Fellowship

What is the basis of Christian fellowship? Fellowship, or common-union, is a partnership, a close association of sharing, that has its basis in something mutual. The Greek words which express this in the New Testament all come from the same word group; koinos (common, shared, as in koine Greek, the common language); koinoneo, to share; koinonia, a close association or communion, fellowship or participation.

These words can be neutral, referring to a simple partnership (Luke 5:10; Phm :17). One can “participate” in evil (Matt 23:30; 1 Cor 10:20; 2 Cor 6:14; 1 Tim 5:22; 2 John 1:11). Positively, fellowship can refer to sharing in labours for the gospel (Gal 2:9; 6:6; 2 Cor 8:23; Php 1:5; Phm :6) in works of charity and generosity (Acts 2:44–45; 2 Cor 8:4; 1 Tim 6:18; Heb 13:16) and sharing in each other’s sufferings and the sufferings of Christ (2 Cor 1:7; Php 3:10; Heb 10:33; 1 Pet 4:13; 5:1). There is nothing intrinsically “Christian” about these koinos words; fellowship and sharing only become “Christian” when they relate to a common basis of fellowship in Christ, or from common Christ-like motives and associations. To be “in fellowship” with one or more others is to share something in common, act together on that common basis. Thus Paul could warn the Corinthians that participation in idol feasts was an act of “communion” that is inappropriate for those who participate in Christ (1 Cor 10:18–21).

Any mutual working together for a common end could be koinonia. The Bible warns against being “unequally yoked” with unbelievers because that would be like light and darkness trying to have something in common, pulling in different directions with different intents and priorities (2 Cor 6:14). Exactly what constitutes unequal yoking is not specified, but the context of the passage relates to idol worship and uncleanness. Such was inseparable from most social interactions within first century Graeco-Roman society. For this reason, the early Christians were regarded as antisocial in the extreme. It is a matter of prayerful deliberation and conscience as to what might constitute unequal yoking in today’s post-Christian society, but a close association such as marriage and probably some working partnerships would be included. This passage teaches that there are circumstances when koinonia is inappropriate, because of significantly different common ground and goals. The same would apply to koinonia (participation) in evil deeds.

On the positive side, Christians have much in common with each other. We have a common Saviour, common beliefs, traditions, ethics and goals. We work together for the promulgation of the Gospel and for the good of others and for the mutual edification of the church community. Paul likens Christians to members of the one body of Christ (1 Cor 10:16–17; 1 Cor 12:12–27). As a single body, we have common interests and goals and when one part suffers, the others suffer with it. The knowledge of the suffering of millions of our Christian brothers and sisters throughout the world today [1] should cause us grief and drive us to intercessory prayer as much as if they were members of our immediate family or a broken part of our own physical body (1 Cor 12:26). When faced with machete- and gun-wielding extremists, differences between Christians are insignificant when it comes to the choice of confessing or denying Christ.

Acts 2:42–46 tells us that the earliest church was a tight-knit community that shared all things in common and “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.” This tells us the basis of their commonality, their fellowship, in both doctrine and practice. Paul speaks of “one body and one Spirit… one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism…” (Eph 4:4–5). “For as many of you as were baptised into Christ have put on Christ,” he explains in Gal 3:27–28, the common basis surpassing any differences in race or gender. Just as baptism is “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matt 28:19) so also is our fellowship.

The fundamental fellowship that binds together those “in Christ” to form his body is first and foremost our fellowship with Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This is vital point to understand; it is not because we are first “in fellowship” with a particular denomination, according to a particular creed, that we become part of the body of Christ. On the contrary; we first have fellowship with Father, Son and Spirit, “in Christ” and as a consequence we have something in common with each other. As individuals united in Christ we have fellowship. What counts is our fellowship with God, our being “in Christ” (John 10:27–30; 17:20–23; Eph 1:3–14).

That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3).

John further explains in verses 6–7, “If we say we have fellowship with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.” First comes fellowship with Christ, the genuineness of which is demonstrated by walking in the light. If we are in this fellowship, we have forgiveness AND we have fellowship with one another. This fellowship with Christ originates with God, not with each other, or with any institution. “God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1Cor 1:9). In him we also have fellowship/participation in the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 13:14; Php 2:1).

