Subjective Grounds for the Bounds of Christian Fellowship

By Mike Willis

The subject of the fellowship of the saints has become a matter of serious discussion in the last several decades. The ecumenical movement in denominationalism, the unity-in-diversity movement (based on the gospel/doctrine distinction) practiced by the Fundamentalists/Evangelicals, and the unity movement of Ketcherside/Garrett among our own brethren have influenced several gospel preachers among us to teach loose principles of unity. In the last two decades several among us have been hopelessly lost to the gospel of Christ because they have adopted these loose views of fellowship which allow doctrinal and moral disagreements (matters of “the faith,” Jude 3) to be matters on which we can have unity-in-diversity.

That doctrine has reared its head again among us. Some have made application of the same principle on the issue of divorce and remarriage. The consequences of this unity-in-diversity plea are serious. If unity-in-diversity can be practiced on one matter of “the faith,” it can be practiced on all matters of “the faith.” In defending unity-in-diversity, some are teaching that we should determine the bounds of Christian fellowship on these bases: (a) the clarity of the Scripture; (b) the honesty of the individual; (c) the gravity of the issue; (d) community standards of decency. Let us examine whether or not these principles will meet the demands of Scripture.

The Clarity of Scripture

The test for determining whether or not a particular matter is made a test of fellowship is said to be the clarity with which a matter is presented in the Scriptures. If the matter of “the faith” taught in the Scripture is clear, it should be made a test of fellowship. This approach has these weaknesses:

1. Who shall determine the degree of clarity with which a matter is presented? Unless we can agree on the degree of clarity with which a matter is presented, the test is worthless! Should we begin listing the matters on which biblical scholars are disagreed, we might conclude that nothing is clearly revealed in the Scriptures. Hence, this test is weak because there is no appointed standard to use in judging which matters are clearly revealed and which are not. It reduces the subject of fellowship to every man’s subjective judgment.

2. Some matters which are clearly revealed are specifically forbidden to be made tests of fellowship (Rom. 14:1-15:7). Whether or not to eat meats and whether or not to set aside a specific day as holy were matters which were expressly forbidden to be made tests of fellowship. The teaching about the subject is clear, but these matters cannot be made tests of fellowship.

3. This approach makes man a “Judge” of God’s law (Jas. 4:11). For man to sit in judgment of God to state which matters he clearly revealed betrays a subtle arrogance which borders on blasphemy. Who shall charge God with lack of clarity in revealing any part of his will for our salvation? We believe the Bible is inspired of God and fitted to man’s needs exactly as it came from his hand. Who am I to charge that God did not clearly reveal his will to man?


Another test that has been used to determine the bounds of Christian fellowship is to pass judgment on a man’s honesty. While one sometimes has sufficient evidence to determine whether or not a man is honest, he certainly cannot extend the “right hands of fellowship” to every good, honest and sincere man (Gal. 2:9). The Lord has not given man the ability to judge the integrity of another man’s heart. Paul wrote, “For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him?” (1 Cor. 2:11) Though we admit that dishonesty is sinful and can become one reason for breaking fellowship, being honest is not sufficient grounds to bring one into or to maintain fellowship. To make the criterion for determining the bounds of fellowship to be a man’s assessment of another man’s integrity makes determining the bounds of fellowship impossible for the simple reason that no one can judge another man’s heart. If I must extend fellowship to a man who sincerely believes that Jesus is not come in the flesh, the teachings of 1 John 4:3 are flawed. There John wrote, “Every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God. ” Those who do not confess Christ are not of God, regardless of whether or not they are honest. The Gnostics, even the good, honest and sincere ones, could not be fellowshipped.

Consider the logical consequences of using this criterion for determining the bounds of Christian fellowship. A Christian would be compelled to extend fellowship to those who distort the mission of the church by involving the church in recreation, the worship of the church by introducing instrumental music, the organization of the church by the sponsoring church arrangement, and any other apostasy, unless he could verify the teacher and/or his disciple was dishonest. And why stop at the boundary of the “restoration movement”? He also would be logically compelled to accept those good, honest and sincere Baptists, Methodists, Episcopalians, Mormons, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Catholics on the same grounds and for the same reason.

Gravity of the Issue

Another test for the bounds of Christian fellowship is the gravity of the issue. How serious is the matter? This test is weak for many of the same reasons already cited.

1. Who determines what issues are of serious gravity? Unless we have some criteria for determining what issues are of grave importance and what issues are trivial, or unless we appoint some man or group of men to pass that judgment for us, the test is worthless. Every man becomes his own law; every individual decides for himself what is of serious consequences and what is not.

