We might be tempted to despair as we consider the enfeebled state of those who claim to be holding to the true idea of fellowship in a fractured Christian profession. Indeed, we would be more than justified in asking whether those who claim to be holding to ‘non–sectarian’ principles are really any less ‘sectarian’ than those who openly advocate the existence of a variety of ‘churches’ to suit every taste. Is it not ironic that acting on supposedly ‘non–sectarian’ lines seems only to have served to add to the number of sects existing? And is it right that, with depressing regularity, each “new lump” (1 Cor. 5: 7)—or what is presumed to be such—inevitably divides until eventually nothing is left? Surely a doubt must be raised in the minds of the “spiritual” (Gal. 6: 1) as to whether the course being pursued is the right one? At the very least a fresh examination of the Scriptures seems called for. I shall begin then by examining what the Scriptures have to say about sects, denominations and schisms.
Sects and Denominations
The concept of a sect is not confined to Christianity. We read in the Scriptures of the sect of the Sadducees and the sect of the Pharisees (see Acts 5: 17; 15: 5) and even Christianity itself was once considered to be only another sect of Judaism (see Acts 24: 5, 14; 28: 22). In our day, the word sect or heresy (Greek: αιρεσις) has acquired theological baggage, but in the NT it simply means a school of opinion. At Corinth, the disunity was so bad that Paul had to say that “there must also be sects among you, that the approved” (that is, those who refused to become involved in the formation of parties) “may become manifest among you” (1 Cor. 11: 19; see also 1 Cor. 1: 11–13). Peter speaks of a more sinister development, whereby false teachers would get into the Assembly (or Church), bringing with them “destructive heresies” (2 Pet. 2: 1)—schools of opinion that take their adherents away from the apostolic faith. However, in NT language, αιρεσις need not be accompanied by false doctrine. The αιρετκος or heretic (see Tit. 3: 10) is simply one who seeks a following, either for himself or another.
Doctrine may be used to that end, but the root problem is party–spirit. Fundamentally, sectarianism is a work of the flesh (see Gal. 5: 20) in which the human will is active. In this connection, it is significant that αιρεσις is derived from the verb airew, choose, since Christianity does not present the believer with options. He is not at liberty to choose his doctrines, his leaders or his companions. It was for that reason that the Roman saints, despite their differences, were exhorted to “receive ye one another” (Rom. 15: 7)—a Scripture, incidentally, that refers to coolness in relationships within the Assembly and not, as commonly thought, with reception into fellowship.
Not every Christian group is a sect, however. The established church in England, for example, does not easily fit within the definition because it is manifestly not a single school of opinion but an alliance of disparate beliefs. Properly speaking, it is a denomination, a word derived from Latin meaning a named autonomous group within Christendom. A denomination need not have strong opinions about anything. Furthermore, if any group of believers take on a corporate identity, then, whatever they may argue, they are essentially a denomination. By contrast, God recognises only one corporate body in the present dispensation (Israel being set aside)—His Assembly—and, that being so, it follows that Christians should bring their thoughts into accord with His. The fact that the NT speaks of assemblies in the plural—as with the “assemblies of Judaea” (Gal. 1: 22)—is no support for denominationalism. These assemblies were simply the local representation of “the assembly of God” (v13), it being impractical for every Christian in the world to meet in one place. Similarly, there is no contradiction between “[there is] one body” (Eph. 4: 4)—and “ye are Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12: 27) for the lack of the definite article in Greek makes it characteristic—Corinth was representative of the whole. The public breakdown in the professing church has not altered these truths one jot, and the saints must seek to abide by them.
Leaving aside denomination then as an unscriptural term, it might be thought that that a school of opinion or sect (at least as presented in the Bible) refers to division in spirit, while schism is an actual, physical rupture. However, this is not how the Word of God presents things. The Greek word for schism (skisma) is derived from the verb skizw which means split or tear, and thus has the sense of dividing what was previously whole. While Paul’s desire for the Corinthians was that “there be not among you divisions” (skisma), he had also heard that when they came together in assembly “there exist divisions” (skisma) “among you” (1 Cor. 1: 10; 11: 18; my emphasis). However, despite “each one in eating takes his own supper before [others]” (see v21), it could not be said that Corinth was formally divided, for Paul addressed “the assembly of God which is in Corinth” (see 1 Cor. 1: 2; my emphasis). The same informal division is seen among the Jews in John’s Gospel (see John 7: 43; 9: 16; 10: 19). The division referred to in Rom. 16: 17 is a different Greek word (dicostasia), but again, the sense is not a formal rupture. It was the faithful who were to “turn away” from those agitating dicostasia in Rome—which would hardly make sense if an actual split had already occurred. Thus a sect or school of opinion may lead to a schism in the Christian company, but such a tear is not necessarily a complete breach.
