Guilt By Association

You know the game. Bob has lunch with Fred. Fred has lunch with John. John is a crook. So Bob and Fred must be crooks, too. Or how about this one: Sue believes that the world is flat; Alice hangs out with Sue; so Alice must believe that the world is flat, too. And finally there’s this version of the game: Remember John the crook? John believes abortion is wrong. If you believe abortion is wrong just like John, you must be a crook just like John.

This kind of thinking, if I dare call it such, is known as Guilt by Association. It is a mistake in reasoning that wrongly connects the merits of an idea to the merits of the person holding the idea or, in its most general form, wrongly assumes that social connections imply approval or agreement.

One recent publication put it like this: “If A fellowships B who does not teach error, but B does fellowship C who does teach/practice error, not only is B in violation…but so is A.” So say preacher Bob is a graduate of a college where his old friend and former professor, Dr. Tom, is teaching some very controversial theories about the Bible. This makes Bob and the whole college suspect. Bob invites his other buddy, Fred, to hold a Gospel meeting. Now Bob, Fred, and all the members of the congregations where they preach must be liberal, and all the preachers and congregations that associate with them must be liberal, too. By the time we’re done, thousands of people who don’t know Dr. Tom and don’t believe what he teaches are tainted by the alphabet game.

Right off the bat, I trust you can see a glaring problem: Where do we draw the line? Researchers have found an average of six social links separating 60,000 e-mail users in thirteen different countries. How close do I have to get to someone before I am tainted by that person’s belief or character? Is one link enough? How about two? How about six? The greater the number of links, the greater the number of tainted people. Ironically, preachers using the A-B-C method to smear countless others will, inevitably, be caught in the dreaded chain of guilt themselves.

If we look at what the Scriptures have to say on the subject on fellowship, it soon becomes apparent that there are really two separate questions to ask about the associations we have with others.

First, if I interact socially with questionable characters, am I wrong for having such associations, and does it necessarily imply my approval of their beliefs or behavior? The answer has got be “No.” Jesus took the Gospel to people who lived on the fringes of polite Jewish society. The Pharisees were scandalized by these associations (Luke 15:1-2). In response, Jesus launched into a series of parables that emphasized the urgent need for repentance of all men. Our Lord was not tainted by these connections (1 Peter 2:22-23), nor would He have called them sinners if He approved of their lifestyle.

The second question is this: Must I be wary of my social connections? Certainly. We know that “evil company corrupts good habits” (1 Corinthians 15:33). Surely this cannot mean that I must avoid anyone who is evil. Apart from being practically impossible, it is not the example set by Jesus. In their Greek lexicon, Louw and Nida note that the word translated “company” usually implies “some kind of reciprocal relation or involvement.” It is the same word used in John 4:9 to describe the lack of interaction between Jews and Samaritans. This did not stop Jesus from talking to the Samaritan woman. He acted with love and respect, but it was not an even-handed “inter-faith” dialogue. Paul told the Corinthians to avoid unrepentant, sexually immoral people in the church (1 Corinthians 5:11). He did not want them to avoid such people in the world (vs. 10). These people needed to hear the Gospel, but the nature of the association would be an asymmetric teacher-student relationship, not a reciprocal companionship.

So, if preacher Bob is teaching error, and preacher Fred fills Bob’s pulpit without ever saying anything on the topic, there is too much dialoguing and not enough correction (2 Timothy 2:24-26). This does not license us to conclude, though, that Fred must believe the same error. Nor is it a foregone conclusion that preacher Harry should be shunned for speaking on the same lectureship as preacher Fred. We might wish that Harry would not go. We might wish, if he did go, that he speak to Fred about his associations. But, for the reasons mentioned above, if we press the alphabet game too far, fellowship becomes impossible.

Further, we must respond to false teachers. Paul tells us to “note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them” (Romans 16:17). Similarly, Jude warns us about men who have been marked for their false teachings (Jude 4). But we have to be careful here. The people who play the guilt-by-association game are drawing ever smaller circles of fellowship. They have shunned all sorts of people for reasons that cannot be justified from Scripture.

This brings us to another irony: the people who play this game tend to be the most subversive of all. Some have already been marked by multiple, faithful congregations. Like the false teachers of old, they are sneaking into our assemblies and homes, but they are finding other ways to make an end-run around the legitimate leadership of other congregations. Their divisive materials, for instance, can arrive unapproved and unwanted in our mail boxes.

Scripture teaches that there are, indeed, limits to fellowship. It is not true that just “anything goes” when it comes to doctrine, and we must contend earnestly for the Faith (Jude 3). At the same time, we must be wary of those people who think, like the Judaizers of the 1st Century (Galatians 6:11-15), that they know the limits of fellowship better than Jesus Himself.

© 2008 – 2010, Trevor Major. All rights reserved.

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