Keeping the unity of the Spirit in the bonds of peace involves the way we handle differences of opinion within our
community. The matters which can cause difference of opinion fall broadly into two categories—fundamental and
non-fundamental issues. Brother Roberts classifies them as True Principles and Uncertain Details. The following
extract from an article written in 1898 offers valuable advice as to how to distinguish between the two and how to
handle such differences when they arise. It is highly recommended reading for all brethren and sisters and is closely related to Paul’s advice in 1 Corinthians 8–10 and Romans 14.

It has pleased God to save men by the belief and obedience of a system of truth briefly described as “the gospel of our salvation”, and also spoken of by Jesus and John and Paul as “the truth”. “Ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free”—Jesus. For this reason, it is necessary for believers to be particular in requiring the full recognition of this truth at the hands of one another as the basis of their mutual association, and generally, to “contend for the faith once delivered to the saints”, as enjoined by Jude. Those men are to be commended who faithfully exact this recognition both at the hands of applicants for baptism and claimants for fellowship. But there is a danger of going too far.

We live in a world of extremes of all kinds. It is difficult for any length of time to maintain an equilibrium in the application of any principle on account of the disbalances of mind so prevalent in the population, and the tendency of men to drive each other into extravagant positions through the sheer friction of personal antagonisms. This is probably more manifest in the Truth than in anything else, because of the obligation to make a firm stand which arises out of the Truth, as it arises out of nothing else. When men differ about the Truth, their differences are more unappeasable than in any other subject, because of the greatness of the interests involved and an earnestness of purpose and a depth of affection created by the Truth, as by nothing else. It was not without a reason that Jesus foretold division as the result of his appearance— division so keen that “a man’s foes should be they of his own house”.

Divisions That are Uncalled For

 So much of division is inevitable, and while lamenting it, men of God can but submit, with as little asperity towards those who cause it as possible. But there are divisions that are uncalled for, and therefore sinful. Paul refers to such when he says: “Mark them that cause divisions among you contrary to the doctrine (the teaching on unity) that ye have learnt”. He was referring, no doubt, to the factions arising out of personal preferences, but the warning applies to all divisions that ought not to be made. There is division enough, in all conscience— division that is inevitable—division that must be, unless we are to ignore divine obligations altogether; but there are divisions that ought not to be. It is possible to go too far in our demands on fellow-believers. How far we ought to go and where to stop, is at one time or other a perplexing problem to most earnest minds. They are afraid on the one hand of compromising the truth in fellowship; and on the other, of sinning against the weaker members of the body of Christ. The only end there can be to this embarrassment is found in the discrimination between true principles and uncertain details that do not overthrow them.

True Principles and Uncertain Details

 There are general principles as to which there can be no compromise: but there are also unrevealed applications of these principles in detail which cannot be determined with certainty, and which every man must be allowed to judge for himself without any challenge of his right to fellowship.

To insist on uniformity of opinion on those uncertain details is an excess of zeal which may be forgiven, but which meanwhile inflicts harm and distress without just cause. An exception would, of course, be naturally made in the case of the construction of a detail that would destroy the general principle involved, such as where a man professing to believe in Christ might also believe in Mahomet or Confucius—of which there are examples. This supplementary belief destroys the first belief, for a true belief in Christ is a belief in his exclusive claims…

This “doctrine of fellowship” (as it is called) is also carried to an excess never contemplated in apostolic prescription. I was called upon by a man in dead earnest who contended there were no such things as “first principles”, and that every detail of truth, down even to the date of the expiry of the Papal 1260, should be insisted on as a condition of fellowship. Such outrageous extravagance would not be contended for by every extremist; but in principle, they are guilty of it when they insist on uncertain details, as well as true general principles. Fellowship is friendly association for the promotion of a common object—with more or less of the imperfection belonging to all mortal life. To say that every man in that fellowship is responsible for every infirmity of judgment that may exist in the association is an extreme to which no man of sound judgment can lend himself. There will be flawless fellowship in the perfect state. Perhaps it is the admiration of this in prospect that leads some to insist upon it now. But it is none the less a mistake. This is a mixed and preparatory state in which much has to be put up with when true principles are professed. Judas was a thief, and Jesus knew it, but tolerated him till he manifested himself. Was Jesus responsible while he fellowshipped him? Certainly not. Judas was qualified for the fellowship of the apostolic circle by his endorsement of the common professed objects of its existence, viz, the proclamation of the Gospel of the Kingdom in conjunction with Jesus as the accepted “Christ, the Son of the living God”. His thieving character did not exclude him from that circle till he went and hanged himself. There were men among the Corinthian brethren who denied the resurrection: did Paul charge the brethren with complicity with that heresy because of the presence of such among them? Doubtless their rejection of the resurrection nullified their claims for that place, but still it did not make the true brethren guilty of their false doctrine while merely tolerating them, pending an appeal to Paul.