It is also a mistake to think that excommunication (as defined by Scripture) is necessarily schismatic. In 1 Cor. 10: 32, mankind is divided into just three groups: Jews, Greeks (or the nations) and the Assembly of God. More specifically, there is only a “within” and a “without” (1 Cor. 5: 12, 13) in relation to the Assembly—as already noted, the NT knows nothing of denominations. In NT times if a professing believer was disciplined and put outside the fellowship of the Assembly, then the offender was to be to those remaining “as one of the nations and a tax–gatherer” (Matt. 18: 17). He was no longer viewed as one of their own, and thus the unity of the Assembly was preserved. The “whole lump” (1 Cor. 5: 6) remained, though having acted to “purge out” (ekkaqairω) “the old leaven”, it could be called “new” (v7). Such united action by the Assembly in its character as the house of God is impossible today, and individuals may have to act on their own responsibility and purify (ekkaqairω) themselves (see 2 Tim. 2: 21) by separating from what is unclean. There is this difference, however: there is nothing in Scripture to suggest that the faithful believer can get out of what is now a “great house” (v20)—he can only separate himself from the vessels “to dishonour” in that house. This in turn puts a severe limitation on any proposition for a few to act together today on the principle of 1 Cor. 5—for that Scripture clearly envisages a far deeper exclusion than is now practicably possible when unity in the Christian profession is long gone. It is not just a question of being unable to celebrate communion with the excluded individual (as some appear to think), but of treating them as actually outside the Christian profession. If this seems drastic, then that is because the procedure was only to be used in drastic cases. To take the view that the wicked person is only removed from ‘among ourselves’ is inherently sectarian. Actually, most of the trouble among God’s people does not justify such severe action, and generally relates to differences of opinion (note that word), often over technicalities. Most could be solved with a little more grace, humility and patience, but where the differences are irreconcilable, then a quiet and unpretentious cessation of fellowship ‘for conscience sake’ seems most in keeping with the character of the times in which we live. It is impossible to point out the Assembly today as a public body, and my being ‘in fellowship’ or ‘not in fellowship’ with another believer may have nothing to say about his being “within” or “without” (1 Cor. 5: 12, 13) in the sense that Scripture uses the terms.
Having thus defined sects, denominations and schisms, we now need to consider three expressions that Scripture uses that will aid our understanding of how to walk in a genuine ‘non–sectarian’ way: one body, one faith and one Spirit.
Those who are unashamedly sectarian in outlook can only pay lip service to the doctrine that “the body is one and has many members” (1 Cor. 12: 12). Why? Because it is evident that every believer, by virtue of being a member of the body of Christ, is “called into [the] fellowship” of God’s “Son Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor. 1: 9), and God does not recognise any other fellowship. However, some, having grasped this truth, have added to it (always a dangerous practice), and claim that they are actually ‘gathered on the ground of the one body’. This sounds fine, but this form of words is not found in the Bible. Unscriptural terms tend to lead to unscriptural practice, and if the truth of the one body is made the sole basis of fellowship, then you are duty bound to accept every professing Christian without qualification—irrespective of low morals or bad doctrine. Certainly the fact that there is “one body” (Eph. 4: 4) should prevent fellowship from being denied to true believers simply on the basis that “he follows not with us” (Luke 9: 49), but nor should it be used as a licence to associate with everyone who professes Christ. The second epistle of John warns that believers may be identified with the most antichristian of doctrines simply by allowing their natural good–naturedness to overreach itself (see v11). God holds such to “partake” (koinonew) in the wicked works of the false teacher and that being so, it is inconceivable that the Assembly should associate with them. Similar truth is taught elsewhere: “ye cannot drink [the] Lord’s cup, and [the] cup of demons: ye cannot partake of [the] Lord’s table, and of [the] table of demons” (my emphasis, 1 Cor. 10: 21). The two fellowships are mutually exclusive. Thus while the “one body” (Eph. 4: 4) is a useful corrective against both denominationalism and sectarianism, by itself it will not give you the Scriptural idea of fellowship.
That is why a close association has been forged by some Bible teachers between ‘gathering on the ground of the one body’ and what is known as ‘gathering to the Lord’s name’: “For where two or three are gathered together unto my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matt. 18: 20). However, it is clear from the context that this verse is about two or three saints coming together to pray (perhaps not even in a formal ‘prayer meeting’) and that any ecclesiastical connection is overstated. Certainly the Assembly is mentioned in verse 17, and implied in verse 18, but the word again that commences verse 19 suggests that the subject being taken up there, while related, is not exactly the same as what has preceded. Nor can the fact that a similar expression occurs in a distinctly ecclesiastical setting in 1 Cor. 5: 4 mean that constraints can be imposed on what is to be understood by Matt. 18: 20. Despite this, a very great deal has been built on this one verse, even to the conceit of imagining that ‘gathering in my name’ is an exclusive position belonging only to certain Christians—rather like the “I of Christ” of 1 Cor. 1: 12. By this means the Lord’s presence is taken away from any not in the self–appointed company—even if it is two or three believers gathered round the bed of the sick or dying!
