What Is Fellowship?

by Caleb Bassett

The doctrine of Church Fellowship is one that draws ire from many American church bodies because of its apparent divisive nature. The plague of ecumenism is spreading like wildfire throughout America, and it is clear that many are being led astray by the errors of so many heterodox churches throughout our nation. Ecumenism teaches that “little” differences in doctrine are unimportant, in fact, ecumenicals consider all doctrine to be nothing more than petty rules that need not be defended or argued. To the modern world, the one thing needful is a bland spirituality and baseless faith. Churches that teach this have fallen prey to a cultural society that embraces any aberration from truth and morality as a beautiful diversity and a welcome change. But they are in error and have betrayed the Scriptures. To say, “I believe in the Bible,” is not enough. The Bible teaches. It teaches doctrine, and that doctrine is to be grasped firmly and vigorously defended.

But we must not look at the ecumenical world around us as completely valueless. The opposition to the truth that confessional Lutherans face is a test from God and an opportunity to demonstrate our faithfulness to him and his teachings. “Remember how the Lord your God led you all the way in the desert these forty years, to humble you and test you in order to know what was in your heart, whether or not you would keep his commands” (Dt. 8:2). We are wandering through a modern desert of ecumenism and false doctrine. Knowledge of our doctrine is key in passing the tests God gives us.

Areas of Application
The doctrine of church fellowship may not be applied to the invisible church. While the word “church” is often used to describe the building and other visible elements, the broadest sense of the word signifies the universal church of believers. Scripture testifies that the true church consists of every believer in Christ. It also confirms that the church is one, and that it is completely invisible to man. (1Jn. 1:7, 1Pe. 2:4-9, Eph. 4:5-6) We can rest assured that God knows the true intentions of every man’s heart (1Sa. 16:17), and that he will judge the unbeliever and reward those who are faithful. “God’s solid foundation stands firm, sealed with this inscription: ‘The Lord knows those who are his’ ” (2Ti. 2:19).

This leads us to the question of hypocrites. Hypocrites are people who outwardly confess that they believe and trust in the true teaching of Scripture, but in reality do not. They go through the motions of Christianity out of self-serving motives. But these people are not part of the true church, for God can recognize their evil hearts. “These people come near to me with their mouth and honor me with their lips, but their hearts are far from me” (Isa. 29:13). Hypocrites cannot be judged by the principles of church fellowship because their errors and unbelief are not yet manifest. But a faithful practice of fellowship will rebuke and instruct those hypocrites who show evidence of their unbelief.

Church fellowship does not deal with adiaphora, that is, things that God has neither expressly forbidden nor encouraged. A good example of this is outward ceremony. Many churches in our fellowship do not worship in the same manner as we. For example, the Lutheran mission in St. Lucia inserts Caribbean style music into their liturgy, thereby reflecting their culture. At the same time German Lutherans in the Midwest use traditional hymns that reflect their culture. Yet we are still in full fellowship. Outward ceremony does not distinguish our fellowship.

But what can be used to differentiate between the true orthodox teachings of Scripture and the false heterodoxy of errorists?

The church, while invisible, will automatically begin to bear fruit, and this fruit is very visible to the human eye. Believers gather together and make public use of the Means of Grace. The Word is preached publicly. The sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion are properly utilized. These outward signs are markings that the true church is present, and they compose the visible church. The mouth confesses publicly what the heart believes privately. “For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved” (Ro. 10:10). Saving faith and a public confession go hand in hand. A large grouping of believers, such as a synod, will follow the same principle by making a public confession of doctrine. Subsequently, the members of the synod subscribe to its teachings and confess them as true. It should be noted that many people call church fellowship confessional fellowship to make clear that we distinguish fellowship based on the outward markings and confessions. As long as this public confession remains wholesome and soul-saving we may enjoy full fellowship with another church. Psalm 133:1 says, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!”

