By Tom M. Roberts
The apostle John envisioned two kinds of fellowship when he wrote his epistles. When he spoke of having “fellowship with us” and “fellowship with one with another,” John had reference to the kind of fellowship between brethren in Christ (1 John 1:3, 7). But he also spoke of “fellowship with the Father, and with his son Jesus Christ” (vv. 3, 6). Ideally, fellowship includes both the “horizontal” as well as the “vertical” kinds, but not always. It is possible to have fellowship with brethren and not have fellowship with Christ; it is also possible to have fellowship with Christ and not have fellowship with some brethren.
Fellowship and Ancient Heresies
John noted that he had fellowship with both the Father and the Son and he wrote that others might share in that fellowship. However, Diotrephes refused to have fellow-ship with John and he “cast out of the church” those who would receive John (3 John 9-10). Hence, John and “the castouts” were in fellowship with God while Diotrephes and the local church had their own “communion, sharing in common” (Vine, p. 90) in which Christ had no part (2 John 9-11). It is a mistake to assume fellowship with God simply because of membership in a local church. Much less can we assume fellowship with the Lord simply because we hold membership in the “Church of Christ.” Heresy may control the “mainstream,” wear a scriptural name and hold title to church buildings, but all this has no connection to fellowship with God.
Throughout his epistle, John emphasized that fellowship with God is predicated on “walking in the light” (1 John 1:7), “confessing our sins” (1:9), “keeping his commandments” (2:3), “keeping the word” (2:5), “doing righteousness” (2:29), etc. God is pure; therefore we must be pure (3:3). Those who refused to submit to the Spirit of God (4:1) “went out from us, but they were not of us” (2:19). Those who depart from the pathway of truth have a certain fellowship, but not with God or with those whom God includes in his communion. It is a fellowship of iniquity, a communion with darkness, a concord with unbelievers. From these, we are to be separate, having come out from among them (2 Cor. 6:11-14; Rom. 16:17). Breaks in fellowship are inevitable; divisions must come (Matt. 18:7); otherwise, those “who are approved” would not be made manifest (I Cot 11:19).
God Will Not Fellowship Sin
Throughout Scripture, the holiness of God is emphasized and John clearly conditions our fellowship with God on holiness, both his and ours (22:3; 99:5; Ps. 145:17; Isa. 6:3; Rom. 7:2; 12:1; 1 John 1:7). We have communion with God only through sanctification, not through the practice of sin (Rom. 15:16; 1 Cor. 6:11; Eph. 5:26; 2 Tim. 2:21). Yet the Gnostic philosophy demanded the right to practice sin even while claiming fellowship with God. Sad to say, some still propose the Gnostic error as though John never ad-dressed it, teaching a “unity in diversity” that would embrace moral and doctrinal error. Are we to suppose that God has changed his nature and is now more amenable to sin?
Shall We Fellowship Sin?
Some brethren today are debating the conditions and circumstances under which they may claim fellowship with God even while continuing in sinful beliefs and practices. However bizarre it may seem to us, some reputable brethren (preachers, editors, college professors, educators, etc.) continue to press for the very situation that the holiness of God prohibits. We seem to have forgotten Paul’s admonition: “Shall we continue in sin that grace may abound? God forbid” (Rom. 6:1).
Though protests are constantly made by some that “we don’t engage in sinful beliefs and practices ourselves,” they are quite comfortable fellowshipping those who do. For example, adulterous marriages are deplored by some who claim to be “conservative” on the “divorce issue.” They teach that the put-away fornicator has no authority from God to remany. Some even go so far as to question whether anyone has a right to remarry after a divorce at all. Yet they do not hesitate to receive into their fellowship, encourage and support those who advocate, believe in, and practice adulterous marriages. Naturally, their arguments against adulterous marriages fall on deaf ears among those to whom fellowship is extended. Arguments against sin are impotent when one is willing to fellowship sin! Our influence will go in the direction of our fellowship, not in the direction of our teaching.
The Bible is crystal clear on this aspect of fellowship. Not only can we not personally engage in sin and expect God to be in fellowship with us, we cannot have fellowship with those who have fellowship with sinners! “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offenses contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them” (Rom. 16:17). Again, “Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hathnot God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds” (2 John 9-11).
Note that God condemned not only those who lived an ungodly lifestyle but also their sympathizers: “Who knowing the judgment of God, that they which commit such things are worthy of death, not only do the same, but have plea-sure in them that do them” (Rom. 1:32). It is a violation of the principles of fellowship with God to encourage, sup-port, and promote fellowship with those who advocate sinful beliefs and practices. History is full of examples of those who lost the battle for truth by attempting to fellowship brethren who believed and practiced error.
Restoration Unity Not the Same as Unity in Diversity
The Restoration pioneers were guided in their studies of God’s word by concluding: “In matters of doctrine, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; in all things, charity.” This worthy principle has been sadly re-worked by some today to teach: “In matters of doctrine, liberty; in matters of opinion, liberty; in all things, liberty.” We are told that there is only one kind of unity: unity in diversity of moral and doctrinal error. Under this banner, people from every corner of the religious spectrum are rallying to extend fellowship to one another.
Gnostic Fellowship Excludes Only One “Evil”
The only unforgivable sin, for which no fellowship is allowed, is the militancy by which objections are raised to this neo-Gnosticism. The meek and quiet spirit of compromise which is tolerant enough and broad enough to fellowship those who advocate gambling, social drinking, instrumental music, premillennialism, the use of women in public worship, the guilty fornicator and, yes, even homosexual alliances (according to one editor) becomes instantly hostile to those who call these practices into question. Venom, name-calling, and the worst kind of yellow-rag journalism becomes acceptable in isolating those who object to fellowship with sinful beliefs and practices. Epithets as widely diverse as “brotherhood watchdogs” and “scavengers of carrion” are hurled at anyone bold enough to question fellowship with sinful practices.
Those who wish to have fellowship with moral and doctrinal error today are pikers compared with Diotrephes. He boldly opposed John the apostle! There are not any apostles to cast out of the church today, and there is little glory to be found in calling one of the “Guardian boys” a dog or a buzzard. Be careful, though! Jesus still controls fellowship in his church and Gnostics of any age who fellowship sin “have not God.” Just how close to Diotrephes are you willing to stand on the Judgment Day?
Guardian of Truth XLI: 1 p. 26-27
January 2, 1997