim. 4:2).
Who Divides? When the institutional question arose, and it was clear some were set on going ahead with their plans — even if they had no authority — some were quick to deflect the blame to those who stood firmly on the Scriptures by calling them “dividers.” But who really did the dividing?
When Jeroboam made two calves of gold and set one in Dan and the other in Bethel, and when he said to the people, “It is too much for you to go up to Jerusalem. Here are your gods, O Israel, which brought you up from the land of Egypt!” (1 Kings 12:28), who was it that divided Israel? Was it those who remained faithful to the Lord’s will, or Jeroboam and his followers who abandoned the will of the Lord, set up false gods, made priests from every class of people (v. 30), and established diverse practices that God had never commanded? Who divided?
Friends and brethren, it will always be the one who introduces error who will be identified by God as the “divider” — not the faithful. Though the faithful may always be fewer in number [Ex., Joshua and Caleb], this is no indication of right or wrong. Though the faithful may not be in positions of power [Ex., the Pharisees], this is no indication of right or wrong. Though the faithful may be younger and less experienced [Ex., Timothy, 1 Tim. 4:12], this is no indication of right or wrong. Though the faithful may not be published in brotherhood papers and may not be on the board of certain foundations [you fill in the blank], this is no indication of right or wrong. What defines what is right or wrong is whether or not it agrees with the word of God!
Some of these labels and charges are being thrown about recklessly even as we speak. Reputations are being destroyed, motives are being impugned, and false teachers are deceiving many. But, friends and brethren, do not be misled; search the Scriptures as did the Bereans (Acts 17:11) that you may know the truth. When you know the truth, you will then know how to decide, and you will know who the true “dividers” are. Then, stand with the faithful!