Unfortunately, this enjoyment is often broken by the incorrect, soul-destroying teachings of false prophets. We must apply the principles of fellowship to these teachers because they are publicly teaching and promoting doctrine contrary to the Scriptures. The same is true for their followers. Persistent errorists must be avoided when they continually defend and promote false teaching. God judges the heart, but Scripture also commands us men to judge the public confessions of other men on earth.

The Scriptural Basis for Church Fellowship
The Bible, and therefore confessional Lutheran doctrine, clearly teaches the doctrine of church fellowship. The doctrine permeates the New Testament epistles. The Apostles wrote many letters to their congregations encouraging them in faith and doctrine, and throughout all of the epistles was the exhortation, “Watch out for false teachers!” The Apostles recognized the soul-destroying effects of doctrinal error and worked hard to combat it among the faithful.

We should first address why doctrine is so important. As mentioned before, the ecumenical world does not think that doctrine is important, but such a fantasy grinds against the teachings of Scripture. The first thing to note is that our doctrine is not really ours at all, it is Christ’s. Martin Luther comments on this very fact in his large commentary on Galatians. He writes, “The doctrine is not ours but God’s. We are only his called servants. Therefore we cannot surrender or change one particle of it.” How true this statement is! As we will soon see, our doctrine is based on the inspired Word of God. It is by no means based on flawed human rules and research. We preach the Scriptures that testify about Christ and him crucified.

We now know that the teachings of the Bible are not ours but God’s, but do they all go together in one lump? Scripture testifies that they do. To confess Christ is to confess the entire Scripture. Christ is revealed to us in the Word, and Christ’s teachings agree fully with the whole of Scripture. The two are so closely related that they cannot be separated. Christ confirms this as well when he says, “These are the Scriptures that testify about me” (Jn 5:39). There is further evidence in Luke, “And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, [Jesus] explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Lk. 24:27). It is clear that the entire Bible is a single unit, and that all of its doctrine points to the culmination of God’s plan of salvation: Christ.

But there are still more reasons for the importance of clear, sound doctrine. We know that sound Biblical teaching testifies and points to Christ, and we know that Christ is the one way into the Kingdom of God. “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (Jn. 14:6). Since this is true, how could unclear doctrine be anything less than soul-destroying and a hindrance to faith and eternal life? Jesus says, “Sanctify them by the truth, your word is truth” (Jn. 17:17). Why would we desire anything less than the clearest teaching of the eternal truth of God our creator, preserver, and redeemer? No human argument can discount the clear testimony of Scripture regarding the sheer importance of sound doctrine. “Anyone who runs ahead and does not continue in the teaching of Christ does not have God.” (2Jn. 9) These are strong words, and they illustrate still more the utter futility of any teaching that does not have Christ and the whole Scripture at its center.

Scripture is not only clear on the importance of doctrine, it is also exceedingly clear regarding the absolute necessity of combating perverted doctrines that rise in the church. Romans 16:17 is perhaps the most commonly quoted verse when fellowship is discussed. “I urge you brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them.” It is interesting to give special attention to the Greek word which the NIV translators rendered as “obstacles.” The original Greek text uses the word skandala, which is literally a trap. More specifically it is the trap piece that would trigger the trap to clamp down upon an unwary victim. Picture a large bear trap clamping down upon your leg. This is the image that Paul draws for us in this passage. He masterfully illustrates both the soul-destroying nature of false doctrine and the malicious wickedness of false teachers. False teaching is no humane live-trap from which one can later escape alive. No, it is a fatal trap, one laid by our foe with evil, murderous intent. Only a wicked person would lay such traps for those whom he teaches. And wickedness is added to wickedness when people like us allow such traps to remain hidden!

We must expose those traps. This is the responsibility of all Christians, but a special burden falls on the shoulders of the pastor. When the apostle Paul wrote the pastoral letters, he recognized the special encouragement that pastors would need in upholding sound doctrine while at the same time combating false teaching. All three pastoral letters (1, 2Ti., Tit.) are an especially valuable source when it comes to fellowship because they outline the principles for us while demonstrating practical examples of how the early church exercised fellowship. Titus 1:9 sums up the pastor’s doctrinal responsibility with one clear sentence. “He must hold firmly to the trustworthy message as it has been taught, so that he can encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it.”

