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Bible Articles and Lessons: F

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Fellowship: Its Spirit and Practice (CMPA)

"I and my Father are one." Can there be any simpler yet more profound description of true fellowship than these words of the Lord Jesus? In the days of his flesh the beloved Son of God made his Father's will his own and glorified Hun in all his ways. The Father acknowledged the Son as the one "in whom I am well pleased" and glorified him with His own self. The sharing of the divine will which enabled Christ to identify himself so closely with God was completed by a participation in the divine glory and nature.

The sharing of a common aim, the doing of things together so that two or more may be as one, a bond created between giver and receiver -- all these ideas are contained in the Scriptural concept of fellowship, of which the prime example is the relationship between God and a man begotten of Him yet of our nature, and described as "in the bosom of the Father", declaring the glory of God, the Son whom the Father loveth and into whose hands He giveth all things. [The word "koinonia" occurs something like twenty times in the NT. It can refer (a) to sharing one's goods or wealth with those in need, and may then be translated "contribution", or "distribution", or "to communicate" (Rom 15:26; 2Co 8:4; 9:13; Heb 13:16); (b) to participation in a common life of faith, which would include the Breaking of Bread (Acts 2:42; Gal 2:9; Phi 1:5; 2:1; 1Jo 1:3,4); (c) to association with the Lord Jesus Christ (which would also include the Breaking of Bread) and with his Father (1Co 1:9; 10:16; 2Co 6:14; 13:14; Eph 3:9; Phi 3:10; 1Jo 1:3,6).]

John 10:30; Mat 3:17; John 20:17; 1:18; John 3:35.

The Believers' Fellowship with the Father and the Son

In this fellowship others may share. Indeed, the very will of the Father which the Son made his own was that other sons should be brought unto the same glory. "And for their sakes I sanctify myself, that they also might be sanctified through the truth... that they all may be as one, as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us... And I have declared unto them thy name, and will declare it: that the love wherewith thou hast loved me may be in them, and I in them."

This was "the apostles' fellowship", but the Lord specifically included "them also which shall believe on me through their word". The aim of the apostolic preaching of the things they had seen and heard, and of which they had been a part, was that those to whom it was declared "might have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son, Jesus Christ."

John 17:19-21, 26; Acts 2:42; John 1:1-3.

The distinctive quality -- indeed the distinctive test -- of this fellowship is that it binds together those who by human standards seem to have nothing in common. Worldly "fellowships" aim to exclude those who have not the skill, knowledge, social status or money to belong to them. There is only one thing with which all men are by nature "in fellowship", and that is sin and its consequences -- a fellowship which does nothing to bind men together, but which leads to "wars and fightings". It is when we realize the true nature of "fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness" and our total inability to do anything about our condition, that we appreciate the greatness of the mercy of God who was "in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself" and of the privilege of being called into fellowship with God and His Son. [There is a related verb, "koinoneo", which is used in similar ways, (a) of giving to those in need (Rom 12:13; 15:27; Gal 6:6; Phi 4:15), (b) of the relationship between fellow-believers (Rom 15:27), and (c) of association with our Lord; though we have also here a negative use (Heb 2:14; 1Pe 4:13), (d) of having fellowship with forbidden deeds or doctrines, against which the saints are warned (1Ti 5:22; 2Jo 1:11; there is similar warning in use of "koinonia" in 2Co 6:14).]

James 4:1; Eph 5: 11; 2Co 5:19.

The Believers' Fellowship with One Another

The believers' fellowship with one another not only depends upon their relationship with the Father and the Son -- it is an essential part of it. The idea that one can exist without the other has no support in Scripture. Divine fellowship is bound up with the corporate life and witness of a community: it is a living fellowship. For the perfection in unity of apostles and believers the Lord prayed, both so "that the world may believe that thou hast sent me", and "that the world may know that thou hast loved them, as thou hast loved me."

John declares in his first Epistle that unless our fellowship with each other is real, our claim to fellowship with God is a hollow sham. "He that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen ?" The test of obedience is the test of love. "Living in the light" and having fellowship with God is not a matter of sentimental feelings and language, but of loving God in deed and in truth. It is the love of God in giving Jesus for our sins which makes it possible for us to join the family of God as His children, and therefore as brother and sister one with another. Those who walk in the light, as He is in the light, John says, may enjoy true fellowship with each other.

