Monday, 17 March 2008

What Are the Grounds for Genuine Fellowship?

“There is one body and one Spirit – just as you were called to one hope when you were called – one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” (Ephesians 4: 4-6)

Is it my imagination, or is there is a problem today when it comes to real Christian fellowship? It seems that there are many non-scriptural definitions that we have come to accept as being fellowship when in reality they have little or nothing to do with fellowship as taught by our Lord and His apostles.

What is the problem? The problem is that we have often defined fellowship with sectarian and factional values. We often seem to only be able to fellowship with those who think like we do and reject fellowship with those who think differently than we do. We seem to have the mind set that, if you share my doctrinal and denominational values, then we can fellowship. If you do not, then we cannot fellowship because we seem to see each other as being unscriptural at best, and maybe even worse, as being somehow un-Christian.

I’m reminded of a time when I was the pastor of a small church and we had a visiting missionary who requested the use of an overhead projector. Ours was broken, so the suggestion was made to borrow one from another church across the street from us. Some of the elders balked at the suggestion because this other church was a part of a different denomination and so, the implication was, they were somehow inferior to us. As the other church was much more liberal than we were, some even went so far as to question whether or not they even were Christians. Can you believe it?! How sad that they thought that we couldn’t even borrow an overhead projector from them, much less actually fellowship with them or, heaven forbid, invite them to join us to hear this missionary's testimony.

In the aforementioned verse from Ephesians we see seven components that constitute genuine fellowship. We would do well to reflect a little on each of those points before we too hastily decide who it is and who it isn’t that we can fellowship with. Remember, the Lord is not going to segregate us in heaven, so we had better not do so here on earth. God makes no allowance for our denominational or doctrinal views; He simply includes us, or rejects us, based only upon our acceptance or rejection of the Lord Jesus. If we think there are other options, then I would argue that we are sadly mistaken. There is only ONE Body, ONE Spirit, ONE Hope, ONE Lord, ONE Faith, ONE Baptism, and ONE God. Anyone who acknowledges that, not only can, but also must be fellowshipped with. If we dare reject others, then not only are we sectarian ourselves, but worse, we also are essentially rejecting Christ because Christ has accepted them.

Where do we get off separating ourselves from other believers? There is only ONE Body, not many bodies. The Body of Christ is made up of all who profess faith in the Lord Jesus. Just as my physical body is made up of many different parts (1 Corinthians 12: 12-26), and just as I cannot pick and choose which of those parts I want to accept and which I want to reject, likewise we have no business accepting certain members of the Body of Christ and rejecting others. How silly it would be to cut off my left arm because of some defect that I perceive on it. How silly it also is to cut off another member of the Body of Christ because of a defect that we perceive in them.

We all became a part of the Body of Christ the very second that we came to believe. What is required by the Lord in order to be accepted by Him? A right doctrine on the mode of baptism? A belief in the rapture of the church? Perhaps it’s the practice of head coverings that we need to be concerned with. While these might be important doctrinal issues to some, the fact remains that the only prerequisite for salvation is calling on the name of the Lord (Acts 2:21). Regardless of what our denominational backgrounds are, if we have received Christ, we belong to that ONE Body and there is nothing that can rightly separate us from it. The fact is that we are ONE. Isn’t it time that we acted like it? Being in ONE Body is “grounds for genuine fellowship.”

You and I must be prepared to fellowship with anyone who desires to fellowship with us. Again, if they have received Christ, they are our brother and sister and therefore we must be of ONE Spirit in our fellowship with them. Since there is only one Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, then there must also be only ONE Spirit. Why is it that we can often agree with the former and live like we disagree with the latter?

If I say that I don’t believe in institutional church systems (which I don’t) and if I then also make a distinction between Christians in the institutional system versus those outside of the institutional system, then I am just as sectarian as those who differentiate between denominations. There are not multiple Spirits; there is ONE Spirit. God does not send one Spirit to this group of believers and another one to another group of believers. No, God has decreed that there should be but ONE Spirit. If we cannot accept that, then my dear brothers, we are out of sync with God’s holy and perfect plan. Being in ONE Spirit is “grounds for genuine fellowship.”

While we each may hope in many worldly and carnal things, ultimately there can be but ONE Hope for all believers; that is an eternity spent with the Lord. Obviously we must live the life of faith day by day as God leads us. I’m not talking, as the old adage says, of “being so heavenly minded that we are no earthly good.” God certainly has His own hopes and expectations for us here and now.

However, the ONE Hope that we are talking about here is an eternal hope with our Heavenly Father. Won’t that be wonderful? Therein lies the test. Are you, like me, looking forward to that day? Do you have that ONE Hope of someday being in Glory with the Lord? That is one of the common denominators that all true believers share. Having ONE Hope gives us “grounds for genuine fellowship.”

Many years ago I was a Beatles fan. One of the Beatles, George Harrison, had a hit song called “My Sweet Lord.” While the title may sound Christian, the song was far from it. It is no secret that the Beatles had experimented with Hinduism. This is evidenced by some lyrics in Harrison’s song, which mention Hare Krishna, Brahma, and Vishnu; all of which are Hindu deities. While George Harrison sung about those deities as “lord,” the fact is that none of them are “lord.” Why? Because there is only ONE Lord, and that is Jesus Christ.

