Unconditional Fellowship in Churches of Christ


     I have been around long enough and due to wide Internet exposure, I am perfectly aware of a too common practice among many non-institutional churches of Christ and that is the practice of unconditional fellowship.  I say "unconditional," most do have the condition of baptism, but that is about it.  Let me share with you an excerpt from a report on a local work that is reflective of the unconditional fellowship mentality that has invaded many churches and pulpits and the often attendant consequences of this practice (I shall omit particulars such as names):

"Problems at the ...church:  Every congregation I know in ...(regional area stated, dm) has a constant influx of Christians from different parts of the world with vastly different backgrounds. Our policy at ...has been to avoid partyism and accept all baptized believers, knowing that many have unconventional ideas.  Our hope is that good teaching will correct whatever is lacking. However, the danger always exists that some with unorthodox concepts may not receive Bible teaching and instead may begin to exert their influence on others with their questionable ideas. This has happened at .... Our problems revolve around three brethren influenced by the Pentecostal Movement.  One is particularly friendly and has therefore been able to influence about ten of the new and weak Christians.  I woke up to that fact when they almost succeeded (when some of us were distracted) in having one of our new converts give her 'testimony' in front of the congregation about a sore knee that she felt was healed....."

     Concerned reader, there are two problems with unconditional fellowship.  First, it is absolutely without biblical authority and, second, it is about the fastest way to destroy the doctrinal and moral purity of a church.  Yet, its practice continues to the point that many now view it as unquestionable and the norm.  Notice that the well known preacher who wrote the above report said, "Our policy at ...has been to avoid partyism and accept all baptized believers, knowing that many have unconventional ideas."  Hence, if you practice guarded fellowship, you are a party member, according to him.

     Guarded fellowship is plainly taught in the scriptures.  Many verses set forth the idea, concept, and practice of guarded and protected fellowship that is predicated on mutual conformity to the scriptures.  Observe the teaching of John:

"5: This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. 6: If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: 7: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin" (I John 1).

     "Walking in the light" entails more than just baptism, it is a way of life and necessarily includes doctrine and practice.  Please also appreciate that "walking in the light" is stated as a condition in order to have fellowship (spiritual approval and joint participation).  John actually had a lot to say about fellowship and its conditions.

"9: 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. 10: If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: 11: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker (fellowshipper, dm) of his evil deeds" (2 John).

     The practice of unconditional fellowship is just not a smart practice.  A while back a veteran preacher called me to inform me that the church where he preached had just split.  "An influential family who believed in Radical Restoration placed membership and then divided the church.  They had caused division in two other churches in the area before they divided the church here."  What is wrong with this picture?  In the first place, what right did the church have to extend fellowship to this doctrinally unsound and in sin family?  I asked my preacher friend, "Did the church check out this family prior to extending fellowship?"  The indication was not really, but they did know that the family had caused prior problems over Radical Restoration.  As I further talked with the preacher, it became apparent that he had little grasp of biblical fellowship.  Such stories can be multiplied.

     "Don, just what do you propose, perfection on the part of all prospective members prior to their acceptance?"  First, we must respect the teaching of God's word regarding conditional, yes, "conditional fellowship."  In the case just mentioned, the church based on knowledge obtained from investigation, should have told the family, "You have divided the Lord's church over your false belief relative to Smith's Radical Restoration, and you must repent of this error and sin before we can even discuss fellowship and membership."  Out of real love and concern the request should follow, "We would like to set up some studies with you and consider this whole matter."  Again, all of this takes place PRIOR to the extension of fellowship in the local church.

     "Don, we have never heard of such a practice and your teaching is promoting partyism," I am told.  I have now been preaching for about 40 years and I have preached on this subject everywhere I have gone.  On a number of occasions, people have responded to the invitation that have residual and obvious unrepented of sin, yet, they want to place membership and be unconditionally accepted.  When I have known of such cases, I simply have made the announcement, "The Jones wish to be a part of this fellowship and we appreciate their desire, but there are some matters that must first be addressed.  We will keep you informed."  Now, what is the problem with this? I have had a family to show up without any prior notice and publicly express the desire to place membership.  In such cases, again, the simple public statement is made, "We appreciate the Goodman's desire to be a part of this local church and we shall pursue this matter and shortly inform you as to the outcome."

     Brethren, I know that I am called a Diotrephes, trouble maker, and a party promoter.  I have been slandered, maligned, and called about everything there is because of teaching such as I am doing in this article.  However, the simple fact remains that unconditional fellowship is a false doctrine that is one of the most prolific causes of church apostasy and it just is not smart!

