Principles Relating to Christian Fellowship - by M.W. Biggs
PRINCIPLES RELATING TO CHRISTIAN FELLOWSHIP
If a path of a collective character pleasing to the Lord is to be taken by us, not only must the moral features consistent therewith be maintained—such as: righteousness, holiness, faith and love—but the principles governing such a path must also be recognised by us and carried out in practice. It will be profitable, therefore, to consider some of these principles and note their practical application.
No believer has a right to regard himself purely as an individual. He has been called into the fellowship of God's Son, Jesus Christ, our Lord; and if we seek to walk in the path pleasing to the Lord, the Christian's path, it is imperative that we regard our relations one with another. We have been called into the great partnership of Christian fellowship.
The principles, therefore, to which we shall first refer are those which govern Christian fellowship. From 1 Corinthians 1 : 9 it is clear that all believers are called to the fellowship of God's Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Hence in 1 Corinthians 1 : 2 the epistle is addressed not only to the assembly which is at Corinth, but to " all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord both theirs and ours." Whether all have responded to that call and answered to the responsibilities of the fellowship is another matter, but from the passage quoted it is evident that all believers are called to it.
The fellowship being that of God's Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, the Lord Himself is the bond of our fellowship. To us, Christians, there is one Lord. We must be true to His name. This is a matter of immense practical importance. We must ever remember the necessity of confessing Christ as our Lord and of owning His authority over us in every department of our lives. If the reader knows of anything in his own life, his personal conduct, habits, etc., business or domestic, which does not please the Lord, let him judge himself, for until he does so it is useless, indeed damaging, for him to attempt to take up the question we are about to consider. To discuss church questions when we know there is something in our lives individually that is not pleasing to the Lord, is damaging to a degree. If we are to speak about " our Lord," and His will for us, each of us must recognise Him as Lord, and do His will in our personal lives individually. We cannot be right collectively, unless we are right individually; but in addition to our individual history with the Lord, we have a collective responsibility as forming part of the assembly which He loved and for which He gave Himself. It is to this side of our spiritual exercises, obviously, that our inquiry applies.
TO US THERE IS ONE LORD
It is very evident that anyone whose life is molded on the principles inculcated by the word of God, of obeying the Lord Jesus, will find little real companionship with those whose life is fashioned according to the world ; the whole principle of life is different and practically there will be little or nothing in common. The believer, however, is by no means to lead a life of isolation. He may find himself very isolated from the mere worldling, from worldly-minded Christians also. They may separate him from their company ; he may be despised and rejected, as was his Master before him. But although isolated as to the world, the believer can say, as the Psalmist did, "I am a companion of all them that fear thee," Psa. 119 : 63. It is here that fellowship comes in.
There is no part between him that believeth and an unbeliever ; but there is a very great deal in common and a very real and vital bond between all believers, and if our lives are what they should be in practice, we shall find real companionship in those that do the will of God. The One we obey is the One they obey; and obedience to that one Lord will blend our lives together. Not only does each individual believer know Jesus as Lord, but as together in the same path of obedience to His will we can say, Jesus Christ our Lord. " To us there is . . . one Lord, Jesus Christ," 1 Cor. 8 : 6. The fact of every believer owning the same Lord establishes a bond between them. We are called into the fellowship of God's Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. We must be true to this bond and this fellowship. Fellowship is only practically realised as we recognise in our conduct and in our associations what is in keeping with the Lord's name.
Hence, before fellowship becomes realisable the believer must be true to the name of the Lord not only in his personal conduct, but in all his associations. It is important to see that we may be denied by associations as well as by actual conduct. Numbers 19 : 22, makes this very clear : " Whatsoever the unclean person toucheth shall be unclean: and the soul that toucheth it shall be unclean until even." See also Lev. 13-14 and Hag. 2 : 11-14. This same principle of defilement by association is seen in the New Testament. See Gal. 5:9; 1 Cor. 5 : 6, 7 ; 2 John 10, 11.
If a believer's personal conduct is inconsistent with the name of the Lord, who is the Holy and the True—he is by that very fact morally, or spiritually, unclean. It is not always seen, however, that if others associate with such a one, that is to say, if he "touches" them, or they " touch " him, they also become unclean. Further, if a believer, whose personal conduct may be otherwise consistent, identifies himself with those who are associated with the unclean person, he also becomes unclean. This fact is very exercising and sobering. We may have opportunity again to refer to this important matter.
