Fellowship

Andrew Stenhouse, Santiago, Chile

WHAT FELLOWSHIP IS

Are There is a certain confederation or " circle " of assemblies with clearly-defined limits, and, in the language of a periodical circulating amongst the believers in those assemblies, " the fellowship " means the visible association of those assemblies with one another without regard to their spiritual condition or that o{ the believers who compose them. Fellowship in (his sense is nominal and sec­tarian.

In the Word of God, the term " fellowship " is employed in a much more elevated and worthy sense. True Christian fellowship is regarded as a spiritual link created first of all between us and God. and then between us and fellow-believers. It is essentially a spir­itual, and not a nominal or official link. It is something that God Himself has created, and one of the choicest fruits of Calvary. It is a new attitude, a sympathy, an affinity, a harmony, a sharing, an agreement, a companionship and a co-operation—a living heart-warming experience that worldly or carnal men could never know. It is a merging of human spirits in the enjoyment of God-given privileges, and a sharing of the experiences of Christ Himself.

THE FELLOWSHIP OF GOD'S SON

There was a great deal at fault in the fellowship of the saints at Corinth : a great deal of carnality and much else that the apostle needed to correct.    How did he proceed ?   He began by reminding them that they had been " called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Ix>rd " (I Cor. 1.9). The appreciation of the fullness of the meaning of this one wonderful divinely-inspired statement would doubtless have proved a sufficient remedy for (he carnality. sectarianism and all the ills of the Corinthian assembly. And doubtless it would be the cure also for many of the ills that afflict assemblies today.

The fellowship of God's Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, must not be construed to mean merely our fellowship with one another based upon what He has done for us. While including that doubtless, it is primarily fellowship with Himself—agreement, sympathy, harmony and companionship with Him. Only as we are in the enjoy­ment of this fellowship with Him are we truly in Christian fellowship with one another. Mere links of friendship or the spending of pleasant hours in one another's company is not fellowship, except there be the sharing of spiritual thoughts and privileges relating to the Lord and His interests : and this sharing, this true fellowship should exist between all Christians, everywhere, for all have been called to it, and the basis for it exists in the relationship that God has created. All Christians, having a living link with Christ, have also, for the same reason, a living link with one another. However, there are practical difficulties today, more than ever in the Church's history, which make the enjoyment of this fellowship restricted and sometimes impossible. Many Christians find themselves torn between a desire to be faithful to God and the principles of His Word and an equally strong desire to enjoy and express the fellow­ship that is the blood-bought heritage of all true believers. Many of them are looking for guidance in this important: matter, for there appears to be a great deal of confusion of thought.

DEGREES OF FELLOWSHIP

Fellowship is a thing of degrees. With some I may have no fellowship. I am told, e.g., by Scripture, to have no fellowship with unbelievers or with the unfruitful works of darkness. I have no spiritual affinity with these, and any associations with unbelievers, in marriage, in business or in religion, would constitute an unequal yoke. Light cannot have fellowship with darkness. and righteousness with lawlessness has nothing in common.

But I have something in common with all believers. When I read Pilgrim's Progress and accompany John Banyan out by the wicket-gate and through the Slough of Despond, past Vanity Fair and the chained lions, I am in fellowship with him. I share the same experiences and have the same reactions. When I sing the hymns of Toplady or Horalius Bonar, I have fellowship with these men. I cannot avoid it. It is the linking of soul with soul by the influence of divine truth, and by the outgoing of the affections in response to the love of Christ. And so I have a measure of fellowship with the Roman Catholic hymn-writer, Bernard of Clairvaux, when I sing :

" Jesus the very thought of Thee,

With sweetness fills the breast. '

For fellowship is a spiritual exercise the measure of which is not prescribed by us arbitrarily, but is dependent on the measure of our mutual appreciation of the Lord and His truth. So that I may have, and must have, some fellowship with nil who in any measure have a love for the Lord and His word.

Again, with some I have full fellowship. This is not merely a question of our belonging to the same assembly or circle of assem­blies. Two people may belong to the same assembly or to a similar assembly, and have no fellowship at all I Unconverted people have been known to belong to assemblies, and of such the Apostle John said, " They went out from us because they were not of us." It is a good thing when spiritual conditions in an assembly make false professors feel that it is no place for them. Such were those of whom the apostle thus speaks. They were never really in fellow­ship.

