Some New Testament Guide Lines For Fellowship
"It seems odd to me that brethren can disagree with some denominationalist, and yet continue to be friendly and treat him civilly; yet, when brethren disagree among themselves, feelings become so sharp and tempers flare so high, that a calm and candid discussion of their differences becomes impossible."
My responsibility, in fulfilling the assignment given me for this Special Issue of the Gospel Guardian, is to set forth those principles of truth stated in the New Testament which relate to and govern or guide us in fellowship. Since these New Testament truths are the same as they have ever been, I shall not offer anything new, but will simply re-state what has been taught by faithful gospel preachers and teachers in times past.
The subject of fellowship is receiving considerable attention these days. Many movements have been set in motion to unite different groups into one fellowship. I do not write this paper because of any ecumenical movement, but because of the attention given the subject in the Scriptures. The New Testament guide lines for fellowship do not rise or fall or fluctuate with the fervor and zeal of the religious world. They remain constant. They are the same today as they were in the apostolic days. It is not my purpose to determine whom you should or should not fellowship, but the design of this article is to suggest some New Testament guide lines by which brethren may be able to determine their own course. The very fact that the people of God are divided into fighting and fussing factions is evidence that some have failed to follow the principles governing unity and fellowship. The Church is being splintered and fragmented by God's own people. These folk love the Cause of Christ, and honestly feel that they are doing exactly as God's Word dictates. This, however, cannot be true, since each group refuses to fellowship others. If all taught the truth and practiced the truth, then all would be teaching and practicing the same things which pertain to salvation.
Basic Meaning Of Fellowship
The word fellowship basically means sharing, association, communion, community, intercourse, the share which one has in anything, participation, benefaction jointly contributed, a collection, contribution. These definitions come from Thayer, page 352, also W. E. Vine, "Dictionary of New Testament Words."
(I John 1:3. "That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son, Jesus Christ.") Verse 7. "But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, We have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.") Thayer comments on these verses, page 352, ". . . which fellowship consists in the fact that Christians are partakers in common of the same mind as God and Christ, and of the blessings rising therefrom."
From this we conclude that our fellowship with each other is simply the result of all being in fellowship with God and Christ by virtue of our keeping or obeying the word of God. Hence, our first and all-important guide line for fellowship is strict and complete obedience to the word of God. As desirable as fellowship with one another is, it cannot exist where any have failed to walk according to God's word. Since those who violate the commands of God have transgressed the law of God, "Sin is transgression of the law," (1 John 3:4); they have, by their acts, broken their fellowship with God and Christ and have simultaneously broken fellowship with those who remain faithful and insist on authority from God's Word for all things practiced.
If the faithful extend fellowship to those who are transgressing God's law, they become a "partaker of their evil deeds" (2 John 9-11). Paul says, ". . . and have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them." (Eph. 5:11).
Those who violate God's word are unrighteous, while those who faithfully follow the teaching of God are righteous; but there can be no fellowship between righteousness and unrighteousness (2 Cor. 6:14). Hence, the faithful have no choice in the matter, they cannot fellowship those in sin and remain in fellowship with God and Christ.
No set of circumstances can justify a violation of God's law. The doctrine of "Situation Ethics," as taught by the Modernist, is as false as Satan. However, the scriptures certainly teach that circumstances determine, in many cases, what is right or wrong. Let us note some examples.
1. The circumstances determined what Jesus taught His disciples. (John 16:12) "I have yet many things to say unto you, but ye cannot hear them now." Also, (Mark 4:33) "... and with many such parables spake he the Word unto them, as they were able to hear it." To the Corinthians Paul said, "1 have fed you with milk, and not with meat: for hitherto ye were not able to bear it, neither yet now are ye able." (I Cor. 3:2) (Emp. mine. L. M.)
2. Paul refused to submit to demands by false brethren to have Titus circumcised. (Gal. 2: 2-5). Yet under another set of circumstances, he did circumcise Timotheus. (Acts 16:1-3) Thus we see that a thing wrong under one set of circumstances was all right under a different set of circumstances. I rather suspect that had some of our present day brethren been there, they would have accused Paul of compromising the truth of the gospel because of the Jews.
3. (Romans 14:1-6) Some esteemed one day above another, while others regarded not the day. Paul simply said, ". . . let every man be fully persuaded (assured) in his own mind" (verse 5); yet, in Gal. 4:10-11 he said, "Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain."
4. Paul condemns eating of meat. (I Cor. 8:1012). Also, ". .. and I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils" (I Cor. 10:20); yet, in I Cor. 8:8 he says it does not make one better or worse. The circumstances, and one's own knowledge (I Cor. 8:7), will determine what should be done in many such cases. "Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God bath received him." (Rom. 14:3) Here is a clear-cut case of brethren disagreeing on a matter and yet no indication of a disruption of fellowship. Each was to be "fully persuaded in his own mind," (Rom. 14:5), and "Nast thou faith? have it to thyself before God. . ." (verse 22).