Each of us is to own the Lord and be consistent with His name is every sphere of our fives. If we own Him thus, fellowship ceases to be a mere term, and becomes a practical reality. Clearly, if things are otherwise, and every man does what is right in his own eyes, fellowship is impossible. One Lord is to control us all. What is consistent with His name is to be recognised by each of us. So only can the expression, " to us there is . . . one Lord," have vital meaning.
THE COMMUNION OF THE BLOOD OF CHRIST
Christian fellowship is also the fellowship of Christ's death, the communion of the blood of Christ, of which the Lord's supper is the repeated expression, and to which we commit ourselves by partaking of the Supper, by drinking of that one cup. As an Israelite who ate of the sacrifices was professedly in communion with the altar of Jehovah, so a believer who partakes of the Lord's supper avows his communion, or fellowship, with the death of Christ. Nothing inconsistent with the death of Christ can ever be allowed. Christ in His death has become our altar—the basis of fellowship for all believers—at once severing us from Judaism, or that which answers to it to-day; that is, any system of worship of a material or formal kind, and from idolatry, whether in its past or present-day forms. How really exclusive Christian fellowship is! The more we consider the communion of the death of Christ, the more we shall see how necessarily it shuts out all that is of the world, religious or profane.
We may well speak of the cup as the " cup of blessing which we bless," but we must remember equally that it is the communion of the blood of Christ. If we are partakers of the benefit secured by the death of Christ, we must be true to that which that death witnesses and to which we are committed. The death of Christ forbids any link with the world [i.e., any final moral links with a world that "lies in the wicked one". This is also seen in 2 Corinthians 6 - "what part for a believer along with an unbeliever?" - Editor]. This is involved in our baptism. It is again forced upon our attention as we partake of the Lord's supper. He who is a friend of the world is an enemy of God. To be one with the world would be virtually to deny the death of Christ of which " the blood of Christ" is the witness. The cup of blessing is the communion of the blood of Christ. How great the blessing secured thereby! How great the love expressed therein! It was a love that gave up all for us so that endless and measureless blessing might be ours. We are sharers together in that cup of blessing; we must together, as one, refuse the world. Any worldliness would provoke the Lord to jealousy. His love is so great He can have no rival, no idol in our hearts. We must not allow another to share our hearts with Christ. To do this after committing ourselves to such a bond of fellowship, would provoke Him to jealousy, and we should find ourselves, typically speaking, under the "curse" referred to in Numbers 5. There is a suggestion of this type in 1 Corinthians 10 : 22 and 16 : 22. Worldliness among God's people is very serious.
The world has a religious form as well as a profane one. Judaism has its present-day features in much that is current in the professed circles of Christianity. " Sodom and Egypt" are typical of the profane world ; " where also our Lord was crucified," speaks of the religious world. See Revelation 11:8. Worldliness is most seductive when it wears religious clothing. Idolatry is most deceptive when linked with a " feast to the Lord." See Exodus 32:4, 5. May the Lord keep us clear of all such unholy association, ever remembering that by taking the Lord's supper we are professedly in " the communion of the blood of Christ."
THE COMMUNION OF THE HOLY SPIRIT
" The communion of the Holy Spirit " is a remarkable expression; it is found in 2 Corinthians 13 : 14. We have been baptised by one Spirit into one body. We may have occasion to develop this side of our subject a little later on. Here we may remark that, since the Holy Spirit is the power of Christian fellowship, anything of the world or the flesh, anything in the way of mere human arrangements in the assembly of God, or the maintenance of merely social links one with another, must necessarily greatly hinder the fellowship. It need scarcely be remarked that the setting aside practically of the liberty of the Spirit as described in 1 Corinthians 12-14 by the appointment of a minister, or any attempt to arrange the service or worship of God, must greatly grieve the Holy Spirit and thus hinder fellowship and prevent what is normal to our collective experiences. Moreover, in the measure in which we recognise in our assembly life, friendships on the basis of what is merely natural, links of social kind, etc., in that measure followship is hindered, yea, it is impossible.
Our links as Christians are not in the flesh or according to what we are naturally, socially, nationally or racially, but according to what we are " in (the) Spirit." Here we have a power, the Holy Spirit, that binds us all together, that gives us spiritual tastes in common one with another, spiritual sensibilities and perception. And in the measure in which we recognise what is of the Spirit in a practical way, we shall prove what is " the communion of the Holy Spirit."