But not merely unbelievers, but believers themselves may be in an assembly without being really in fellowship. They may be in a carnal condition—and the flesh cannot be in fellowship.

They may even be living in sin, like the man in 1 Cor. 5, who had to be put away. What happens when a believer belonging to an assembly commits a scandalous sin ? You say, " Well, we put him out of fellowship." You do not. What you do is to put him away from among you ; he was out of fellowship before you put him away. He was out of fellowship both with God and with the people of God, when he committed that sin.

On the other hand, one can be put away wrongfully from an assembly by people of the Diotrephes type, without being put out of fellowship. No one can truly put you out of fellowship but yourself. In the case of Diotrephes it was he rather who was out of fellowship when he acted in that high-handed way—not those who were cast out.

These extreme cases are used by way of illustration, but it should be evident to all that it is possible for true believers to be nominally or visibly identified with a Christian assembly and yet, for a variety of reasons-—worldliness, carnality, unjudged sin, a critical attitude, a sectarian spirit, etc.—be far from knowing and experiencing the reality of true Christian fellowship.

FELLOWSHIP IS NOT PASSIVE

When I read in Acts 2. 41, 42, that the 3,000 converts continued in the Apostles' doctrine, and in the fellowship, I understand that it was no mere passive continuance in visible association with the Church, but an active and practical continuance in the things that make for fellowship.   And this is God's plan for all of us.

In 2 Corinthians we see (6. 11-13 and 7. 2, 3) how Paul was conscious of a great lack in the fellowship of the believers. His mouth was opened and his heart was enlarged toward them, but they were straitened in their affections. He besought them to receive him, since he had wronged no man, defrauded no man, and corrupted no man. What kind of reception was he asking for? Certainly he was not asking for permission to break bread with them.   That is very often what we mean by reception.    But Scripture never speaks that way. The reception Paul asked for was reception to the confidence and affections of the saints in a real and genuine way, just as they had a large place in his heart.

Travelling brethren sometimes have sad experiences. One has known what it is to arrive in a strange town with eager expectations of fellowship, only to be received in a cold official way, on presenta­tion of a letter of commendation, " to the breaking of bread," without any manifestation of the love and cordiality (and hospitality) that belong to the fellowship of the saints. Such experiences serve to illustrate the difference between ecclesiastical recognition and true Christian fellowship,

In 1 John I we learn that " if we walk in the light, as lie is in the light, we have fellowship one with another." Fellowship with one another can only be maintained as we maintain fellowship with God. Walking in the light is not a static condition. It implies occupation with and progress in the things of God. As we continue in the doctrine (i.e. teaching), we continue in the fellowship. This is not merely a question of continuing in the doctrine of the gospel, but also of being enlightened as to the mystery of the Church, formerly hid in God, and of knowing our place in it. Much that is called fellowship today is no more than a mutual regard for those who belong to the same ecclesiastical clique, or party or circle. But Christian fellowship can never have a sectarian basis or find its inspiration in considerations of sectarian agreement. The under­standing of the mystery would free US from every kind of sectarian spirit. Sectarianism is the masterpiece of Satan to destroy or re­strict the true fellowship of saints, and we should be set against it. The very question of fellowship has become a bone of contention among brethren, and we should not be ignorant of these devices of the enemy. The discord is mainly created by the existence of divergent views on fellowship, and because of this I will now state a few Scriptural guiding principles.

SCRIPTURAL POINTERS

1. Ideally, our fellowship would be with all Christians every­where, the only restrictions being (hose imposed by considerations of discipline or lack of spirituality in ourselves or others. The " mystery " would then be a precious practical reality.

2. Such a fellowship would find its expression in every local assembly gathered in a scriptural way and in subjection to the Holy Spirit. Since every local assembly should be a microcosm, or setting forth in miniature, of that which is true of the church universal, there should be no man-made restrictions of the fellow­ship that saints are called to enjoy.