There is no doubt, of course, that any true realisation of fellowship will involve gathering unto the Lord’s name. The mistake has been in the failure to understand that Matt. 18: 20 refers to a spiritual state in those gathered, and that there can be no gathering to the Lord’s name simply by belonging to a particular company of Christians. The use of the Lord’s name implies His absence as the rejected One, and to gather to that despised name implies that those who do so have made Him the focus of their honour and attention. In response, He has promised to grace them with His spiritual presence. The strange idea of some that this means that the Lord is obligated to respond to a collective act of ‘breaking bread’ is abhorrent—certainly He keeps His promises, but those promises have spiritual conditions attached. Of course all sorts of unsubstantiated claims may be made about spirituality, but Scripture never leaves us to go on intangibles alone—as is demonstrated by Matt. 18: 20 itself. Hence where is the proof in this particular instance that the two or three are gathered to the Lord’s name, and that He is in the midst of them? The answer is in the previous verse: “Whatsoever it may be that they shall ask, it shall come to them from my Father who is in [the] heavens” (v19). The Lord’s presence, in this case, is demonstrated by answered prayer—an objective fact. Occupation with objective facts leads to the subject of:
That there is only “one faith” (Eph. 4: 5) only serves to underline the critical importance of what we profess to believe. Faith here refers not to the disposition of trusting, but to the objective facts in which trust is placed—“the matters fully believed among us” (Luke 1: 1) and the form of teaching “into which ye were instructed” (Rom. 6: 17). There can be no gathering to the Lord’s name if we “have gone astray” (2 Tim. 2: 18) as to the truth, and have wilfully let slip “sound teaching” (Tit. 2: 1). How could the Lord sanction that with His presence? The Lord’s commendation to Philadelphia was that they had “kept my word, and hast not denied my name” (Rev. 3: 8).
Now when Jude wrote to the saints exhorting them to “contend earnestly for the faith once delivered” (Jude v3), this was against a background of “certain men” who, despite being adrift on both the gospel and the person of Christ, had got into the fellowship of the Assembly “unnoticed” (v4). Now if they got in unnoticed, then it is obvious that to the undiscerning they must have at least appeared to be sound in the faith. This kind of reckless naivety in reception is one extreme. The other extreme is sectarianism, when fellowship is made conditional on compliance with a particular line of teaching—often under the presumption that the favoured teaching is synonymous with “the faith once delivered” (v3). Such a definition of fellowship is incompatible with Scripture because “If we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another” (1 John 1: 7). This is not a question of some Christians being in the light, and others being in darkness, for all believers are “sons of light and sons of day” (1 Thess. 5: 5). Thus a believing stranger (see 3 John v5) can be met on the street and immediately there is a measure of communion. Of course all who claim to be “once darkness, but now light in [the] Lord”, are responsible to “walk as children of light” (Eph. 5: 8), and so to develop links with strangers requires a measure of wisdom. It is easy to associate too quickly, and make ourselves partakers “in others’ sins” (1 Tim. 5: 22). However, the wisdom employed must be “from above” (James 3: 17) and not our own, for there is often a tendency to make demands of our fellow–Christians that Scripture itself does not make. Fellowship in the Bible is not founded on schools of opinion but apostolic doctrine. Thus the first Christians “persevered in the teaching and fellowship of the apostles” (Acts 2: 42)—teaching and fellowship being linked, but with teaching taking precedence. This is not to say that unless there is the same understanding about everything then there can be no fellowship, for we are all at different stages of spiritual growth—the “fathers” are in advance of the “little children” (1 John 2: 13). Even the apostle Peter speaks of Paul’s doctrine as containing things which “are hard to be understood” (2 Pet. 3: 16). What is plain, however, is that the apostle’s teaching and no other teaching must form the doctrinal basis of true Christian fellowship. Some may be ignorant of large parts of this teaching, but that is where the “work of [the] ministry” comes in (the practical service of gift in the body of Christ) “until we all arrive at the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God” (Eph. 4: 12, 13). Hence to insist on unity of faith now is to make demands of the ignorant and unlearned that they cannot possibly meet, and leads to persons either being unjustly excluded from fellowship or pressured into adopting positions beyond where they are in their souls. What can be insisted on is that “the faith once delivered” (Jude v3) must be the track on which all are travelling. Some may be further along than others, but the rails must be the same.
