To Call Them "Brethren"!!!
"There is no legitimate escape from the differences that must exist between imperfect men, as they search for truth, and find themselves at different levels of understanding. . . . fellowship is not so much negated by that difference as by the differing attitudes that accompany it. Nor have we helped the matter by seeking to whittle God's standard down to size."
"For both he that sanctifieth and they who are sanctified are all of one: for which cause he is not ashamed to call them brethren." (Heb. 2:11) Have you allowed the marvelous depths of this statement to touch you? God has made it possible for us creatures to be "one" with the Creator; through sanctification in Christ, to call us "brethren." This is "fellowship."
"Fellowship" is one of the English words used to translate koinonia, a Greek word meaning "association" or "partnership." It is used in colloquial Greek for (1) business partnership; (2) marriage (koinonia of life); and (3) man's relationship with Zeus. (Barclay, N. T. Words.) The verb form means to "have a share in a thing." This may be to share in an action with someone; sharing in a common possession; or the "sharing of life." In the New Testament (K.J.) the verb form is translated "distribute," "communicate," and "partake." The noun form is translated "fellowship," "contribution," "communion," and "distribution." A similar noun, koinonos, is translated "partakers," "partners," "fellowship" and "companions."
Other writers of this special issue will likely give more attention to word study, but I have overlapped this much to show that the fundamental idea of "sharing" may be applied both to conscious partnership (where some mutual agreement between the parties in fellowship is implied — a deliberate sharing by choice) and to a position held in common by two or more, whether by choice or otherwise. (Note Heb. 2:14 "the children are partakers of flesh and blood" — "sharers in" AS.) Without deliberately willing a partnership, we may, by like conduct, "share" common ground with sinners — or Satan. (I Cor. 10:18-20, 1 Tim. 5:22, 2 Jn. 11.) In English, "fellowship" is a "ship" of "fellows;" the latter word meaning "alike" or "equal to," "of the same kind." Fellow-creature means one of the same race or kind. Fellow-servants means two or more servants employed together. The word "fellow" is often used in English to translate the Greek "sun" or "sum" a prefix meaning "with." (Fellow-citizens, fellow-disciple, fellow-heir, etc. Eph. 2:19, Jn. 11:16, Eph. 3:6)
Walking In Light
FELLOWSHIP WITH GOD is possible only for those who conform to the image of His Son, (Rom. 8:29) — who are God-like in their character, as well as in overt obedience. This is clearly shown in I Jn. 1:5f., where we are told that "God is light, and in Him is no darkness at all." Light is a very essence of God, an attribute like omnipotence, and love. Since there is no compatibility between light and darkness ("What communion hath light with darkness?") "If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth." Fellowship with God is no fixed tie, organic or otherwise. No act, nor series of acts can purchase a life membership. It is a relationship, demanding constant and continuous "walking in the light" on our part. (Compare, "He that doeth righteousness is righteous, even as He is righteous." I Jn. 3:7) There was never a more sectarian error than the fallacious and damaging conclusion that being a "member in good standing" among the people of the church, means one is in fellowship with God.
Children Of God
We have overlooked a significant aspect of the "child of God" figure, by emphasizing how one becomes a child, to the de-emphasis of being a child of God. It may help to remember that I John 1:5f was written for people already baptized — born — and considering themselves in fellowship with God. There were children of Abraham, physically, who partook of his color, features, and general stature; who were not children of Abraham spiritually, because they did not partake of his obedient and faithful character. (in. 8:37f.) We must love our enemies... "that ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven." (Matt. 5:44-45) (If verse 44 read, "Believe, repent, confess Christ, and be baptized; 45. That ye may be the children of your Father which is in heaven. .." wouldn't that make a fine text for a sermon on becoming a child of God? Now, read it as it is.) When we share such characteristics with God — love our enemies, pray for those who persecute us — we have fellowship with God; and John declares that such life is found only "in Christ" where there is forgiveness.
Common Relationship With God
FELLOWSHIP WITH ALL SAINTS exists by virtue of our holding a common relationship with God. We are "fellows" — alike, of the same kind, — with all who "have obtained like precious faith with us" through Christ. (2 Pet. 1:1-4) This implies no conscious or organic tie respecting one-another. We may one day meet a total stranger, with whom we have had no dealings, and find that we are alike "partakers of the divine nature." We have been "fellow-heirs" "fellow-citizens" lo, these many years, and had no knowledge of one-another. Some have ceased to walk in the light, breaking their fellowship with God, ceasing to be a "partaker" with us, and we were unaware of the loss. Others daily come into this relationship with God, in common with us, and we know it not. Surely it is apparent that this "fellowship" involves no conscious "sharing" with one-another, in the immediate sense, but refers only to a "sharing" with God which we hold in common.