In the local assembly, as seen in Scripture, there are. of course, divine appointments which every Christian may be expected to recognize. A scripturally-gathered assembly exhibits certain essential features, as follows : It is composed of true believers only, and these believers, having been baptized in accordance with the Lord's ordinance in Matt. 28, have been gathered unto the name of Christ, acknowledging Him as their true and only centre. They do not  follow  the pattern  of  the congregations of Christendom generally, but recognize the sufficiency of the name of Christ and of His Word. They are subject to Scripture in all things and meet in the simplicity that was characteristic of apostolic times. They have no clergyman to preside over them, but meet in the recogni­tion of the common priesthood of believers. For ministry they depend on the gilts whom God has raised up. and they recognize the prerogative of the Holy Spirit to administer these gifts. They meet every Lord's Day, in accordance with apostolic example, for the purpose of breaking bread, and the worship which accom­panies this ordinance is worship in spirit and in truth. It is the centre of the church's activity. The oversight of such an assembly is cared for by elders, men of experience and spirituality, men of good testimony and good example, whom the Holy Spirit has raised up for this purpose. Human appointments are not made for any such spiritual activities, nor are workers paid any salaries, but ministers of the Word look to God alone for their support. Such an assembly is recognized as the house of God and the pillar and ground of the truth. It is set to defend the truth of God. as revealed in His Word, and to maintain the highest standard of holy living, in accordance with that truth. It is also a centre of gospel activity and has fellowship in the missionary work in distant regions.

Such an assembly is a divine institution. With such an assembly I may have fullest fellowship, for it is walking in the light and so has fellowship with God. But with sectarian bodies as such, I cannot have fellowship, for all sects are works of the flesh, according to Gal. 5. In all of them there i3 disobedience to the revealed will of God, and in most of them the essential features of a Christian assembly are entirely lacking.

3. If there is such a thing as the local assembly today, it is recognizable as the house of God, and because of its adherence to scriptural principles, my privilege and duty will be to have fellow­ship with it and fully support it, if I personally am walking in the light. The agreement will be there that makes fellowship possible. Such an assembly will not be found to be on sectarian ground. It will have no features (hat would be unacceptable to anyone seeking to walk in the light.

On the other hand, all congregations formed after a human pattern have many features that are unacceptable to the obedient Christian. The mind of God is replaced by the mind of man in the matters relating to God's own house ; which is a very serious matter. My agreement or fellowship with the Lord in such matters makes it impossible for me to have fellowship with anything that is contrary to His mind. With Christians belonging to such bodies I may have fellowship in an individual way, but with the collective companies which take the place of churches while ignoring the revealed will of God, it is impossible for me to have fellowship without being unfaithful to the Lord.

5. Reception as we have already seen, is a, welcoming of a fellow-believer to all the privileges and responsibilities of assembly fellowship. There is no precedent for receiving a believer merely to the breaking of bread, or in any other restricted sense. God's assembly is the place where every believer belongs and if he recog­nizes it as such, he should be welcomed to its fellowship in the fullest sense. If however, he does not recognize it as such, he cannot feel that his proper place is there, nor can he know true fellowship, or be in harmony with what is done, no matter how willing we may be to receive him. True fellowship is always reciprocal ; it cannot be one-sided. And our reception of a believer, whether for a day, or a year, or an indefinite period, is always on the same ground : it implies our recognition of him as a suitable person to share in all assembly privileges and duties ; it likewise implies his recognition of the assembly as a divine institution, functioning in accordance with God's will. If it were otherwise, the participation of such a believer would not be an act of obedience, and fellowship would be a formal thing. The use of the assembly as a convenient stopping-place on occasions for the breaking of bread only while retaining allegiance to a sectarian body is to ignore the true nature of the fellowship.

6.    The mystery of the Church, properly understood, would lead us to the repudiation of all fellowships of a merely human order. It is sufficient that God has created a fellowship for us, and this fellowship finds its expression in the recognition of every true believer as one with whom I have a spiritual link, and of every true assembly as a divine institution that I am called to support and minister to. Other man-made fellowships are either too extensive or too restricted. The true path is the one which God Himself has traced for us in His Word.

7.    The measure of my fellowship with individual believers or assemblies will depend upon the measure in which I and they arc walking in the light. No one can compose for me a list of assemblies and say : These you may have fellowship with I That would be the essence of sectarianism. Rather if 1 am in fellowship with the Lord, I will walk with Him in the midst of the golden candlesticks, taking account of conditions, thankful for all that can be approved of, and seeking also to remedy what may not be in order.

Let us never forget that suggestive picture in the letter to the Church of Laodicea. The Lord is outside the door knocking and seeking fellowship. Let us sec to it that our fellowship is made available to Him first of all. He appreciates it. And as regards the saints, rather than being over-fearful lest our fellowship be wasted on unworthy objects, let us fear lest our fellowship be below the standard that the elect of God have the right to expect in us.