Through the ages, Christians have been distinguished by division as well as unity, to our shame. Although there are fundamentals upon which the majority agree, there are also differences in doctrine and practice which have led to the formation of distinct denominations. As the church grew from its first century beginnings under the direct supervision of the apostles, differences of opinion developed. Some of these were able to be reconciled, others were not. Orthodoxy needed to be distinguished from heterodoxy and from heresy. Also, Christians whose way of life was not in keeping with genuine discipleship needed to be disciplined. Other issues arose such as what should be done about Christians who had “lapsed” under persecution, denying the faith or surrendering Scriptures to be burned, if they wished to be received back. Disagreements over this also resulted in divisions. Ultimately, each assembly had to decide where on the spectrum of “unity” versus “purity” they stood. [2] This has always been a difficult balance, and we have not always got it right. Nor should we expect to, this side of the Kingdom. At times, the points of difference were deemed important enough to produce creeds and statements of faith to define a common doctrinal position.

The founder of the Christadelphians, John Thomas, vigorously opposed creeds and statements of faith, believing that they dictated what people should believe and did not allow for an “unbiased” reading of the Bible. He was very critical of the creeds of “Christendom” and felt they contributed to all the churches being astray from truth for 1800 years until he rediscovered it. But because the doctrines Dr Thomas espoused were so completely different from how the gospel had ever been understood, they needed to be defined in significant detail. Ironically, this has led to Christadelphians being one of the most creed-restricted communities ever. If scriptural truth is truly to be found by application of “unbiased” reason alone to the Bible, one should expect all who did this would arrive at the same conclusions as Dr Thomas. On the contrary, the expected result of such “independent” study must be enshrined in a very specific and detailed Statement of Faith, belief in the tenets of which is deemed essential for salvation. Salvation became an intellectual exercise, and “fellowship” a matter of conformity of belief and behaviour. According to Robert Roberts, “Salvation depends upon the assimilation of the mind to the divine ideas, principles and affections exhibited in the Scriptures. This process commences with a belief in the Gospel, but is by no means completed thereby; it takes a lifetime for its scope, and untiring diligence for its accomplishment.” [3] This is surely putting the cart before the horse; Get your head around all this and then you can have fellowship with us and hence be part of the body of Christ!

The Christadelphian Statement of Faith comprises 30 articles of Truth to be Received and 35 Doctrines to be rejected, as well as 53 Commandments of Christ to be followed. Adherence to these is the “basis of fellowship” of Christadelphian ecclesias. Knowledge of “the truth,” i.e. all of this content, is necessary for baptism to be valid. The only valid baptism is a Christadelphian baptism, which by definition constitutes baptism “into Christ.” As the Australian Unity booklet [4] states;

We agree that the doctrines to be believed and taught by us, without reservation, are the first principles of the One Faith as revealed in the Scriptures, of which the Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith (with positive and negative clauses and the Commandments of Christ) gives a true definition.”

There is a rider; “Acceptance of this basis would not preclude the use of any other adequate Statement of Faith by an ecclesia, provided this is in harmony with the B.A.S.F.” But in practice, any other statement or creed formulated by a Christadelphian individual or group would doubtless simply generate another rift in the denomination, so the Statement is effectively untouchable. This is despite its anachronisms and limited applicability to major contemporary issues (e.g. gay marriage) and some content with which many Christadelphians are likely to privately disagree (e.g. that very young children cannot be saved, premilleniallism, no influence of the Spirit today).

Furthermore, “Where any brethren depart from any element of the One Faith, either in doctrine or practice, they shall be dealt with according to the Apostolic precept and that extreme action would be ecclesial disfellowship of the offender (Matt 18:15-17; Titus 3:10-11).”

Dis-fellowship? That is not a scriptural term and these Bible references are not talking about cutting someone off from “fellowship” for doctrinal disagreement. The Matthew 18 passage discusses a personal response to sin against oneself and Paul is warning Titus about people who stir up dissension. Certainly there are passages which speak of the purveyors of false doctrine, but these are typically fundamental issues regarding the nature of Christ (1 John 3:2–3) or concern immoral practices.

In March 2013, the Christadelphian Tidings Magazine published an editorial on the subject of different “fellowships” within Christadelphia. [5] The author observes, “But fellowship is about unity and reconciliation among brethren, not about schism! Once a split has occurred because of a difference of judgment on a non-fundamental point, or by seeking to define a principle more closely than Scripture itself does, there is a tendency for further and more rapid splintering into ever smaller fragments.” Surely, such would be expected in a denomination which makes detailed knowledge of narrowly prescriptive doctrines the basis for “fellowship” upon which one’s salvation is believed to depend.

