Wineskins Archive

December 11, 2013

Drawing Lines of Fellowship (Feb 2012)

Filed under: — @ 1:49 pm and

By Al Maxey

Accurately discerning the parameters of divine acceptance has always been a concern of devoted disciples of Christ Jesus. At times, however, men have gone too far and attempted to “whittle on His end of the stick,” as the apostle John did when he sought to hinder a man who was “not one of us” (Luke 9:49; Mark 9:38). Jesus rebuked John’s limited view of divine acceptance and taught him a vital lesson on fellowship that day. It is not up to us to draw the line of fellowship with respect to God’s Family; that right belongs solely to the Father. Jesus informed the apostle John that he had drawn his circle of fellowship too small; it included only those within his own little group, and excluded all those “not of us.” When we (our party, preferences, perceptions, practices) are perceived to be the standard of measurement for fellowship, our circle will always be drawn too small; the line will always be drawn at the border of our own brotherhood (at the feet of our faction). What we fail to realize, however, is that God has already drawn the line, and it is far more inclusive than our limited party parameters. God’s circle of fellowship includes ALL who have accepted by faith His gift of grace made accessible by His Son’s sacrifice. God drew the line at the cross!

When Paul heard of the factions forming in Corinth, he quickly reminded these brethren that they “were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9). The “our” was intentional, as it suggested the unity of all believers under the umbrella of His grace. Fellowship is based on union with a Person, not uniformity with respect to a pattern or preference or perception (the particulars of which vary significantly from party to party, thus ensuring the further fragmentation of the Family of God). Many today, evidencing the same sectarian spirit, seek to draw the line of fellowship closer to their own convictions than to the cross. Thus, fellowship is determined by agreement with them, rather than association with and acceptance by Him. John, who obviously took to heart what Jesus said to him years earlier, declared his desire to enjoy fellowship with other disciples, yet he hastened to add that he understood where that line was drawn — it wasn’t “in us,” but “in Him.” He wrote, “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son” (1 John 1:3). Fellowship is simply people sharing something in common, and the common bond of the Christian is Christ, who broke down all barriers and brought us together as one people at the cross (Ephesians 2:14ff). No wonder Paul wrote to the Corinthian brethren, who were fragmenting the Family of God, “I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and Him crucified” (1 Corinthians 2:2). There is no need to redraw the line of fellowship; the need is to recognize the line already drawn!

The sad reality, however, is that we live in a fallen world. Thinking factionally, rather than familially, is far too often the norm among fallen men (and that includes disciples of Christ). The challenge is to redirect the focus of the children of God back to the Father and His Son, a task that can only be accomplished when we submit to the Spirit who indwells us and allow Him to transform us into the image of our Savior. We should never take lightly that our unity, and thus our fellowship, is of the Spirit. Left to our own devices we will only know division; directed by the Spirit we will increasingly realize in our daily lives and interactions the oneness for which Jesus prayed in John 17. At the Jerusalem Council, the apostle Peter challenged those assembled to recognize the line of fellowship God had drawn — a line that included the Gentiles. “God accepted them by giving the Holy Spirit to them, just as He did to us. He made no distinction between us and them, for He purified their hearts by faith” (Acts 15:8-9). Some were wanting to redraw the line of fellowship around their own religious practices (circumcision, for example), however Peter would have no part in this attempt to redraw the parameters of God’s acceptance. “No! We believe it is through the grace of our Lord Jesus that we are saved, just as they are” (vs. 11). God had already drawn the line! It took Peter a while to recognize this line (as per the repeated visions in Acts 10:9ff), but he eventually got the message: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts men from every nation who fear Him and do what is right” (Acts 10:34-35). The principle was earlier declared to Peter during his vision, “What God has made clean, do not call common” (vs. 15, ESV). Restated: Christians should fellowship those whom God fellowships, accepting all those whom He accepts! When we forget this principle, and begin redrawing God’s line of fellowship, as Peter did in Antioch (and for which he was rebuked by Paul — Galatians 2:11ff), the Family of God is fragmented and our fellowship is fractured. Too often we seek to determine God’s line of acceptance and fellowship by our own doctrinal precepts and traditional practices. Thus, we draw the line ever closer to US, and in so doing exclude those who may differ with us on some patternistic particular peculiar to our party. We draw the line of fellowship at instrumental music, Bible classes, number of cups in the Communion, the version of the Bible one uses, whether or not they eat a meal in the church building, what/who they support from out of the “treasury,” their view of the “end times,” their understanding of spiritual gifts, and a thousand other matters that are in no way relevant to one’s ultimate acceptance by God. Paul dealt with this very matter in Romans 14, informing us that our doctrinal differences are not determinative of divine acceptance. God has drawn the line, not us. “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has accepted him” (Romans 14:3). When we redraw God’s line, we only exclude those whom He has accepted. Fellowship is not based on uniformity of perception and practice, but union with a Person! You and I may differ on many things, but if we are both “in Him,” we be brethren, and, as a result, we are in sweet fellowship with one another, for we share the common bond of Jesus Christ.

Some have asked me over the years, “May I fellowship a Baptist? A Methodist?” I suppose we could also ask, “May a Baptist or Methodist fellowship a Church of Christer?” I believe we’re asking the wrong questions. These questions suggest the basis of fellowship is to be found in our understandings and practices and traditions. The reality is: everyone with whom we may have genuine fellowship in Christ Jesus is going to differ with us on any number of matters, some of which we might regard as significant. But God’s acceptance of a person is not determined by the level of agreement that person has achieved with my or your views and practices. The real question is: “May I fellowship a genuine believer with whom I may differ on a great many matters?” The answer is YES. I have brethren, with whom I am in genuine spiritual fellowship, who are affiliated with the Baptists, the Methodists, etc. They have traditions and practices and understandings that differ from mine, but these are not what determines acceptance by the Father. They are saved by grace through faith just as I am, and thus we are in fellowship with one another because we each are in fellowship <i>with Him</i>. When we draw the line of fellowship based upon denominational distinctives, we have redrawn God’s line. We don’t have that right. I’m reminded of the warning in Proverbs 22:28 — “Move not the ancient landmark (boundary line).” God drew the line where He wanted it; it’s best that we leave it be!

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