Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
November 19, 1964
NUMBER 28, PAGE 2,11

Disfellowship Among Churches

Ralph D. Gentry

That there is a lack of fellowship among churches of Christ is obvious. This, however, is not so readily admitted among churches themselves. A number of preachers have denied that the churches with which they labor have withdrawn fellowship from other churches, saying, "There is no authority for such action. Where is the scripture that authorizes a church to withdraw from a church?" Notwithstanding this denial, their preaching and practice is the very opposite. They would not cooperate with the work of this church in any way and would advise against any person placing membership with it. Such inconsistency can only point to and establish the fact that one is wrong in either his teaching or his practice, or both. Unless men are outright liars and hypocrites, it is obvious that through misunderstanding their action is not identified with the true meaning of "disfellowship" as it concerns relationship between two or more congregations. Or else, I am completely in error in my concept of fellowship.

Brethren seem to be reluctant to write with definite commitment on this subject. Perhaps to do so would brand one as an instigator of division in the Body of Christ and appear to confirm such accusations on the part of the liberal element. Conservative brethren, acting out of longsuffering and sincere desire for unity, continue to plead for restudy of current issues rather than immediate break in fellowship among churches of Christ. Any such plea, however, is ignored while being contradicted by the practice of refusing to extend endorsement to and cooperation with said churches practicing these things alleged to be sinful.

But is disfellowship among churches scriptural? May one church publicly announce such existing and/or intended disfellowship? What must be preached and/or accepted and what practice must be adopted in a congregation before this disfellowship is necessitated? What is included and excluded in this action? Let us continue with a

Definition Of Terms

The term "disfellowship" isn't in the Bible. To ascertain its meaning we must depend upon defining its parts. The word "fellowship" is from the Greek kolnonla and is defined as "fellowship, association, communion, joint participitation, intimacy" (Thayer, pg. 352). This word thus denotes a unity of purpose, plan and action. The prefix dis means a reversal of an faction when attached to a verb and an opposite or absence of such when prefixed to a noun. Hence, disfellowship may mean a withdrawing of fellowship or simply a lack or absence of fellowship. To disfellowship, therefore, is to withdraw or withhold one's endorsement and support of and cooperation with another in the work in which the latter is engaged. It is to "have no fellowship" (Eph. 5:11) or "be not partakers with" (Eph. 5:7).

Disfellowship may be further classified as spiritual and material or physical. Fellowship is of a spiritual nature through a coordinate action among Christians and congregations toward a common objective. In this way there is fellowship with God and every other Christian in the world who walks according to the truth (I Jno. 1:3; I Cor. 3:9;

Phil. 3:10). Fellowship is, in addition, of a physical nature when Christians or congregations participate in extending endorsement to and support of one another and the work engaged in. Such is the significance of "koinonia" in these passages: Eph. 5:11; Phil.14:14, 15; Rev. 18:4; II Cor. 8:4; Heb. 13:16; II Cor. 9:13; II Jno. 10-11; Gal. 2:9. Fellowship is much more than just a state of son-ship in the family of God and it embraces in its action more than mere recognition of another as such.

There is still yet, according to Thayer's definition, another classification of fellowship. This has to do with intimacy and association in social arrangements. It is an extended form of fellowship which is forbidden toward those who have been "withdrawn from" in a congregation (II Thess. 3:6, 14, 15; I Cor. 5:9, 11; Rom. 16:17). This applies to individuals rather than to congregations as such. For the simple reason that congregations do not in their capacity and function sustain a social relationship to be dissolved. This extended form of fellowship, then, is not involved in the question of one church disfellowshipping another church.

By "church as such" I mean Christians acting as a body in the performance of congregational capacity and function. By "among churches" I have reference in these articles to disfellowship between churches as such. This is, therefore, not to be confused with what is often styled "church discipline". This study is confined to whatever action may or may not be taken by one church as such toward another church as such in whatever relationship these churches may sustain in keeping with the principle of church autonomy. If one church, therefore, shall announce that it will not hereafter be in fellowship with another church, such is not to be construed as an action of disfellowship toward the individual members of that other church or an exercise of discipline extending beyond congregational limits. Let us carefully guard against misunderstanding and misrepresentations. Be it understood first that to say one church disfellowships another church is not to say that every member of the one church shall henceforth disfellowship (withdraw, avoid, keep no company with) every member of the other church. It is to say that the one church shall not in any way, as a church, extend fellowship (endorsement to and cooperation with) to the congregational function of the other. In other words, the one church will not say, "We do not believe what you are doing is scriptural and we teach differently, but let us help you do it anyway". Consider now the

Basis Of All Fellowship

Fellowship with God depends upon "walking in the light" or obedience to the truth (I Jno. 1:7). Disobedience is sin (I Jno. 3:4) and sin separates us from God (Isa. 59:2) and breaks our fellowship with God (II Jno. 9; I Jno. 3:8). The aims and action of righteousness and unrighteousness are so contrary one toward the other that there is no fellowship between them (II Cor. 6:14-17). We must not fellowship those who are out of fellowship with God (I Cor. 10:20, 21;

Rom. 16:17, 18), and if we do, we of necessity break our own fellowship (partnership, unity) with God. Disfellowship (physical) is scripturally necessitated by reason of the disfellowship (spiritual) that automatically exists when another's works are digressive.

