Not One of Us
Although fellowship (or communion) involves many things, Scripture singles out the Lord’s Supper as being the way which it is particularly expressed. Those in communion with one another in the NT are characterised by partaking of the loaf together. Hence: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not [the] communion of the blood of the Christ? The bread which we break, is it not [the] communion of the body of the Christ? Because we [being] many, are one loaf, one body; for we all partake of that one loaf” (1 Cor. 10: 16–17). Of course, from time to time, strangers from other towns and cities would present themselves to the local assembly, and it seems likely that there would not be permitted to partake of the bread and wine without producing “commendatory letters” (2 Cor. 3: 1); see also Rom. 16: 1) from those who could vouch for them. The need for vigilance was great, for by this means or another “certain men have got in unnoticed” (Jude 4)—that is, entered the fellowship of the Assembly. Of course, such a careful reception can also be abused in the opposite direction so that Diotrephes refused legitimate brethren and cast them out of the assembly (3 John 8–10).
In our day, the need for vigilance is, if anything, even greater. The unity of the Assembly as a visible thing has long gone, and in its place are countless “churches”, “meetings”, “fellowships” and “chapels” all loudly extolling their validity. Of course the unity of the body of Christ (Eph. 4: 4) remains, as does the one fellowship (1 Cor. 1: 9), the principles of which we are responsible to adhere to. That said, the scattering and confusion that has come in amongst God’s people has led to an inevitable fragmentation of the practical expression of fellowship. Thus we can have a situation where godly Christians in one location may be completely unaware of other godly Christians in the same area. Now some teach that if a stranger comes and claims to be a Christian, then he should not be prevented from celebrating the Lord’s Supper with us. This is saying that it is perfectly all right to express fellowship with a virtually unknown quantity! Of course we are all, as individuals, responsible for our own actions in regard to the lord’s Supper (1 Cor. 11: 27–31), but the Lord’s Supper is more than a collection of individuals sitting down together. They are in communion with one another, and communion involves identification with both the good and the bad in others. Even to merely greet a “deceiver” is to partake of his wicked works (see 2 John 7–11). To “break bread” with a stranger merely on the basis of his profession is not only foolhardy, but betrays a contemptuous regard for the holiness of the fellowship of God’s Son. Even in this world, admittance to the social functions of many a club or society depends on much more that a mere readiness to attend. The fact is, if someone comes along and says he is a believer, we are quite entitled to seek proof of his profession—and a godly stranger would be happy to wait patiently until his case could be established. The Word says that “By their fruits then surely ye shall know them” (Matt. 7: 20)—and fruit needs time to be discerned. Nor is good fruit always what people expect—outward power and the like (see vs 21–23)—but doing “the will of my Father who is in the heavens” (v21). Of course, if this individual has been commended to us by those whom we know, we can receive him because we know them to he trustworthy persons, and we believe their testimony.
If a professing Christian has been removed from a gathering of saints on account of some serious evil (1 Cor. 5: 13), then on account of the fact of their being only one universal fellowship—the fellowship of God’s Son (1 Cor. 1: 9)—he ought not to be received anywhere else. People talk about being put out of a particular denomination, sect or circle of meetings, but that is neither here nor there. If a person is removed according to the Word, he is removed from the fellowship of God’s Son—put outside the practical communion of the Assembly world–wide. Of course, with an Assembly that is so fragmented outwardly, from time to time individuals put out of one gathering of saints are likely to present themselves at other gatherings, and these persons may be tempted to give only incomplete and biased accounts of their personal ecclesiastical histories. We need to be convinced, therefore, that not only is our new “friend” a Christian, but that he is a Christian free from serious and unjudged evil.
One effect of the fragmented nature of the day is to refuse persons to the Lord’s Supper on the ground that “they do not belong to us”—that is, they are not part of our circle of meetings, members of our denomination or whatever. However, it is my contention, startling though it may seem to some, that it is unscriptural to use their lack of formal identification with us as a reason for refusing them.
Though it is often overlooked, the only reason brought forward in the Word of God to decline fellowship with another professing Christian is evil (2 Tim. 2: 19). This may take the form of personal evil (1 Cor. 5: 11)—whether moral or doctrinal—or evil by contamination, whereby an individual is defiled by his associations (2 John 10–11). Thus you cannot turn away a Christian from the Lord’s Supper merely because he is not formally identified with yourselves. To do so would be to flatly disregard the Scriptures of truth. You must be able either to point to some evil that bards him from fellowship, or candidly admit to him that you do not know him sufficiently to be certain that he is not in some way defiled. Any other reason that you bring forward will be in addition to what is laid down in the Scriptures, and must therefore, by definition, be sectarian in its nature.