2. This test makes man a judge of the Law of God (Jas. 4:11). The Christian is required to sit in judgment of God’s law to determine which matters are serious violations and which are not. The result of this approach will be a division of the Bible’s commands into two groups – “gospel” and “doctrine, ” although the specific names applied to the two groups might be different. Man is unqualified to pass judgment on which violations of God’s laws are serious offences and which are not. Man’s assessment is limited, since man is unable to see the end from the beginning. How many could assess where the first step of apostasy might lead as sin develops?

3. This test leads to venial and mortal categories of sin. Some transgressions of the law of God will be judged as trivial and unimportant while others will be judged to be serious, making one in danger of eternal damnation. This will result in mortal/venial categories of sin, regardless of the names by which they are called.

Community Standards of Decency

Based on a misuse of 1 Corinthians 5, some have suggested that moral aberrations which break the fellowship of the saints should be limited to those areas which are condemned by the community. Notice what the passage teaches:

It is reported that there is fornication among you, and such fornication as is not so much as named among the Gentiles, that one should have his father’s wife (5:1).

From this passage we learn these truths: (a) There was a kind of “fornication” which would not have shocked the Gentiles. Nevertheless, this kind of fornication was also equally condemned and barred one from entrance into heaven (1 Cor. 6:9-20; Gal. 5:19-21). The local church could not fellowship these fornicators which the Gentile world would have accepted (1 Cor. 5:9-13). (b) The Gentile community would not have been shocked had this man taken his neighbor’s, fellow Christian’s, or some stranger’s wife. Nevertheless, this sin would have been in violation of the will of Christ (Matt. 19:9). This passage is not teaching that only those matters of immorality disapproved by the community can become matters of withdrawal of fellowship. If this should be done, the following results would occur:

1. The world’s standard would become the standard for the church. Rather than the church transforming the society in which its members lived (Rom. 12:1-2), the church would sink to the level of the pagan society around it.

2. The standard would vary from community to community and time to time. In Corinth in the first century, the world would have approved both women and men becoming temple prostitutes. In San Francisco, CA in the late twentieth century, the community (which elected a homosexual as its mayor) approves of homosexual behavior. In Las Vegas, NV, the community approves gambling in all its forms. Hence, if the community standards are followed, the standard of right and wrong will vary from region to region and time and time. Far from teaching that the community determines the standards of right and wrong, Paul commanded the church to withdraw itself from every fornicator, idolater, railer, drunkard, covetous person, and extortioner (1 Cor. 5:9-11). Many of these sins the pagan world tolerated as acceptable conduct. But Paul warned, “Be not conformed to this world” (Rom. 12:2).

Weaknesses of the Subjective Approach to the Bounds of Christian Fellowship

As we assess the subjective bases for determining the bounds of Christian fellowship, we begin to see some of their common weaknesses.

1. These tests take our focus off the word of God and concentrate ourfocus on the believers. The test that emphasizes that we determine fellowship based on a man’s honesty and sincerity focuses our judgment on his heart. I may not be able to determine whether or not a man is honest, but I can determine whether or not his conduct is sinful by going to the world of God to discern good and evil.

2. These tests take ourfocus off the action andjudge the heart. Instead of looking at the man’s actions and comparing them to the teachings of the word of God, we are advised to look at the man’s heart. We do not look to see whether or not the man is keeping the commandments (1 Jn. 2:3-5), for we are told that important moral and doctrinal differences can be tolerated; instead, we judge whether or not he is honest and sincere.

3. These tests make man a judge of the Lord’s law. Instead of simply obeying the Law and calling on others to do the same, this approach to fellowship encourages and demands that man pass judgment on (a) which parts are clear; (b) which parts are of serious gravity.

Appealing to an Objective Standard

Fellowship is not to be extended at the subjective whim of every man’s personal judgment. If that were the case, there could be no right and wrong in the realm of fellowship The condemnation of Diotrephes’ refusing to fellowship those received by God demonstrates that there is an objective standard of fellowship. All other standards of fellowship are sinful (3 Jn. 9).

The book of 1 John provides guidance in finding the bounds of fellowship, teaching that these following tests should be applied: (a) Is the individual keeping the commandments? “And hereby we do know that we know him, if we keep his commandments. He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him” (1 Jn. 2:3-5). The man persisting in the practice or preaching of sinful conduct cannot be received into the fellowship of the saints (Rev. 2:14,20).