Fellowship As A Conscious Effort
Then there is a FELLOWSHIP WITH CERTAIN SAINTS which necessitates a conscious effort on our part — a "sharing" of efforts, materials, or desires. Titus was Paul's "partner" and fellow-helper in his work with the Corinthians. (2 Cor. 8:23) The church at Philippi "communicated" with Paul, as concerning giving and receiving. (Phil. 4:15) The "right hands of fellowship" given Paul and Barnabas (Gal. 2:9) were indicative of a "sharing" or likeness of understanding, faith and desires. The taught has fellowship with the teacher (Gal. 6:6), and the "haves" distribute to the "have-nots" (Rom. 12:13), for the Hebrew writer said, "To do good and to communicate forget not: for with such sacrifices God is well pleased." (Heb. 13:16) This fellowship seems to have no congregational boundaries, but is expressed freely among all those who share understanding and faith, and whose love for God and one-another draw them together. To encourage, and show the fruit of this sort of fellowship, John urged Gaius and others to receive and support those who traveled about teaching the truth. (3 Jn. 5-8)
Such fellowship is not, however, mere "union" or "association." To be in keeping with God's will, it must be "in Christ's name" (as explained in Mark 9:37-41). It is a bond, and a sharing among saints to the end that the cause of Christ might prosper; "because ye belong to Christ," (vs. 41). John wrote, "If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds."
(2 Jn. 10-11) "Be not unequally yoked with unbelievers: for what fellowship (metoche, sharing) have righteousness and iniquity? or what communion (koinonia) hath light with darkness?" (2 Cor. 6:14) "Christian fellowship" (and the concept is valid, even if the terminology is not) is certainly more than the social association of church members. It is a sharing of faith, hope and obligations in the service of God through Christ. It is a communion of each saint with God in Christ (I Cor. 10:14-22), which each must will and execute individually, so that we share a common relationship — and which then motivates a sharing of prayers, material, and effort. There is no way to have "Christian fellowship" with one who has no such relationship with God in Christ, nor desires such a relationship.
Local Church Fellowship
When brethren discuss "fellowship" or "dis-fellowship" they seem determined to hedge the subject with congregational (local church) boundaries. Extreme cases extend from the idea that if one church "disfellowships" a person, all churches are bound under penalty of God to honor this action, (making the weakest church, with poorest judgment, a legislator for all churches); to the idea that all saints other than those of the church "taking action" are free, without divine censure, to continue "fellowshipping" the excluded person. The Lord authorizes saints to function as one, and provides instruction (by command, example and inference) for the local church. Further, I believe this is the only organized entity ("having organization" for those of that faith) God does recognize for the carrying out of work He has given saints to do collectively. It follows that saints who are a part or members of such a "team" have certain "team obligations" and are "fellows" in the local church. But the "fellowship" of the scriptures is given a much broader realm than that.
Just for the exercise, try this. On the left side of a long sheet of paper summarize every passage in the N. T. using the words translated from koinonia, and its various forms. (See closing part of paragraph one, this article.) Now, draw four perpendicular columns beside these summaries, and head the columns as follows: (1) Relation with God, without respect to others; (2) Relation with God, held in common with others, therefore "fellows" in our relation with God; (3) Relation with other saints (sharing) which is not limited to local church activity; and (4) "Fellows" in local church activities. Study each passage, and "check " the column in which you think it belongs. You may have some difficulties, and may put some passages in two columns, but you will gain a new perspective of our subject. "Fellowship" is not synonymous with "local church" or party.
With the above fresh on your mind, it is a good time to re-study the passages on "withdrawing" fellowship. "Let him be unto thee as the Gentile and the publican" (Matt. 18:17) calls upon us to recognize the person for what he has become. He has ceased to "share" characteristics with God — to have God-like desire for purity, Godlike unselfish love, God-like justice, God-like forgiveness — hence, he has ceased to be in fellowship with God. All efforts to prompt, awaken, and restore these God-like characteristics have failed; so Jesus said for the disciples to recognize his real condition; viz., "as the Gentile (heathen, K.J.) and publican" — "as outside of the commonwealth of Israel" (Lenski) — or, as no longer a "fellow" among the saints.