III. Can There Be Fellowship Where Brethren Disagree?
It seems obvious, from a study of the passages listed above, that there are areas where complete agreement is not necessary to fellowship. Of course, there must be agreement, harmony, oneness of mind, a speaking of the same thing (John 17:20-21; I Cor. 1:10) on all matters which pertain to becoming a Christian, worship, organization, work, identity and purity of the church; so the areas of disagreement would have to be things which do not affect any of these.
There are personal beliefs which; if not forced upon others, and no discord caused in the church, do not warrant disfellowship. Let us illustrate.
1. A Christian is convinced his allegiance to civil government obligates him to join the Armed Forces and fight in time of war. Another Christian is convinced he cannot do this. They disagree. What one does about the matter does not affect the other. It has been a controversial matter through the years, yet, brethren have continued to fellowship each other.
2. A woman may feel she must wear a covering to worship. By all means, let her do so. As long as she has her faith to herself, and does not cause discord or try to force her conviction on the church, there is no reason for a rupture of fellowship.
3. One may feel compelled to kneel when praying. Let him do so. As long as one does not make his feelings a matter of law and try to force the whole church to accept them as God's teaching, fellowship need not be broken.
There are many things on which brethren disagree and yet they have not drawn lines of fellowship over them. To name a few: the qualifications of elders; Sunday night communion, use of tobacco, drinking coffee, the marriage question.
IV. Why Disfellowship Over Some Error And Not Over Some Other?
Some things affect all brethren or force brethren to engage in those errors; while other things do not affect anyone except those engaging in them. For example:
1. The use of mechanical instruments of music in worship corrupts the worship and causes all to engage in error.
2. The taking of money from the treasury and supporting human institutions causes all (the whole church) to engage in something not authorized in the Scriptures.
3. The pooling of money of many congregations into the treasury of one congregation for the preaching of the gospel and letting that one congregation plan, direct, oversee and control the work, causes all to participate in that which is contrary to scriptural teaching. Since these, and other things, do affect the worship, organization and work, or mission of the church; the faithful have no choice but to disfellowship or withdraw themselves and attend a congregation which does not force them to engage in practices not authorized by the scriptures.
There may be brethren who feel that the above things would be all right; but they do not push their feelings on others, nor do they engage in them, but follow the instructions of the apostle Paul, "Halt thou faith? Have it to thyself before God. . ." (Rom. 14:22). Even though they are in error in their thinking, it is a matter of personal feeling with them, and in no wise causes discord, or the church to engage in error. I see no reason to disfellowship them.
Two things are supreme in our quest for fellowship, namely: (1) a love for, and complete fidelity to, God's Word; never should we break fellowship with God and Christ in order to have fellowship with our brethren, and (2), a fervent love for our brethren and respect for their conviction and conscience. Never run rough-shod over honest and sincere brethren. (Rom. 14:15) However, a word of caution is in order at this point.
The fact that we must not run rough-shod over brethren does not mean that brethren should abdicate to "crankdom." There are some who seem to be cranky and don't like anything done in any way except their way. Certainly, the work of the Lord should not be hindered by self-centered, cranky and contentious brethren, just in order to maintain fellowship with them.
V. Maintain A Proper Attitude
One may have the truth and yet manifest such an attitude that unity and fellowship with him is next to impossible. Paul exhorted the Galatians, "Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted." (Gal. 6:1) Peter wrote in this manner, "But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear." (I Peter 3:15)
We note two things explicitly taught in these passages. One, that we should be ready always to talk with (some call it communication or dialogue) those whom we consider to be at fault or in error; also, to be prepared to explain to any man who might ask about our hope. Many times the lines of communication are completely closed and no effort is made to re-establish them. Surely, if brethren think others are at fault or in error, they should be trying to restore them. This cannot be done by refusing to talk.
The second thing taught by the above passages is that in any effort to restore or teach, one should manifest meekness and reverence. It seems odd to me that brethren can disagree with some denominationalist and yet continue to be friendly and treat him civilly; yet, when brethren disagree among themselves, feelings become so sharp and tempers flare so high, that a calm and candid discussion of their differences becomes impossible. These things ought not so to be. I do not mean that we should leave the impression that we endorse what they are doing that is contrary to scripture, but we do not have to be mean and ugly to them just because we may be free from the error under discussion. Peter says, ".. as free, and not using your liberty for a cloak of maliciousness, but as the servants of God. Honour (esteem) all men. Love the brotherhood...." (I Peter 2:16-17). Truly, attitudes play a major role in both obtaining and maintaining fellowship.
These thoughts are presented in love and with fervent prayers that they may, in some small way, contribute to the healing of the breach which now exists in the greatest of all brotherhoods, that is, the People of God.