It would be foolish to imagine, however, that Biblical orthodoxy, while vital, is the essence of fellowship. The assembly at Sardis had a name to live, but were spiritually dead (see Rev. 3: 1), and there are many similar examples today. When Paul wrote to the Philippians he spoke of a “fellowship of [the] Spirit” (Phil. 2: 1) and this leads to the contemplation of:
Cold orthodoxy neither glorifies God nor helps man. Fellowship in Scripture is a vital thing that is focused on a person: hence we have been called into the fellowship of God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (see 1 Cor. 1: 9). Sadly, in rejecting dry formalism, many have fallen into an opposite error, and have made the mistake of thinking that where Christians are utterly focused on the Holy Spirit, then it is in those conditions that you will get a fellowship of the Spirit. This sounds logical, but that is the trouble with it, because it is based on human reasoning and not revelation. Revelation teaches that the Holy Spirit will glorify Christ rather than Himself (see John 15: 26; 16: 14)—hence the clearest evidence of truly spiritual fellowship is that Christ is in the centre. This is why the apostolic fellowship which John presented to the saints was founded on “that which we have seen and heard” (1 John 1: 3)—the Lord Himself. Where there is truly a “fellowship of [the] Spirit” (Phil. 2: 1), the emphasis is on the effect produced in and among the saints by the Holy Spirit rather than the Holy Spirit Himself (hence the absence of the definite article in original Greek of the verse quoted). That effect is a shared devotion towards the Son of God who has laid down His life for His friends—as in: “the cup of blessing which we bless, is it not [the] communion” (koinonia) “of the blood of the Christ? The bread which we break, is it not [the] communion of the body of the Christ?” (1 Cor. 10: 16, 17).
Now Christians are exhorted to use “diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit” (Eph. 4: 3) which shows that it is a unity can be easily lost (or replaced by what is false). When was the unity of the Spirit formed? On the day of Pentecost when “in [the power of] one Spirit” God’s people were “baptised into one body” and were “given to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12: 13). One body and one Spirit are therefore linked, for the unity of the body is every believer in one company on earth, while the unity of the Spirit is the power that binds them together in “the uniting bond of peace” (Eph. 4: 3). The divine conception was that the unity of the body ought to have been ever reflected in the unity of the Spirit, but in proportion to what has been ceded to the flesh, so spiritual unity has been lost, for the flesh and the Spirit are “opposed one to the other” (Gal. 5: 17). In the light of this, our business as saints is not to attempt to make a new unity but, as recognising the unity already made, to seek to work it out practically (so far as is possible). This will not be easy, for the relative simplicity of NT times is long gone, and a multiplicity of intractable issues, both historical and doctrinal, now impede our way.
There is also the very real danger of limiting our thoughts to simply who should be ‘in’ and who should be ‘out’, as if fellowship is summed up entirely by a kind of ‘breaking bread’ membership. This ignores many of the fundamental features that attain to a true “unity of the Spirit” and which provide the context to Eph. 4: 3, 4. Thus in verses 1 and 2, the Ephesian saints are exhorted to walk worthy of the calling wherewith they have been called “with all lowliness and meekness” (my emphasis). This raises the bar of real fellowship very high. Lowliness is to think nothing of self, while meekness is to have no interest in self. It does not take very great imagination to see that such a spirit is very conducive to good relationships among saints. Hence the lowliness and meekness are to be accompanied “with longsuffering” and “bearing with one another in love”. Longsuffering implies the absence of a hasty, judgmental spirit, while bearing with one another in love (and the qualification is vital) refers to that patience with others that only comes from true affection. The sad history of God’s people (both ancient and modern), is a very defective record indeed when measured against this standard. Certainly fellowship involves the pursuit of righteousness (see 2 Tim. 2: 22), but if righteousness is pursued alone then “faith, love, peace” are inevitable casualties along the way. It is only as “holding the truth in love” (Eph. 4: 15)), that we shall not “grieve the Holy Spirit of God” with which we “have been sealed for [the] day of redemption” (v30). Hence: “let all bitterness, and heat of passion, and wrath, and clamour, and injurious language, be removed from you, with all malice; and be to one another kind, compassionate, forgiving one another, so as God also in Christ has forgiven you” (vs. 30–32). Such words need no commentary.
It only remains to ask reader and writer alike to honestly reconsider his conception of fellowship in the light of the solemn testimony of God’s Word. A sectarian spirit is so very close to each of us, and we ever need to heed the practical exhortation of Phil. 2: 5: “let this mind be in you which [was] also in Christ Jesus”. May it truly be so!