Fellowship Today - a Review
“What church do you go to?” is one of the most frequently asked questions when previously unacquainted Christians meet for the first time. Such a question would have been irrelevant in NT times as there was but one Church. Today, however, there is a bewildering array of churches, sects, companies, fellowships, and meetings to which I might go. Not only that, but there are at least as many views on the subject of fellowship as there are circles of fellowship! No wonder this subject is one which causes great difficulties and perplexities for many believers. Extreme views are often promulgated: With some the concept of fellowship is much wider than Scripture allows; with others it is much more narrow than taught in the Word of God.
So then, where can I go? With whom can I meet? With whom can I enjoy fellowship, and indeed for that matter what is fellowship? However, before I present my thoughts for your prayerful consideration, let us just examine together some of the common views expressed on this subject by believers, (and perhaps by you?)
Some say that they are where they are simply because that is where they have always been. They grew up in such and such a company, and when they came of age they simply took their place as members. Others say that as they were saved in a particular meeting they decided to remain and make it their “church”. Still more go where they do because of friends or family. Yet where is faith in all this? Where is the direction from the Scriptures, and the guidance from God? Surely this is no better than the two and a half tribes being satisfied with what suited them and not God, (Num. 32). Sadly God’s will may be sought on everything bar fellowship! Such simply assume that they are in the right place, (and providentially they may well be), but it is a solemn truth that persons who come into such a position without exercise of soul find it remarkably easy to give it up when things get difficult. Joshua’s armies had to conquer in order to possess—a great deal of energy was expended and cost incurred. In contrast, their children did not have such exercises, and so did not value the land like their fathers, nor fear God and keep His law. As a result their enemies soon overcame them. Oh! Let us not be where we are on historical grounds, but as a result of deep spiritual exercise before God!
Likewise many are where they are for no other reason than personal taste! As long as their particular church has activities they approve of and displays qualities they find attractive, then they will remain. When it does not, then they are off to a company or congregation that suits them better. This is nothing more than supermarket Christianity, where people shop around, sampling here and there, before they settle for what best pleases them. If this is my view, then I need reminding that Christianity is based on obedience and not choice, God’s will and not mine. Lot chose the well-watered plain and it caused disaster, (Gen. 13–19). What is attractive to my taste may not always be according to the mind of God.
Another common thing that people say is that they are where they are because “that is where the Lord has led them”. Now on the face of it, this might seem an admirable answer, but there is a subtle danger with it. If the Lord has indeed directed, then such a statement cannot be faulted, but regretfully this kind of answer can become rather glib. By claiming the will of the Lord I effectively remove the liberty of any to query my stand. It is the Lord’s will—who can question it? Why is it then that there are many Christians who claim to be where the Lord has led them, yet go on in different companies, companies which will have nothing to do with each other? The answer is obvious: not all who claim the Lord’s direction do in fact have it! To claim the will of the Lord in no way guarantees that we possess it!
That there are a multitude of Christian companies, many mutually exclusive of one another, is a sad fact of the present day. They cannot all be right; indeed they could all be wrong. How can one judge? I must go to the Word of God. I must see whether these many varied companies, which are all around me answer to what the Bible says with regard to fellowship and the Church. God’s Word is not provided merely for our interest, but in order that we might obey, and it gives explicit instructions as to what kind of fellowship we are to participate in. “Where I go” and “Why I go” are questions that must be answered with an open Bible in the hand. So perhaps it is now time to look at the first question: “What is fellowship?”
The Greek word translated “communion” or “fellowship” in the English Bible is koinwnia and has a number of derivatives. One of these (koinwnoi), is the word translated “partners” in Luke 5: 10 where James and John are said to be partners with Simon in a fishing business. Now to be a partner in a fishing business then you would have to be a fisherman. Likewise Christian fellowship is only for Christians and cannot involve unbelievers: “What part for a believer along with an unbeliever?” (2 Cor. 6: 15). Thus the idea in fellowship or partnership is that of common interest and it is agreement about that common interest that binds the participants together. “Shall two walk together except they be agreed?”, (Amos 3: 3). Sometimes you hear of believers agreeing to disagree. To do so is to make a nonsense of the Scriptural meaning of fellowship. Partnerships are based on agreement!
Now, as Christians, our common interest is Christ. This was not so in Corinth, where disagreements had formed parties: “I am of Paul; I of Apollos;” and so on, (1 Cor. 1: 12). It was making fellowships within a fellowship. Is not that akin to what we hear today: I am a Baptist, I am a Methodist and I belong to the Brethren? Hence in that very same chapter Paul reminds them that they had been “called into [the] fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord”, (1 Cor 1: 9). We own His authority and come under His sway. Their narrow cliques were dominated by the names of men; Christian fellowship is characterised and dominated by one Person only: the Lord Jesus Christ. There is only one fellowship. Men may speak of their fellowship, but Scripture knows only one acceptable fellowship for Christians and that is the fellowship of God’s Son. If a man is not fit for fellowship with one company of Christians, he is not fit for Christian fellowship anywhere. Scripture only owns the fellowship of God’s Son, and there are no fellowships within that fellowship.
