Hindrances to Fellowship
In these days of generally declining church attendance, one has observed an eagerness to welcome ‘into fellowship’ the many ‘unattached’ Christians who exist in the current confused state of things. Such wide–heartedness, if taken at face–value, is to be welcomed, although as ever, it needs to be tempered with the Apostle’s cautionary word “Lay hands quickly on no man, nor partake in others’ sins. Keep thyself pure” (1 Tim. 5: 22). Finding fellowship is one thing, but it is quite another to walk in a way that is pleasing to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Is it merely about persons with a shared ecclesiastical history joining together—as if our common experiences were all that mattered—or is there a real subjection to God and His Word and the leading of the Spirit? Nor can the past simply be swept under the carpet as if it never existed. If brethren have had issues and problems with each other, then those issues and problems need to be resolved before there can be any progress towards real fellowship. Sin is not somehow ameliorated by the passage of time—it remains as black and filthy as ever, and if not repented of it then it remains not repented of. Indeed, the longer things are not dealt with, then the more likely are consciences to harden, and careless attitudes to unrighteousness develop. Much is often made (and rightly so) of the repentance of the wicked man of 1 Cor. 5 (see 2 Cor. 2: 6, 7), but the apostle also speaks of “many of those who have sinned before, and have not repented as to the uncleanness and fornication and licentiousness which they have practised” (2 Cor. 12: 21).
The individual Christian is often placed under considerable pressure to ‘join with us’, and this is often accompanied by the expectation that he or she will drop any awkward ‘views’ and simply sign up to the constitution of the company. This attitude betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of fellowship. Fellowship is mutual. The numbers of persons involved are immaterial. Both parties are signing up to the constitutions of the other, even if one party is large and the other small. Too many are under the misapprehension that others should join them, when really it is a question of joining together. Their attitude has, as its root, the notion that a group of believers is something to be joined. What we find in Scripture, however, is that the only corporate body that God recognises today is the Assembly and that fellowship (unless we pretentiously imagine that we are the Assembly) is only so many individuals agreeing to walk together (see 2 Tim. 2: 22). I cannot join anything, because there is nothing to be joined. Those who imagine (secretly perhaps) that their little ‘club’ has some kind of corporate status in the eyes of the Lord are not only deluding themselves, but robbing the Assembly of God of the place only it has. This is not to say that brethren in fellowship cannot enjoy what is collective, or do not gather in a way that is in accord with the NT doctrine of the Assembly, but in doing so, they take low ground and claim nothing, as befits the broken nature of the day.
Again, attempts are often made to persuade individuals to join a particular Christian group by relating accounts of how active the company is on the evangelical front, and pronouncing that God is so obviously blessing them in the salvation of precious souls. All these things we ought to be deeply thankful for, but where in the Word are we told that ‘success’ in the preaching of the Gospel is a basis for coming together in fellowship? And if we decline to join, it is not because we are anti–Gospel or doubt the reality of what is going on, but because we believe that “fellowship with the gospel” (Phil. 1: 5) is not the full picture. Paul was a minister both of the Gospel (see Col. 1: 23) and of the Assembly (see v 24, 25). Again, it is not surprising either when those who make the opposite error of emphasising the ministry of the Assembly at the expense of the ministry of the Gospel also cannot understand why others do not quickly join them. Do not the meetings, they say, have a spiritual depth that is not seen elsewhere, and is not the worship of a high order and the ministry exceptional? These things may well be so (though one is inclined to mistrust those who speak so highly of themselves) but all this is to miss the point. Fellowship is a mutual and brotherly covenant: “Shall two walk together except they be agreed?” (Amos 3: 3). If the hindrances to fellowship are not addressed, then there can be no agreement, and therefore no fellowship. Fellowship according to man’s mind is comparatively easy to make because it involves compromise and sinking our differences. Fellowship according to God’s Word is often only brought about by deep and painful exercise on our knees—and few are prepared to bear the cost, both to themselves and to others. We need both the Lord’s grace in dealing with one another, and also the Lord’s mind in how to resolve our many differences.