     In most churches that have subscribed to unconditional fellowship, preachers are often expected to, "Say nothing to offend the new members."  Hence, we must trim the gospel and omit teaching that might not please the new members. Please do not tell me that this does not happen, I have been there and seen it many times!  In the first place, we do not "...avoid saying anything that might offend the new members" or anyone else.  Such a practice is antithetical to Acts 20: 27.  Babes in Christ must hear pertinent truths in order to grow (I Pet. 2: 2).  Let it also be known that there is a vast difference between a biblical babe in Christ due to time limitation and a member who is bent on error and teaching others his unsound doctrines (Tit. 3: 10, 11, Rom. 16: 17).  In all fairness, is there any semblance of justification for the common practice of unconditional fellowship? 

     There are two primary rationales offered to justify accepting without question all who have been baptized.  First, there is the Romans 14 appeal.  Romans 14 has become the proof text to endorse every imaginable sin and the position that a church must accept all and say nothing that pertains to their particular sins.  Stated succinctly and simply, Romans 14 does not in any way apply to such a scenario.  The special particularity and circumstances of Romans 14 did not involve immediate and actual sin such as addressed by this article (Rom. 14: 14).  Romans 14 is not a haven for impenitent sinners and a city of rescue and protection for false teachers while they peddle their damnable beliefs.

     The second rationale is, "We just cannot grow unless we are able to take in imperfect people."  This article does not advocate simply "turning away people."  In the years that I have preached and served as one of the elders at Holly Street in Denver, we have had scores of people to want to place membership.  The first thing we do is privately meet with them and urge them to check us out by asking probative questions as to our beliefs and practices and we then inform them that we shall do the same regarding them, even calling the church where they were last a member.  Many have left saying, "I will not be subjected to such, I will simply go to....and place membership." They do and we hear, "The Jones have identified, add them to your church directories."  In many cases, we have found out that the "Jones" split the church they last attended, practiced and advocated social drinking, or were in an adulterous marriage.  We tried to study with them, but they knew they could simply place membership elsewhere with no questions asked.  The result?  They continue in sin and also involve the church in sin due to
unscriptural fellowship practices (I Cor. 5).

     For years, I used to hold my share of meetings across the country.  I made it a point to preach on biblical fellowship in one lesson.  On many occasions, members of these churches would privately come to me and say, "Don, we have not heard such taught in many years, the church here just accepts all who claim to have been baptized, no questions asked."  I also recall on several occasions, the local preacher responding to the invitation, confessing the public sin of teaching and practicing unconditional fellowship.  I remember one meeting in which I preached on fellowship where half the church and the preacher came forward confessing to practicing error regarding this matter.  Three new families also responded saying, "We should not have placed membership without first repenting of our sins."  It was a wonderful meeting.

     Brethren, it is time to cease playing around at religion and attempting to build up churches according to man's standards and ideas.  Religion has often become a joke, even among non-institutional churches of Christ.  We are in it, let's just be plain, for the money, the numbers, and the grand buildings.  We preachers have our public relation reputations to protect as "church builders" and we certainly do not want to be known as "church destroyers, this thinking needs to be replaced with biblical thinking."

     Do not be fooled for a moment, unconditional fellowship is not the result of love of people's souls.  How can it be?  If you really love the souls of men and women, you will attempt to lead them and teach them in the way of righteousness.  To unconditionally extend fellowship is just to condone them in their sin.  "Don, we take them in and then in a loving climate of acceptance, we teach them."  I have been told this many times.  Let us remember, though, we are to do God's will and not our own.  God has set forth the teaching of conditional fellowship.  I have asked some of these preachers, "How long has the Jones family been in your fellowship?"  Their reply follows along the order, "They have been members now for a while." "Have you had classes with them addressing their particular needs and has there been pulpit preaching that hits on their needs?"  The answer has always been, "We are waiting for the right time to start this teaching." "When is the right time?"  The answer has been, "When we believe they are mature enough to accept the teaching."  I agree that attitudes and spiritual maturation all play a part.  However, we are using these matters as a cop out to not do what the scriptures teach.  We are corrupting Jesus' church and selling out to the devil.  Preachers are learning more about how to do P. R. work then they are gospel preaching (2 Tim. 4: 2-5).

     In closing, I call upon all preachers reading this material to repent of the false doctrine and practice of unconditional fellowship.  I encourage those who are practicing the truth in this matter to continue and not be discouraged by the personal attacks of the promoters of "...we avoid partyism and accept all baptized believers, knowing that many have unconventional ideas."  Preachers, when there is doctrinal weakness in a church, address it and preach the truth on it instead of tip toeing around it.  This is what "preaching the truth in love" really is (Eph. 4: 15, 2 Tim. 4: 2-5).  We need more who "...declare the whole council of God" and be free of the professional baby sitters among us. (To read more about fellowship, please visit the following:  "Fellowship," "An Exchange on the Consistency of the Fellowship Issue."