If a man lend himself to the evil projects of others and wish them well in them, no doubt they are as responsible for those projects as if they actually promoted them with their own personal labours.

This is the principle to which John gives expression when he says, “He that biddeth him (the holder of false doctrine) God-speed, is partaker of his evil deeds”. But the principle is carried too far when it is made applicable to the individual diversities and idiosyncrasies of a community concurring in a common object and a common doctrine and a common service, and having fellowship one with another in the promotion of these common things. Men thus associated together are not responsible for each other’s peculiarities or doubtful thoughts on matters of uncertain detail. They are responsible only for what they wittingly espouse. They would be responsible for the admission of a Mahometan, or a Papal idolater, or an orthodox denier of the Gospel, as such. They are not responsible for every shade of opinion that may dwell in the breast of a man admitted on account of his professed subjection to the truth. It is nothing but monstrous to contend for a fellowship-responsibility of this sort. In fact, it would make fellowship impossible. It would turn Ecclesial life into an intolerable inquisition, instead of a source of comfort and edification and help and joy, from the sharing of a common faith.

It is asked, “Why did you take such strong ground then, with regard to fellowship, on the question of inspiration”? Wise men do not require an answer. If there are those who feel they require it, here it is. The question of the inspiration of the Bible is a question of whether it is God speaking or man: a question of whether we may trust absolutely to what we read as of divine authority, or whether it may possibly be the vagaries of unenlightened human brains. Such a question goes right to the foundation. It is the first of all first principles, for without the absolute reliability of the Bible, there is no such thing as a first principle possible. For any doubt to exist on this question was to render fellowship impossible on various strong grounds. Such a doubt was raised in harmony with the widespread rot that prevails under various learned auspices in the religious world. It was espoused warmly by some in our midst; by many others who do not profess to receive it there was an unwillingness to refuse it fellowship. Consequently, we had either to tolerate the currency of a doctrine quietly and gradually destructive of all truth in our midst, or refuse to have anything to do with it, and stop up all leak-holes by insisting not only on the right doctrine, but on the refusal of toleration to the wrong.

To contend for the equal applicability of such measure to the question of the responsibility of rebels and unbelievers, does certainly seem to indicate an inability to distinguish between things that differ. A brother’s uncertainties on the subject is an affair of interpretation of the Lord’s acknowledged word. He does not deny the Lord’s utterances: he asks what do they mean? This is a position to be treated in a very different manner from the attitude that calls in question the authenticity of the Lord’s words. And any misapprehension he may labour under as to the meaning of the words does not affect any general truth in the case, but merely the application of said truth in detail. He does not say, “I believe rebels and unbelievers will go unpunished if they are not baptised”. He says, “I certainly believe they will be punished, whether baptised or not, in all cases in which the Lord thinks they are deserving of it. But,” adds he, “I see the Lord makes blindness a reason for exemption, and ignorance of the words and works of Christ a reason for exemption. And therefore I feel in a state of uncertainty as to how much the Lord will punish various classes of unbelievers in a day like ours when all is so dark.” To apply to such a position the stringent measures called for by the denial of the complete inspiration of the Bible indicates a fogginess of mental vision.

To Every Disease its Cure

 Upon which, there rises the exclamation: “How are the mighty fallen! What a change in the position of Brother Roberts with reference to the question of fellowship!” We can endure such objurgations because they come from the mouths of well-meaning men, and because they are based upon entire misapprehension. We have changed in nothing since the day we commenced the active service of the truth. In the beginning, we had to deal with men who were prepared to compromise first principles in fellowship. To every disease its own remedy. We took a line of argument suitable to the exigency. But now, there is another extreme of an equally destructive character in another way. It is an extreme requiring another kind of argument. Have we changed because we take a line of argument suited to a new dilemma? There are several sides to a camp. When the attack is on the north, the troops are sent that way in defence. Is the general inconsistent because when the attack next time comes from the west, he withdraws his troops from the north, and sends them to the new point of attack? We are sorry for all the brethren affected by the varying tactics of error (for this is an error of action of a very serious character: if it is not an error of doctrine). It is an offence against the little ones believing in Christ, of which he expressed such great jealousy. It may be forgiven as Paul’s persecution of the disciples was forgiven: but for the time being, it is a grave offence which we refuse to share. There is nothing for it but to wait. We are all helpless in these periodic fermentations, and must bear them as well as we can, and come through them with as little friction as possible in comforting prospect of the master hand that will soon take the helm, and give to the world peace, after storm; and to his accepted brethren, rest after the exhausting toils of this great and terrible wilderness.