For a brother to claim this divine fellowship, but to treat lightly or harshly his relationship with his brethren, is to miss the mark completely. No distinction should be made between brother and brother on the grounds of social status, wealth or intellect, or claims to superior knowledge or enlightenment. The idea of an inner circle, a spiritual elite, is foreign to the apostles' teaching. According to the Scriptures, "there is neither Jew nor Greek; there is neither bond nor free, there is neither male nor female: for ye are all one in Christ Jesus." Where the Scriptures make a. distinction between brethren, it is to impose upon "the strong" the duty of sustaining "the weak".

Eph 4:15-16; John 17:21-23; 1Jo 4:9-16,20,21; 2:10; Jam 2:1-4; 1Co 12:12,13; Gal 3:28; Rom 15:1.

The Basis of Fellowship

What then is the basis of our fellowship? Is it the doctrine we have come to believe? Is the breaking of bread together this fellowship of which we speak? It is neither, yet it is both: it is greater than either and greater than their sum. The heart-searching message of the day of Pentecost which caused "all that believed" to be "together" and to have "all things common", led to a joyful experience. Luke says, "They continued stedfastly in the apostles' doctrine and in fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers."

The things believed led to a response in baptism; a new association with the Father and Son who came unto them and made their abode with them, as the Lord had promised; a fellowship with those of the same faith and obedience; a showing forth together of the Lord's death and resurrection by the ''many" who were "one bread"; and the spiritual experience of the communal approach to the Father. In all these things "they continued stedfastly".

So their fellowship was based not merely on an assent to the apostles' doctrine, although it could not have existed without it; nor was it the act of breaking bread, although this could not have been omitted. It was not the charitable feeling or the sense of joy and gladness, although this was an essential characteristic of the sharers in a common faith. It was through the perseverance in all these things that fellowship was maintained, with the Father and Son and with each other. Basic beliefs found expression in a living fellowship of which each aspect was a natural part of the whole.

Acts 2:42 (RV); Acts 2:44-46; 1Co 10:16,17.

Persevering in Fellowship

There is a Scriptural doctrine of perseverance, which reveals fellowship as a continuous attention to the teaching and the practice of "the faith once delivered to the saints", and a growing in grace and knowledge. The language of John 15 :16,17 shows that the Lord had chosen and ordained his disciples that they should keep on bearing fruit, the fruit itself should continue, the Father would never fail to give what was asked in Christ's name, and those who kept his commands would persist in their love for one another. The believers were exhorted to "give diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace", because in the one body, one spirit, one faith, one hope, one Lord, one baptism, it was the one Father who was over, through and in all of them.

The test of continuance revealed those who were not "of us", who only "endured for a while". They did not "abide in the light". Yet this "patience and faith of the saints" is not based upon personal will power and energy; it is achieved by those who humbly trust that He who "hath begun a good work in you will perform it until the day of Christ".

2Pe 3:18; John 15:16-17; Eph 4: 1-6; 1Jo 2:9; Rev 13:10; Phi 1:6.

The Statement of Faith

Practical necessity has forced upon us a use of the word "fellowship" which, regrettably, has often caused it to be given a technical rather than a spiritual sense. It is used as the equivalent of section or faction; it describes something which is withdrawn, resumed, or withheld; and even as a description of things shared in common, it has sometimes merely meant a common opposition to a view taken by some other group. All this is far removed from the spiritual meaning of the word as used by the Apostle John.

Even so, the attempt has been made to capture the spirit of the first century fellowship in our own ecclesial arrangements. The object of a statement of faith is to provide a basis of fellowship, not of disfellowship, although like the love of God itself, it is both inclusive and exclusive. When God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son for its salvation, it was evidence that He "will have all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth." The limitation of "whosoever believeth in him", however, upholds the very principles upon which that love was based. Although no formal set of words can guarantee true unity of the Spirit, our statement of faith is a human expression of what we accept as our common basis of belief; it is the framework of faith gleaned from the Scriptures. It is essential to recognize both its importance and its limitations.

Nowhere in Old or New Testament is there a systematic statement of faith. The Bible does, however, state principles and illustrate them by example in such a way as to convince us that such propositions as, say, "There is no immortal soul" are true. In addition it gives case histories which show how doctrinal propositions arose. If there were in Corinth for a short time some misguided people who said that there is no resurrection of the dead, it would have been impossible to retain such people "in fellowship" after Paul had written 1Co 15. Whatever is meant by "abiding not in the doctrine of Christ" and "confessing not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh", John's instructions in his Second Epistle would emphatically exclude from the community the heretics who denied this doctrine. If there were those who would have tolerated incest in the community, they could have no title to do so after Paul had written 1Co 5.