This is not to say, however, that an individual can somehow “break bread” with a Christian company without being formally united with them and they with him. The Lord’s Supper is the expression of fellowship—and fellowship is partnership (see Philemon 17), no some vague concept where one can have all the privileges but opt out of the responsibilities. There is no such thing as a temporary fellowship—merely for a weekend or holiday. If the responsibilities of fellowship are denied, then fellowship itself becomes meaningless—mere individualism. Those who hold to this “in–and–out” fellowship, where people come and go at will, do not seem to understand that by associating with evil (for this is invariably what happens), they disqualify themselves for fellowship with any seeking to walk according to the holy principles of the fellowship of God’s Son (see 1 Cor. 1: 9). These words may seem harsh, but they need to be said. Too many appeal to a strange kind of unholy “Christian” love in order to justify all kinds of dishonourable associations. A ‘bishop’ may deny the resurrection and the virgin birth, but this is seen as insufficient reason for refusing those who are happy to go on in communion with him!
Again, a brother that comes along seeking participation at the Lord’s Supper and yet demands to be free to “go where he likes” as well, is really not fit to be received. This is not, as some would allege, to put another condition on top of freedom from evil. Who gave this individual the right to associate the company with what it may very well know nothing about—indeed, for all it knows, may very well be evil in character? It is a fundamental principle that no company should allow itself into communion with what it knows nothing about. By such means saints have been unwittingly brought into fellowship with all kinds of subtle wickedness. We cannot receive “freelance Christians because we are not prepared to take the change of being associated with evil. Of course, if an individual can see no reason why he cannot “break bread” with another company as well as us, then let the whole matter be brought before the saints and examined in a charitable spirit. That is where things ought to be decided—not in the self–will of an individual.
Of course there are Christian companies that once walked in fellowship together, and yet though apart, seem to be upholding the same Scriptural principles. Should brethren from the one be received at the other? Again, this all comes down to a question of evil. If the division was brought about on charges of evil, then let those charges be investigated. If there is sin to be confessed, then let it be confessed. If the division was brought about by self–will, personal disagreements or whatever, then let both these and the wrong of bringing about a division on such a basis likewise be confessed. Communion with God requires the confession of sin; communion with each other also requires that we confess our sins against each other. Nor does the passage of time reduce the gravity of sin. If wrong things were done by our predecessors then let us do what we can to put them right, and if they cannot be put right then let us leave them, humbly admitting our incapacity and shame. “Sweeping things under the carpet”, as the saying goes, in order to achieve unity, is a price too high to pay. Fellowship you may have, but it will not be in holiness.
However, though faithfulness requires us never to allow ourselves to be identified with evil, we should be careful not to reverse this and assume that those “not with us” must therefore be evil, and lump them together with the fornicators and idolaters excluded from true Christian fellowship. Scripture speaks of an “outside” and a “within” (1 Cor. 5: 12), and it is the pinnacle of arrogance to assume that we are the “within” in its entirety, and that all others are “outside”. We ought to be humble enough to acknowledge that, in a day when things are so broken up publicly, there may be many other Christians walking in accord with the Bible, and that the barriers separating us may owe more to human construction than anything in God’s Word. Some seem to have got it into their heads that the sum total of the faithful is that contained in “the assemblies address book”! Indeed, the inclusion of a gathering in such a church directory ought never to mean that any who come from such a gathering should automatically be received. Certainly to reject them would have serious ramifications, but to receive them simply because they come from a place registered with us would be to shirk our responsibilities locally before the Lord. The fundamental point about reception to the Lord’s Supper is spiritual and moral qualification, not mere membership of a sect. Is reception based on the fact that I am walking according to the principles of the fellowship of God’s Son—or is it to degenerate into the mere question of whether I come from a meeting in the book?
All this expose the fact that it is very easy to hold in theory the Scriptural principles of fellowship, but much more difficult to work them out in practice. Yet what is the good of a mere theory? Often, fear of change keeps us from examining our practices—even, sometimes, fear of others. Again, if we have had very little contact with Christians outside our own circle we can find ourselves looking at them with suspicion or even disdain. The proud state of mind that looks down on those who follow “not with us” (Luke 9: 49) is not far from any of us. Yet the issue ought never to be “Is he one of us?”, but “Is he faithful to the Lord and His Word?” In a day when all is utter confusion in the Christian profession it is easy to withdraw into our own complacent and self–satisfied circle—yet this is a mark, not of spiritual power, but of fear and weakness. Certainly there is much that is wrong in the Assembly of God, but let us confront it, and then we may find that there are more walking faithful than we realised.