When I was in my early 20s, I had wonderful fellowship with an older brother in Christ who was part of the Plymouth Brethren.
We disagreed on a few doctrines (I didn’t buy into the pretribulational rapture theory, and I believed that God still healed people supernaturally). That aside, we both held to the orthodox creeds of the faith (The Apostles Creed, the Nicene Creed, etc.) as I still do today.
Never having stepped foot in a Plymouth Brethren chapel, I was interested in visiting his church. So I did. But I was shocked when he told me that I couldn’t partake of the Lord’s Table.
This both surprised and saddened me greatly.
He received me as a brother in Christ, but because I didn’t toe the line on PB doctrine, I wasn’t allowed to partake of the bread and wine with the others in his church.
When I shared my feelings with him — that this action was a flat-out denial that I was part of the Body of Christ — he retracted his position and said I could partake of the Table.
However, his initial sectarian decision left its wound.
I wish I could say that I’ve never met this same sectarian attitude since, but I’d be lying if I did.
I’ve met it a number of times.
The fact is, every devoted Christian will be tested on whether they really believe in the oneness of the Body of Christ or whether they deny it deep in their hearts . . . especially when there is pressure from others to embrace a sectarian spirit and exclude other members of the Body.
Religious pressure is a powerful thing. And it is most often contrary to Jesus Christ.
In that connection, I’m posting some excerpts from a letter written by Watchman Nee (and some of his friends) to some of the Plymouth Brethren in his own day who excluded him from fellowship after he associated himself with T. Austin-Sparks (someone of whom they didn’t approve).
In my judgment, these excerpts reflect the mind and heart of Jesus Christ on the matter of unity and receiving other believers into fellowship.
I thank God that Nee stood strong on his position and didn’t break fellowship with Sparks due to religious pressure from his Plymouth Brethren friends.
While Nee lost the fellowship of these Plymouth Brethren due to his decision, he gained a lifelong friend in one of the greatest servants of God to ever breathe oxygen – T. Austin-Sparks.
I believe the Lord was pleased with Nee’s position, and he benefited enormously from his relationship with Sparks.
The Scriptures plainly show us that the basis of our receiving one another is “even as Christ also received you” (Rom. 15.7). The reason why we receive anyone is because “God hath received him” (Rom. 14.3). Hence the command of God to us is: “him that is weak in faith receive ye” (Rom. 14.1). This command is explicit, distinctive and irrevocable. It is a sin to refuse acceptance of him whom God has received, however weak or lacking in light he may be.
Nevertheless, this does not imply that the defeated [who are unrepentant] may have fellowship with God and with God’s people. Not only the world, the flesh and sin may deprive the Church of its characteristics and hinder its fellowship, even a slight deviation from the will of God and from the leading of the Holy Spirit may cause the believer to lose contact with God.
Who among any of us is really worthy to undertake this work of selection—this act of determining who is fit for fellowship? From what we learn in the Bible, our responsibility is to judge only on moral corruption (1 Cor. 5.10-13) or on heresy regarding the Person of Christ (2 John). Difference in interpretation of truth alone must not be the ground of division. Thus we receive all whom God has received for the sake of Christ.
But [so called] sins such as “denominational connection” and apparent errors of interpretation on prophecy do not cut off fellowship with God. This fact you cannot deny: that many who have not yet departed from what you call “evil association” and who, moreover, differ with you in prophetic views have most intimate fellowship with the Lord, even more intimate than we have.
We are doubtful about your current way of reception. We wonder if this is a practice truly handled by the Holy Spirit or is simply a method received by men?
We would now make our position crystal clear. We do not stand on an open ground which overlooks matters that might bring reproach to the Lord. No, we absolutely do not take that position. Nor do we stand on the exclusive ground which is according to man’s thought and not according to the Holy Spirit.
We stand instead on the spiritual exclusive ground which means that we want our fellowship to be wholly in the Holy Spirit without any mixture of the flesh. To enjoy such kind of fellowship as this, the flesh must be thoroughly dealt with by the cross of Christ.
For the flesh has absolutely no place in this fellowship. It is not sufficient merely to terminate so-called “evil association.” The total life of the flesh must be dealt with. The power of the cross must be experienced by all through the working of the Holy Spirit. Mental knowledge is of little use.
This, then, is our fellowship. Accordingly, we are as open as the early Church that received all Christians, yet we are as exclusive as the Holy Spirit in rejecting all that is of the flesh. Many whom you reckon as in your fellowship are actually not so.
Possibly the number of such people far exceeds our expectation. How very sad this is! For many believers, though they have passed your test of strict receiving, do not live in the Holy Spirit. Yet they consider themselves in the fellowship and freely partake of the loaf because they have not manifested sins! We cannot but regard such a standard of fellowship as too low.
In order to unify interpretations and practices, you tend to divide God’s children.
Beloved, may we humbly suggest that you carefully and prayerfully consider what we have here laid before you. We believe this that we have written is of God. Are you willing—as though knowing nothing at all—to lay aside your former preconceived thoughts written by you, and at the same time to ask the Lord to reveal to you whether or not what we have said is right and according to His will?
Now is the time for us to make this matter clear before the Lord as eternity draws near. We thank you for all that you have done for us. May God bless you.
Your brothers in the Lord,
Representing the brethren met in
Hardoon Road and North Szechuan Road, Shanghai
P.S. If this post doesn’t cure you of a sectarian spirit, Rethinking Christian Unity should do the trick.