Fellowship has been defined as a “participation, sharing, community of interest; companionship, friendliness (often good); body of associates, company.” The prophet Amos posed the question, “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (3:3). Enoch “pleased God” and of him it is recorded he “walked with God” (Gen 5:22). In a call for separation Paul appeals to the Corinthians, “What fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? (2 Cor 6:14,15). Fellowship in Christ defines the unity, the joys, the love and bonds of fraternity, the result of the Father’s love in sending His Son into the world to save perishing man.

The Apostles’ Doctrine and Fellowship

We are told in Acts 2 that the 3000 who were baptised on the day of Pentecost “continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (v42). From that day forth there was such a thing as fellowship among believers; but what was it? The Greek word koinōnia indicates a sharing together, a possession of things in common.

But what do believers have in common? It is, of course, the things they believe. Notice how the doctrine precedes fellowship in the above statement; believers have fellowship with each other on the basis of agreed doctrines. Their doctrines were not originated by man; it is “the apostles’ doctrine” which unites believers together, that is, the things which the apostles taught, as revealed to them by the Lord Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit.

In Acts 2 the picture of what the apostles’ fellowship involved is given: “believers continued stedfastly… in breaking of bread, and in prayers… and all that believed were together, and had all things in common; and sold their possessions and parted them… And they, continuing daily with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread from house to house, did eat their meat with gladness and singleness of heart, praising God…” (verses 42–47). The love of God had been spread abroad resulting in a unity of mind and action, a sharing of communal possessions and mutual joy and praise.

Fellowship with God and Christ

1 John 1 adds another dimension to the idea of fellowship, speaking of believers having fellowship with God and Christ. The Apostle John says, referring to his apostolic ministry to declare the truth concerning Jesus Christ: “that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ” (v3). In this chapter the fellowship that a believer has is depicted as being fourfold:

  • “with the Father”
  • “with His Son Jesus Christ”
  • “with us” (the apostles)
  • “one with another” (v7).

Fellowship here, as in Acts 2, comes from acceptance of the teaching of the apostles. Those who accept that teaching enter a special relationship with God through Jesus Christ. All who do this are in fellowship with each other. Conversely, those who do not accept “the apostles’ doctrine” cannot be part of that fellowship. The agreed basis of fellowship among Central Christadelphian Ecclesias is the Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith (BASF). It summarises “the apostles’ doctrine”, and appended to it are the commandments of Christ, the moral standards in accordance with which the believer is to live. Believing these things and baptism “into Christ” enables men and women to have fellowship with the Father, the Son and fellow believers, or brethren. This oneness or fellowship constitutes the Divine family over which God is the Father (Eph 3:14–15). Being part of this fellowship, this Divine family, is the highest and most honoured status a man or woman can attain in this life.

Fellowship and Withdrawal

Because the love, joy and fellowship experienced by those in Christ is so unique and wonderful, any suggestion of withdrawing fellowship is a painful thought. But as painful and repugnant as the thought may be, there are circumstances where fidelity to the Truth and to Christ call for such action. Our agreed basis of fellowship recognizes this need.

The fellowship Clause from the book Christadelphian Unity in Australia, the Accepted Basis, reads as follows:

It is affirmed that:

a) Where any brethren depart from any element of the One Faith, either in doctrine or practice, they shall be dealt with according to Apostolic precept and that extreme action would be ecclesial disfellowship of the offender (Matt 18:15–17; Titus 3:10–11)

b) If it is established that an ecclesia sets itself out by design to preach and propagate at large, false doctrine, then it would become necessary to dissociate from such an ecclesia

c) The course of action necessitated by the above clauses (a) and (b), will be regulated by the principles of the Scripture and follow the spirit of the Ecclesial Guide, Sections 32, 41 and 42.

Putting a believer out of fellowship is not something that should be done lightly. It should only follow departure from “the apostles’ doctrine” where this is established beyond all doubt, and after every reasonable attempt to persuade the brother of the Truth. This departure may be in relation to either doctrine or practice.

Withdrawal of Fellowship and the New Testament

In the New Testament there are eight passages which deal with withdrawal of fellowship (the term “disfellowship” is not found in the NT). It is important that we carefully consider these so that we might act in harmony with the NT precedents. Not being in possession of the Holy Spirit as were the apostles of the Lord, the direction and examples of their writings are the more important. As a brotherhood aware that we are the custodians of the True Gospel message brought to light by the Father through the work of Bro John Thomas we naturally have a great zeal for the Truth and the preserving of the Truth. In this connection it is important that balance exists: on the one hand there might be withdrawal of fellowship following an inadequate enquiry; whilst on the other hand there could be laxity, indifference and an unwillingness to take any action regardless of gross breaches of the “apostles’ doctrine” and practice.

In examining the eight NT passages on withdrawal of fellowship we will note:

1) the special features in each case

2) the type of men involved, and also

3) the nature of the withdrawal.

Matthew 18:15–17 “Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone; if he shall hear thee thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the ecclesia: but if he neglect to hear the ecclesia, let him be unto thee as an heathen man and a publican.”

