The Agora
Bible Articles and Lessons: D

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Distance and fellowship

This is one of the mottoes which through long and perhaps careless use acquires almost the force of Scripture. Under this heading or something similar, some brethren would contend that great distances and lack of personal interaction do not mitigate one's "fellowship" responsibility at all. In other words, an ecclesia (or an individual for that matter) must become acquainted with the facts in any alleged wrongdoing no matter where around the world, and take "fellowship" action, just as if the problem were local.

The especially sad thing about this line of reasoning is that it appeals for support to the very principles that should be the most uplifting and comforting to a believer in Christ -- that is, the essential worldwide unity of faith of believers with Christ and one another -- and makes these wonderful ideals the basis for unwarranted and hasty dismemberment of the spiritual Body. In the ultimate sense, neither distance nor time is a barrier to Biblical "fellowship", for it was Christ himself who told the disciples, "I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world" (Mat 28:20). But only a very impractical person -- or one thoroughly bent on a negative course of action -- could fail to comprehend that distance, as well as time, can be a mitigating factor in the ability of fallible mortals to get at all the facts of a doubtful and disputed matter. Sometimes it is the course of wisdom to admit one's inability to judge aright; sometimes the wisest words are simply: 'I just don't know for sure'.

Although in certain circumstances RR is made out as a foremost exponent of this unrealistic fellowship approach, it is clear when considering all of his actions and writings that the practical outworking of such a "cut-and-dried" approach was quite different from the impression given by a few random citations. An actual example, which concerned the brethren in my locality, serves well as illustration:

In 1883 a group of Texas brethren submitted a "position paper" concerning a regional controversy to The Christadelphian, requesting its publication. (The exact nature of the difficulty is irrelevant to our present purposes.) Brother Roberts printed the ecclesial news only, omitting the statement as to fellowship difficulties in Texas. The comments he added to the correspondence give his reason:

"The publication of your statement would only raise a controversy, which could not only do no good to any of us, but involve others in troubles best localized. We can afford to refer all doubtful matters to the tribunal of Christ, not doubtful, perhaps, to those who see clearly on the spot, but doubtful to those at a distance, who can only see them through the medium of conflicting representations" ("Fraternal Gathering", Xd 20:528).
If it appears that this position is at variance with RR's thoughts elsewhere given, I can only say that it is not my desire to portray anyone long deceased -- especially one of the spiritual stature of Robert Roberts -- as inconsistent. However, it should never be forgotten that no man, no matter how wise in the Bible, no matter how well respected for his work's sake, no man (but Christ) has ever been perfect, or perfectly consistent.

A balanced view of Christadelphian history leads to startling, but understandable, conclusions: When controversies plagued large centers of Christadelphians -- like Birmingham, London, or Adelaide -- and touched brethren in editorial capacity, or otherwise well-known or influential, then those troubles were quickly exported to the most remote corners. But when a similar controversy arose in an isolated area, Texas for example, it was generally localized and ignored; thus it died out after a few unsettling years. There seems to be no more rational explanation as to why the "partial inspiration" question, for example, is still extant, but the "priesthood" question and other esoteric matters died well-deserved deaths. One is forced to the belief that the latter-day body of Christ would have been much better off had more such questions been localized, and ecclesias at a distance been allowed to concern themselves with their own affairs only.

"We must keep firmly to two rules, which might be considered by extremists to be contradictory, but which are complementary. All ecclesias as a basis of co-operation must acknowledge the same fundamental truths, while at the same time each ecclesia must have the right of judging any doubtful case. The first maintains the truth; the second provides for an ecclesia taking account of all the factors in any borderline case, these factors being only known to the members of that ecclesia. There must be mutual respect for each other's judgments" (JC, "A House Divided", Xd 94:187).
"When fire breaks out there is need for calm, careful action. Panic is disastrous. Fanning of the flames is foolish. Spreading the fire to other places would be criminal. When controversy breaks out there is need for calm, careful thought, and all the facts of the fire drill have their spiritual counterpart. Our history as a community sadly illustrates the dangers of spreading controversy, and the evil of provoking controversy.... Let us be on the Lord's side to fight for unity, to put out fires of controversy, to rebuke those who would spread the fires afield. Together let us all pray that Christ may not be divided today" (H Osborn, "Is Christ Divided?", Xd 102:214).
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