Practicing and applying the Scriptural principles of church fellowship is not an easy thing, especially when they call for a break in fellowship between close friends or members of the same family. While we are to be loving and patient with others and seek to explain to them the truth taught in the Holy Scriptures, God’s Word also calls upon us to sever fellowship when the Word of Truth is rejected.
This is commanded for two basic reasons: 1) To point out to the erring the seriousness of departing from the doctrine revealed to us in the Holy Scriptures; 2) To prevent the spread of error that the true visible church may be preserved in this world and souls not be misled into sin, error and unbelief.
And, when Christians fail to do as God has commanded, they: 1) Give the impression that it is OK and not necessary to hold to all that God has revealed in His Word; 2) Cause the visible church to fall into error and cause souls to be misled into sin, error and unbelief.
A summary of the Biblical teaching regarding the practice of church fellowship
Since Jesus commanded us to disciple the nations by going, baptizing in the name of the Triune God and teaching them to observe all that Jesus taught and commanded (Matthew 28:18-20), and since Jesus warns against false prophets who come to us in sheep’s clothing (Matthew 7:15-23), we, as Christians, are to discriminate between churches and teachers which are faithful to Christ and that which is taught in His Word (orthodox churches and teachers) and those which are not faithful to Christ and His Word (false and heterodox churches and teachers) and to practice church fellowship (joining together in those things which one would do with fellow believers, such as worship, prayer, reception of the Lord’s Supper, evangelism, mission work, etc.) only with those who are faithful to Christ and His holy Word.
Jesus said: “If ye continue in my word, then are ye my disciples indeed; and ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:31-32). For this reason, the early church “continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42).
That we not be led astray from the truth, the apostle Paul warned: “If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness; he is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness: from such withdraw thyself” (1 Timothy 6:3-5).
Thus, we see that we are commanded to continue in Jesus’ word and doctrine – the teaching of Holy Scripture – and to avoid and withdraw from those who teach otherwise and do not consent to the words of our Lord Jesus and the teaching of the Word of God.
So serious is the threat of false doctrine and the deception of the devil, God’s Word warns us:
• “Beloved, believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1);
• “And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (Ephesians 5:11);
• “Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty” (2 Corinthians 6:14-18);
• “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple” (Romans 16:17-18);
• “Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not 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); and,
• “Now we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us … 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 Thessalonians 3:6,14).
Christians, like the believers at Berea (Acts 17:11), are to compare what is being taught to them with the clear teaching of the Word of God and reject those churches and teachers who remain unfaithful to the Word. And they must reject and condemn as sin the unionistic practices of our day in which church fellowship is practiced and church union is sought without regard for full adherence to the Scriptural Doctrine.
A church’s faithfulness to Christ and His Word is to be judged not only by its acceptance of and subscription to an orthodox creed or confession but by what is actually taught in its pulpits and writings and by what is practiced in its services and ministry.
As the apostle Paul warned, errors in both doctrine and practice will continue to trouble churches in this world (Acts 20:28-32; 1 Corinthians 11:19). But those churches which are faithful to Christ and His Word will, through Scriptural admonition and discipline, continue to combat and remove such error from among themselves and be faithful to Christ (Matthew 18:15-18; 2 Timothy 3:13-17; 4:1-5; Titus 3:10-11).
Christians remember that every lie and false teaching is of the devil, the father of lies (John 8:44), and the devil’s intent is to mislead God’s elect and weaken or destroy their faith in Christ Jesus. Therefore, Christians cannot and do not view doctrinal errors and teaching which is not in full agreement with the Bible as a trivial thing that can be ignored or overlooked. They use God’s Word to expose it, reprove it and remove it.
And, if a church or teacher rejects the sound teaching of God’s Word on a matter, Christians are commanded to reject and avoid the church or teacher until there are repentance and a return to the truth. Not to do so could even give the devil the opportunity he seeks to lead people away from faith in Christ and destroy their souls.
This is a most serious matter and yet many laugh and scoff and say that it’s only a little thing, a minor point. But, how many of you would drink water from a well which was poisoned even if the amount was small? What might not immediately kill you could do damage over time. So also with false doctrine; it is never harmless and, over time, it will weaken or destroy faith.
“A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump” (Gal. 5:9).
[Scripture quotations are from the King James Version of the Bible.]