Some will say, "Though we disagree, we'll have fellowship anyway". Such is impossible! You can not choose to have fellowship with sin and remain in fellowship with God. Amos said, "Can two walk together except they be agreed?" You may choose to verbally endorse the other person and his work while disagreeing with the same and while withholding your actual participation in the same but such is hypocritical.

Further, the number of persons involved does not change these principles. Sin is not made right by group action. When Christians make up the church as such, in the performance of duties as a group, may they engage in works sinful for them to approve of or engage in during individual activity? If a congregation is unscriptural in its doctrine and practice and as such is unworthy of an individual's fellowship, it is also, and on the same basis, unworthy of the fellowship of another congregation. If not, why not? Instructions to an individual in this particular would, therefore, apply with equal force to a congregation. Such is the import of Eph. 5:11, "And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them". What are these works? How broad or how limited is the application of this passage? Is it an injustice to this passage to use it in application to all works of darkness? Or does it apply only to religious works of darkness? Or exclusively to immoral non-religious practices?

I read an attempt to prove this passage, Eph. 5:11, is used incorrectly if applied to any other than those guilty of sensual sins such as mentioned in the previous verses. And that to apply it to "good clean living brethren" is to insult them notwithstanding their departure from God's word in other ways. And that it is a perversion of the text to apply it to those believing in premillennialism, those using mechanical instruments of music in worship and such like.

We must consider all of the context. In this there is a contrast between the practices of alien sinners and that which should characterize citizens of the kingdom of Christ. These two are figuratively described as "darkness" and "light". Some particular sins are mentioned while others are covered under general terms such as "uncleanness" and "covetousness". Christians are admonished to walk as children of light, i.e., in obedience to God's word. The Christian is forbidden to participate in these works of darkness, viz., those things which are contrary to God's word. The Christian is also required to "reprove them". The word "them" is italicized, indicating this word was supplied by the translators. From the original, therefore, it is uncertain whether this is that done by reproving the work itself or the person guilty of the work or both. But this is insignificant, for the Scriptures elsewhere teach us to do both (II Tim. 3:16; II Tim. 4:14; Tit. 1:12-16).

Rather than assume a passive attitude the Christian must take an aggressive stand and expose their wickedness by the use of Scriptural testimony against such. This word "reprove" according to Thayer means: "By conviction to bring to light, to expose" and he gives John 3:20 and Eph. 5:11, 13 as two such uses. It is true that the expression "works of darkness" includes some sins of such nature it was a shame to even discuss, but not exclusively so. Else how could Christians "reprove them"? The expression "works of darkness", then included more than these particular sins of gross immorality which were shameful to speak about. It included any and all practices reproved by the truth of God's word. Thayer says "speak" in Eph. 5:12 means, "to speak out, speak of, mention". While Paul may have had primary reference to the heathen feasts in which were found gross immorality, this by no means warrants such an exclusive reference in our application of the passage. It is my conviction that Eph. 5:11 is a general principle for all Christians or groups of Christians toward unfruitful works of darkness whatever they may be.

It is not uncommon to find a general principle inserted among specific matters and upon which principle these matters are either condemned or approved. John writes, "Whosoever transgresseth and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ hath both the Father and the Son" (II Jn. 9). This is a general principle relating to any and all of the teaching of Christ. Yet the context of this passage deals specifically with those who denied that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh (verse 7), that is, it mentions one particular way some did not abide in the doctrine of Christ. Jude says, "Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints" (Jude 3). All gospel preachers have quoted this passage innumerable times in defense of the practice of refuting false doctrine of whatever kind and extent. Yet, in verse four Jude states such contending was in need because of "lasciviousness, and denying the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ".

The Christian is to refuse to fellowship (i.e., participation in, endorsement or support of) these works regardless of who might commit them. Those who revert back to worldly ways of talking and acting are as much in need of reproving and rebuking as those in the world. The fact that they who thus act are members of the church gives no sanctity to works of darkness or to our support and endorsement of them. Walking in "light" (I John 1:6, 7) is more than "clean living" and "goodness" is not fulfilled in morality alone. Religious error is born of and perpetuated in the darkness of ignorance. Only the light of God's word can dispel this darkness and reveal the true character of sin.

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