The Doctrine of Fellowship
Visible church vs. Invisible Church
The is a difference to be made between the Visible church (church bodies) and the Invisible Church (joined together by faith and crosses denominational lines).
Everyone who is joined to Christ by faith is joined to other believers as well:
“But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
There is only one way to heaven, and that is through faith in Jesus. God, and God alone, knows who the true believers are:
“The Lord knows those who are His” (2 Timothy 2:19).
We cannot see the heart of others, so the only way we can tell if a person shares our faith is by their confession. Paul states:
“For with the heart one believes unto righteousness, and with the mouth confession is made unto salvation” (Romans 10:10).
What is Fellowship?
Fellowship is a very important concept throughout Scripture, and one that is discussed often. The word fellowship comes from the Greek word koinania and describes a joining together or sharing. In Scripture this word describes both a positive and negative action.
• On the positive it describes the joining together of believers with God:
“God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9);
It also describes the joining to together of like-minded believers in Christ:
“that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3).
• On the negative side it warns against joining together with others:
“And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them” (Ephesians 5:11).
Consider the following:
• The letters of Paul to the Galatians, and the Corinthians, and all three of John letters were written primarily to preserve a fellowship that was in danger of being broken (cf. 1 Corinthians 1:10; 2 Corinthians 6:14; Galatians 1:6-8; 1 John 4:1-6; 2 John 1:4-11; 3 John 1:9-10).
• Paul’s letters to the Romans and the Philippians were written to strengthen an existing fellowship (cf. Romans 1:8-17; Philippains 1:3-11).
• Paul’s Pastoral epistles to Timothy and Titus were directives to pastors for strengthening and preserving a fellowship (cf. 1 Timothy 1:3-11; 4:1-5; 6:3-5; 2 Timothy 2:14-19; 3:1-8; 4:1-4; Titus 1:10-16).
While fellowship is a positive concept, as pointed out in John letters, Scripture also warns:
“If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds” (2 John 1:10-11);
“They have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge” (Romans 10:2);
The warning against bad fellowships is a warning given in love:
“And their message will spread like cancer.... and they overthrow the faith of some” (2 Timothy 2:17-18).
Fellowship is Based on the Teachings of Scripture
Some would say that the negative side of the fellowship principle applies only to non-Christians, or only “fundamental” doctrines of the Bible like the Trinity, or the deity of Christ.
But Scripture tells us that our fellowship should be based on all the doctrines of Scripture. Every doctrine of Scripture has been given by God, and every passage has only one Spirit-intended meaning. We cannot “agree to disagree” on the doctrines of Scripture and continue in fellowship, ignoring these differences in doctrine.
Scripture directs a break in fellowship, not only in connection with blatant unbelievers, but also so-called Christians who:
• Deny the resurrection, saying it is already past (2 Timothy 2:18);
• Disregard God’s commandments (2 Peter 2:1-3, 13-20);
• Prohibit the eating of certain foods (1 Timothy 4:3);
• Quarrel about geneologies and the law (Titus 3:9).
A break in fellowship is not necessary in areas of adiaphora (things neither commanded nor forbidden by Scripture) unless a person insists his way must be followed (Galatians 5:1). The Scriptural passages which discuss doctrinal unity and warnings against false teachers are all-inclusive statements:
“Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age. Amen” (Matthew 28:19-20).
“For I have not shunned to declare to you the whole counsel of God. Therefore take heed to yourselves and to all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood. For I know this, that after my departure savage wolves will come in among you, not sparing the flock. Also from among yourselves men will rise up, speaking perverse things, to draw away the disciples after themselves” (Acts 20:27-31). Here Paul reveals the false teaching would arise from within the visible church not from outside it.
“If anyone teaches otherwise and does not consent to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which accords with godliness, he is proud, knowing nothing, but is obsessed with disputes and arguments over words” (1 Timothy 6:3-4).
“Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Romans 15:5-6).
In order to understand the importance of the doctrine of fellowship, we might use an analogy. Think of the human body. The heart is the most important organ in your body. If the heart stop beating, the body dies. The doctrine of Justification by faith through Christ is the heart. If that doctrine is compromised, the soul dies. The doctrine of fellowship has been compared the immune system. It’s purpose is to protect all the heart and all the other organs from the intrusion of disease. The doctrine fo fellowship guards the doctrine of justification and all the other doctrines of Scripture from the intrusion of false teaching which can kill the soul. If false teaching is permitted to enter, it can and will spread, eating away at one doctrine of Scripture after another, until finally it reaches the heart and brings about spiritual death.
God has given us the doctrine of fellowship for our own good, and out of love for us and our souls. He wants us to understand the nature and danger of false teaching. He wants us to be alert for the intrusion of false teaching, and avoid it as soon as it is noticed. He wants us to join in fellowship with those whose confession agrees with the teachings of Scripture, and stay away from fellowships which bring with it false teaching. May He give us the wisdom understand and the strength to carry out His will!
Note: This study was prepared for use at Zion Lutheran Church, Lawrenceville, Georgia by Pastor Nathanael Mayhew.
If you would like more information about this study,
please contact Pastor Mayhew