There are two tiers of beliefs or doctrine (teachings) spoken of in Scripture. Those doctrines which have a direct bearing upon a person’s salvation we refer to as first principles according to the term used in Hebrews 5:12. A few are listed in Hebrews 6:1-2 and reveal how in the first century ecclesias, certain teachings were recognized as having fundamental importance. First principles have a critical impact on how a person lives, worships, preaches, and prays, and a wrong understanding can jeopardize salvation (1 Tim. 4:16). This is why acceptance of first principles is required for baptism, and any subsequent denial requires corrective action even to the point of separation if a wrong belief is not repudiated.
The second type of teaching involves matters of conscience that are not fundamental to salvation, and are left to the conscience of each believer to decide their personal view. Examples of these beliefs are identified in Romans 14 and include the celebration of certain holy days and the imposition of dietary restrictions. The operative principle is stated in v5, “let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” A wide latitude of view is to be tolerated because these matters have no bearing on salvation, unless a person attempts to improperly impose their view on others. Such inappropriate behaviour becomes the subject of Christ’s review at the judgment seat (vv10-12).
Divergent Shepherding Approach
The scriptural counsel regarding the appropriate shepherding approach to the two tiers is entirely different, at opposite ends of the disciplinary spectrum, one might say. For matters of conscience the greatest danger has nothing to do with what they teach, but that brethren will place themselves in opposition to one another over different views. Tolerance for all views is the dominant message of the apostle Paul in Romans 14 and elsewhere. On the other hand, there is little to no latitude afforded a wrong understanding of first principles and these are to be jealously guarded because of their direct impact on salvation. Error is to be exposed and removed as is mentioned in multiple places (Deut. 13:13-15; Deut. 17:2-5,12; Matt. 18:17; 2 Thess. 3:6; 2 Jn. 9-11).
The accompanying contrasts the stark difference between how the two tiers of teaching should be treated in the matter of fellowship. The appropriate actions to take, depending upon how a teaching is categorized (as a first principle or matter of conscience), could not be more diverse. If the matter is one of conscience, then a wide berth should be given that tolerates all views. But if the issue is a first principle, there is to be very little tolerance for error; opposing views are to be removed.
The Danger of Misclassification
It also becomes apparent that to misidentify a first principle as a matter of conscience, or vice versa, will have a catastrophic impact. In 2 Jn. 9-11, divine condemnation is directed to those who fail to separate from those bringing a false teaching. In Romans 14, divine condemnation is directed toward those who seek to impose their view of a conscience matter upon others.
Resurrectional Responsibility Defined by the UA08
The doctrine of resurrectional responsibility is viewed differently by the Amended and Unamended communities. The ecclesias that eventually comprised the Amended community when the issue was first raised, declared their belief that it was a first principle and amended their Statement of Faith to reflect this; restricting fellowship to only those ecclesias adopting the amendment. The ecclesias comprising the Unamended community determined it was not a first principle and that it should instead be treated as a matter of conscience, accepting all views on the issue into fellowship.
The UA08 defines the doctrine to be a matter of conscience in two ways: i) by including both the Amended and Unamended doctrinal views in the NASU; and ii) by placing no restrictions on fellowship. Hence the discord that has emerged between Amended UA08 ecclesias who now believe the teaching to be a matter of conscience, and Amended ecclesias who continue to regard the doctrine as a first principle. The actions of the UA08 Amended ecclesias, while seen as unscriptural by the five ecclesias expressing concerns with the UA08/NASU, are wholly consistent with their view that this is a matter of conscience. At the same time, the actions of the five ecclesias, while seen as arrogant and bullying by the UA08 Amended ecclesias, are wholly consistent with their view that this is a first principle.
How to categorize the doctrine is the primary reason the discussions between the UA08 Amended ecclesias and the five ecclesias were suspended. After several meetings it became clear the two groups view the matter from the two different perspectives. No amount of additional meetings will likely alter this situation. The point has been reached whereby counsel from the Central community must be added to the discussions if reconciliation is to occur. The five ecclesias requested the discussions be suspended until additional brethren be included who could provide a community-wide perspective.
A Doctrine cannot be both a Conscience Matter and a First Principle in a Single Ecclesia or Community
Reconciliation between Amended ecclesias, and between Amended and Unamended ecclesias will only be achieved once there is agreement on whether the doctrine is a first principle or matter of conscience. The Suffolk Street Agreement in the UK clearly defined the doctrine to be a first principle5 and restricted fellowship accordingly6. By contrast, the UA08/NASU has attempted to define the doctrine both ways. But this is not Scripturally possible because divine counsel is mutually exclusive for the two situations. To take disciplinary action of any sort for matters of conscience is soundly condemned, while to fail to take disciplinary action for matters of first principle is also soundly condemned. Ecclesial shepherds could not tell half the members that this doctrine (or any other teaching) was a first principle, and then turn round and tell the other half that it was a matter of conscience, and expect harmony and unity to result. This is the inherent weakness of the UA08/NASU approach and is why it has proven so divisive.
The Responsibility of each Amended Ecclesia
The UA08 is causing all Amended believers and ecclesias to review the scriptural basis for our first principle belief regarding resurrectional responsibility as defined in Clause 24 of the BASF. Following their review, each ecclesia will decide whether or not the Bible clearly teaches this principle and directly impacts the salvation of the unbaptized. For those ecclesias who reaffirm it does, they will remain in the Central fellowship. For those who conclude it is a matter of conscience, if they attempt to remain in the Central fellowship and try to convince other Central ecclesias to accept their view, perpetual discord and division will result.
Amended ecclesias in Ontario who have yet to declare either their acceptance or rejection of the UA08 document have a part to play if the unity of our Amended ecclesias is to be restored. While they have been reluctant to reach a decision because of the potential internal division it would create for their ecclesia, at some point it must be recognized that a willingness to condone both views – that resurrectional responsibility can be a matter of conscience to some and a first principle to others – will not reconcile Amended ecclesias. Ultimately, such a position defines the issue to be a matter of conscience; one that tolerates all views and lets each person/ecclesia make their own decision, taking no disciplinary action.
A Scriptural Contrast between How to Respond to Opposing Views on Matters of Conscience versus First Principles