Vol. 3, No. 11
The early church was taught an aversion to humanly devised creeds. Jesus declared a cardinal abuse under Judaism was the substitution of human doctrine for teaching of divine origin (Matthew 15:9). "But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men." The apostle Paul heartily affirmed the Gospel alone effects the salvation of men (Romans 1:16; Galatians 1:6-12). The Gospel (New Testament) is comprised of: (1) instruction (doctrine or teaching), (2) God's unfolded scheme for man's redemption, and (3) God's assignment of a three-fold mission to the church.
Creeds of human origin are the source of vast religious division around the world. Whereas human creeds change periodically, New Testament ink long ago dried, making the doctrine of the New Testament changeless. Even from a human perspective, accepting the New Testament as sole creed and doctrine in religion is more likely to achieve the unity for which Jesus prayed (John 17:20-21) than the sum of all alternatives some ecumenical movement may promote.
Before the judgment bar at times end, all men will be judged by the covenant of God under which they lived (Revelation 20:12-15). Men cannot be sanctified by substandard, humanly devised righteousness (Romans 10:1-3; Matthew 7:21-23). Neither will people living in the Gospel (New Testament) Age be received into heaven through compliance with the Old Testament standard from which we have been delivered (Colossians 2:14; Ephesians 2:15; Romans 7:6-7; Hebrews 8:6-13). Anyone trying to live by the Old Law (Testament) today is outside of God's saving grace (Galatians 5:1-5). The New Testament alone is the absolute and final standard of authority in religion to which man must appeal today. It teaches man how to live with his fellow man, how to worship and serve God, and how to receive the blessings of the Gospel and hope of heaven.
Redemption is inseparably tied to membership in the Lord's church; the Lord adds the redeemed or saved to the church (Acts 2:47). However, the confused religious community challenges souls with a religious shopping center of different churches and accompanying redemption doctrines. It is imperative that truth seekers wade through the swamp of human doctrines and espouse only God's redemptive plan and the church to which the Lord adds the saved. The "seed" which when planted into the honest hearts of men produces Christians only and only the Lord's church is the "word of God" only (Luke 8:11).
The Gospel or New Testament addresses God's plan of salvation in several passages. Often, religious people acknowledge many of the divine prerequisites to salvation. However, as often they select only those that they cherish to the exclusion of other elements to which Scripture attributes saving power. Abbreviated, the divine plan of salvation requires: (1) hearing God's Word exclusively (Romans 10:17), (2) nurturing a saving, obedient faith (James 2:20, 24, 26), (3) repenting of past sins (Acts 17:30-31), (4) confessing Christ as Lord (Romans 10:9-10), (5) burial (baptism) in water to wash sins away (Romans 6:3-5; Acts 22:16), and (6) remaining faithful until death (Revelation 2:10). A divine appendix to the plan of salvation for erring children of God is penitent prayer (Acts 8:22).
All the church is commanded by Scripture to do falls within three categories: evangelism, benevolence, edification. If something does not come under one of these departments, it is neither the mission nor the responsibility of the church. A function may even be authorized by Scripture, and yet not concern the church. For instance, it may fall in the realm of the home's responsibility. The home is another divine institution, but the roles of the home and the church, though they often interact, are not the same.
The Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20; 2 Timothy 2:2) is fundamentally tied to the visible existence of the church in its local sense. This makes evangelism the chief mission of the church. Yet, the church must also mature or edify itself to maintain God's favor (1 Corinthians 14:12; Hebrews 5:12-6:2). In addition, the Lord's church must possess and exhibit the highest form of love toward fellow men (Matthew 22:37-40; James 1:27; Galatians 6:10), in a small way imitating the love of God shown to man. The practice of benevolence also contributes to the goodwill of men toward the church and affords the church valuable contacts for the exercise of evangelism.
Some estimates indicate the churches of Christ number nearly 20,000 congregations and about 2,000,000 members worldwide. Since each congregation is autonomous from every other congregation, it is nearly impossible to address figures of this nature with certainty. However, irrespective of the actual number of congregations and members, the vast brotherhood of churches of Christ is predicated upon no creed but the New Testament alone. Though there are several variant views on a handful of fields of biblical inquiry, these pale in comparison to creed segmented denominationalism.