  • These words were addressed to the apostles who possessed the Holy Spirit. They were shepherds entrusted with the care of the ecclesias and their authority and actions would be recognized in heaven (v18).
  • Christ would enjoin the above procedures upon all brethren, as well as the apostles, in similar situations.
  • The offended brother had the responsibility to approach the offender to bring about repentance for his benefit (cp Lev 19:17). He was to speak with the offender alone, in an endeavour to confine the problem and to create circumstances most likely to produce the desired outcome. In the event of a failure, one or two more shall be taken to provide witness and certainty. If failure should again take place, then the ecclesia should become involved before he is acted against. The safeguards preventing rash and hasty action should be noted. In the context of Matthew 18 this should be carefully digested because the emphasis in the Lord’s words and the context is upon “seeking that which has gone astray” (v12–14); and of possessing an attitude willing to forgive repeatedly and of restoring (v21–22), being ever aware of the great debt that the Lord has forgiven (v23–35).
  • “Let him be unto THEE” Though the Lord addresses the offended brother, the rejection of the brother concerned would be by all of the ecclesia, as chaos would exist if some did and some did not act as Jesus said. At any rate the whole ecclesia was involved in the third interview, but without the intended result of repentance.
  • “as a heathen man and a publican” That is, as one estranged from God and from his brethren. The attitude of Jews towards Gentiles at the time was as expressed by Peter to Cornelius, “Ye know that it is an unlawful thing for a man that is a Jew to keep company, or come into one of another nation…” (Acts 10:28), while publicans (tax gatherers) were despised for their dishonesty.

Romans 16:17–18 “Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple.”

  • Paul is here referring to men who for their own benefit (eg financial, etc) and advancement (“serving their own belly” v18) seek to lead a faction. They were high-minded and would not submit to the teaching of the apostles and Christ. They were intent on gaining a following and were prepared to “deceive the hearts of the simple” with “good words” and “fair speeches”
  • They were of the same class as those in Titus 1:10–11, who were “unruly and vain talkers and deceivers… teaching things which they ought not, for filthy lucre’s sake”
  • The action to be taken was to “mark them… and avoid them”.

Titus 3:10–11 “A man that is an heretick after the first and second admonition reject; knowing that he that is such is subverted, and sinneth, being condemned of himself.”

  • The type of person here is described by Paul as an “heretick”. This is virtually an untranslated Greek word and refers to “one who forms or belongs to a breakaway party, action or schism”. A cognate word is translated “sect” (Acts 5:17; 15:5)
  • The word describes the person’s conduct, and is included in Paul’s “works of the flesh” (Gal 5:20–21 “heresies”)
  • He that is such is “subverted” (v11) or “turned away” from the Truth, “and sinneth”. “He” has little regard for the love that should bind the family of God in one (Eph 4:1–2), for which the Lord prayed so passionately before his death (John 17)
  • The action to be taken against such, following two warnings is “rejection”. The Greek word translated “reject” is paraiteomai. It is translated “refuse” (1 Tim 4:7; 5:11; Heb 12:25 twice) and “avoid” (2 Tim 2:23)
  • In summary, the “heretick” is a factionist or sectarian, established in his heresy and is to be treated as in the two previous cases.

1 Corinthians 5:1, 4, 5, 7, 11–13 “It is reported commonly that there is fornication among you… that one should have his father’s wife… In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, when ye are gathered… to deliver such an one unto Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved in the day of our Lord Jesus. …Purge out therefore the old leaven… But now I have written unto you not to keep company if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolator, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat. For what have I to do to judge them that are without? Do not ye judge them that are within. But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person.”

  • The sin committed by the brother was incest. Other sins are also mentioned (v11)
  • It is to be noted that it was the responsibility of the ecclesia to make judgments where there had been grave breach of conduct (v12)
  • The judgment in this case involved general (“put away” v13) as well as specific instructions (“not to keep company” and “not to eat”)
  • “put away” Here the Greek word is exairo and it means “to expel” (cp Deut 13:5; 17:7; 21:21; 22:21, 22)
  • “no, not to eat” This would include not welcoming him to the breaking of bread, for at Corinth it was part of the fraternal meal (1 Cor 11:20–21; Jude 12)
  • “To deliver such an one to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, that the spirit may be saved…” What is indicated by this action? The action is also that taken by Paul against Hymenaeus and Alexander… “whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme” (1 Tim 1:20). From 1 Corinthians 5:5 it is evident that the Holy Spirit was necessary to carry out this action. If what is meant was to deliver the incestuous brother to the Gentile world, it is hard to see how the “flesh” would be destroyed and the “spirit” saved. The opposite would be the more likely result. Or does it refer to the infliction of a disease or some physical infirmity, such as Elymas the sorcerer who withstood Paul suffered? (Acts 13:8–11). Miriam, Gehazi and King Uzziah also were smitten with leprosy for their presumption. Of the woman who could not lift herself up it was said, “whom Satan hath bound” (Luke 13:11, 16); and Paul’s infirmity was described by him as a “messenger of Satan to buffet me” (2 Cor 12:7). If this is what is indicated, then it cannot be carried out today in the absence of possession of the Holy Spirit by saints.