In response to similar needs we have drawn up our own statement and although we must not impute to it inspiration or infallibility (a statement of faith is no substitute for the living faith itself), for Christadelphians, whose faith is Bible-based, it is a distillation of the truth we have agreed to hold "with one accord". Because no human statement can be perfect and sufficient for all time, it will from time to time give rise to questions or discussions or interpretations -- or even amendment as has been the case in the past.

1Ti 2:4; John 3:16; 1Co 15:12-23; 2Jo 1:9-11; 1Co 5; 1Ti 1:15; 4:9, etc; Acts 1:14; 2:1; 2:46.

The Scriptures the Basis

It is the Word of God alone and not the Statement of Faith which produces faith. When someone wishes to become a Christadelphian, the question is not primarily whether he accepts the Statement of Faith but whether he holds the Bible teaching on which it is based. It is important to have our priorities right and not impute to any human writing, whoever wrote it, the power to produce saving faith and to be the authoritative basis for it. This is not to underestimate the value of the Statement: it is simply to put it in perspective.

The value of the Statement of Faith and its importance in fellowship is that it is a definition of what we have agreed to hold as Scripture teaching in all its essentials. [Statements other than the Birmingham Amended Statement have always been regarded as acceptable amongst ecclesias in the Central Fellowship, provided that they uphold the same Bible Teaching.] Viewed negatively, where there is no common faith there can be no true fellowship, because we cannot share that relationship with each other which is an essential part of our fellowship with the Father and the Son. Put positively, the Statement of Faith can form a basis of fellowship -- a conviction of the common faith which issues in baptism and a promise to be Christlike -- but only if we couple with the tenets of belief the life to be lived. Because the Statement of Faith says much about the one and little about the other, and to this extent is incomplete, some have tended to produce an imbalance of emphasis as between believing and living. [In many ecclesial constitutions the inclusion of The Commandments of Christ helps to correct this imbalance, provided they are the object of regular reflection through the daily readings, prayer and meditation.] Indeed, it is a grave error to attempt to separate the two, as though we could be truly believing without becoming like Christ, or truly growing in Christ without believing. Belief is no mere assent to a set of principles: it is a relationship between God and man based on an acceptance of the Word of God.

The Need for Order In the Community

It is clear from the reading of the Old and New Testaments that community life is part of worship. A community needs order and method in what it does, otherwise it will sow the seeds of its own destruction. The New Testament makes it plain that the apostles expected the ecclesias to have decency and order in their arrangements, but the same apostle who wrote, "Let all things be done decently and in order", also wrote, to the same ecclesia, "Let all your things be done with charity." Some of our ecclesial behaviour may smack more of law than of grace; and it behoves all of us, not least those who have charge of our affairs, to remember that two quite different duties, both alike Christian, confront us. The one says that a community of people accepting a common basis for their association should not encourage its members to treat lightly the basis which they have undertaken to uphold. The other says that there are varying degrees of proficiency in the Scriptures among our members, and bids, "Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations." Through differences in age (the very old and the very young being specially vulnerable), and training, and disposition, ability to grasp the fine distinctions which some doctrinal discussions involve, and to make wholly logical deductions from accepted premises, varies enormously from member to member. Precious though the gift of precise thinking may be, it can become unbearably tyrannical if over-pressed; and we must beware of the danger of making it seem that salvation, or even fellowship itself, is a matter of competence in logic and consistency in exposition. On the other hand, mere dogmatism unsupported by sound Scriptural reasoning, is not conducive to healthy fellowship. If we administer the letter of the Statement of Faith without regard for its spiritual meaning, we have forsaken Christ for a system of justification which cannot be supported by Scripture. The teaching of Christ and of the Gospel through all Scripture is clear enough: "For if righteousness came by the law, then Christ died in vain."

On the other hand, if any man would play fast and loose with the Statement of Faith by driving his heretical chariot through "legal" loopholes in the wording, he has missed the meaning of fellowship and the proper use of our common basis. We are not to seek cover for any fundamental differences between ourselves and those with whom we are in fellowship by exploiting flaws in the human wording which gives expression to that fellowship. The warm spirit of fellowship which does exist between brethren throughout the world has grown in a community with the Statement of Faith as its agreed basis. It is not honourable to enjoy the one without accepting the other. If our views are unquestionably and fundamentally at variance with the plain intention of the Statement of Faith, then the honourable thing is to acknowledge this difference and to make it plain that we cannot subscribe to the apostles' doctrine and fellowship as understood by the Christadelphians. We must not mistake laxity for grace. We must uphold in a spirit of love and compassion the Statement upon which fellowship is based, but this does not mean that we need not observe it or call upon others to do so.

