Questions of Fellowship

  1. What is “fellowship”? Meeting together to worship? To be friends? To learn and work together? To teach and enrich each other? To dine? To share the Lord’s Supper? A list of names on a church roll or roster, whether the people attached to them have been a real, living part of that family or not?
  2. Is “fellowship” a verb? Is it used that way in scripture? Can you “fellowship” someone? Can you “disfellowship” someone? Can you do either one to a person you’ve never met? Is it your role to do so as an individual? As a group of two or three agreed? Or only as an eldership? And regarding people within your church family? Or beyond?
  3. Did Jesus extend fellowship to sinners?
  4. Did Jesus extend fellowship to good people who sinned but didn’t fully understand God’s will for them through Him?
  5. Did Jesus extend fellowship to people who tithed tiny things but neglected justice and mercy?
  6. Did Jesus extend fellowship to people who washed externally but not internally?
  7. Did Jesus extend fellowship to people who kept others from entering His kingdom and would not enter themselves?
  8. Did Jesus outline a list of explicit commands regarding how to worship, upon which His followers were to decide with whom they should share His fellowship?
  9. Did Jesus withhold His fellowship from people with different political agendas … say, a Zealot or a tax collector?
  10. Did Jesus withhold His fellowship from people with different styles of sharing His message … for instance, a prophet in camel’s hair or a Samaritan siren who exaggerated?
  11. Did Jesus withhold His fellowship from people who disagreed with him about His ministry plans – or told others to stop doing good in His name; even casting out demons?
  12. Did Jesus withhold His fellowship from people who interrupted His teaching moments (perhaps about washing others’ feet) or confessed His identity in private, but caved in to denying Him when night came and arrests had been made?
  13. Did Jesus ever withhold fellowship from people who did something that God did not specifically authorize – like eating grain on the Sabbath day – or failing to observe tradition, like washing hands before eating, or fasting?

In the “fellowship” of Churches of Christ, there are those among us who talk a lot about “fellowship.”

There is an extreme position which believes that the slightest infraction of anything that might be construed as a violation of a command, an example, or something that sufficiently-intelligent persons like themselves can necessarily or reasonably infer as one or the other in scripture is forever-damning sin. They believe that “fellowship” should be tightly exclusive only to those who completely understand this (and all the other rules) and strictly obey the rules.

There is (perhaps) an extreme position which believes that scripture’s new covenant has no rules, and that “fellowship” is open to all, because God will eventually forgive everyone whether they believe, obey, understand, care – or not. They believe that “fellowship” should be unlimitedly inclusive. (Though I tend to think that most of those who really believe this have long since left Churches of Christ for other, more universalist assemblies.)

Most of us in Churches of Christ are pretty well-centered in the bell curve between these points of extremity. Even so, we all still see “fellowship” as something that happened pretty much exclusively after Pentecost, when there was a church and therefore “fellowship” within it; therefore, the only pertinent scriptures about “fellowship” fall after the second chapter of Acts. (In epistles to churches, where a word expressing the concept occurs one or two dozen times; about a quarter of which refer to relationships among believers.)

Because we can’t find the word “fellowship” in the Gospels – when we talk about the concept of it – have we inadvertently excised many of the standards by which the One who ultimately determines it … actually determines it?

When we talk about “fellowship,” do we really even know what we’re talking about?

Right now, my short answer to those many long and difficult questions above is that Jesus extended fellowship to all who sinned – everyone, in other words – and His message to them was the same whether He was gentle and loving toward them, or angry and defiant at them: “Repent.” That, to me, pretty much levels the playing field.

Should we tolerate or condone within our assemblies as saints wicked behavior or false doctrine – either of which deny the humanity, divinity, sufficiency and/or holiness of Christ? Absolutely not. We must lovingly and humbly (as fellow sinners) confront, correct, and discipline those who rebel – even to the point of putting the impenitent out of our gatherings, so that by “handing them over to Satan” to deal with him alone, they may yet repent and return.

We should go to that person first one-on-one, then two-or-three-on-one, then among the assembled saints. We should do so immediately – before the next opportunity to give a gift to God. We should never understand any of these instructions to be optional simply because not each one is listed in each case where reconciliation is detailed in scripture, nor assume that one or two did not happen as instructed. We should not omit any because an offense was against the church and God, rather than just against a single person. We are all in the body of Christ, and when one hurts, all hurt; when all are sinned against, any given one is sinned against. These are principles of Christ-like behavior in relationships, from the lips of the Lord himself. They are not laws with loopholes. They work, and He knew we needed them, and that’s why He gave them to us.

If there are other, scriptural reasons and praxes for failing to extend the right hand of fellowship to fellow believers, I am genuinely willing to hear them.