Following the New Testament only protects the Lord's church from worldwide apostasy. Individual Christians and churches that depart from the New Testament do not necessarily imperil other Christians and churches, whereas, were the church bound to a human creed, as went the creed so would go the whole church. This is the plight of the bulk of the religious community today. "There is a way which seemeth right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death" (Proverbs 14:12).
Biblical fellowship should be the only spiritual fellowship in which the people of God have the least interest. Furthermore, the definition of fellowship that can be gleaned from Scripture is the only definition sanctioned by God, and the only fellowship that will carry any weight in judgment. Isn't it, therefore, rather pointless to subscribe to a counterfeit definition of fellowship, which can only mislead man now and certainly condemn him in eternity?
However, does the Bible (and especially the New Testament or Gospel) clearly define biblical fellowship? Further, granting a Scriptural definition exists, is it necessary to accept and practice that fellowship? With whom may one have fellowship, and under what conditions (or are there any conditions)? Are there also others with whom the children of God are forbidden to practice fellowship? What does the Bible teach concerning the subject of fellowship? There are books devoted to the biblical doctrine of fellowship, so the following is obviously only an abbreviated examination of this topic.
It is this writer's firm conviction and understanding of Scripture that biblical fellowship must be established and maintained with God, and with those who are in fellowship with God. "That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ" (1 John 1:3).
Further, man is wholly unauthorized to redefine fellowship or extend it to those outside the scope of the biblical definition. The beginning of one's familiarity with God, a relationship with him or understanding what God requires of mankind, lies with faithful and regular consultation with the inspired Word of God. Implementation follows consultation. Faithfulness culminates from consultation and implementation, and will result in a heavenly hereafter with God. Following Bible teaching (doctrine) leads to fellowship with God and those who are likewise in fellowship with God, which brings about biblical unity as well. Bible doctrine, genuine fellowship and true unity are inseparable companions!
Led by the inspired apostles of Christ, the early church followed the doctrine (Gospel or New Testament) delivered to them and practiced fellowship with one another and God (Acts 2:42). Yes, it is not only desirous, but necessary that the New Testament church, regardless of in which century it exists, practice biblical fellowship. This is not an optional, but an obligatory matter. Whatever God requires of his creation is possible. The New Testament does describe Christian fellowship; it can be understood; and, this fellowship can be practiced accordingly.
Any attempt to alter the teaching (doctrine) of the Gospel assures the malfunction of true fellowship, a breach of fellowship with God and those who are in fellowship with God (Galatians 1:6-9; 1 John 1:6, 7; 2 John 9-11). The only basis of biblical fellowship is the wholehearted acknowledgment of Bible doctrine. Fellowship must not be imagined to be limited to merely mental registration of Bible subjects (e.g., the seven ones of Ephesians 4:4-6), but certainly requires the adoption of what Scripture teaches about them, too.
First, fellowship is a condition of discipleship; "Then said Thomas, which is called Didymus, unto his fellowdisciples, Let us also go, that we may die with him" (John 11:16). Fellowship of the Gospel also resulted in common discipleship between the Philippian church and the apostle Paul (Philippians 1:5). It is equally true that discipleship is a condition of fellowship. Therefore, when Gentiles became disciples, they enjoyed fellowship with God and other disciples (Christians). "Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God" (Ephesians 2:19). "That the Gentiles should be fellowheirs, and of the same body, and partakers of his promise in Christ by the gospel" (Ephesians 3:6).
Unless one is truly a disciple or Christian, he cannot entertain fellowship with God and those who are in fellowship with God, and this fellowship is the calculated result of "fellowship in the Gospel" (Philippians 1:5). Biblical fellowship does not exist in spite of the Gospel (teaching, doctrine), but as a result of it.
