Who Is My Brother: Conscience Fellowship

December 2, 2006

The fourth of the Fivefold Fellowship levels, described by F. LaGard Smith in his book Who Is My Brother , is called Conscience Fellowship. In Smith’s words:

Inevitably, as we have already seen, there are certain doctrinal teachings which of necessity will separate brothers and sisters whose consciences are violated by those teachings. Conscience fellowship is fellowship within fellowship, with those in each sub-fellowship, as it were, continuing to recognize their part in the greater family of God. It is fellowship which says, “We are brothers, but we must take separate roads.”

A key question necessarily follows: Which issues demand that two groups sharing “In Christ” fellowship must take separate roads? After enumerating a laundry list of issues that have caused Christians to take separate roads, he proposes this principle: that only those issues that affect the church as a whole, rather than merely as individuals, can lead to separate enclaves of Conscience Fellowship.

To illustrate these separate enclaves, Smith points to the Jews and Gentiles in the New Testament church. He describes them as “Distinct but united. Separate but equal. Playing separate notes, yet called to harmony.” [p. 143]

I disagree with that description. Gal 2:12 teaches that separation between Jews and Gentiles was not acceptable in the first century church. Paul rebuked Peter for separating from the Gentiles when the Jewish Christians came around. The differences between Jew and Gentile, while dramatic, did not justify “separate but equal” status.

Not all disagreements are to be tolerated. Smith lists immorality, homosexuality, and unscriptural remarriage as examples of issues that cannot be tolerated as accepted enclaves of Conscience Fellowship within the broader “In Christ” fellowship.

He describes the “Heart of Conscience Fellowship” based on Romans 14. He argues that this passage does not merely apply to “authorized liberties” that are indifferent to God. In the specific examples of the text, one brother believed God forbade eating meat. For that brother, eating meat was not an “authorized liberty.” Yet the passage teaches:

Rom 14:3 The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him.

So the man who believes eating meat to be sin must accept another man who eats meat. The principle at work is that “all matters of conscience will ultimately be judged not by us but by God.” There will inevitably be disputable matters. Each individual Christian must follow his own conscience in these matters. Each is accountable to God for his practices and his conscience. And each has an obligation not to cause the other to stumble. [p. 146]

Smith describes the danger of a party spirit emerging between the various Conscience Fellowships. That certainly has been a common pattern in the churches of Christ. The animosity between groups defies the heart of Jesus in his prayer for unity. And it thwarts our efforts to persuade the world that we are His disciples.

Smith points to one final line in the sand which conscience fellowship cannot cross. Those who would extend “In Christ” fellowship to unbaptized believers are rejecting a defining doctrine in Christianity. Few doctrines in Christianity are more fundamental than how one becomes a Christian. In Smith’s mind, this is a point at which we cannot maintain “In Christ” fellowship.

I had one big problem with this chapter: I think that enclaves of Conscience Fellowship are forbidden by scripture. These are exactly the situations that passages like Rom 14, 1 Cor 1:10, and Eph 4:4 teach against. We need to accomodate differences on disputable matters without causing separation.


  1. So, if scripture prohibits these enclaves, How should we then remedy the breaches between (non instrumental) churches of Christ and the Christian Churches, or other groups who do teach repentance & immersion in water “unto” the remission of sins? I don’t have (nor are there) any quick, easy answers- just wanted to ask your thoughts. Thank you for sharing on F. Lagard’s book! Adrian

  2. Hi Adrian,You are right in saying there are no easy answers. But I think the tide is turning, so that more and more people are open to this. I think those who have this conviction can accomplish a lot outside of church services by building relationships with those on the other side, and perhaps even visiting at activities on the other side. Two or three from one side crossing these lines together can be even better.

  3. I’ve been “shotgun” reading my way around your blog, Alan. And posting some on FB, and saving many to read closer later. Since I’m reading articles that were posted in circa 2009, I’m wondering what progress has been made between the factions of the (so-called) American Restoration Movement, and the questions of unity that your blog focuses upon.

  4. Hi John. Thanks for your comment and for sharing some of these articles. While these articles have some age on them, I’m still as interested in the topic as ever. I basically said what was on my mind and have maintained it online in the hopes that it might nudge the conversation along in a constructive direction. The various groups derived from the Restoration Movement continue to evolve in various directions. I think the younger generation may be more inclined toward the kind of unity I’ve advocated than my own generation is. I continue to watch with great interest. I applaud all efforts toward the unity Christ prayed for in John 17.

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