A verse that encapsulated my early influences as a young Christian:
I became a Christian through the efforts of a group of Plymouth Brethren. A major pre-occupation in those early days was sound doctrine and because of that they tended not to have much to do with non PB groups, deeming them to be too unsound. It was quite an eye opener when I came across the Christian Union at university to discover most CU members were not PB yet they were sound and zealous for God. I could not say that about the other main Christian group, which was linked to the college chaplaincy, and accordingly I sadly steered clear from them when it came to “Christian” matters.
A lot of water has gone under the bridge since then. My approach to other Christians has become a lot more ecumenical, based on trying to find common ground and agreeing to disagree, especially when it comes to inessentials. I have come to see holding sound doctrine is not enough. We need to complement faith with works and fulfill the great commands. Too often those in my group have lost credibility with outsiders for not doing so, just as those who do not adhere to sound doctrine miss a great opportunity to lead people to the one who can save their souls and transform their lives.
As I survey 2000 years of church history, the matter of earnestly contending for the faith has never been far away and each generation has had to come to terms with how to respond to false doctrine taking hold and leading people astray. I fear we are living in such a day today. But sound doctrine must be coupled with authentic Christian living and sadly the world sees too little of this and here I speak as much to my own situation as to anyone else. It would also be a betrayal to those martyred down the ages who did contend for the faith if we do not act. If the faith we earnestly contend for is that important, not to act would be a travesty.
Going back to my own denomination, which I was part of until quite recently, one of the watershed moments was around 1850 when the PBs suffered a split and out of it arose two groups: the Exclusive Brethren (XB) and the Open Brethren (OB) (my group). As the terms suggest, the former had little to do with those who did not dot the ‘i’s and cross the ‘t’s in the way they thought they should. The latter, while still strict, were prepared to associate with any real Christian even if they didn’t entirely agree on all matters of doctrine.
Influential men in the two movements included J.N.Darby (XB) and George Mueller (OB), who unsurprisingly fell out over doctrine (although in truth it was ass much to do with clash in personalities) and yet were prolific in their respective endeavours. What struck me about both, who no doubt had their faults, was firstly they saw the importance of sound doctrine and earnestly contended for the faith. But they were also doers of the Word. Darby’s empathy with and acts of kindness toward the poor is legendary. He planted over a 1000 new churches across Europe. Mueller founded an orphanage that served many thousands, and that work still continues. He also knew what it was to live by faith and trust God to meet all his needs.
We do well to take on board the often quoted adage attributed to St. Augustine in order to avoid apostasy and schism. What we need is understanding when it comes to what is that faith and seeking to apply it concerning a multitude of issues facing us today, recognizing people don’t always see things the same way and sometimes we may be wrong, and we need to speak the truth in love. Then we need to live out that faith and be as Jesus to the world. In my dotage, I reflect ruefully when as a youngster those in the position I am now seemed over occupied on doctrinal niceties and failed to do what needed doing. I am now more sympathetic, realizing the quirks and limitations that come with getting old, but rather than cruise round the world, play golf and take it easy, and notwithstanding one’s own physical and mental constraints, let’s recognize the truth of Jesus words and do what the old hymn says.