Churches that wish to conserve and propagate the gospel must be willing to defend it. The gospel is attacked in several ways, and therefore its defenders must be aware of where the conflict will be.
A battle exists over the meaning and intention of the gospel. The enemies of the gospel are forever seeking to re-define what is essential to the gospel, or what it aims to do. Again, this is a call to thorough and continuous teaching on the meaning of the gospel, the doctrines fundamental to the gospel, and the meaning of conversion. Teachings that deny, undermine or distort the gospel must be challenged, and challenged publicly.
The gospel is also attacked when non-Christians are recognized as Christians. This happens in two ways. First, when Christian fellowship within the local church is extended to people who profess an orthodox gospel but live lives which consistently and fundamentally deny the meaning of the gospel. This comes back to the matter of church discipline, discussed in the last article. A second way the gospel is attacked is when people who deny one of the fundamental teachings of the gospel are recognized as professing Christians.
To give the right hand of fellowship to someone who denies an essential teaching in the gospel is a kind of unauthorized diplomacy on the part of a Christian. It is like an ambassador extending full and open relations with a hostile nation, simply because the enemy ambassador said ‘we ought to get along’. A professor is not authorized to change the passing grade on an exam simply to ingratiate himself with a student. A police officer is not authorized to change the traffic laws to appear ‘loving’ to an offender. And a Christian is not authorised to change the terms of eternal life to appear tolerant, ecumenical and open-minded.
When this is done, the gospel is demeaned. Its prominence as boundary line between believers and non-believers is eroded, and one must look elsewhere to define Christian.
This idea of being devoted to the fundamentals by refusing Christian recognition of those who deny them is the genius of 20th-century fundamentalism, but it is not unique to that movement. Several separatist movements have existed through history, demonstrating, in part, that a defence of the gospel through separatism has been a part of robust, historic Christianity. Separatism is not the be-all and end-all of preserving the gospel. Nevertheless, separatism is an inevitable and indispensable part of conservative Christianity.
Practically, this limits whom a church would recognize as Christian, and which groups they would be willing to partner with. Since fellowship is not an all-or-nothing deal, the purposes for, and consequences of cooperation should decide whether fellowship or partnership takes place, and at what level of collaboration.
We must remember that it is possible to undermine the gospel indirectly. It is possible to weaken the defence of the gospel by whom we cooperate with. For this reason, we must give careful thought to whom we will extend Christian fellowship.