By Weldon E. Warnock
To decide whether one church may withdraw fellowship from another church, we must determine whether there is any fellowship that exists between churches. Fellowship cannot be withdrawn if there is no fellowship. Defining “fellowship” and showing how it is used in the New Testament will help us resolve the matter.
Definition of Fellowship
There are four original Greek words that are equivalent to the English word “fellowship.”
The first Greek word is koinonia (Acts 2:42; 1 Cor. 1:9; 2 Cor. 8:4; Gal. 2:9; Eph. 3:9; Phil. 1:5; 2:1; 3:10; 1 Jn. 1:3,6,7). It is translated “fellowship” 12 times in the New Testament, “communion” 4 times, “distribution” 1 time, “communication” 1 time, and “contribution” 1 time.
Thayer states that koinonia means “fellowship, association, community, communion, joint-participation, intercourse; 1. the share which one has in anything, participation. . . . 2. intercourse, fellowship, intimacy. . . . 3. a benefaction jointly contributed, a collection, a contribution, as exhibiting an embodiment and proof of fellowship. . . ” (p. 352).
Ardnt-Gingrich define koinonia: ” 1. association, communion, fellowship, close relationship. . . . 2. generosity, fellow feeling, altruism. . . . 3. sign of fellowship, proof of brotherly unity, even gift, contribution. . . . 4. participation, sharing . . . in something” (p. 440).
The second Greek word is koinonos. It is translated “partaker” 5 times, “partner” 3 times and “companion” I time. Harper states, “a fellow, partner, Matt. 23:30; Lk. 5:10; 1 Cor. 10:18, 20; 2 Cor. 8:23; Phile. 17: Heb. 10:33; a sharer, partaker. 2 Cor. 1:7; 1 Pet. 5:1; 2 Pet. 1:4” (The Analytical Greek Lexicon, p. 235). Thayer says, “a partner, associate, comrade, companion . . . . a partaker, sharer, in anything. . . ” (p. 352).
The third word is koinoneo. It is translated “be partaker” 4 times, “communicate” 2 times, “be made partaker of” 1 time, and “distribute” 1 time. Thayer states, “to come into communion or fellowship, to become a sharer, be made a partner . . . . to enter into fellowship, join one’s self as an associate, make one’s self a sharer or partner. . . ” (pp. 351-352). Other Greek authorities say the same, in essence, as Thayer.
The fourth Greek word is metoche. This word is translated “fellowship” 1 time. Thayer defines it to mean, “a sharing, communion, fellowship. . .”(p. 407. Ardnt-Gingrich say, “share, have a share, participate” (p. 515).
From these definitions, we can readily see that “fellowship” is a participation, having a share, giving a share, a common interest and intimacy of association. Instances of these diversities of meanings in the Scriptures are: (1) sharing or participation (1 Cor. 1:9; 10: 16; 2 Cor. 8:4; 13:13; Eph. 3:9; Phil. 2: 1; 3: 10); (2) common interest and intimacy of association (Acts. 2:42; 2 Cor. 6:14; Gal. 2:9; Phil 1:5; 1 John 1:3,6,7) and (3) collection or contribution (Rom. 15:25; 2 Cor. 8:4; 9:13; Heb. 13:16). These three divisions fully reflect the word “fellowship” in its noun form as used in the New Testament.
Scope of Fellowship
It is ascertained from the preceding Scriptures and definitions that fellowship exists between or among:
(1) Individual Christians. The disciples at Jerusalem continued in fellowship with one another (Acts 2:42). Heinrich Meyer says fellowship in this passage “is to be explained of the mutual brotherly association which they sought to maintain with one another” (Acts of the Apostles, p. 68).
(2) Individual Christians and congregations. Philippi had fellowship with Paul in the furtherance of the gospel (Phil. 1:5). They contributed or communicated with Paul in providing his necessities as he preached the gospel. “Now ye Philippians know also, that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church communicated (had fellowship) with me as concerning the giving and receiving, but ye only” (Phil. 4:15).
