"Is Fellowship a 'Brotherhood' Issue?" - a Review


     In the May issue (2000) of Focus Magazine, there appeared an article titled, "Is Fellowship a 'Brotherhood' Issue?" written by Steve Dewhirst. The article is well written as far as literary execution and style is concerned. I have chosen to herein review Steve's material for a couple of reasons. The first reason is the subject of "brotherhood fellowship" needs more critical exploration, both from the positive and negative considerations. The second reason for the review is in light of a number of statements contained in Steve's material, especially in view of the absence of what I deem to be necessary qualification and explanation. Antecedent to beginning my review, allow me to present some biblical facts relative to fellowship.

     There are basically six Greek words (some of which are cognates) which are translated fellowship or its equivalent in the Greek New Testament. Three are nouns, two are verbs, and one is an adjective (nouns: koinonia, metoche, koinonos; verbs: koinoneo, sunkoinoneo, and one adjective: metochos). Koinonia (one of the three nouns) is found 20 times. It is translated, "fellowship" (Acts 2: 42), "contribution" (Rom. 15: 26), "communion" (I Cor. 10: 16), "distribution" (2 Cor. 9: 13), "communication" (Phile. 6), and "communicate" (Heb. 13: 16). Koinonos (second main noun, used ten times) is translated "fellowship" (I Cor. 10: 20), "partakers" (Matt. 23: 30), "partners" (Lk. 5: 10), and "companions" (Heb. 10: 33, all translations are from the King James).

     What exactly is fellowship?   "Fellowship" was one of the four descriptive terms Luke used to describe the activities of the Jerusalem Christians (Acts 2: 42). Notice that fellowship was constant ("they continued steadfastly…"). I submit that while the early Christians were socially close and often physically together, "fellowship" is never used in the New Testament to denote coffee and donuts, as such (when used in a spiritual climate).

     Fellowship is partnership and approval in spiritual matters. Notice that koinonos (fellowship) is secularly used in Luke 5: 10. Peter, James, and John were partners (koinonos) in a commercial fishing business. They enjoyed joint participation in that undertaking (appreciate the fact that here koinonos is secularly used but there is no admixture or injection of the spiritual). Hence, when fellowship is used in a spiritual setting, mutual efforts and commonality is obviously meant (Gal. 2: 9). Fellowship between Christians, then, implies approval and endorsement (Phili. 4: 15). The converse of 2 John 10, 11 is assistance ("receive him into your house") and approval ("bid him God speed"). Assistance and approval are the components, if you will, of fellowship.

     Having established some basic truths concerning "fellowship," please allow me to say at the outset of my review that I concur with a number of points "Is Fellowship a 'Brotherhood' Issue?" makes. I shall initially address some of these areas of agreement.

Some Areas of Agreement


     "Fellowship is a critical issue," writes Steve Dewhirst, "but it's not a 'brotherhood' issue. It's a matter to be decided by individuals on the basis of their own understanding of scripture, and by local churches who have to determine whom to accept or refuse" (paragraph nine). I readily concur that fellowship is not a brotherhood issue in the sense of a controlling and deciding board or local church that makes arbitrary decisions for individuals and/or churches as to whom they may or may not fellowship. In a strict sense, we do not even read of the concept of churches fellowshipping churches, except in matters of benevolence for needy saints (2 Cor. 9: 13). However, I might inject, the expression "own understanding" suggests an unnecessary element of subjectivism, in my judgment.

     Steve mentions "fellowship of churches" and then adds, "But to imply a threat of separation from a collectivity of churches constituting 'the church of Christ,' is to perpetuate yet another human sect" (Paragraph eight). There resides much wisdom in this statement. If we are not careful, in our efforts to restore and maintain pristine Christianity, we will create yet another instance of denominationalism.

Some Areas of Concern


     The efforts are legion that are endeavoring to create individual and local church immunity in doctrinal (actual teaching) and moral matters. We are saturated with the teaching that "you cannot determine a false teacher by his teaching" and "you must be a member of the same local church to challenge one teaching error." In this same vein, we are told that "you cannot disclose the official position of a local church in a doctrinal or moral matter unless you are a member of the same local church, and then the exposure must be limited to that actual local church." The material "Is Fellowship a 'brotherhood' Issue?" seriously lacks any acknowledgement of duties one may have that extend beyond the local church where he holds membership (more later).

     "Why, then, do we need any party of men to group together, label, or brand bodies of local churches - unless we want to admit and promote our own sectarianism?" (Paragraph nine.) Steve expresses much bias toward any challenging and exposing outside the local church. As I have already conceded, there can be grave danger in men organizing themselves to "control the brotherhood" (such boards, etc., are sinful). However, does an individual not have the right, yea, even responsibility on occasion to address matters that are universal? Steve wrote regarding the rampant divorce and remarriage issue, "These disputes are hardly new, brethren have wrestled with these weighty problems for two hundred years without reaching a consensus. But through it all, brethren understood that such issues must be settled by individual disciples and by the local churches of which they were a part" (paragraph two).

