The Bounds of Fellowship

In response to a recent discussion in our church regarding ecumenism, I have be ruminating on the bounds of our fellowship. We certainly should feel solidarity with true Christians regardless of denominational ties. There is much to be learned from dialog with those who differ with us in the doctrinal details and practical outworking of the gospel. We are together the Bride of Christ, and it is not for us to despise any part of that beautiful Body.  We should feel a fundamental unity with all who share our faith and trust in Jesus’ work of redemption. The bounds of our fellowship should be wide!

But there are bounds. There is a lot of wiggle room when it comes to defining what we can call a ‘credible confession of faith’ — but doctrinally, the deity and lordship of Christ, and practically, a life of humble repentance and obedience come to mind as pretty fundamental.

I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner—not even to eat with such a person. For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside?  But those who are outside God judges. Therefore “put away from yourselves the evil person.” (1 Cor. 5:9-13)

We have Christian fellowship with other believers because we truly are one in Christ. This passage suggests that we are also to be friendly to those outside the church and love them as those created in God’s image and in need of God’s grace. But there is a dicey middle ground — ‘Christians’ who effectively deny the faith by their actions and beliefs. This is the place for caution and discernment. We are called to judge those in the church. While we are not always in a context where church discipline is an avenue open to us, I think we need to be cautious about relating to such people as Christians.  We may live life alongside them, work with them, buy stuff from them, go golfing with them, and treat them with respect… but participating in joint ministry and commending them to others as Christians seems unwise. Jesus was kind and inclusive to all kinds of sinners, but He was hardest on the Pharisees because they were hypocrites. We do not have Jesus perfect knowledge of hearts, but often there are elephants in the room too large to be ignored.

Author: sylvhill

I am an almost life-long Christian, wife of a PCA elder, mother of three grown boys, a teacher of ESL, and a lover of the Bible and theology as it impacts real life.

2 thoughts on “The Bounds of Fellowship”

  1. Whether one has the responsibility to literally not eat with Christians Behaving Badly (if one does eat with non-Christians), I don’t know; I’m not clear at all on what implications eating together had then vs. now and whether there was any specifically Christian significance to that. It does seem weird if one would invite, say, one’s mostly-non-Christian co-workers over for dinner but exclude one person because they are called a Christian but have obvious sexual immorality practices, for instance – but sometimes the right way to do things *is* counter-intuitive? And non-Christians labeling themselves as Christian is probably a bigger deal than we tend to feel it is. But we don’t normally consider eating together as primarily an act of Christian fellowship now, so odds seem good that that’s probably fine to include nonrepentantly-erring Christians among non-Christians rather than uninviting them?

    Similarly, while theological or evangelistic initiatives obviously shouldn’t be undertaken with heretical “denominations” (or with specifically-non-Christian groups), I don’t get too itchy about churches cooperating with other organizations for things like food drives or community parties. Although it’s very important for the main thing the church is being to be a *church* and not an organization for social or community work, I do fully applaud churches also doing social and community work as an expression of God’s love for people. How and where to draw the lines is, again, ticklish, though, especially as a charity’s organizational priorities and practices sometimes shift and might end up being unacceptable for a church to cooperate with; knowing how far is too far seems like it would be hard.

    1. I agree the ‘not to eat with such a one’ is difficult to define and navigate. The instances of church discipline where I have had to make this distinction have been rare, and in each case a variety of factors can influence what this looks like. I don’t think we are called to be the judge of anyone’s spiritual condition and should definitely not unilaterally ‘excommunicate’ those we judge unworthy. All that is up to God and their own local congregation.
      What I am saying is that when there are outward actions and beliefs (of individuals and organizations) that are so inconsistent with a true faith in Christ that they cannot be ignored, we need to exercise caution and discernment. It may be ok to distribute food together to needy families at holidays. But in ministries that involve counseling on moral and spiritual matters, we have to be more careful who we identify ourselves with.

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