The incestuous man (I Cor. 5:1-13) was to be "delivered unto Satan;" i. e., treated as the sort of person his conduct indicated — a child of the devil. The purpose of this was to make him keenly aware of the depths to which his fleshly appetite had brought him, so that he might put to death (mortify) his ungodly desires (See Col. 3:5-6) and save his soul. Association with fornicators in the casual contact of life with not forbidden ("for then must ye needs go out of the world") for there was no pretense of "sharing" spiritual relations with such. But to allow a "brother" who was a fornicator to go uncensored, was to act as though the incompatible (light and darkness) were partners. I believe I Cor. 5 urges discipline within a local church; but the sins which made the man unacceptable as a partner in one church, would deny him "Christian" fellowship anywhere.
Rom. 16:17-19 strengthens the validity of this principle. "Mark" (Gr., skopeo) is not "brand" (Gr., stigma; compare "stigmatize"). Paul said "watch out for" or "take note of those who make it their business to produce divisions, and to "avoid" them. "I would have you wise unto that which is good, and simple (without guile, free from admixture) concerning evil." The thought is not so much "get rid or — but "do not enter into" partnership with such. How can there be true spiritual fellowship between those who serve Christ, and those who serve their own belly? (vs. 18)
The standard for determining the "withdrawal" in 2 Thess. 3:6f. is the doctrine (teaching) which Paul had delivered to the Thessalonians and others. ("Tradition" does not classify content, but indicates means of transmission — things passed from teacher to pupil.) Hence, although there is clearly a local context, the action of the saints at Thessalonica was to be taken "in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ" and in keeping with a rule that applies to all saints. True "Christian" fellowship has neither congregational nor sectarian "church-hood" (often erroneously called "brotherhood") limits, but is as broad as the true brotherhood of Christ. It finds functional application in the local church, God's plan for the collective action of saints; but exists by virtue of the universal rule of Christ, not by local or party standards.
The action of a local church or "church-hood" of churches can neither make nor break true "Christian" fellowship. Consider again I Cor. 5:1f. Did the continuation of association on the part of the saints at Corinth, make the incestuous man one wit more in fellowship with God, or with faithful saints elsewhere? Obviously it did not. Or, to reverse the situation, when Diotrephes influenced the brethren of a local church to "cast out of the church" those who were striving to do what the Apostle John commanded, did this lessen the true fellowship these "cast out" ones had with God, or with other faithful saints? Not at all. (See 3 Jn. 50 The act was a presumptuous one, and served only to sever the partnership Diotrephes and his kind once had with God and the saints.
Differences And Attitudes
Since "fellowship" "partnership," "sharing" with God is, by the very nature of the two "partners," on an unequal basis: and man's part is, at the very best, his sincere endeavor to be God-like; some have banished the whole subject of fellowship to a limbo of relativity. By making man's faith and effort purely subjective (its standards self-determined, its reward self-satisfaction) God is practically forced out of the company, and all who contend for "the faith" as the basis for fellowship are called "legalists" and "narrow-minded church-splitters" who "have no love for the brethren." But saving faith is objective — an acceptance of external authority — a looking to the reveL'ed will of God for the "light" in which we must walk. While it is true that men may honestly differ in their understanding of God's will, they must "stand fast in one spirit, with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel." (Phil. 1:27) "If there be therefore any ... fellowship of the spirit — " it must be found in this striving, objectively, for God's truth. (Read 1:27 through 2:2, and forget about that man-placed capital "S" on the second "spirit.") Subjective differences among men can be smothered in objective unity, as we become "likeminded one toward another according to Christ Jesus: That ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Wherefore receive ye one another, as Christ also received us, to the glory of God." (Rom. 15:5-7)
There can be no genuine fellowship between one man who earnestly desires to know God's will and do it, and another who travels the path of human wisdom and majority rule. In reality, the bond of "Christian" fellowship among saints IS NOT so much the uniformity of practice, or even of doctrinal conclusions per se, (these being the fruits) but is rather the spirit and attitude that produces such fruits. For example, two men who do the same thing religiously — one because he sincerely believes God wants it that way, and the other because he likes it that way and has no intention of changing, regardless of God's word — may be less in fellowship than two men whose practice is different, but who are both sincerely searching for truth, and are willing to conform to all truth they find. The first two will drift further apart; the second two will be drawn together in the paths of God. The universal laboratory test to determine the spirit of man, is his reaction to examination of his practices in the light of the revelations of God's Spirit.
