Fellowship and First Corinthians

By Mike Willis

Some time ago, I decided to write on the subject of fellowship in relation to some of the events recorded in 1 Corinthians. I wrote these articles at that time, although I published only the one on 1 Cor. 1:10 (“Unity in Diversity or Unity in Doctrine,” Truth Magazine, Vol. XVII, No. 17, pp: 261-263). Having. covered 1 Cor. 1:10, I would like to begin this article with 1 Cor. 5.

1 Corinthians 5

Of all the passages on the subject of fellowship, this passage would, by all means, be the one most popular and least contested. The reason for this is its lack of ambiguity and the prominence which it has in the epistle. Moral laxity is specifically named as a reason for a breach of fellowship with an individual. When Paul enumerates what ‘is included in his list of sins serious enough to break fellowship with an individual, he includes covetousness, idolatry, swindling, reviling, and drunkenness, as well as fornication. Other. sins could have as easily been included in this list, such as those recorded in 1 Cor. 6:9-10; 2 Cor. 12:20; Gal. -5:19-20 and Rom. 1:28-32.

The breaking of fellowship included the removal of the evil party from the midst of the congregation (5:2, 13) and the breaking of all social ties which existed with the individual (5:9-11). The withdrawal should be done in the presence of the entire congregation (5:4,5). The motives should be (1) to save the sinner’s soul (5:5) and (i) to purge out the evil influence from the congregation (5,~6,7). This passage describes many facts about withdrawing fellowship which are not elsewhere given. The reasons for and manner of withdrawing fellowship which are given in this chapter should be followed in all cases of withdrawing fellowship.

Since the current apostasy (the unity-in-diversity group) admits what has been stated regarding this chapter (i.e., the unity sect admits that immorality is a legitimate reason for breaking fellowship), the greater portion of this discussion will not be given to this passage. So, let us move on.

1 Corinthians 14:38

This passage, I believe, must be included in any discussion of fellowship as covered in 1 Corinthians. However, one must first determine what does the passage say, which is not easy since (1) the Greek text contains a variant reading and (2) the translation of the passage is not absolutely clear, before he can draw any conclusions from it. The difficulty in the Greek text centers on a variant reading. One must determine which of these two words is the true reading:

agnoeito: third person, singular, present, imperative, active of agnoeo.

agnoeitai: third person, singular, present, indicative, passive of agnoeo.

The sense of the passage is significantly altered by the change of the verb from transitive to intransitive. The difference in meaning will be discussed later. It is not a simple job to interpret manuscript evidence; one Cannot just add up the number of manuscripts supporting each reading, for obviously a third century reading should carry more weight than a fourteenth century reading. Though the evidence is -practically balanced, that the scales lean in favor of agnoeitai is apparent from the fact that this is the reading adopted by the Greek textual critics of the Bible societies, by Westcott and Hort and by D. Eberhard Nestle.

The Definition

The basic meaning of agnoeo is “to be ignorant, not to know.” In this section, I have tried to quote what the lexicons said specifically about this verse.

Arndt and Gingrich: “Practically not to recognize, disregard ei tis agnoei, agnoeitai if anyone disregards (it), he is disregarded (by God) 1 Cor. 14:38 (v. 1. agnoeito let him remain ignorant)” (p. 11).

Thayer: “in the pass. agnoeitai `he is not known’, i.e. acc. to the context `he is disregarded,’ 1 Cor. Xiv. 38” (p. 8).

Theological Dictionary of the New Testament: “In 1 C. 14:38 (ei tis agnoei, i.e. `does not understand’; agnoeitai, namely, of God), we are to take the word in the OT sense in which knowledge means election and ignorance rejection, unless the true reading is agnoeito, which would signify that he should .remain without understanding” (Vol. I, p. 116).


Here are the major translations of this verse. Notice that the later translations (after 1901) all favor the agnoeitai reading:

KJV: “But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant.”

RV: “But if any man be ignorant, let him be ignorant.”

ASV: “But if any man is ignorant, let him be ignorant.” Margin: “But if any man knoweth not, he is not known.”

RSV: “If any one does not recognize this, he is not recognized.”

NASB: “But if any one does not recognize this, he is not recognized.”

TEV: “But if he does not pay attention to this, pay no attention to him.”

Goodspeed: “If anyone pays no attention to it, pay no attention to him.”

Twentieth Century: “Any one who disregards it may be disregarded.”

Douay: “But if any know not, he shall not be known.”

Bruce (expanded paraphrase): “But if anyone disregards the Lord’s commandment, why should anyone regard him?”

At this point, one is able to see that this verse cannot be understood without carefully considering its context; indeed, no verse should be studied outside its context. So, let us consider the context, for a better understanding of this passage.

The Context

Chapter 14 of this book is designed to regulate the use of spiritual gifts in the apostolic age. Disorder and confusion reigned at Corinth; Paul’s letter was designed to rectify the situation. Here were his commandments to that church:

1. Let everything be done in the assembly with the goal of edification in mind (14:15,26).

2. No more than three can prophesy or speak in tongues in any given assembly. If a person is going to speak in tongues, an interpreter must be present to make known to the congregation what has been taught. Otherwise, the tongue-speaker must keep quiet (14:27-29).