Many practical considerations flow from these facts. May we not each ask himself the questions : Am I minding the things of the Spirit ? Am I walking in the Spirit ? Am I endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit ? To do these things we must, surely, refuse the flesh in its many subtle forms and make room for the Holy Spirit and for what is spiritual. To the Corinthians the apostle had to write, " I . . . could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal," 1 Cor. 3:1. Were he writing to us now would he have to say the same thing ? Are there not schools of thought ? Are there not some Christians who are definitely boasting in following the ideas propounded by some prominent Christian leader of so-called Christian thought ? Let us abandon these fleshly habits, dear reader, and seek only to be led by the Spirit, and thus answer to the beautiful type of Rebekah of whom it is written : " the servant (a type of the Holy Spirit) took Rebekah, and went his way."
To summarise, then, what has been before us : the Lord is the bond of Christian fellowship, the death of Christ is the basis thereof, and the Holy Spirit is the power of this fellowship, making it subjectively real.
Now it is obvious that the character of Christian fellowship being such, it must of necessity be universal in its bearing.
THE UNIVERSAL CHARACTER OF CHRISTIAN FELLOWSHIP
The universal character of fellowship is a fact of wide and practical bearing. Whether in Europe, Asia, Africa, America or Australasia, the fellowship is one, and wherever we are we must be true to it. Conduct suitable to it in one place, is suitable to it in any other place; and what is unsuitable to it in one place is unsuitable to it in any other. Locality can make no difference in a matter of this kind, for the considerations are moral and therefore universal in their application. Let us ever remember this fact.
Moreover, the same principle has its application to persons. If anyone is suitable for fellowship in one locality, he is obviously suitable for it in any other locality. Hence, in the early days of the assembly, letters of commendation were customary, which enabled a believer going from one place to another to be received suitably by those into whose district he might be going. See 2 Cor. 3:1; Rom. 16 : 1 ; Acts 18 : 27. Similarly, if the conduct or associations of anyone are such that he is rendered unfit for fellowship in one place, he is unfit for it in any other place. If we seek to be true to Christian fellowship, we must always and everywhere recognise this principle. How often it is, and has been, overlooked by believers. To do so is to deny the character of fellowship.
The principle applies equally to actions of a collective nature. If evil exist in one locality, unless dealt with according to God, those in any other locality acknowledging bonds of fellowship with those allowing such evil are identified therewith and are responsible as to the matter, as being involved in the evil by association. Any discipline that might be necessary as to dealing with evil, would have to be exercised in the locality in which it is, as the apostle shows in 1 Corinthians 5 ; but nevertheless, the acknowledgment of the bonds of fellowship carries with it all that fellowship implies, which is complete association, and, let us remember, association with evil denies.
Moreover, fellowship being universal, nothing relating thereto can have a purely local character or effect. This fact entirely forbids anything in the nature of an independent or local fellowship. Hence, in like manner this principle necessitates that the action of any one gathering walking consistently with Christian fellowship, involves every other gathering acknowledging the bonds of fellowship therewith ; and similarly, if a gathering refuse to judge evil in their midst, this involves in its guilt those in fellowship with it. No action can be purely local in its character or effect.
We would ask the thoughtful reader to consider how seriously these principles have been overlooked or ignored by many Christians, however unwittingly. It is not uncommon to find believers meeting together in a place to take the Lord's supper and maintaining that their fellowship is purely local, that they are an independent local company of Christians. This is, in practice, to deny the very fellowship professedly expressed in their assumed action of taking the Supper. The Supper cannot rightly be taken apart from recognising the fact of " one body " being here on earth, and nothing is clearer than the apostle's words in the first epistle to the Corinthians, chapter 10 : 17: " For we being many are one bread, and one body; for we are all partakers of that one bread." This " we " is what may be termed the Christian " we," that is to say it embraces the universal " one body " of all believers, the one fellowship of which is normally expressed in taking the Lord's supper. To attempt to take the Lord's supper and at the same time profess to be an independent local company, is to deny the first principle of Christian fellowship; for Christian fellowship is universal. It may be replied, however, But we are in fellowship with all Christians! Yet this, surely, cannot really be meant. Do such mean to say that they are in fellowship with every professing Christian whatever his conduct or associations, be he immoral or a blasphemer or in fellowship with such, or be he linked with some antichristian, or religious system, which they who so speak would denounce as wrong ? If so, this is evil indeed! It is true that all Christians are called to Christian fellowship, the fellowship of God's Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, and we should be true to this fellowship, as we have already seen. But are all Christians true to it ? If not we cannot say we are in fellowship with them. Were the Corinthians in fellowship with the man whom they were told to remove from among themselves ? Clearly not. They had to cut their links of fellowship and not even to eat with the incestuous person. No, dear reader, fellowship means partnership, and this involves identification, and for any to be identified with evil means that they are evil too.