(3) Individual Christians and the Godhead. A Christian has fellowship with God the Father. “And truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ…. If we say we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie. . . . But if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another. . .” (1 Jn. 1:3,6,7).
A Christian has fellowship with Jesus the Christ. “God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor. 1:9).
A Christian has fellowship with the Holy Spirit. “If there be therefore any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit. . .” (Phil. 2:1).
Hence, a Christian shares in the benefits and blessings which the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit provide.
(4) Congregations. Congregations have fellowship with each other in ministering to the needs of the saints. Paul wrote concerning the churches in Macdeonia, “Praying us with much entreaty that we would receive the gift, and take upon us the fellowship of the ministering to the saints” (2 Cor. 8:4). Compare 2 Corinthians where koinonia is translated “distribution.”
Observations And Deductions
In light of the foregoing authoritative definitions, statements, and declarations, the following observations and deductions can be made:
(1) Churches may have fellowship with one another in the sense of sharing, that is, giving and receiving of funds for the relief of needy saints. This fellowship was only practiced when there was a need and terminated when the need was satisfied. Under some circumstances, a congregation might cease sharing its abundance with another congregation, thereby severing fellowship.
For example, if the receiving congregation would be improperly using the funds for the destitute, or if the church began practicing error, fellowship should stop. Of course, these hypothetical cases are envisioned as possibilities where there would be a prolonged need of benevolence.
(2) Churches may have fellowship with one another in association and common interest. For instance, the elders of congregation A might decide to dismiss the Wednesday night service, and all of them go to congregation B to support the brethren in their gospel meeting. This is intimacy of association and would be fellowship as defined above. If congregation B became digressive in doctrine and practice, then congregation A could (and, should) withdraw fellowship (association) from congregation B and no longer recognize it as a faithful church.
(3) Churches should not withdraw association from another church simply because of some isolated act of which they do not approve. For example, there is no basis or reason for church A to refrain from association with church B simply because church B accepts a brother into its membership whom church A deems unfaithful. The elders in church B believe the brother to be faithful. Are they to bow to the request and pressure of church A? The Bible teaches self-rule of each congregation, and we need to respect this principle.
Too, when a congregation withholds association from another congregation for the preceding reason, as several churches have done, they may be withholding association from some of God’s most faithful children who help compose that church. This is wrong!
When churches start withholding their association (fellowship) from another church that does not meet their expectations, it will not be long until they find themselves in total isolation. In their eyes they are the only sound church in the community. Such is a self-righteous attitude that has no place among New Testament Christian.
(4) Churches should honor another church’s scriptural withdrawal and not use or receive into membership the brother who has been disciplined until he or she repents and confesses his sin. Individual members of all faithful churches should have no company with them. “And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed” (2 Thess. 3:14). This divine injunction would have applied whether the erring brother was a member at Thessalonica or not. All in Christ have a common relationshp with one another, and when scriptural disciplinary action is taken by one church, all churches should respect it, and all indvidual Christians should stop having social intercourse with those who have been chastened.
(5) Churches should mark and avoid all false teachers, regardless of where they are members. Paul teaches this in Romans 16:17-18. A false brother (Gal. 2:4) who is sowing discord and spreading heresies among God’s people should be rejected and repudiated publicly in every faithful congregation which may be threatened. Such person would never be used in any capacity in the worship and work of the church. Of course, this is a church dealing with an individual and not another congregation.
(6) Finally, churches have no fellowship with one another in the sense of joint-participation where autonomy and equality are surrendered. There is no authority for organic ties of fellowship among churches. The New Testament knows nothing about such arrangement, and if congregations establish fellowship under such order, they sin.
From this viewpoint one church cannot discipline or withdraw fellowship from another church, as they do individuals among themselves, because no fellowship exists. The only fellowship which can be withdrawn is distribution of funds and intimacy of association.
We trust this study has been helpful and beneficial to you. Let us all continue to study this vital theme with forbearance and love toward one another.
Guardian of Truth XXVIII: 19, pp. 593-594
October 4, 1984