Our Attitude to Other Believers

If division among believers keeps outsiders from accepting Christ (John 17:21), we need to look not only at relationships within our own church heritage, but even at our attitude toward believers from other backgrounds. Some of the doctrinal issues that separate us may be bigger. Yet righteousness obligates us to commend and appreciate things people are right about, as much as to point out their errors. Do you not agree?

Whatever our differences, we must have a certain respect for anyone who sincerely honors the lordship of Christ. I am glad many people in my own heritage no longer seem willing to usurp God’s judgment on the final destiny of those in various denominations. We can be faithful to our understanding of the scriptures without doing that. I like the slogan some have used, “Not the only Christians, but Christians only.”

Here are seven powerful biblical reasons for being careful of our attitudes toward other believers:

1. Jesus told his disciples not to hinder those of another group who ministered in Jesus’ name – Mark 9:38-40.

In fact, when Jesus issued his famous warning about causing little ones to sin and stumble (“better to be drowned in the sea,” “cut off your hand,” etc.), details in Mark’s account show that he was speaking specifically about offensive attitudes toward other groups of believers in Jesus. See Matthew 18, Mark 9:33-50.

Of course this passage should not be used to justify any and everything a group might do or teach in Jesus’ name. But it does contain a stern warning that many of us have missed.

A person may still have things to learn about God’s will, but any act he/she does out of genuine honor for Christ (even a cup of cold water to one of Christ’s followers) will not go unnoticed by the Lord. Jesus is not forbidding us to help others to a better knowledge of truth, if we do so humbly. Some may be little children in the faith. They may have much to learn (and something to teach us?). But all saving truth starts with, and springs from, honoring the lordship of Jesus. Everyone who does this has at least started in the same direction.

2. Children of God are recognized by the seal of the Holy Spirit – Ephesians 1:13,14.

The Holy Spirit is the primary identifying mark of a Christian. It is what Paul first asked about when trying to identify disciples – Acts 19:1-7; compare Romans 8:9b. People who are full of the unmistakable fruit of the Holy Spirit we must not call outsiders. That would hurt God’s heart and dishonor his likeness displayed in others.

3. Whoever is born of God is my brother or sister.

In other churches there are large numbers of people who have been “born of water and the Spirit” just as we have. My father used to say with a smile, “Whoever is born of God my Father is my brother/ sister whether I like it or not.”

4. We are all accepted by grace, not by our own perfect understanding or obedience.

We may refuse to recognize some group as Christians because “they are in error.” Are we ourselves perfect and without error? Paul says we are to accept one another “just as Christ has accepted us” (Romans 15:7 NIV), that is, with grace that covers imperfections. If his grace covers our errors and imperfections, can it not cover the imperfections of another group, even though they be different imperfections than our own?

Granted, there are some sins and attitudes so contrary to the nature of God’s family that they put us beyond Christian fellowship. There are doctrinal truths so fundamental that we cannot give them up without rejecting the faith. Yet even in congregations where the majority of people truly had separated from God, Christ saw some among them “who had not soiled their garments” – Revelation 3:4 NIV.

5. One identifying mark of a cult is the belief that they are the only saved.

Many in our own heritage developed that attitude. I am glad that is changing, because it is not what our Restoration founders believed. They believed God had people in the various denominations. They called on Christians in all groups to abandon divisive creeds and unite around scripture. Every person who has been born again, accepted by God, is part of the body of Christ whether our own churches know him or not. If we suddenly came under persecution, our whole attitude on unity would change in one day. We would be so thankful for everyone who honors Jesus’ Lordship and tries to obey him.

6. If we have truth that others need, it is humility, not arrogance, which will open hearts to our message.

Every heritage has some particular insights which it has seen more clearly than others have. Our own Restoration heritage led the way in recognizing the distinction between the Old and New Covenants, an understanding now widely accepted among conservative denominations. Our founders also had valuable insight into the first century view of baptism and the nature of conversion.

The contentious, debating approach mainly increases doctrinal polarization, feeds extremes and hardens opposition on both sides. Many people will listen if we respect and love them. I have thought for years that if we wanted people to hear our beliefs, we had a strange way of going about it. Whoever we are, and whatever truth we have to offer, humility and respect will get us into hearts where arrogance and quarreling will never penetrate (2 Timothy 2:24-26).

7. It is a sin to reject our brothers and sisters if God has accepted them – Romans 15:7.

Besides the damage division does to the gospel, have we thought about how we break and offend God’s heart when we reject any brothers and sisters whom God has accepted? It must have pained the father’s heart when the older brother referred to the prodigal as “that son of yours” rather than as “my brother.” Have we in our blindness said contemptuous things about people who are just as honestly devoted to Christ and as intelligent and scripturally literate as we are?

Do we know how far grace extends when people sincerely honor Christ as Lord? Can we ignore the fruit of the Spirit in those people? Do we ourselves have all truth, or do we depend on grace? Are we willing to give others the grace that we ourselves require? God’s word teaches that some differences can be left up to God while we work together. God does not hold us responsible for everything our brother may believe or practice. But he will hold us responsible for rejecting his children.

We are living in evil days and worse is likely coming. We need to reach as many of the lost as possible. We cannot afford the weakness and hindrance to the gospel caused by unnecessary, unbiblical division. We will soon stand before God. We must fear God more than we fear human disapproval. We must humble ourselves and take the Lord’s prayer for unity seriously.

We do not have to merge with other congregations or give up a single one of our Bible-based beliefs, but we need to respect other believers who honor Christ and join hands with them in the kinds of things we all agree on. As our relationships with them grow and as they see Christ in us, they will have much more respect for anything Christ might teach them through us.

Denominationalism is dying in many places (and fastest in urban areas). In times like ours people are more willing to forget sectarian prejudice and listen to faithful Bible teaching. Some churches are dropping denominational brand names. Some are moderating from previous doctrinal extremes. People in many denominations are calling for teaching to be more Bible-based. There is more potential for the fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer for unity than there has been in a long time. —B. Shelburne

© by G.B. Shelburne, III (except for any graphics and scripture quotations). May be reproduced for non-profit, non-publishing instructional purposes provided document content is not altered and this copyright notice is included in full. Format may be altered. South Houston Bible Institute, 14325 Crescent Landing Dr, Houston, TX 77062-2178, USA, U.S.A., telephone 281-990-8899, email <shbi@shbi.org> or <bshelb@shelburnes.com>, web site <www.shbi.org>. Scriptures, unless otherwise noted, are taken from the HOLY BIBLE: NEW INTERNATIONAL VERSION © 1978 and 1984 by the New York International Bible Society, used by permission of Zondervan Bible Publishers. Some courses are available via Distance Learning.