I was talking to my lovely wife this morning as we "read the news," which for us means both of us surfing the net (one on the desktop, one on the laptop). Our "news" includes several blogs we follow, and her blogroll includes several ladies who photo-blog about their families like she does. Many of these women are Mormons. This got us to talking about what some good friends who were Mormon said about us many years ago--we would make excellent Mormons (they intended it as a compliment, and we took it as such). Leaving aside the fact that I could neither swallow the theological differences nor would I give up coffee (in excess) and alcohol (in moderation), that got me to thinking about Christian fellowship.
Several years ago, I read a book by F. Lagard Smith called Who Is My Brother? which dealt very well with this topic. What Professor Smith said was that we tend to extend fellowship to our theological "right," but not to our "left." So, someone who is as strict as me or more so on theological issues is within my circle of fellowship, but someone who falls short of my (or my denomination's) standards is suspect. As an example--someone who has been baptized by sprinkling has no problem extending fellowship to a full-immersion guy like me, as I got even wetter. But for those of us who believe in all-over dunking, the fellow who just got a drop or two on the head as an infant may fall short of full fellowship. And at the extremely strict end, you reach groups (which includes not just some Churches of Christ, but also Roman Catholics, and even the Mormons) who may go so far as to say (or think to themselves) that the only "real" Christians are found only among their own group.
Smith approaches this from the perspective of the Churches of Christ, but anyone can do the same exercise. He sees fellowship as a series of concentric circles, all of which represent closer and closer levels of "brotherhood." The outermost circle is all human beings, made by God in His image. They are my brothers by virtue of being sons of Adam. A smaller circle inside that one is the circle of "seekers," that accept at least the possibility of a "higher power" or "universal values." They are closer to me than the moral relativists and atheists. Inside that circle is the theists. Inside that one is the monotheists. Even smaller is the "People of the Book" (Jews and Muslims, as well as Christians) who accept (in some fashion) the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Inside that circle are those who in some way call themselves Christians (including Mormons and others whose theology is not orthodox). An even smaller circle is orthodox Christians. Smaller than that is the circle of protestants, then fully-immersed "restoration movement" Christians, then the non-instrumental Churches of Christ, and then, finally, at the very center of the circle is my own personal "church family," my congregation with whom I choose to break bread. Smith calls that "table fellowship."
Obviously, different groups might name their circles differently--I can imagine a circle labled "Synod" or "Presbytery" or "Diocese" or "Parish." But it seems a really good system. My closest brothers are the members of my own congregation, under the discipline and leadership of my own elders, listening to the instruction of my preacher. And there may be (and are) other congregations of "my" church right across town that I recognize as being fully in the body of Christ, but which I couldn't attend as a member without chafing.
That brings me back to my Mormon cyber-friends. What about those who are a circle or two (or more) removed from what I am prepared to say unequivocally are on theological solid ground? We may each draw that line somewhere different (and I'm pretty "liberal" by CofC standards), but almost all of us who value orthodoxy would agree that there as some point where a line is crossed and one becomes a heretic. (Yes, "heretic" is a naughty word, connoting inquistions and burnings and crusades, but it also has a genuine dictionary definition, which is what I'm trying to use here.) As someone who counts Mormons, and Jews, and Catholics, and Episcopalians, and many others among those I love, what is the proper attitude to take toward our fellowship?
I think the best attitude I've been able to noodle out comes from St. Paul, in Romans 10:1-2. He writes: " Brethren, my heart's desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. (NASB)" Paul is writing specifically about Jews here, but I think the principle applies across the board. If I arrive in heaven and see someone there that I wouldn't expect based on my limited theological understanding, I should be happy that God's grace worked it out better than I could have. And I have faith in God that he'll be perfectly just as well as perfectly merciful. However, that does not remove my responsibility to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling, and doesn't give me an "anything goes" attitude. I can recognize that these "brothers" are in different circles without compromising either charity or orthodoxy.
But there's one more thing, and that's common cause in our lost world. Our culture is in the grips of a life-and-death struggle, and some of my staunchest allies in that fight are folks who may be in the outer circles of my fellowship. I recall what Winston Churchill said about his alliance with Stalin: "If Adolf Hitler were to invade Hell, I should find myself forced to ally with Satan." Likewise, if Satan and the forces of this world which he controls are on the march, I find myself quite willing to ally myself with those whose theology is outside my inner circle. So whether it is making common cause with my Catholic brothers on the issue of life, my Mormon brothers on traditional marriage and "family values," with South Carolina Episcopalians as they fight a rearguard effort against an assault on scripture from their own national denomination, or with Jews in Israel resisting radical Islam, I can gladly extend the hand of fellowship outside my immediate circle of table fellowship.
Anyway, that's my thinking this morning. Haven't posted anything too thought-provoking in a while. I wonder what my "brothers" (of all sorts) think?