1 Timothy 1:19–20 “Holding faith, and a good conscience; which some having put away concerning faith have made shipwreck; of whom is Hymenaeus and Alexander; whom I have delivered unto Satan, that they may learn not to blaspheme.”

  • These men were blasphemers. Blasphemy is defamation, a speaking evil of (cp Matt 26:65; Col 3:8; 1 Tim 1:13; Acts 13:45)
  • In the case of Hymenaeus it involved denial of the resurrection, and with Philetus he sought to overthrow the faith of some (2 Tim 2:17)
  • The action to be taken was “delivery unto Satan”. See notes above.

1 Timothy 6:3–5 “If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness; he is proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions, and strifes of words, whereof cometh envy, strife, railings, evil surmisings, perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness: from such withdraw thyself.”

  • The type of person and sin here is one who deliberately perverts the apostle Paul’s words. He is a promoter of unrighteous conduct, proud and refusing to recognize and accept the teaching of Christ and the apostles
  • The action, “from such withdraw thyself”. The word for withdraw indicates “a clear separation, a departure from the person”. It is a different word to 2 Thessalonians 3:6, where the withdrawal is qualified with the words, “count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother” (v15). That is, a lesser degree of withdrawal is called for because the sin is of a lesser order.

2 Thessalonians 3:6, 11, 14–15 “Now we command you brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly, and not after the tradition which he received of us… v11 For we hear that there are some which walk among you disorderly, working not at all, but are busy bodies… v14 And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed. v15 Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother.”

  • This is the case of the brother who “walks disorderly” or “out of rank” (Diag). This involved not working at all for one’s living, and depending on the charity and goodwill of the brethren. That is “sponging”, as we might say today. The “tradition which he received” from Paul was working for one’s needs, as established in the first epistle to the Thessalonians (4:11–12). The seriousness of not working for one’s living is expressed by Paul to Timothy (1 Tim 5:8)
  • The action called for was “withdrawal”, the Greek word so translated meaning, “not to associate with”. It is of a less severe nature than that called for in 1 Timothy 6:5, where a clear separation is indicated. In verse 14 the ecclesia is also told to “have no company with him”. But to both of these actions in 2 Thessalonians 3 there are the qualifying words of verse 15, “Yet count him not as an enemy…”

2 John 10, 11 “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.”

  • This type of man was a false teacher. Verse 10 links with verse 7 and explains what “this doctrine” is, namely, that “Jesus Christ is not come in the flesh”. John was very concerned with the inroads of this false teaching, destroying as it did the essence of the Lord’s victory over sin. For this reason he called upon believers to “try the spirits” (1 Jn 4:1)
  • 2 John was written to a sister described by John as “the elect lady and her children, whom I love in the truth”. She is warned not to show hospitality, assist or bless such false teachers, for to do so was to bring their guilt upon herself.

General Notes on Fellowship

Believers express their fellowship with Christ and with one another by partaking of the emblems together. Paul wrote, “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion (Gk koinōnia, fellowship) of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread” (1 Cor 10:16–17)

Believers also retain fellowship by adhering to the apostolic teaching they believed when they were baptised and by living and behaving in accordance with the commandments of Christ. Those who cease to do these things are no longer truly in fellowship: “If we say that we have fellowship with him [God], and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth” (1 John 1:6). “Doing the truth” embraces both believing the “apostles’ doctrine” and also living according to their precepts. None will live perfect lives and all will sin through weakness, but for those who “walk in the light… the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth them from all sin”

Certain practical steps are needed in order to maintain true fellowship. The main ones are:

1) Ensuring that those who are baptised know and believe the doctrines taught by the apostles. This involves careful instruction from the Scriptures, and a personal, one to one interview to confirm the above.

2) An acceptance of the Statement of Faith, with the accompanying lists of “Doctrines to be Rejected” and “Commandments of Christ”. These will summarise the doctrine and practice of those in fellowship.

3) Agreeing that certain things are incompatible with being in true fellowship, for example involvement in military service, politics, or wrong behaviour towards others.

4) Expecting that those baptised are members of an ecclesia which accepts the above before they can break bread.

5) Ensuring that those who cease to “walk in the light” because of wrong beliefs or behaviour are no longer welcome to break bread with the ecclesia.

Through human weakness it is not always possible to maintain true fellowship. However, the above things will help to that end.

We cannot be lax or indifferent in maintaining the standards of our ecclesia. Jude speaks of contending earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints and the apostles give dire warning of apostasy to come: their forecasts have been amply fulfilled. Should we imagine that the Truth will fare any better in these perilous last days? Remember that the Lord commended ecclesias at the end of the first century, which “could not bear them which are evil”, but rebuked those who were indifferent and failed to act against those who “hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitanes, which things I hate”.

Let us all thank our Father for the precious truth and fellowship we share in Christ and determine to continue in the apostles’ doctrine and practice.