So, what does being “in fellowship” mean for Christadelphians? The emphasis is not foremost upon one’s relationship with Father, Son and Spirit, but rather on fellowship with other Christadelphians and acceptance by the community, the basis of which is doctrinal agreement. If one is “in fellowship,” one’s doctrinal position is considered to be in line with the detailed credal Statement of Faith. If one disagrees doctrinally in a public manner, or one’s lifestyle is deemed immoral or non-conforming, one faces “dis-fellowship.” Disfellowship by one ecclesia inevitably means disfellowship by all other ecclesias ascribing to the same “basis of fellowship.” By implication, one is then outside the body of Christ, ergo one’s salvation imperilled. The body of Christ and fellowship with Father, Son and Spirit is thus subsumed to “fellowship” within the denomination as defined by a body of doctrine.

The most obvious demonstration of this is that a person not “in fellowship” may not partake of the memorial bread and wine. The appeal is to 1 Corinthians 10:16–17; “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation (koinonia) in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation (koinonia) in the body of Christ? Because there is one bread, we who are many are one body, for we all partake of the one bread.” The focus of this verse is on fellowship (koinonia) in the body and blood of Christ, yet this is made secondary to “fellowship” according to Christadelphian doctrine and practice. Only baptised believers who continue to assent to the BASF may partake in this memorial, and only assent to the entire set of “truths to be received” and rejection of “doctrines to be rejected” makes one’s baptism valid.

It may be asserted that 1 Cor 11:27–29 demands strict conformity of those who partake of the fellowship of the Lord’s supper. “Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty concerning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a person examine himself, then, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.” Does being out of fellowship with Christadelphians put one out of fellowship with Christ, and “unworthy” of the memorial of his saving work? Hardly; the context of this passage relates to the woes of the Corinthian church; their schisms, their selfish gluttony and elitism, their inappropriate use of spiritual gifts, their tolerance of immorality and flirtation with pagan society and lack of love. Paul does not require them to “disfellowship” one another (the exception being the immoral man in 1 Cor 5) but exhorts them to examine…. each other? No, to examine themselves. It is the body and blood of the Lord they are individually desecrating, his body (inclusive of the poor, the “less spiritual” and the rest of the non-hip crowd) that they are failing to discern and love. It is the individual who thus dishonours the Lord who brings judgement on himself.

“Fellowshipping” or breaking bread with someone with whom one has a doctrinal disagreement will not imperil one’s own salvation. The body of Christ will not somehow become contaminated by the presence of such a person in their midst who believes, say, that the work of the Holy Spirit is in fact necessary for apprehension of the truth and sanctification today, or that their dead child will be subject to the mercy of God, or that women can read the Bible in church, or who hasn’t even heard of British Israelites. By their strict and unscriptural definition of “fellowship,” Christadelphians effectively make judgements about who is and is not a Christian and has the right to remember the death of Christ, according to the Lord’s express desire (Luke 22:19–21; note the “fellowship” of Jesus with both his betrayer and his denier). Christ himself said that it’s not what goes into a man that can defile him, but what proceeds from his heart (Matt 15:17–20), which seems to be Paul’s point also in 1 Cor 11.

We are not to judge each other (Matt 7:1–5; James 4:11), nor institute an inquisition as to the purity of another’s doctrine and life. The Kingdom currently contains both wheat and tares (Matt 13:24–30) and Jesus alone knows who are his. He is the righteous judge, and the secrets of men’s hearts will be revealed at his righteous judgement seat (Matt 12:36; John 12:48; Rom 2:16; 14:4, 10-14; 1 Cor 4:5; 2 Cor 5:10). In the meantime, mercy must triumph over judgement (James 4:11); we are to preach the Gospel, speak the truth in love (Eph 4:12–16) and strive that all may come to know Christ, and the fellowship of his sufferings. First and foremost our fellowship is with Father, Son and Spirit, the relational God of love, and because of that glorious common union we have fellowship with those who likewise constitute his body.

“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2Cor 13:14).

 

References

1. https://www.opendoors.org.au/persecutedchristians/
2. A really helpful discussion on the subject of church unity versus purity may be found in Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, an introduction to Biblical doctrine (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 873-886.
3. Robert Roberts, introduction to The Bible Companion.
4. http://aace.info/wp-content/uploads/2014/04/Basis-of-Fellowship-pp13-15.pdf
5. http://www.tidings.org/2013/03/christadelphian-divisions-and-fellowship/

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