Recognizing the need for constant attention in maintaining doctrine, the Formula of Concord provides further encouragement to “feed the lambs and resist the wolves” (Trig. p. 855). This is no easy task. False teaching can sometimes be easy to recognize, and when it is we should quickly point it out to the rest of the church so that they may mark it and avoid it. Paul has no problem naming names when it comes to those who lay death-traps for God’s people. “Among them are Hymanaeus and Alexander, whom I have handed over to Satan to be taught not to blaspheme.” (1Ti. 1:20) Hymanaeus and Alexander were teaching things that they should not have been teaching (Tit. 1:11) and Paul acted quickly to prevent them from ensnaring church members in their web of lies. This evidence from the early church is strong proof to the importance of remaining true to Christ and his teachings. We learn that we need to take the necessary measures to announce false teachers to the world. Paul also gives the weary pastor Timothy comfort when he says, “Alexander the metalworker did me a great deal of harm. The Lord will repay him for what he has done” (2Ti. 4:14). We need only point out the false doctrine and protect our sound doctrine, because God will deal judgment upon the false teacher in his own time and in his own way.

However, not all false teachings will be easy to recognize. Special attention must be given to the little issues that can easily creep into our presentation of God’s doctrine through lack of alert vigilance. False teachings such as these are of paramount importance, for they present a huge danger. Scripture testifies, “You were running a good race. Who cut in on you and kept you from obeying the truth? That kind of persuasion does not come from the one who calls you. ‘A little yeast works through the whole batch of dough.’ ” (Gal. 5:7-9) Even in the most orthodox of churches, small bits of false teaching will spread if they are not quickly marked and cast out. Even an infinitesimal amount of false doctrine will eventually spread like gangrene (2Ti. 2:17) until it finally attacks the very core doctrines of our faith. The words “you were running a good race” indicate that even a church that currently has sound doctrine can sink into false teaching. We must maintain constant vigil to prevent such a downfall. “Watch out that you do not lose what you have worked for, but that you may be rewarded fully” (2Jn. 8).

The World’s Arguments
Now that we know how the Scripture fully and completely commands us to maintain church fellowship, let us refute the arguments that the world presents against our practices.

Many scorn our practice of church fellowship as unloving. However, nothing could be further from the truth! Love is the sole motivation for our fellowship practices, and Scripture confirms this. It is impossible to say that we could better show love by ignoring doctrinal differences, for that would not show love for Christ. Jesus said, “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. He who does not love me will not obey my teaching” (Jn. 14:23-24). To allow the perversion of Christ’s teachings is not showing love for Christ, it is a sign of contempt and presumption over and against the true Word of God. Tolerating false teaching does not show love for the fellow Christian either. It is love that motivates us to humbly point out the errors that our brothers and sisters in Christ may be embracing. “My brothers, if one of you should wander from the truth and someone should bring him back, remember this: Whoever turns a sinner from the error of his way will save him from death and cover over a multitude of sins.” (Jas. 5:19) It is our loving intent that by showing the fellow man his error, he would turn from his evil ways and repent. We do acknowledge that true believers, members of Christ’s invisible church, are present even in heterodox churches. God’s word remains efficacious, even when clouded by false doctrine. But the false doctrine is nevertheless a soul destroying trap. Believers in a heterodox church are not in a wholesome situation. They are teetering perilously close to danger with eternal consequences. We lovingly desire to point out their peril in the hope that they might step away from the hazardous edge.

Others claim that our practice of fellowship causes division in the church. Once again, their accusation is unscriptural. It is not we who cause the divisions; rather it is those who choose to depart from orthodox teaching. They divide themselves from the true church through their rejection of the truth. They would have us join in one big happy church that does not make the distinction between truth and lies, when in fact this would harm the church more than help it. We cannot make one belief out of many. The divisions would surely remain and only become internal. But some still pretend that if we join with heterodox churches, they will see the truth and accept it. That is another false assumption. In 1 Samuel 5 we hear the account of the Philistines capturing the ark of God. They place it triumphantly before their god Dagon. The following day Dagon had fallen on his face and broken to pieces. The Philistines had seen the power of the true God; nevertheless they rejected him and quickly sent the ark of God away and continued to acclaim Dagon as “our god.” Heterodox churches behave in the same manner. As a means of self-preservation they cast away the truth to serve their own wicked teachings.

