Compared to “unionism” which is the joining together of such in joint worship and church work those who are not agreed in the Word and doctrine, “fellowship” as we speak of it is the exercise of togetherness in worship and church work between such as are agreed in the doctrines of the Bible. We speak of altar, prayer and pulpit fellowship. They are three manifestations of the same principle.
In the early church fellowship consisted of
1. A joint expression of faith in doctrine, breaking of bread and in prayers, having all things common and works of charity, Acts 2:42,44,45
2. The kiss of peace, 2 Corinthians 13:12
3. The right hand of fellowship, Galatians 2:9
4. The confession if sins, one to another, with the accompanying prayer, James 5:16
5. Assembling together in worship and proving to good works, Hebrews 10:24,25
6. Receiving the Lord’s Supper together, 1 Corinthians 11:24,25, 1 Corinthians 10:17
7. Helping the poor, Acts 11:29
8. Bearing the infirmities of the weak, Romans 15:1,5-6
The above expressions of fellowship are indicative of a common thread. They are expressions of faith activity of those who spe the same thing, among whom there were no divisions, and who were perfectly joined together in the same mind and the same judgment (1 Corinthians 1:10). Such expressions of fellowship are pleasing unto the Lord.
When we speak of Christian fellowship, or church fellowship, we are of course speaking of fellowship within the sphere of the church or in spiritual matters, within the church or out. Whether a Christian should, or to what extent he should interact with unbelievers or those with a false confession of faith in given situations in the secular world where the Word of God is not involved is not a matter of right and wrong, but a matter of wisdom. Obviously, we are in the world and cannot leave it. At the same time Scripture says that we are in the world, but not of it. Therefore whether matters of spirit and faith are involved or not, a sensitive Christian will want to exercise care, always bearing in mind that he is a child of God called upon to let the light of the Lord shine through him.
How shall we determine with whom we may fellowship within the church? Since faith is a matter of the heart and thus invisible to us, we cannot determine fellowship on what is hidden. Fellowship is based on an objective standard. First of all Scripture, and then the stance of a church in relationship to the Word. Fellowship is based on a profession of faith. Scripture calls upon us to be watchful and to discriminate between truth and error. What is truth and what is error is not based on a subjective opinion of the observer, but by comparison of Scripture to whatever is taught and promoted within a church body. Where it is determined that the church body teaches, tolerates, or defends error in its pulpits, publications, or schools that is a church body together with its teachers which according to Scripture we are to “avoid” (Romans 16:17). We do not worship with it or its adherents, carry on church work, join in its prayers, or commune at its altars. To do so is contrary to the Word of God. On the other hand where the Word of God is taught in its truth, manifest again in its pulpits, publications, and schools, there the Christian will be happy to extend the right hand of fellowship and love.
The withholding of fellowship is not a judgment of the heart of those with whom we cannot worship. It is a simple but honest statement that we are not one in our confession of the Word. In that circumstance to suggest that we are one through fellowshipping together is dishonest. If some would suggest that withholding fellowship is loveless, we would counter that Christians are called to love God first. God speaks to us in His Word and we cannot separate Him from the Word. At the same time the highest form of love is to stand fast in the Word and not mislead others into thinking that faithfulness to the Word of God is of little matter. Scripture says differently, “If you continue in My Word, then are you my disciples indeed, and you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32). In Jeremiah 23 we read, “He who has My word, let him speak My word faithfully.”
Fellowship between and among like-minded confessors is a beautiful gift of the Spirit. It is mutually edifying and supportive. To raise one’s heart and voice in community with confessors with whom one is in agreement is a gift of which we will not think lightly. On the other hand it is very fragile and calls for faithful study and daily recommitment to God’s Truth through which we have been called into the fellowship of the saints.
(To be continued)