This does not argue that differences in practice and/or conclusions are of no consequence. Instead, it establishes the clime for unity of conclusions and practice — our sincere endeavor to believe and practice the unified will of God. In Jesus Christ imperfect man is given the means of peace with God, with his fellowman, and with himself. (Eph. 2:11-22; 2 Cor. 5:19) He gives us a unified message (Eph. 4:5, 11-16), and teaches that we can find oneness in that message. (Jn. 17:17, 20-21) Jesus says, "If any man will do (willeth to do, AS.) his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God, or whether I speak of myself." (Jn. 7:17) When men fail to find and maintain unity and proper fellowship with God and with one-another it is not the fault of God. The fault lays with those men who refuse to use the means of fellowship which God has given.
There is no legitimate escape from the differences that must exist between imperfect men, as they search for truth, and find themselves at different levels of understanding. As already discussed, fellowship is not so much negated by that difference as by the differing attitudes that accompany it. Nor have we helped the matter by seeking to whittle God's standard down to size. Many of those who advocate "unity in diversity" have simply established (?) lines of so-called "fellowship" that are broad enough to enclose those whom they wish to receive, or have convinced some that they should participate in error "for the sake of peace." This does not serve God's purposes. My honest self is all I have to give to God, and I must act consistent with my understanding, my sincere conviction, in order to be true to myself and to God. (Acts 23:1, 24:16)
In the course of studying God's word and following honest convictions it is conceivable, even probable, that men will group themselves according to their convictions. We will "jointly participate" "share" with those whom we regard as followers of God, and refuse to be "partners" in the practice of things we regard as contrary to God's will. If we are concerned for men's souls, we will endeavor to teach others what we believe to be the truth -- and if we are not concerned, we lack that much having fellowship with God. We should have strong convictions — Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind" — but we should never forget that we must give account of ourselves to God. We must have our faith "before God." (Rom. 14:5, 12, 22) We must never regard our conclusions as the standard for others (Rom. 14:4) but must point them to God's word as the standard to which we are alike subject. Our conclusions must remain subject to revision, should we be shown or discover that God's word teaches the need for this.
Here is the core of men's problems regarding fellowship. Puffed with pride, we have made "our plea" a cheap and shoddy substitute for the scriptural "oneness" of humbled, submissive man's spirit, attuned to the Spirit of God; and "our church" the rule by which others are judged. This was the error of the Corinthians, who maintained a fellowship which God rejected; and of Diotrephes and his followers, who rejected a fellowship which God retained. It is the error Paul warned against, saying, "For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they, measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among,...elves, are not wise." (2 Cor. 10:12f). How else can one explain the preoccupation of some with the "mainstream c. the restoration movement" or "the pulse of the brethren." Whose brethren?? Why "our" brethren, of course — begging the whole question of God-approved fellowship. And so we witness the ridiculous extremes of property deeded to those whose faith and practice conform to that of the majority of the Churches of Christ in Texas, or brethren charged with "fellow-shipping error" because they engage in Bible study of differences with institutional brethren.
There is no surer sign of sectarianism than "fellowship" on the basis of "our" churches, or "the mainstream of the movement" rather than on the manifestation of one's love for God and His truth. When "mainstream" churches begin to function collectively this is the gist of denominationalism. It narrows New Testament brotherhood to "party fellowship" and soon its followers begin to think that TRUTH flows in the channel cut by this "mainstream." The fact is, TRUTH cuts its own channel, and IS the mainstream which faithful saints follow.
As men come into fellowship with God, the same "rule" which taught them to believe, repent and be baptized for the remission of sins, will teach them to assemble with those of like faith, and worship God. That same "rule" will teach them the work God expects of them, and such means of organization and performance as He has seen fit to order. It will direct necessary phases of their daily life, both collectively and individually, so that they may "glorify God" in all things. And, to the extent they maintain the same selfless, prayerful, Bible-searching spirit that brought them to Christ, they will be unified in Christ. They will have "fellowship" with like saints everywhere, and will find no "communion" with the contrary spirit anywhere. They will exclude from their local "partnership" all who cease to walk by the same rule; ever mindful that theirs is but an imperfect grasp of the whole truth, but equally aware that God expects complete dedication of that understanding and ability of which they are capable.
God "dwells" with these kind of people, while they give themselves as living sacrifices; and then, they dwell with God eternally in Heaven. "For... He is not ashamed to call them brethren."