Now that the assembly, so far as its outward profession is concerned, is in confusion, and all manner of evil exists in the sphere of Christian profession, it becomes increasingly necessary to adhere to divine principles. If we are to take a path of a collective character, the Christian's path in days of difficulty, we must recognise the principles governing Christian fellowship ; we must also constantly remind ourselves that, as believers on our Lord Jesus, we are not merely so many individuals.
THERE IS ONE BODY
However separate from evil and from evil associations we each must be individually, since we have received the Holy Spirit, we are vitally linked with all believers on earth; we all have been baptised by one Spirit into one body; 1 Cor. 12: 13. Therefore in addition to the principles already considered as governing Christian fellowship, we must also consider the principles governing the assembly as " one body."
The fact of the assembly being one body has both a local and a universal application. Though local assemblies are recognised, Scripture makes it abundantly plain that the assembly is one universally. Those who composed local assemblies, as having been baptised with all other believers by " one Spirit," made but " one body " ; though the local assembly was to have the character of Christ's body as we may see farther on.
Whatever breakdown may have taken place in the public profession of Christianity, the assembly of God, as already remarked, has in no way ceased or changed in its vital existence and character. The apostle addresses Christians thus in 1 Corinthians 1. Let the reader pay attention to this epistle. The manner of address shows that although the epistle was written to the particular assembly in Corinth, its bearing was universal. Hence we find such expressions as, " so ordain I in all the assemblies," 1 Cor. 7 : 17. " We have no such custom, neither the assemblies of God " (chap. 11 : 16), and again, " as in all the assemblies of the saints " (chap. 14 : 33, etc.).
Moreover, the manner in which the apostle addressed the assembly in Corinth also shows it was identified, or associated, with " all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord," who, indeed, was Lord both to them and to all other believers; for to us, Christians, there is but " one Lord."
THE BODY ONE UNIVERSALLY
Other scriptures show equally that the assembly as " one body " is considered as one whole existing on earth at any given time. Ephesians 4: 4 tells us that there is " one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling." For there to be the hope of our calling, the " one body " must be here. Ephesians 4 : 15, 16, again speaks of the assembly as the " whole body " increasing and growing, Christ being the Head. To increase and grow the body must be here. Then again in Colossians 3 : 15, we read that we are " called in one body." From the nature of the exhortations given in these passages it is clear that they could not possibly apply to us when we are in heaven; they refer to us here and speak of what has been brought about on earth. Jew and Gentile have been formed into one body, which clearly refers to what has taken place on earth; and this is confirmed by the exhortation in Ephesians 4 : 3, 4, to maintain the unity of the Spirit, because " There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling."
1 Corinthians 12:13, however, very emphatically asserts this unity as existing on earth, having been brought about by all believers having been baptised by " one Spirit." The " we" of verse 13 is clearly a universal " we," and includes every believer on earth, since all have been baptised by " one Spirit." Whereas the " ye" of verse 27, refers to those in the Corinthian assembly. " Now ye are Christ's body, and members in particular." Let the reader carefully note this fact: the assembly is one body on earth at this present time, one body universally. Fellowship is one and the assembly is one, " one body."
Yet we must equally observe that local assemblies existed. We have seen this to be so in Corinth. Those who composed each local assembly were not only " one body " with all other believers on earth, as we have already seen, but the local assembly which they composed was to have the character of the whole ; characteristically it was " Christ's body," as is seen from 1 Corinthians 12 : 27. Notice the change of pronoun : verse 13, " we all," in verse 27 it is "ye."
The writer of the book of Acts refers to many such local assemblies as having been established by Barnabas and the apostle Paul, chapters 14 : 23, and 16 : 5, as well as those previously existing in Judea, chapter 9 : 31- These local assemblies, however, were not independent bodies, but were bound together by the common bond of Christian fellowship, and by the fact that all believers had been baptised by one Spirit into " one body "; hence, as remarked, the " we " of I Corinthians 12: 13, is undoubtedly a universal " we." The local assemblies were to have the features of the whole. " Now ye are Christ's body, and members in particular."
It is to be regretted that a great number of believers are allowing the idea of independent assemblies. It is difficult to conceive anything more contrary to the teaching of the epistles. We can scarcely imagine the apostle Paul, who insists most strongly on the unity of the assembly as one body on earth in his epistles to the Colossians and the Ephesians, establishing local assemblies and teaching them that they were independent. The assembly is not an aggregate of a number of independent bodies; it is not a confederation of a multitude of local assemblies; it is one whole, as Scripture most plainly asserts, " There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling," Eph. 4:4.