Today, the subject of fellowship among brethren is often reduced to the consideration of a common meal together. However, biblically, comparatively few passages address this kind of fellowship (e.g., Acts 2:46). Perhaps more passages that pertain to fellowship depict it as working together for the Lord than any other activity. In this vein, Paul referred to Timothy as his "workfellow" (Romans 16:21) and Titus as his "fellowhelper" (2 Corinthians 8:23). The Apostle named Clement among his "fellowlabourers" (Philippians 4:3), others of whom specifically designated as such were Timothy (1 Thessalonians 3:2; Philippians 1:1) Marcus, Aristarchus, Demas and Lucas (Philemon 24). Justus was styled a fellowworker in the kingdom of God (Colossians 4:11).
The activity in which fellowship involves laboring together for God primarily attends to being "fellowhelpers to the truth" (3 John 8). Scripture further describes fellowship among early Christians with these appellations: Epaphras and Tychicus were called fellowservants (Colossians 1:7, 4:7) among others (Revelation 6:11; 19:10; 22:9). It is written of Epaphroditus that he was Paul's "companion in labour, and fellowsoldier" (Philippians 2:25), and Apphia and Archippus are also called fellowsoldiers, (Philemon 1:2). To exercise fellowship in spiritual labors makes each participant a "true yokefellow" (Philippians 4:3).
Under the prevailing hostility toward the church in the first century, fellowship in the Gospel resulted in some becoming fellowprisoners (Romans 16:7; Colossians 4:10; Philemon 23). Not desirous by any means, however, the communion and partnership involved in biblical fellowship sometimes manifests itself among faithful brethren as the fellowship of sufferings (Philippians 3:10).
Though not limited to worship, biblical fellowship is enjoyed among Christians when they worship God. The Greek word for fellowship (koinonia) is translated "communion" and applied to the Lord's Supper; "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?" (1 Corinthians 10:16). Four verses later, the same Greek word is translated "fellowship" and applied to the relationship that exists between the worshipper and the worshipped (1 Corinthians 10:20).
Giving is another side of worship in which fellowship results between man and God and between fellow Christians. Several Scriptures translate the Greek word for fellowship to "communicate" and apply it to giving (Galatians 6:6; Philippians 4:14, 15; 1 Timothy 6:18; Hebrews 13:16). Giving is also called fellowship in 2 Corinthians 8:4.
There are some with whom the children of God are forbidden to practice biblical fellowship. This is clear from at least two passages: "Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?" (2 Corinthians 6:14). "And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them" (Ephesians 5:11).
The word "communion" in 2 Corinthians 6:14 comes from the Greek word for fellowship; this text asks a rhetorical question, the answer to which is "None at all!" Both verses emphatically teach that no true fellowship can exist between camps wherein one holds to truth and the other does not. Not only so, but cordial association with sinners often leads to the corruption of the saints (1 Corinthians 15:33).
Christian fellowship is described as "fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord" (1 Corinthians 1:9); "fellowship of the Spirit" (Philippians 2:1); fellowship with the Father (1 John 1:3); "fellowship one with another" (1 John 1:7); the apostles' "right hands of fellowship" (Galatians 2:9) and "fellowship in the Gospel" (Philippians 1:5). Biblical fellowship is reserved for those who do the truth and walk in the light (1 John 1:6-7); these souls alone receive the blessing of the cleansing power of the blood of Christ.
Counterfeit fellowship will offer no consolation in eternity; it behooves us, therefore, to opt for only biblical fellowship now. We are not left to wonder about the nature of fellowship, for the Bible amply describes it. Biblical fellowship must be established and maintained with God, and with those who are in fellowship with God. Bible doctrine, genuine fellowship and true unity are inseparable companions; new definitions are extra-biblical, corrupt doctrine and taint fellowship and unity.
Further, the fellowship God authorizes is not optional, but obligatory. Far be it from God's faithful children to endeavor to extend "koinonia" beyond the scope of its Scriptural definition, hence assuring a malfunction and breach of true fellowship. The limits of fellowship include a divine relationship with God and those who also entertain the same relationship with God; all others are excluded from this magnificent relationship. Fellowship is as much a condition of discipleship as discipleship is a condition of fellowship. Genuine fellowship is also the outgrowth of the practice of Bible doctrine. It manifests itself through laboring in the Gospel, suffering with the children of God and worship.