Being reformed in Nigeria can be tough. As someone who came to embrace much of the reformed faith through the teaching and writing ministries of foreign men and women, I have felt firsthand the loneliness that hits a Christian who cannot find a brother or sister with whom he could have fellowship because everyone around seemed to be wrong. Today, as I interact with other Christians who hold certain erroneous beliefs, I begin to wonder what the extent or limit of my fellowship with them should be. Am I permitted to worship with them in their services? Can I attend their conferences? Can I meet with them to have prayer meetings or Bible studies? Can I still call them brothers?
The tension between correcting other believers we believe are in error and loving them as though we all are part of one Body is real. And it is one that I face everyday. I have family members who have shown fruits of genuine repentance and faith in Christ but who still believe strange things. I have friends who can give compelling testimonies of their walks with God, but are wrong on so many issues. I am surrounded by men and women with whom I do not see eye to eye on a lot of biblical issues.
The popular advice these days seems to be that these folks should be cut off. They are in error, and sound Christians should not be seen shaking hands with unsound Christians. But I am slow to jump to such conclusions. Just 9 months ago, I was in a city where I couldn’t find a church that I considered “healthy”. I worshiped with believers who I did not agree with on a lot of doctrinal issues. These services weren’t all wrong. These people weren’t totally in error on every point of doctrine. They were correct on some doctrinal points. They were mostly trinitarians. They believed in hell. They believed in Christ’s atoning work on the cross. In some sense, they were conservative Christians. But they had certain erroneous beliefs surrounding the nature of liturgy, salvation and sanctification.
Many of these Christians are ignorant of the truth. While many pastors who preach and teach erroneous doctrines do so intentionally, choosing filthy lucre over truth and material profit over sound doctrine, I believe that some of them are honestly wrong. I won’t be surprised to meet a Christian minister in Nigeria who doesn’t understand Substitutionary Atonement or the Incarnation of Christ. I have met many a Christian who would not mind being taught these things if someone would be kind enough to do so. They remind me of the believers in Acts who said to Paul, “No, we have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (Acts 19:2).
I was once like many of them. I believed and taught the exact same doctrines that I see many of my friends teaching today. Once upon a time, I was privileged to teach a group of young believers. But I was knee-deep in error and brought many into error. I taught so much nonsense. Today, I look back to see that I was very ignorant. I really didn’t want to go against God’s word or lead people away from Christ. I was concerned about truth, even while standing on the other side of it. I was wrong. And if the Lord had not brought certain people and resources my way, I’d probably still believe the same things.
This is probably why I believe that having a healthy relationship with Christians who do not agree with me on every issue isn’t necessarily compromise. Upon embracing the doctrines of grace and adopting a high view of the Scriptures, I was tempted to cut off certain ties with those I called brothers. I immediately began to see them as heretics, forgetting that I was just as heretical as they were months ago. I avoided opportunities to study or pray with them. I didn’t want to have much to do with them.
Now, I know that when all lines of truth are erased and people form alliances simply because they claim to believe the Bible, there will always be devastating results. I know the dangers of ecumenism and I have seen its damaging effects in Nigeria. But I also know that Christians should not become enemies because they do not agree.
Are we to shake hands with other believers who we believe are in error and make them think that everything is okay? No, I don’t think so. But do we leave them in their error and not consider them as believers, simply because they do not agree with us on every issue? I think that’s going too far, probably even farther than the Word of God directs.
I would rather seek to explain what I believe to these people and why I’m persuaded that I hold on to the correct, biblical position. Can I call these “wrong” Christians brothers? In recent times, I have been forced to admit that only God truly knows those who are his. Many have realized that they regarded certain unbelieving people as brothers (and even ordained them). What I can do is to be kind, courteous, and loving as I disagree with other Christians. And I can always pray that their eyes will be opened. Now, that’s a position I believe the Bible prescribes.