When Peter addressed the crowd at Pentecost, he said, “God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ” (Acts 2:36). Jesus of Nazareth, who died on the cross and three days later rose again, is Lord. There is no other. If you confess Jesus as your Lord, regardless of your traditions or denominational background, then your Lord is my Lord too. Nothing can, and no one dare, separate those who call on the same ONE Lord, Jesus Christ. Since we call on the same ONE Lord, that calling gives us “grounds for genuine fellowship.”

When we talk about ONE Faith, we are not talking about one denomination. We are also not talking about one specific biblical form of interpretation over another one. What are we then talking about? We are talking about “the” ONE Faith that Jesus is the Son of God who came to the world as a baby, born of a virgin, lived a sinless life, died on a cross for the remission of our sin, and three days later rose from the dead and now sits at the right hand of God the Father. By ONE Faith we mean that we believe that He died in our place, for sinners, and by His living again, we too through faith in Him can have new life both, now and in eternity with God.

Those are the essentials of our ONE Faith. Do you believe that? If you do, then you belong to the Lord. However, if you do not believe that, then you do not belong to the Lord. “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). If you and I share “the” ONE Faith, regardless of our other traditions and denominational (or non-denominational) backgrounds, then believing in that ONE faith gives us “grounds for genuine fellowship.”

Some of my former Baptist colleagues may initially take exception on this point. While personally I believe that “baptism” is by immersion, not all children of God do. Many practice other modes of baptism, which to them, are real and genuine expressions of their faith. Watchman Nee is quoted to have said, “if we make the form of baptism the dividing line between those who belong to the church and those who do not, we shall exclude many true believers from our fellowship.”

One small church I was pastor of faced that very dilemma. We had a number of believers start to come from other church traditions. They wanted to join our church through membership but were denied by the church board because they had not been baptised by immersion. I will never forget telling them of the board’s decision that they had to be re-baptised by immersion first before they could join us. One of those dear sisters even then quoted this very verse to me saying, “I thought there was only ONE baptism.” Unfortunately, we were too bogged down with our own traditions to see that truth that she had seen so clearly. She was right and we were wrong.

Still, when asked to baptise someone, I will always do so by immersion, for I believe that to be the correct Biblical example. However, more important than the mode of baptism is the name into which we were baptised. Once we came to believe, were you and I baptised into the name of the Lord Jesus? If so, then we are automatically members in His church and we require no other endorsement by man in order to become members of the church. There is only ONE Baptism, and that is into the name of the Lord Jesus. Regardless of all other traditions that we may have, if we have been baptised into the name of the Lord Jesus, then that ONE Baptism fully qualifies us, and gives us the “grounds for genuine fellowship.”

There is only ONE God. He had no beginning, nor will He have any end. He always was there. Everything and everyone that exists had its beginning in Him. The theologians of old spoke of this as “Creatio ex Nihilo,” which literally means “creation out of nothing.” There were no pre-existent materials that God used in His Creation. In the same way, our ONE God is also personal and as such we can call on Him as “Abba Father,” or Daddy (Romans 8:15).

Also true is that, as a Holy God, He is to be reverently feared. “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge” (Proverbs 1:7) and means that we reject every other deity and serve only Him. It means that together in fellowship, we lovingly walk in all of God's ways and serve only Him with all our hearts, souls, and minds. This has nothing to do with bondage, as some in error have presumed, but on the contrary it is actually very freeing.

Do you share that belief in ONE God who is supernatural, personal and Holy? If so, then you are my brother and you are my sister, and we belong to one family that no one had better dare to divide and faction. If you share my belief in ONE God, then that gives us “grounds for genuine fellowship.”

It would be really easy for any one of us to faction the Body of Christ due to all sorts of problems that we see in the faith of others. We’ve all done it. We’re all guilty as charged. One needs only to look at the number of different denominations that we have created. Even under the same denomination there are often countless more factions. Let me use my former Baptist tradition as an example. In Canada under the Baptist umbrella there are the General Conference, the North American Conference, the Southern Conference, the Fellowship Conference, and the Baptist Union, and who knows how many others. In truth, every denomination has its own similar story. Every last one of them is carnal! Every last one of them is a faction! Every last one of them is sectarian! The minute you or I make any kind of distinction between ourselves and others, be it denominational or non-denominational, institutional or non-institutional (and I wrestle with this too), we are being carnal, factional, and sectarian.

Sure, every once in a while there is some token effort to do something together, but then we quickly go back to our own little kingdoms. This is not what Jesus had in mind when He spoke of the Kingdom of God. We can and we must learn to have real, unpretentious, and genuine fellowship with one another. The only grounds for genuine fellowship are found in Ephesians 4: 4-6. There is ONE Body, ONE Spirit, ONE Hope, ONE Lord, ONE Faith, ONE Baptism, and ONE God. This can be the ONLY line in who belongs to the Church and who does not. The minute we add any other conditions or requirements, we are going to alienate some brothers and sisters from our fellowship. The minute that we settle for less than these seven ONE’s, we leave ourselves open to non-believers in our fellowship.

I believe that what the Lord is telling us is that, as someone once said, “He wants His church back.” Are we listening? I wonder.

In essentials, unity;
In non-essentials, liberty;
In all things, charity.

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons

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