Now one aspect of fellowship, which is perhaps lost sight of today, is the principle that the whole partnership can be affected by one individual, (see 1 Cor. 12: 26). So Paul says to the Corinthians “A little leaven leavens the whole lump”, (1 Cor. 5: 6; see also Rev. 18: 4). Later on in the same epistle, and still discussing fellowship, he exhorts “See Israel according to flesh”, (10: 18). To do this, let us go to Josh. 7: 1: “But the children of Israel committed unfaithfulness in that which had been brought under the curse: Achan, the son of Carmi, .... took of the accursed thing; and the anger of Jehovah was kindled against the children of Israel.” Carefully note the language used here. It says firstly that the children of Israel committed unfaithfulness, though the action was that of just one man. God identified the nation with that one man! Why? Because of this fundamental concept that what one does affects all. Again it does not say that the anger of Jehovah was kindled against Achan, but against Israel. Similarly in v11 it is not “Achan hath sinned”, but “Israel hath sinned”; all is in the plural, nothing in the singular! This example clearly sets out the principle seen in 1 Cor 5: 6 that the whole company is identified with the action of a single individual. Fellowship involves identification, whether for good or for bad. (Compare Philemon 17–18: “If therefore thou holdest me to be a partner (koinwnon) [with thee] receive him as me”, that is if Philemon professed practical fellowship with Paul then he should receive Onesimus also, since Philemon and Paul were evidently partners too, (vs 10, 11, 16)). There is no getting away from this fundamental idea!
For example, there are those today who take the Name of Christ but deny the resurrection. Can I be in fellowship with such without being identified with this ruinous doctrine? No! Similarly there are those who see nothing wrong in according fellowship to homosexuals in spite of clear Scriptural prohibition. If I am linked in fellowship with those who allow such practices among them, then I am linked with those who carry out the practices. Let these words from the OT and the NT indelibly impregnate our souls “Israel hath sinned” and “A little leaven leavens the whole lump”! Note that it is the whole lump. A believer may be personally sound in the faith, but his associations can quite possibly disqualify him from fellowship. Sure all believers are members of the body of Christ, but fellowship is not with all. The man in 1 Cor 5: 2 could not be put outside the body, but his conduct certainly rendered him unfit for Christian fellowship, along with any associated with him. Again 2 Tim. 2: 22 also limits fellowship if I am to pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart.
So in the light of this, just who can I accord fellowship to? The current divided state of the Church is clearly not of God and some, recognising the anomalous character of the current situation, are strenuously aiming at amalgamation. Commendable as this last may seem, very often it appears to be aimed at sinking differences and marching together at any cost. Could this be called a fellowship of the Spirit, (Phil. 2: 1)? To yield gracefully on matters which rest simply on personal preferences, (Comp. 1 Cor 8: 13), or established customs, would be a small price to pay for genuine fellowship, but to give up that which is Scripturally right, or to condone that which is Scripturally wrong is unacceptable. I repeat, there is no such thing contemplated in God’s Word as agreeing to differ. If we are to sink differences, the question must be asked, what are we being asked to sink?
However, whilst mere amalgamation is clearly not of God, what then am I to do? The answer is given in 2 Tim. 2: “pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart”. I desire to walk with every believer whose conduct is such that he is seen to be in accord with that Scripture. For someone to be pursuing these things, it is not just a question of his personal walk, but of those with whom he himself is walking. Remember: “Israel hath sinned” and “A little leaven leavens the whole lump”.
However, it is one thing to be thankful for those with whom I can walk in practical fellowship, quite another to be complacently satisfied with the extent of that fellowship, with scarcely a thought as to whether it is all it could be. Such an attitude is sectarian in character. There may indeed be insurmountable barriers to practical fellowship with other believers, but would it not be a sign of spirituality to be filled with grief at the situation? This is especially pertinent when I consider others, who though not outwardly linked with me, appear to be very similar in their principles, doctrine and practice. In many cases minor doctrinal differences, ecclesiastical history, or even just personal feeling present apparently unsurpassable obstacles. We should be ashamed that such things have been allowed to prevent the maintenance of the unity of the Spirit! If there are differences, then they must be addressed—but not in any superficial way. Fellowship, if ever restored, must be full and complete.
Some speak of “occasional” fellowship, but Scripture knows nothing of the term nor the sentiments it expresses. The boundaries of fellowship are clearly delineated, not blurred. What kind of reason is it that says a person might “break bread” yet opt out on all the cares and responsibilities of fellowship? Christian fellowship is never a matter of circumstantial convenience. Is it right to identify myself in fellowship with a company of believers when on holiday, yet not be able to do the same when at home? Privilege and responsibility go together! A “circle” of fellowship, (whereby we know for certain who is in fellowship and who is not), is thus both essential and Scriptural. Nonetheless I must strenuously avoid forming an ecclesiastical system. God is not identified with any company, (other than the whole, true Church of God), and any system I may endeavour to set up has not got divine sanction. I am not here to make another system, but to acknowledge the ruin of the first. To pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace with those that call on the Lord, (2 Tim. 2: 22), is not a system, but only so many individuals agreeing to walk in fellowship together.
So what kind of fellowship do we participate in? I may be satisfied with “my fellowship” but that is of no weight whatsoever. The opinion that matters is the opinion of heaven. Christian fellowship is not a religious society of man’s making where membership is according to the whim of the existing members, but an entity, subject to the directions of God. Commendable features can never outweigh disobedience to God’s Word. Is the company you meet with in accord with those Scriptures of Truth?