The present danger arises from the view that in the existing divisions the “root trouble was that ecclesial sovereignty had been lost sight of. Each ecclesia had the right to examine individually any who wished to join in its fellowship, but that was the extent of ecclesial rights.” So a brother is reported as saying at a Fraternal Gathering—his thesis being illustrated by the fact that he was not in fellowship with the conveners of the Gathering. But the thesis is fallacious: ecclesias are not sovereign, but servants of the Lord. They are lightstands subject to the guidance for their conduct in the Scriptures; and the Son of Man takes account of their stewardship. The limits of “ecclesial rights” are not so restricted as set out. Any group of men and women may make rules governing membership of their association, but ecclesias have a duty to make rules regulating their procedure in harmony with the principles of ecclesial life laid down by the apostles. And ecclesias are related to each other as members of the body of Christ. While the Lord rebuked each of the seven Churches for its faults, he added to each of the letters to the Churches that he that hath an ear should hear what he said, for what he said was intended for all to hear. The rebuke of one was a warning to all to avoid the evil rebuked.
If an ecclesia is known to persist in teaching wrong doctrine, or in retaining in fellowship those who so do, other ecclesias can only avoid being involved by disclaiming association. In matters of doubt, where it is a question of judgment of fact, ecclesial decisions must be respected, as the Guide and the Constitution provide. But when there is grave error in doctrine or practice, an ecclesia has the duty of loyalty to the Truth, and it is recognized among us that by the Truth is meant the definition of doctrine in the Statement of Faith. If an ecclesia fail in such loyalty, other ecclesias cannot co-operate without complicity. Harmony in essentials has ceased to exist, and behind a facade of union there is really disunity. Division is a sin when there is loyalty to Truth; when there is disagreement on fundamentals it is an evil to be endured with patience.
Bro. Roberts wrote on this matter as follows:
“All heresy-hunting is of diabolos,” says the flesh. “Try the spirits whether they are of God,” writes the Spirit; and the reason given is “because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). The “false prophets” were teachers of heresy, but professed to teach that which was true. There was a difficulty in identifying them, and therefore all teachers of divine things were to be tried to ascertain whose teaching was genuine and whose adulterated. The object of the test was that the heresy-teachers might be repudiated.
The spirit in Peter writing of Israel says, “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, even denying the Lord that bought them” (2 Pet. 2:1). How were such false prophets to be treated? Moses says they “shall be put to death” (Deut. 13:5). Even a “brother,” “son,” “daughter,” “wife,” or “friend,” who attempted to introduce idolatry was not to be spared (v. 6 to 11). The object was that Israel might be purged of evil. Communities were to be dealt with on the same principle as individuals. If it were reported that any one city had commenced to “serve other gods” (v. 12, 13 ) “then,” said Moses, “shalt thou enquire , and make search , and ask diligently; and behold, if it be truth, and the thing certain, that such abomination is wrought among you, thou shalt surely smite the inhabitants of that city with the edge of the sword, destroying it utterly, and all that is therein” (v. 14, 15).
The comparison drawn in Peter’s epistle between false teachers in fleshly Israel and spiritual Israel is evidence that this Mosaic enactment contains a lesson for us. The use of sword or anything destructive is out of the question; a practical protest by refusing to fellowship is the full extent of permitted action. The command to “enquire” is not at variance with New Testament injunction; it is in harmony with it. When, therefore, it is reported that any brother or ecclesia is following false doctrine, it is not only permitted, but it is obligatory on other brethren and ecclesias, to “enquire and make search, and ask diligently,” to see whether it be true and the thing certain. If it is, the responsibility of their position leaves no option but that of repudiating complicity with the evil.16