- 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?
- 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?
- Did Jesus extend fellowship to sinners?
- Did Jesus extend fellowship to good people who sinned but didn’t fully understand God’s will for them through Him?
- Did Jesus extend fellowship to people who tithed tiny things but neglected justice and mercy?
- Did Jesus extend fellowship to people who washed externally but not internally?
- Did Jesus extend fellowship to people who kept others from entering His kingdom and would not enter themselves?
- 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?
- Did Jesus withhold His fellowship from people with different political agendas … say, a Zealot or a tax collector?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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?
- 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.