Gal 2:21 (RV); 1Co 14:40; 16:14.

The Need to Uphold the Basis

We do rightly therefore, when interviewing prospective members of our community, to ensure for their sakes and ours that we have a common understanding and belief. It follows that any member who unquestionably departs from this position and does not respond to loving appeals to preserve the unity of belief, has already broken the bond of fellowship with his brethren and the ecclesia confirms this in its reluctant act of withdrawal. The same is true of behaviour unworthy of the name of Christ, if this is not repented of and acknowledged.

Since each ecclesia has agreed to hold as the basis for its existence the written expression of its beIiefs as found in the Statement of Faith, it is in honour bound to uphold that. Each ecclesia is the custodian for its own members of that common faith. The members have given willing assent to that faith when seeking fellowship with the ecclesia and the community of eccIesias which form the Brotherhood. No member may teach doctrines clearly inconsistent with that faith nor ought an ecclesia to retain in its fellowship one so acting. It is noteworthy that in his epistles Paul addresses individual ecclesias as though they were the whole household of God, and in his commendation of his fellow helpers from one ecclesia to another, assumes a spiritual relationship between them. Each ecclesia administers its own affairs, but it does so upon common principles which must be upheld. Our Brotherhood throughout the world exists only because we have agreed to behave in that way.

Rom 1:5,6; 1Co 1:2; 2Co 1:1; 1Th 1:1; etc; Rom 6:1-4; 1Co 16:10,19-20, etc.

The promulgation of a doctrine inconsistent with our mutual faith, the disruptive influence of personalities, or often a combination of these things, produces schism. But whether the schismatic influence arises through doctrine or behaviour, it is no excuse for the rest of the ecclesia or Brotherhood to drive the wedge deeper between brother and brother. Schism as a policy is wrong: it is roundly condemned in Scripture as one of the "manifest works of the flesh". Brethren in Christ must practise reconciliation, atonement and unity, not seeking to expose sins but to recover the sinner. They have no authority from Christ to mark up the failings of others and to make known from the housetops their deviations and sin. "Love keeps no score of wrong, does not gloat over other men's sins, but delights in truth." We should be no wedge drivers but reconcilers, and not fall into the error of rejoicing more over the one sheep that is lost than over the one that is found, over withdrawing fellowship rather than restoring it.

Gal 5:20; 2Ti 2:24-26 (RV); 1Co 13:6 (NEB).

Dealing with Error

What then if there is persistent and unmistakable error? If the ecclesia is to live up to its name, then it must seek to find unity, and only when all else has failed will it contemplate severing fellowship. Meanwhile, other ecclesias should not seek to pronounce their own judgments or to ventilate the alleged errors of brethren not under their care. From wide experience, it can be said that facts are hard things to ascertain on the spot, let alone at a distance. Moreover, the spoken exchange is frequently very different from extracts which appear in writing and words spoken under duress are given various interpretations according to the mood of the reader.

Ecclesias should understand that they do not live to themselves. Their decisions matter, since they form the. basis not only of fellowship within their ecclesial family circle but also with the wider Brotherhood. Decisions should be arrived at honourably and in full accordance with our mutual basis, and when so reached they should be respected by other ecclesias. For other ecclesias to push too far their own differing judgments against an individual brother, or against an ecclesia, produces fragmentation and ecclesial anarchy. If a brother who has been withdrawn from by his home ecclesia seeks to join another, the first step which the second ecclesia must take is to ascertain, with discernment and charity, from the brother himself and from his former ecclesia, what were the grounds of the loss of fellowship. There is no other circumstance in which the second ecclesia should become involved and there is no other way in which satisfactorily to heal the breach not only between the brother and the community but also between himself and his ecclesia. Nor is it open to the second eccIesia to receive the brother without thorough examination of the circumstances, in the hope that by ignoring the original breach some kind of restoration can be effected. Furthermore, if the issue is fundamental, it should not be difficult for both ecclesias to agree on what should be done, provided that the decision is based on Scriptural principles. If it is not fundamental, then there may be room for differences of judgment. In any case, the grounds for arriving at judgment by the ecclesias concerned should be clearly set forth. As provided for in the Ecclesial Guide, the second ecclesia might finally decide to accept the brother in the full knowledge of the circumstances and after full consultation with the first ecclesia. Though such cases are and should remain few, they may on occasions be inevitable.

