Is it right to speak of ‘coming into fellowship’ today?
The expression ‘coming into fellowship’ is in common use, but it is not found in the Bible. That omission does not, of course, preclude such a form of words being used, but it ought, at least, to make the believer pause. Indeed, what is conveyed by the terminology is actually incompatible with the teaching of the Word of God. Why? Because it has a tendency to install in the mind a false conception of fellowship in a broken day—a conception that fails to appreciate the peculiar situation in which the people of God now find themselves.
The first thing to grasp is that we are not in the times described in the book of Acts. Then, the apostles’ fellowship (see Acts 2: 42) was visible to all, such that at one point “durst no man join them” (Acts 5: 13). Such clarity has now vanished, and the Christian profession has degenerated into a babel of competing voices. We can at least be thankful that the doctrine of the apostles is still available—but it is available to all, and none may honestly say because he has it that others do not. Sadly, though they may not say it, many quietly think this way, and regard being identified with their ‘fellowship’ as essential if one is to prosper spiritually. Rome at least has the sense to trace its pretentious claims back to the apostles, but its paler versions elsewhere make no such appeal.
The second thing to grasp is that with Israel temporarily set aside, God has only one company before Him—His Assembly, the Assembly of God. Certainly, Scripture speaks of different assemblies in different places, but these are only the local representations of the Assembly in its universal sense (comp. Gal. 1: 13 and v 22). It is, in essence, just one company, and as such, is distinguished from Israel and the nations (see 1 Cor. 10: 32). In NT times, if you were not in the practical fellowship of that Assembly (irrespective of whether viewed locally or universally) then you were “outside” (1 Cor. 5: 12) Christianity. Now certainly much has changed since then, but God still has only that same one company before Him. Those who imagine that their ‘company’ (however, they may style it) has any kind of corporate status before God cannot produce a scintilla of evidence. God recognises His Assembly, and the individual saints that comprise it but that is all.
Now when people speak of ‘coming into fellowship’ we are entitled to ask what is really meant. Of course, fellowship has a side to it which transcends mere outward partnership, for there is such a thing as the “fellowship of [the] Spirit” (Phil. 2: 1—note the absence of the definite article which makes “of Spirit” characteristic). However, the expression ‘coming into fellowship’ is almost always used in a formal way, in the sense of joining something I was not in before. But what am I joining? In God’s eyes, there is only one fellowship, the fellowship of God’s Son (see 1 Cor. 1: 9), and I am certainly not joining that, for if I were, then every believer not “within” what I am joining is by default “without” (1 Cor. 5: 12, 13). In the NT there was something formal to join—indeed, the new convert had to join it if you were to be recognised as a genuine Christian. When Saul of Tarsus journeyed to Jerusalem “he essayed to join himself to the disciples” but struggled to be accepted because “all were afraid of him, not believing that he was a disciple” (Acts 9: 26). Despite being accepted in Damascus, in Jerusalem he was in danger of being classed as ‘outside’ until Barnabas brought him in (see v27). However, even before the canon of Scripture was closed things had deteriorated. When Paul first wrote to Timothy, what is corporate was presented as “God’s house … [the] assembly of [the] living God” (1 Tim. 3: 15), but by the time of his second letter, what is corporate had degenerated into “a great house” with vessels “to honour, and some to dishonour” (2 Tim. 2: 20). Practical fellowship was still available to the man of God “with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart” (v 22), but the public unity of the profession had gone (see 2 Tim. 1: 15). That breakdown remains, has worsened, and is all around us today. Is there then a new body to join? No, just the mutual recognition by godly individuals of one another. By walking with me are you coming into anything? Not anymore than I am coming into the same with you. To speak of ‘coming into fellowship’ today is to fail to understand the state of the Christian profession.
Of course all this may be dismissed as “disputes of words” (2 Tim. 2: 14), but it is more than that. Words have meaning. Recent ecclesiastical history ought to teach the Lord’s people where proud imaginations about being a godly remnant eventually leads. “What doth Jehovah require of thee, but to do justly, and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with thy God?” (Mic. 6: 8). That should be sufficient.