Who Is My Brother: "In Christ" Fellowship

November 28, 2006

The third of the Fivefold Fellowship levels, described by F. LaGard Smith in his book Who Is My Brother, is called “In Christ Fellowship”. This category includes all those who have been forgiven of their sins and adopted as sons of God. These are our brothers and sisters “in Christ”.

But these brothers and sisters of ours are not all alike. There is immense variety in appearance, in language, in education, in knowledge and in understanding. They are our brothers and sisters, not because they are just like us, but because God forgave their sins and adopted them as sons and daughters, just as he did us. They are our brothers and sisters by God’s choice, not by ours.

Smith asked the question:

Are there any biblically-baptized believers that you would be ashamed to call your brothers? How about the leaders of the Boston movement? Or those who worship in congregations of the Disciples of Christ or the Christian Church? [p. 121]

The three groups he used to illustrate are groups that many in his primary audience would find it difficult to accept as brothers, at least at the time of his writing nearly ten years ago. Actually that is probably still true today, in many cases. But Smith subsequently admonished us to answer carefully, because:

Heb 2:11 Both the one who makes men holy and those who are made holy are of the same family. So Jesus is not ashamed to call them brothers.

If Jesus is not ashamed to call someone His brother, who are we to stop short of that?

A very interesting point is raised in the section subtitled “On the Cusp of Fellowship” [p. 127]. Starting from Acts 19:1-7, he reminds us of the disciples (yes, they are called disciples) who had not been baptized in the name of Jesus. Paul taught them what they were missing, and they were baptized in the name of Jesus. That shows us that “technicalities” of that nature are significant. He then drew a parallel to the modern day people who believe that they are saved prior to baptism. However he also points out significant differences. Today the ecumenical churches baptize “in the name of Jesus”, but the Ephesian disciples had not done that prior to Paul’s arrival. The Ephesians had not been baptized with an incorrect understanding of the baptism they received (John’s baptism). Rather, they had been baptized with an obsolete baptism. The baptism they received was not based on the redemptive work of Jesus on the cross and on His resurrection.

To those of us who believe (as I do) that sins are forgiven at baptism, it seems clear that the common ecumenical teaching on baptism is inaccurate. But does that misunderstanding invalidate their obeying the command to be baptized?

Quoting from Smith:

What it suggests is the possibility that–despite their misunderstanding of baptism’s purpose–believers who are immersed in order to obey the command to be baptized might nevertheless be regarded in God’s eyes as saved believers. If so, of course, they would not have been saved at the point of faith (as they, themselves, think) but only at the point of their baptism–an odd situation, to say the least.

Two compelling questions are raised by that rather bizarre possibility. First, must a person have a completely correct understanding of the doctrine of baptism in order for his adult, faith-prompted immersion in the name of Jesus to “count”? I know of no passage that gives us a useful answer… [p. 128]

For the second question, Smith draws an analogy to marriage. If two people live together and are subsequently married, is the marriage invalidated by the incorrect sequence? And, if the two believed they were already married but went through the ceremony merely to formalize their assumed marriage, would that invalidate the marriage ceremony?

Smith expressed concern that accepting this idea could lead some to abandon the accurate teaching about the purpose of baptism:

My great concern is that, in trying to correct any mistakes we may have made in this shadowy area, we don’t begin promoting a clearly unbiblical view of baptism. It is one thing to give someone the benefit of the doubt in terms of fellowship; it is another thing to give that doubt doctrinal legitimacy. It is one thing to honor a fellow believer’s incorrectly understood obedience; it is another thing altogether to think that God will honor us for our own quite well-informed disobedience. [p. 130]

Smith emphatically states that we should continue to teach baptism for the forgiveness of sins. But he also suggests that we might need to extend “In Christ” fellowship to those who do not agree, but are nevertheless immersed into Jesus as believing and penitent adults.

I think this will be very difficult for many churches of Christ to swallow. But like F. LaGard Smith, I have not yet found a “useful answer” in scripture contradicting the idea. In the interest of the unity for which Christ prayed, we must think about some difficult questions.

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