Heterodox churches also dismiss doctrinal study and discussion as unimportant. They suppose that our differences are mere misunderstandings of terms and minor disagreements. This is not true. We hold to the truth of the Scriptures, and rejecting that truth is no minor offense. The Formula of Concord tells us that our doctrinal differences are “of such a nature that the opinion of the party in error cannot be tolerated in the Church of God, much less be excused or defended.” (Trig. p. 849) We must always bear in mind that those who reject any of the Bible’s teachings reject Christ, and anyone who rejects Christ does not have God (2Jn. 9). No teaching is unimportant.

In order to cast a bad light on church fellowship, errorists will also cite extreme instances where two teachings of the Bible clash. For example, if a Lutheran pastor ministers to a dying Catholic in an emergency, he does so because love dictates that he care for the dying man’s soul. However, exceptions such as these must not become the standard by which we act. We must not let obsessive casuistry overtake scriptural principles. Scripture still dictates that our practice of church fellowship remain a common thread in our lives as members of his church.

In the end, the church on earth is strengthened by the proper practice of church fellowship. In theory, if the New Testament church had practiced fellowship perfectly since its inception, we would not have so many church bodies and sects among us. Erring churches would never have been produced if sound doctrine had been firmly defended from the beginning. Instead, false teachings were allowed a foothold and they spread throughout the whole batch of dough, corrupting some believers to a point where it now appears impossible to bring them back to a correct understanding of the Gospel. Unfaithful ministers welcomed false teachings into their midst and promoted it as the truth. As Francis Pieper puts it in his Dogmatik, “Where there are no buyers, there are no markets” We must watch out that we do not shop from the market of false doctrine.

Fight the Good Fight
It is not easy to maintain fellowship. We see time and time again how much the world delights in ridiculing our beliefs and practices. It would be easy to crumble under such pressure, but we must not. We have a responsibility to Christ our savior to hold his teachings firmly. “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” (Jn. 8:31-32)

We can take comfort in the power of our God, and in the words of his Scripture. We are being tested, and scriptural church fellowship will earn us a passing grade. “No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God’s approval” (1Co. 11:19). We can look on our troubles as a sign of approval and blessing from God. Nobody promised us that our work would be easy; on the contrary Jesus has promised that his teaching would bring trials upon us. “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me” (Mt. 24:9).

Let us work hard to fulfill the commands of God to maintain sound doctrine. And let us take heart in the promises of God as we faithfully run our race with diligent study, patience, steadfastness, and love.

Bibliography and Recommended Reading
Brug, John F. Church Fellowship—Working Together for the Truth. Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1996.

Brug, John F. “Can There Ever Be Exceptions to Our Regular Fellowship Practices That Do Not Violate Scripture’s Fellowship Principles?” Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly 99:3 and 99:4 (2002)

Commission on Inter-Church Relations of the Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod. Doctrinal Statements of the WELS. Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1997.

Erlandsson, Seth. Church Fellowship: What does the Bible say? Translated by Siegbert W. Becker. Milwaukee: Northwestern Publishing House, 1979.

Lawrenz, Carl J. “Confessional Fellowship—Of Joint Worship and Church Work.” Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly 82:2 (1985): 83-94.

Pieper, Francis. Christian Dogmatics. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1950. Volumes I and III

Schuetze, Armin. “The Satis Est in Article VII of the Augsburg Confession.” Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly 83:1 (1986): 21-27.

Schumann, Walter. “Romans 16:17, 18 Exegesis.” Wisconsin Lutheran Quarterly 38:4 (1941): 260-272.

Concordia Triglotta. St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1921.