3. Let everyone speak in turn (14:29-33).

4. The women must keep silent (14:34).

After giving these commandments, Paul said, “If any one thinks he is a prophet or spiritual, let him recognize that the things which I write to you are the Lord’s commandments. But if any one does not recognize this, he is not recognized.”

A subtle play on words occurs throughout these verses. The “let him recognize” of 14:37 and “does not recognize” and “is not recognized” of 14:38 are all derivatives of “to know” in one form or another. Paul’s commandment is this: If an individual does not recognize the authority of Christ as involved in the commandments concerning order in the assembly, do not recognize him as from God.

To acknowledge that one is a false prophet would involve the rejection of him. To allow a false prophet to walk freely among the saints brought down the condemnation of Christ as recorded in Rev. 3:14-16. Thus, involved in “not recognizing” a man as a prophet would be the removal of any ties a person had with the false teacher. Some commentators imply that the one who “does not recognize” the person refusing to acknowledge the authority of Christ is God or Jesus. The practical result would be the same whether the one not recognizing God’s authority is not recognized by Christ or by the Corinthian church. Certainly Christ’s church should not recognize anyone whom Christ will not recognize!

Just in case we have erred in our selection of the two readings, let us investigate the difference in meaning which results if one selects agnoeito instead of agnoeitai. If agnoeito is the true reading, then Paul is saying to the Corinthians that they should quit trying to teach the one who cannot be taught. Whether he should be fellowshipped or not would be unresolved if only this verse were considered, although other verses would prove that such a person is factious and should be purged from the flock. But, other verses would have to be considered to determine that.

However, if agnoeitai is the correct reading, as the context and manuscript evidence seems to imply, the meaning is that given by the RSV, NASB, TEV, Goodspeed, Twentieth Century New Testament, and Bruce’s Expanded Paraphrase. That meaning is this: If a man does not recognize the authority of the apostolic office as. represented by what Paul had taught, the church was not to recognize that man. Notice the implications of this:

(1) The Lordship of Christ is involved in such a remote thing as the number of prophets and tongue speakers allowed to speak in any assembly and the order to be maintained in the assembly. The one who does not recognize the pattern of authority in this area is not to be recognized. (This is exactly the same point as is made in Jas. 2:10-12. The man who refuses to submit to the Lord’s authority in any aspect is not to be recognized because he is a violator of the law.)

(2) Fellowship cannot be extended to the person who refuses to recognize the authority of God’s word. “But if any one does not recognize this, he is not recognized.” The application of this truth would extend to any area in which one refuses to submit to the authority of God’s word-whether it be with reference to the work or the worship of the church or anything else concerning which God has spoken! Fellowship is, then, contingent upon doctrinal conformity. No unity could be had in the assembly at Corinth until all submitted to this authority. Anyone who refused to submit to the authority of Christ as delegated to His apostles was not to be recognized by the church.

I Corinthians 15:33-34

Not one in ten preachers would normally refer to this passage when preaching on fellowship, although once the context is realized, one can easily see that it does discuss the subject of fellowship. The entire fifteenth chapter of the book discusses the subject of the resurrection. After restating the basic facts of the gospel and citing the witnesses to Jesus’ resurrection (15:1-11), Paul then named the apostasy which he was refuting: “How do some among you say that there is no resurrection of the dead?” (15:12′). From that point, Paul showed the logical consequence of denying the resurrection of the dead-that Jesus was not raised (15:14-19). Afterwards, he showed the order of the resurrection and God’s plan for the reign of Jesus which, Paul said, would terminate at the resurrection of the saints (15:20-28). To further press his point, Paul asked the Corinthians what would be the use of enduring persecution if the dead are not raised. Obviously, if there is no resurrection, we should “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (15:30-32).

In the midst of this context, Paul said, “Do not be deceived: ‘Bad company corrupts good morals.’ Become sober-minded as you ought, and stop sinning; for some have no knowledge of God” (15:33-34). Here are some statements from very qualified commentators as to the meaning of this passage:

“So Paul insists that the Corinthians must not associate with those who say that there is no resurrection. To associate with such is inevitably to risk an infection which can pollute life” (William Barclay, The Letters To The Corinthians,,p. 174).

“The sentiment of the passage is, that the intercourse of evil-minded men, or that close friendship and conversation of those who hold erroneous opinions, or who are impure in their lives, tend to corrupt the morals, the heart, the sentiments of others. The particular thing to which Paul here applies it is the subject of the resurrection. Such intercourse would tend to corrupt the simplicity of their faith, and pervert their views of the truth of the gospel, and thus corrupt their lives” (Albert Barnes, Notes on the New Testament, p. 308).

“The persons whose company the apostles desired the Corinthians to shun, were those who reasoned against the immortality of the soul and the future state” (MacKnight on the Epistles, p. 270).

The comments of other commentators could be added but from these one can see that Paul is saying to have no fellowship with the man who speaks not the truth on the doctrine of the resurrection of the dead. Just as fellowship can and must be broken when immorality occurs, so also fellowship must be broken when false doctrines are taught-even if those false doctrines affect something so “insignificant” in our sight as the matters of 1 Cor. 14. Fellowship is contingent upon doctrinal agreement!

Truth Magazine XIX: 14, pp. 216-218
February 13, 1975