“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 Jn. 9-11)
“Let every one that nameth the name of Christ depart from iniquity.” (2 Tim. 2:19)
“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 Cor. 6:14-18).
- Separation from the False, Fellowship with the True
All true Christians and sound local churches must remain absolutely separate from all false Christians and false churches, having no spiritual fellowship with them. This is the Christian’s sacred duty before God. Fellowship must never be maintained at the expense of purity of doctrine and holy practice.
In our day false Christians and churches abound. There are very, very few true believers and sound churches of Christ. All over the world the Lord’s people find themselves very isolated from other brethren in the Lord. And questions then arise: what biblical principles should guide us when it comes to fellowship between Christians and churches? And what about true churches which are not precisely the same as us in all particulars? Which doctrines and practices, if any, may we overlook for the sake of fellowship, and which ones are essential for fellowship to be maintained?
These are serious questions in the minds of serious Christians, desiring to please their Lord in all things. But many struggle to find answers. After all, this was not a problem in the early Church! The apostolic age was not plagued with a multitude of false churches and denominations. In that age there was brotherly fellowship between the churches of God, and between individual Christians from different churches. The apostles established local churches wherever people were converted, and the members of those churches all continued in the same apostolic doctrine (Acts 2:42). John Dagg correctly said, “A happy intercourse might subsist between the churches, if they were all walking in the Spirit, sound in faith, correct in order, and careful in discipline. Such a state of things existed, to a great extent, in apostolic times. Christian men passed from one country to another, and found, in every place, that those who professed the name of Christ were of one heart and one soul. The members of one local church were, in general, welcomed to the fellowship of every other church.” It was only as time went by that false churches began to appear and multiply.
Today the situation is very different. How, then, are the teachings of the New Testament to be applied to a day such as ours? Indeed, what are the teachings, exhortations and warnings which should guide us and inform our thinking and our approach to such an important and weighty matter as Christian fellowship, in this ecumenical age of abounding wickedness, false churches, false brethren and heretical doctrines?
It is the duty of Christians to joyfully receive in the Lord, into their hearts and affections, those who give evidence that they are brothers and sisters in Christ. This does not mean denominations should be formed. Denominationalism is unbiblical. It did not exist in the apostolic age. Each local church should be autonomous and independent, subject only to the Lord and His Word (Acts 14:23; 20:32). But even so, each sound church should enjoy fellowship with other sound churches, wherever opportunity exists. This communion between true brethren and churches should consist of a number of things: prayer for one another (Eph.6:18); assisting one another financially and in other ways (Acts 11:27-30); and wherever practical, even enjoying fellowship together from time to time – either by individuals from one sound church visiting another when they are in the vicinity (Acts 20:6,7, Rom.16:1,2), or even by two or more sound churches, if close enough geographically, coming together for fellowship on occasion. All true believers in Christ are part of the same body of Christ, the Church universal. Although they meet in different localities as members of particular local churches, they are brethren, one in Christ.
But the key words here are “true” and “sound”: true Christians, sound in the faith; true churches, sound in the faith. If they name the Name of Christ, do they abide in the doctrine of Christ (2 Jn. 9-11)? And do they depart from iniquity (2 Tim. 2:19)? These two questions are all-important.
2. Reasons for Differences Between True Believers and Churches
This can be extremely confusing and troubling for many a child of God. Here we are not considering the obviously false churches, of which there are so many in our day, but rather those which appear to consist of true brethren, and to be genuinely seeking to maintain sound doctrine and practice – and yet which hold to certain doctrines and practices which are not biblical.
That which troubles and perplexes thinking Christians as they contemplate the reality of the differences which so often exist between churches and Christians, is: why has the Lord permitted this situation to develop? Why are not all the Lord’s true churches exactly the same in all matters of faith and practice? The Lord Jesus Christ is the great Head of His Church, and its great Shepherd. He is sovereign and all-powerful. Why then these differences?