Wineskins Archive

November 22, 2013

The Fellowship Of the Saints (Feb 2012)

Filed under: — @ 10:53 pm and

By Keith Brenton

Having created mankind, God includes them in His assessment of all the things He has made as “very good” (Genesis 1:31). Yet when He creates the man, Adam, He soon notes “It is not good for the man to be alone” (Genesis 2:18). So He creates a helper suitable for the man, Eve.

Man was created to be in community. “God sets the lonely in families,” Psalm 68:6a tells us, and the earliest believers took Christ at His word so faithfully that they were part of a fellowship that has perhaps been unequaled to this day (Acts 2:42-47).

Today, I suspect we know more about The Fellowship of the Ring than we do about the fellowship of the saints.

And even that work closes with the breaking of a fellowship pledged in trust to each other, but overpowered by self-interest and greed for power — except for one ever-faithful companion. In the motion picture version, Frodo departs on his quest in a tiny boat, by himself, calling to his companion: “Go back, Sam. I’m going to Mordor alone.” Sam continues to splash after him, unable to swim: “Of course you are. And I’m coming with you.”

That’s the kind of fellowship that the believers enjoyed as described in Acts 2, and presumably for a good span thereafter:

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. ~ Acts 2:42-47

It distresses me greatly that there are churches counting themselves among the those in fellowship with Christ today who seem more eager to break that fellowship with others at the slightest difference, when the scriptural record of the church indicates that the breaking of fellowship was to be a measure of last resort.

Jesus’ instruction is clearly structured procedure on the question of sin and fellowship:

“If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector. ~ Matthew 18:15-17

(An instruction which has an irony to it, coming from the Son of Man who recruited tax collector Levi to join Him in associating with sinners like self-confessed Zacchaeus — see Luke 19).

Yet too many breaches of fellowship begin with the last step, unpreceded by the first three. We do not go to them alone; we do not go to them in pairs or small groups; we do not go to them as an assembly. We just treat them as heretics.

And far too often the root of the breach is not about sin, but about a difference of opinion; a difference of interpretation of scripture; or a difference of procedure.

In scripture, the causes were far more serious matters:

In 1 Corinthians 5, the instruction to not associate with immoral people (v.9) has been made more specific; not to associate with fellow believers who are sexually immoral, greedy, idolatrous, slandering, alcoholic or swindling (v. 11).

In 2 Thessalonians 3, the reasons for shunning a fellow believer were idleness, disruptiveness, and not living according to the teaching of the evangelists.

In 1 Timothy 3:1-9, the reasons were manifold, including selfishness, greed, boastfulness, pride, abusiveness, disobedience to parents, ungratefulness, unholiness, unloving, unforgiving, slandering, without self-control, brutality, not loving good, treacherousness, rashness, conceit, loving pleasure over God, “having a form of godliness but denying its power.” These were people who “worm their way into homes and gain control over gullible women, who are loaded down with sins and are swayed by all kinds of evil desires, always learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth;” “… men of depraved minds, who, as far as the faith is concerned, are rejected.”

In Titus 3:10, the reason was divisiveness and the instruction mirrors that of Christ in Matthew.

None of these presumes that the causes could include simple differences of opinion, or that the steps Jesus instructed were skipped, and we should not presume these things either.

In fact, Paul instructs Timothy when there are differences of opinion, this is the procedure:

“Don’t have anything to do with foolish and stupid arguments, because you know they produce quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but must be kind to everyone, able to teach, not resentful. Opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth, and that they will come to their senses and escape from the trap of the devil, who has taken them captive to do his will.” ~ 2 Timothy 2:23-26

Nor is there any indication that the shunning or separation should be hoped to be permanent. In the case of idleness at Thessalonica, as you have read above, there was a purpose for shunning the idle believer, and it was to produce shame (hopefully leading to repentance):

“Take special note of anyone who does not obey our instruction in this letter. Do not associate with them, in order that they may feel ashamed. Yet do not regard them as an enemy, but warn them as you would a fellow believer.” ~ 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15

The instruction of John is to pray for those whose sin does not lead to death, so that God will give them life (1 John 5:16-17) — perhaps enough time to repent, again, in order to inherit eternal life. In fact, even in the context of despicable heresy, this entire epistle says nothing about dissociating with those whom he calls “antichrists,” who are apparently teaching lies about the Father and Son; about Jesus’ incarnation; about permissiveness. And John’s instruction is to not believe them and thereby overcome them — yet to love brothers and sisters to the point of laying down one’s life for them as Christ did.

In almost every instance of withholding fellowship from a sinning believer in scripture (Titus, the exception), it is done as a consequence of a number of sins that indicated a lifestyle opposed to the life-pattern of Jesus Christ, rather than in harmony with it.

In every instance of withholding fellowship from a sinning believer in scripture, it is done as a last resort and with every hope of that believer’s penitence and return to the fellowship of the saints.

There is no instance of withholding fellowship from another entire church by a single church in scripture. It doesn’t exist. The threat of lampstands’ candles being snuffed out, etc., in the epistles early on in the Revelation to John were made through him by Jesus himself, through verbal instruction to write in a vision.

I’m not aware of any such claim being made when this is done today, which at least reduces the culpability of those who practice it — but certainly doesn’t obliterate it.

You see, we have been given plenty of instructions about withholding fellowship from sinning brothers and sisters by scripture. It tells us for what causes, what purpose, and by what procedure it should be done.

And scripture tells us plainly God’s overriding purpose for gathering us into His assembly of children, just as surely as He has told us His purpose for gathering us into families and coupling us male and female in marriage.

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. ” ~ John 17:20-21

What He has joined together, we should not be eager to rend asunder.

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