However, it is necessary to see that the administration of the assembly is not carried out universally; that is to say, by any central body or authority governing the whole, but is carried out in the several localities, bearing in mind that their actions have a universal effect inasmuch as their bonds of fellowship are universal.
This being the case, it is necessary that we take up our places locally in the recognition of what we are as forming with all other Christians " one body" universally. In other words, we approach our local exercises from a universal standpoint. As already remarked, it was God's desire that the assembly should not be a universal organisation governed by some metropolitan centre such as Jerusalem was, such as, alas! Rome assumes to be. It was His will that though one universally, it should find characteristic local expression in whatever place believers might be. It was to be truly catholic, that is " universal " (for the word ' catholic ' means universal) a vital organism, " one body" universally ; yet to have administrative powers locally, which were to be exercised in the consideration of what was universal. Hence, as we have noticed, the address at the beginning of the epistle to the Corinthians is not unto the church of God which is at Corinth with all that call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, but " with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord." That is to say, there was the definite recognition of locality in regard of believers as constituting the assembly in the place in which they lived; yet they were not independent, for they were all bound together in the bonds of one universal fellowship, and by the fact that all believers form but " one body " on earth.
The Lord has gready helped many of His beloved people, not only to recognise that they are vitally linked with every believer on earth as forming with them one body, but to recognise equally their place locally, and to seek to carry out in their own locality principles which govern the assembly universally.
THE EFFECT OF ACTION OF ASSEMBLY CHARACTER
From the foregoing remarks it is evident, that the action of any one assembly in the early days of the Christian epoch would not have had a purely local bearing. If the command of the Lord was carried out in Corinth it would necessarily have to be regarded by all who in every place called on the name of that Lord. Moreover, the "body " being one universally, those who composed the local assembly were part of the one whole; therefore, their action in carrying out administration in their locality; that is to say, the action of the local assembly, affected the whole, and had a universal bearing.
This principle is of the utmost importance, but, it is to be feared, very much overlooked. If we would seek to walk in a path pleasing to the Lord in this day of difficulty, if we to-day seek to walk in the light that Scripture affords us regarding the assembly and to depart from all that is contrary to divine principles, we must recognise, at least, that the assembly is one universally, " one body."
The action of any local gathering of such who so walk, therefore cannot have only a local bearing. If to-day an individual is under discipline as an evildoer, and is so judged by those who act in their locality in the light that Scripture affords regarding the assembly, so that he cannot be allowed to partake of the Lord's supper with them, he cannot rightly be received anywhere else. For another gathering to receive him would be an act of independence and a denial of Christian fellowship and of the fact that the assembly is one universally. As another has said, If a person is to be received in one place when he is rejected in another, it is evident there is an end to unity and common action. The assembly being " one body " universally, and fellowship being universal also, the action of any one gathering of believers walking in the light that Scripture affords regarding the assembly and acting on divine principles, involves all others who are so walking in the bonds of fellowship.
Similarly, if a gathering refuses to judge evil in its midst, it involves in its guilt those in the bonds of fellowship with it. There is no warrant in Scripture for independent assemblies or purely local fellowship. The assembly is one body universally.
It may be added here that owning these great spiritual realities and principles, would lead us to recognise that a believer is local in the place where he resides. Hence if anyone were under discipline by an assembly and were, while in that state, to move into another locality, if or when the Lord graciously brings about recovery, his case would have to be dealt with by saints in the gathering in the locality in which he is at the time of his recovery. If he is living in Corinth, so to speak, he is local there; if in Colosse, he is local there.
All administration, whether of discipline or recovery, must be carried out locally. " Now ye (Corinthians) are (the) body of Christ." " Do not ye judge them that are within?" " Ye ought rather to forgive him." These passages put this question beyond controversy. The person is recovered in the place where he resides at the time of recovery.
In dealing with such a case, the few who desire to act according to principles proper to the assembly, would rightly get all the help they could from those who had to deal with the person when the discipline was exercised; they could in the Lord's name call upon any one anywhere to give evidence to them; but clearly those in the locality where the person resides would have the responsibility of handling the matter, and the Lord would support them in the discharge of their responsibility. It is well that this fact should ever be remembered. The present state of a person is only known in the place where he lives ; and the Lord supports those in that place in discerning matters, for it is their responsibility.
M. W. Biggs