     Steve wrote, "To deny an autonomous church the right to make its own decisions is to deny the facts of history and to deny the ability of disciples to reason for themselves from the word of God" (paragraph five). Steve does as many do who are laboring under a manifest prejudice: he jumps to an extreme illustration to prove his point and ignores a possible scripturally congruous action. Paul and his company did not issue a fiat to the church in Jerusalem saying, "you may not teach the Gentiles must keep the Law of Moses and if you do so teach, we will remove you from the church of Christ charter." However, the local church in Antioch of Syria did send Paul and his company to meet with the leaders and the whole Jerusalem church to probe and discuss the issue of the requirements for the Gentile's salvation (Acts 15: 1 ff., notice the local church in Antioch did not violate the self-rule of the local church in Jerusalem by their action). Notice, to the credit of the Jerusalem church, they did not object to the "intrusion" of these preachers on the basis, "you are violating our autonomy." In this view, Paul and his company did not take the position that the church in Jerusalem was allowed without consequence to believe what they chose to believe and teach. Also, please appreciate the fact that Paul and his company went to the church; hence, they themselves did not believe that one had to be a member of the same local church to involve oneself in a matter.

     Paul wrote an epistle to the local church at Corinth (he was not a member at Corinth) and pointed out in the most cogent terms, based on information supplied him from one of the members at Corinth, some of the prevailing doctrinal and moral irregularities characteristic of that local church (I Cor. 5-15). Paul also wrote an epistle to multiple local churches in the region of Galatia. In this epistle, he mentioned a serious doctrinal departure (Gal. 2-4). As a result of the embraced error, he mentioned for all of us to read, the fact that these local churches were in the very process of apostasy (Gal. 1: 6-9). The question is was the member at Corinth who informed Paul (an outsider) of their problems wrong? Moreover, did Paul himself violate the autonomy of Corinth and the churches of Galatia? Beloved, the fact that Paul was an apostle is not justification for the argument "only an apostle could do what Paul did." If to so expose is necessarily a violation of autonomy, it would have been wrong for Paul to have done what he did. Furthermore, the apostle's teaching and conduct are exemplary and a model for us (I Cor. 11:1, Phili. 4: 9). There is no inherent, expressed or unexpressed, time consideration involved in what Paul did, as in the case with the performance of miracles (I Cor. 13: 8-10, Jas. 1: 25).

     The fact of the matter is every real Christian has concern for doctrinal purity both locally and universally. The doctrine that concern and action must be limited to the local church of which we are a part is totally anti-biblical. Timothy was placed in Ephesus to "charge some that they teach no other doctrine" (I Tim. 1: 3). James was not an apostle, however, he addressed Christians in an area and rebuked and challenged false doctrine (The Epistle of James). It is hilarious how some publish their papers (universal in scope) and run all over the country teaching "fellowship is limited to the local church" and "you cannot address error unless you are a member of the same local church." Such a mentality is comparable to "you are not supposed to judge; you are going to hell because you are judging me!" Jude was not an apostle, notwithstanding, we would be hard pressed to find more scathing language exposing false teachers (vs. 3 ff.). By the way, these false teachers were manifestly not members of the same local church where James and Jude held membership.

     Regarding the five churches of Asia that were faulted by John, Steve wrote, "He didn't summon the saints in Symrna to straighten out the wayward Christians in Ephesus or Thyatira" (paragraph seven, see Rev. 2; 3). Some brethren are going to such an extreme in their efforts to establish congregational and individual isolation that their teaching suggests that if a brother has an opportunity to restore one who has been overtaken in sin, he cannot do so unless he is a member of the same local church as the brother in error. Remember, Paul wrote Galatians to multiple local churches. Paul penned, "Brethren, if a man be overtaken in a fault, ye which are spiritual, restore such an one in the spirit of meekness; considering thyself, lest thou also be tempted" (Gal. 6: 1). There is no intimation involved in this injunction or elsewhere in scripture that the one overtaken and the restoring brother must be members of the same local church. After a similar fashion, Romans was addressed "to all that be in Rome" (Rom. 1: 7). From chapter 16, it appears there were multiple local churches in Rome. In such a setting we read, "Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned, and avoid them" (Rom. 16: 17). Are we to infer that the marking was limited to the local church only in which the advocates of such false teachings held membership?

     As I draw this review to a close, allow me to stress that fellowship extends beyond the same local church. John wrote, "But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another…" (I Jn. 1: 7, cp. vs. 3). John was not a member of the same local church as those whom he addressed. Notwithstanding, John wrote "we have fellowship." Therefore, Christians may be geographically separated but if they are "walking in the light," they have joint participation and approval of each other.

     I agree that we can start thinking in terms of universality and fail to consider requisite matters that are local regarding fellowship and be in trouble. However, the movement to limit fellowship to local churches and individuals within the same local church is without divine authority. Again, hear Steve, "But through it all, brethren understood that such issues must be settled by individual disciples and by the local churches of which they were a part." For the sake of accuracy, I must add, that in all matters, local or outside the local church of which we are a part, we must strive for accuracy and impartiality. We must also avoid becoming a part of a political and controlling "brotherhood" clique. If this is one of the major thrusts and intents of Steve's material, I certainly am in agreement. However, such emphasis does not justify the lack of clarification and the apparent imposed restrictions "Is Fellowship a 'brotherhood' Issue?" advocates.   (Related articles to read are, "The Local Church and its Autonomy," and "Who is a False Teacher?," click on to visit the material.)