Causes of Disharmony

All that being said, it should not be the custom for a brother withdrawn from in one ecclesia to go from ecclesia to ecclesia in the hope that one will finally accept him as a member. Such persistence inevitably leads to trouble. When dissension arises over cases of this kind, there is as much trouble from the personality of the brother as there is from his teaching. Our community has often suffered more from personality troubles than from other forms of heresy. There are those who cause disharmony among brethren irrespective of the particular views they hold. Anyone who aggressively persists in such action so as to separate true brethren is wrong in spirit.

Tit 3:10,11.

The position of individual ecciesias is more difficult to ascertain. For this reason extreme care is necessary in considering the relationships between one ecclesia and the rest of the Brotherhood. Very rarely will an ecclesia as a whole become the teacher of error; in such circumstances it would find itself at odds with neighbouring and other ecclesias. The question would thus be resolved by discussions between the ecclesias concerned. Occasionally, however, when differences of view arise concerning an individual brother, inter-ecclesial relationships should be determined by the general procedure indicated in the previous section. The whole subject merits further close consideration.

Respecting the Boundaries of Fellowship

It is one of the lamentable features of our community that over the years there have been schismatic influences which have in the end created separate "fellowships". Looking back, it is possible to level criticism at the spirit and the method in which the affairs were carried through, or on the other hand it is possible to justify the action then taken. Of one thing we can be sure: no one ever knows all the facts, and if we imagine that the "fellowships" which now exist are the same as those which were created at the time of the separation, we shall almost certainly be mistaken.

But that is no excuse for ignoring the existing boundaries of fellowship. To act in such a way is to do despite to the brethren who have gone before and to treat irresponsibly the beliefs of ourselves and others. The boundaries must be respected until we find a means of healing the breach on sound and mutually accepted lines. Those who have had experience in repairing such breaches can testify that some of the greatest hindrances to their work have been brethren who moved irresponsibly between fellowships, as though barriers did not exist. The only way in which breaches can be healed is to proceed prayerfully, sympathetically, and truthfully with the Bible in hand and Christ in the heart, in order eventually to produce a common declaration of intent fully in accord with soundly based essential doctrines. In carrying out this process, no one has the right to hold an inquisition on individual brethren in the "other" fellowship. The responsibility lies with their ecclesias to apply the principles of the agreement. Witch-hunting, real or imaginary, is no part of the work of a servant of Christ. A right attitude to this would have saved the waste of tons of paper which has been shot like ammunition (and in the same spirit) from the homes of individual self-appointed judges or from upstart committees having no ecclesial basis. Our behaviour in these matters must be Christlike; we must know what spirit we are of. Idle gossip, rumour-mongering and the spread of malicious talk, which in other circles would be regarded as libelous, have no part in the household of God, whether the talk is about those within or those without. Those without God will judge: we must remember, however that in the long run judgment will come home to the house of God. With what measure we mete and with what judgment we judge, we shall ourselves individually and communally be assessed.

1Co 6:13; 1Pe 4:17; Mat 7:1-5.

Preserving the Unity already Attained

In the past two decades breaches between the Central Fellowship and the Berean brethren in America, the former Central and Suffolk Street Fellowships in Britain and in Australasia have been healed by patience and understanding and on sound principles. There was considerable rejoicing on earth when those events took place and we would hope to learn that heaven too shared the joy. Since then the world has become a small place and there is constant exchange of visits between all its parts -- a powerful factor in the strengthening of communal bonds and the opportunity for greater understanding of each other, but bringing also the danger of the quick spread of any new rift or divisive tendencies. All the more reason then to be alive to our responsibilities and to the true basis for our fellowship -- the living relationship with God through the Lord Jesus Christ and the revealed word. It is imperative that we "continue stedfastly" to practise peacemaking and to preserve unity, not at all costs, but as a principle by which we subsist. For us who have achieved so much under God's blessing in the last two decades, it would be disastrous and culpable to forsake our true calling for internecine strife. Mutually destructive criticism were far better replaced by searching self-examination. Our brother's deadly sins are no excuse for spreading our own poisonous talk. Our primary purpose must be his recovery and not his loss, and this can be achieved only by love and not by hate.

Being brethren of the same family and under the same Head, we should esteem any loss as his loss, and any gain as his gain, when righteously done in his name. All this is for a purpose and is not an end in itself. We are seeking an eternal fellowship for ourselves and should strive with all our hearts to ensure it for our brethren. "May the love of God and the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit" be with us until he come.

1Co 1:9-13; Rom 16:17,18; 2Co 3:14.

The Committee of The Christadelphian

December 1971

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