But these are all I have found.

13 thoughts on “Questions of Fellowship

  1. Ouch! That by brother an’t preachin’, thats meddling! And it is right on the money!Thanks for making these points so clearly. Far too many of our so called “brotherhood” spend far to much time attempting to remove a speck from the eye of a congregation several states away while sporting a giant log in their own eye.Royce

  2. Keith, what is there out there for people such as myself, who truly believe Jesus spoke nothing but the truth when he spoke about his father.Mt:19:17: And he said unto him, Why callest thou me good? there is none good but one, that is, God: but if thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments. ( is God really a trinity, or is he one)?or this. Jn:14:28: Ye have heard how I said unto you, I go away, and come again unto you. If ye loved me, ye would rejoice, because I said, I go unto the Father: for my Father is greater than I.( is Jesus really God,or is God greater than Jesus)?Keith, are we to sit silent in a church that disputes both things Jesus said about God,or should we look elsewhere to worship the one true God. seriously if you were in my position, what would you do.?I have studied diligently trying to find where these beliefs come from, and can only come to one conclusion, they come from the mind of men.

  3. Thanks for your encouragement, Royce.laymond, I don’t really think too many churches dispute the scriptures you cite … they just understand them differently. I can believe that God is one and yet three. I can believe that Jesus the Son is also God, yet God the Father is greater – because Jesus said so. If I were in your position, bro, I’d keep on loving people who understand differently than you do, but still believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. At least, that’s what I try to do in my position!

  4. Keith, you ask great questions. You could have made it easy on us if you would have followed each question with an answer, even if it was only an opinion. After all that is what so many do in dealing with this fellowship question. In my opinion it seems we approach this idea backwards. In the churches of Christ, we seem to be looking for a reason to break fellowship with fellow believers. Shouldn’t we be looking for reasons to extend family fellowship to others who are attempting the same relationship and are facing the same battles we face? If we are indeed in a Spiritual battle shouldn’t we be looking for fellow soldiers rather than trying to send our comrads away because they don’t measure up to what we think fellow soldiers should look like? Maybe I am wrong but it seems to me we have turned this thing exactly opposite from where it ought to be. Then again I’m just a sinner saved by grace, what do I know?

  5. Keith, EXCELLENT post!!!! Keep bringing those type of posts, brother.I also think Dell’s comment was dead-on. We’ve looked for reasons to be exclusive, when I think Jesus looked for reasons for being inclusive.Keep bringing it!DU

  6. Keith,Wonderful questions and thoughts on this important topic. I have seen so many churches split over fellowshipping with other believers. I think this is such an important topic that we should be discussing everywhere. Get this, there was a church in Midland, Tx that dis-fellowshiped a huge church that practiced what they determined “unscriptural”. First off they were never in fellowship with them anywhere. The church never developed any relationships, never had them over and vice versa. I find it interesting that what they considered “unscriptural” was method not doctrine. Yet where in the Bible do you see the Church at Corinth dis-fellowship the church at Rome or Galatia. Craziness. Biblical ignorance in its fullest form. I want to thank you keith for discussing this important topic. I hope you have a great weekend.

  7. As I have read your post for another five times. I have come to believe that this topic is definately going to be a topic that is going to be one that many churches will deal with as we deal with other topics such as whether baptism is essential or not; once save always saved; and countless other issues in the 21st century. I want to thank you for dealing with this issue. You are to be commended.

  8. Hey … good post, brother.I’ve been studying this issue myself (we’ve been dealing with a situation or two here where I am), and agree with most of the conclusions you’ve drawn here.I read a really good book a couple of weeks ago called That We May Share His Holiness by Tommy South. Tommy pointed to the situation where the guy was having sex with his step-mom in 1 Corinthians 5 to say that there may not be a set-formula or steps to follow in handling withdrawing fellowship with someone.There’s no mention of anyone going to that person in private or one on one – only Paul’s command to withdraw from him immediately.Anyway, I thought that was an interesting point Tommy made. It caused me to rethink the whole “steps” thing.

  9. I continue to question whether it’s God’s desire for us – and in the best interest of the church and the one accused of wrong doing/wrong teaching – to immediately expel. Or whether it’s safe to assume, even in 1 Corinthians 5, that other steps had not / should not have already been taken.The sense of the passage you cite is that the church is <>proud<> of its tolerance. Paul’s advice is to make the point that there doesn’t seem to be anyone present there who was willing to take ANY steps against the immoral behavior. I don’t think he’s advocating “skipping steps.” He’s advocating following them – having the <>mind, heart, and will<> to follow them, and then <>doing so<>.Instead, they were <>boasting<> about the whole situation.

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