(b) Does he confess the truth? “Who is a liar but he that denieth that Jesus is the Christ? He is antichrist, that denieth the Father and the Son. Whosoever denieth the Son, the same hath not the Father” (1 Jn. 2:22-23). “And every spirit that confesseth not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is not of God: and this is that spirit of antichrist, whereof ye have heard that it should come; and even now already is in the world” (1 Jn. 4:3). This verse teaches us to try the spirits by asking them to confess what they believe. We are following the instructions of the Holy Spirit when we ask, “Do you believe using instrumental music in worship is sinful?” “Do you believe that the church can send contributions to human institutions, such as orphan homes, missionary societies, colleges, etc.?” “Do you believe that Matthew 19:9 applied to all men?” “Do you believe that Matthew 19:9 gives the guilty party in a divorce for fornication the right to remarriage?” By hearing what is confessed, we can know whether or not fellowship should be extended.

(c) Does he heed the word of God? “We are of God: he that knoweth God heareth us; he that is not of God heareth not us. Hereby we know the spirit of truth, and the spirit of error” (I Jn. 4:6). Recognizing that a man may be in sin because of ignorance, we can learn whether or not to extend the right hands of fellowship by seeing his reaction to the teaching of the word of God. The man of God listens to and obeys the teachings of the word of God. When a man of God is taught the word, he will bring his life into compliance with it; he will study patiently with you. We can determine the bounds of Christian fellowship by watching the reaction to the teachings of the word of God.

An Objection: Faith or Opinion

Objection 1: “The position on fellowship which you are espousing requires that men distinguish between matters of faith and matters of indifference. Does not this require that men become judges of the law?” No! This requires that men be students of the law to determine where the objective standard of God’s word places the particular matter – in the category of sin or category of indifference (authorized liberty). For example, I study the word of God to see if adultery is categorized as a sin or as a matter of indifference. When I see that it is called a sin and that it keeps one from heaven, I recognize that those who persist in the violation of that commandment cannot be fellowshipped (Gal. 5:19-21). I have no right to pass judgment on this law to say: “Is this clearly revealed?” “Is the matter grave?” “Is it a violation of community standards?” When I learn that God has spoken, my obligations are settled!

Objection 2: “We differ on the subject of divorce and remarriage; therefore, we should not make this matter a test of fellowship.” Men differ about nearly every subject, ranging from whether or not God exists to the action and purpose of water baptism. The fact that men differ about any and every subject does not prove that there is no absolute standard in that area.

When we acknowledge that we differ, we should commit ourselves to study with one another to arrive at the common truth of the Scriptures. We cannot escape the fact that men have reached different conclusions about many different Bible subjects, including some which relate to sin. These differences should have the effect of driving us back to the word of God to study the one divine standard of right and wrong.

Unfortunately we are living in an age during which men fear controversy and view it as unhealthy. We need to be reminded of these positive contributions from controversy: (a) We are purged by the input from one another. “Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend” (Prov. 27:17). (b) The discussion of differences constantly drives men back to the word of God to see whether or not their practice is authorized in God’s word. This creates a trust in and reliance on the word of God which is healthy. (c) The discussion of differences reminds me of my own human imperfections, creating in me a humility and driving me to seek the counsel of my wise brethren. Far from being a scourge in life, healthy discussions of the Bible are one of God’s gifts to men to keep us walking in the light.

What Is the Role of Honesty in Fellowship?

Someone might sincerely ask, “If honesty is not the criterion for determining the limits of fellowship, what role does it play?” Honesty is only one test to be applied. Should I have indisuptable proof that a man is dishonest, that would show the man to be a sinner in the same manner as having reliable proof that he was guilty of adultery. Fellowship should be broken with the dishonest man for the same reason that it is broken with the adulterer – he is guilty of sin and refuses to repent.

To assume that a man’s sins do not bring him into condemnation so long as he is good, honest and sincere, and therefore should not break the fellowship of the saints, is contrary to the teaching of God’s word. The good, honest and sincere can still be lost because of their sins (Matt. 15:13-14). Their teaching still can influence others to commit sin and be lost (Matt. 15:14). Since the sins of the honest break their fellowship with God, they also will lead to a break in the fellowship of the saints. For that same reason, honesty is not an adequate test for determining the bounds of Christian fellowship.


The approach to learning the bounds of Christian fellowship based on (a) honesty, (b) clarity of the law, (c) gravity of the issue, and (d) community standards, is subjective. There are no objective criteria which can be brought to limit the application of these principles. If these principles are consistently followed, they will logically lead to universalism, notwithstanding the good intentions of those proposing these criteria for determining the bounds of Christian fellowship.

Guardian of Truth XXXV: 11, pp. 322, 342-343
June 6, 1991