Christian Fellowship is an Experience, not a Membership System

In answer to my paper on What do we mean by Christian Fellowship?
Brother Jim in Scotland writes:

The essence of my current view of Christian fellowship is that it is experience and not a membership system.

Paul went to Corinth in Acts 18 and, as was his custom, made his way to the synagogue. When it was finally clear that his message was firmly rejected by the Jews, he said that he would go to the nations. However, he was received by Justus; Crispus believed with all his house and many of the Corinthians, who had heard and believed, were baptised.

These people, from diverse backgrounds, now had the things relating to the faith of Jesus Christ in common in every circumstance of life. Whether they met together by arrangement or bumped into one another in the street, they had a link, related to their common faith, which they had with no others. This was Christian fellowship. It was known to them before Paul wrote his first letter to them. In chapter 1 of his first letter, he refers to this known link and enlightens them as to its exalted level – it is the fellowship of God’s Son. FER refers to having the things before we have the words and I think that this applies here.

I seem to discern believers amongst ban elaboration of Paul’s statement that the Corinthians had been called into the fellowship of God’s Son with which I am uncomfortable. It suggests that this is a calling, which is additional to the call in the gospel, and that there are those who have responded to the call in the gospel but have failed to respond to the call into the fellowship of God’s Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. I don’t accept this. It implies a division in the body of Christ between those who have entered into this fellowship and those who have failed to do so.

There is the intimation, in this point of view, that fellowship is a membership system which is narrower than membership of the body of Christ. It has been ministered that ‘we form an association and all the members of the association are governed by the same thoughts and feelings and ‘All those breaking bread form part of the association, as we all partake of one loaf.’ An inescapable conclusion from these statements is that those members of the body of Christ not breaking bread have no part in this membership system. Fellowship is thus defined as a membership system which is narrower than membership of the body of Christ. This is the definition of a sect.

There is no higher expression of that which Christians have in common, i.e. Christian fellowship, than participation in the breaking of bread but I think that it must be borne in mind that that we do this for a calling of Him to mind, according to His request. To make the breaking of bread the confirmation ritual of membership of a fellowship, which is narrower than membership of the body of Christ, is to degrade it from what was instituted by the Lord.

If, as I believe, fellowship is experience, expressions such as ‘a fellowship’, ‘the fellowship’, ‘in fellowship’ and ‘out of fellowship’ lose their force; they all seem to me to imply membership. We, very simply, walk with others and find fellowship with them as we do so. The scriptural warrant for this, which includes moral and spiritual requirements, is in 2 Tim 2 and 1 John 1.

You refer to FE Raven Vol. 17 p40-41. Also are relevant is Vol. 18, p.63: ‘I have nothing to do with anybody else save to walk with them’ and so on. I have the impression from his ministry in the USA in 1902 that FER had become increasingly concerned with the way in which brethren were institutionalising. My view is that this concern about “brethrenism” was disregarded and accounts for the development of corporatist views of fellowship.

4 comments

  1. I believe you are right in your views expressed here. I have always understood that that is why we do not announce the Lord’s Supper for the next Lord’s Day. Each one comes on his own exercise to remember the Lord. When we gather each time it is a fresh statement of my desire to remember the Lord and it is “with those” others who on their own, without a membership requirement, wish to do the same.

  2. Brother Steve Writes

    Hello, one of the things that I learnt from Mr. Darby was the benefit and accuracy of sticking to biblical terms and expressions. Membership in the body of Christ is the place of every true born again believer in the Lord Jesus Christ as his/ her Saviour from their sins. Members one of another is the very practical & spiritual truth that we are connected and need and should respect and value ( love ) one another.
    So, this membership truth is illuminated by the “ Lord knoweth those that are his “. No membership list any of us could compile could adequately include every member and no non- members. We would surely fail. It’s hard to make it 100% clear, but this membership list is not something we are privy to, so why would anybody even try ? It’s a human attempt at order and regulation. As most know, at most denominations, someone could take part in the Lords Supper and not be a member ! Their membership idea is for voting and choosing.
    Someone in these churches could even have their membership revoked ! – an entirely unscriptural idea !
    Paul addresses to the saints gathered unto the name of the Lord Jesus. And what fellowship has light with darkness. In our group of brethren , “ practical fellowship “ is the term used for those whom we break bread with.
    The man whom Paul told the Corinthians they must put out, was put out of fellowship ( nothing to do with ), but was still most likely a member of the Body of Christ.

  3. My answer to Steve
    I agree wholeheartedly with what you have said. Alas what was started in simplicity in the early 1800’s with men like Darby, Mackintosh, Bevir, Wigram and many other godly men and women has ended up as confused as Christendom in total. . Why such when we have had such clear instruction. The very reasons that Adam and Eve failed – the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh and the pride of life. It is good if we can share Christian experiences – that is fellowship. It is wonderful thing if, as being of the body of Christ, redeemed by the blood of our Lord Jesus, and rejoicing in the gift and power of God’s Holy Spirit we can share things. We can, like the Thessalonians ‘serve the living and true God and wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, even Jesus, which delivered us from the wrath to come’ (1 Thess 1:9-10).

  4. Please forgive the long delay in replying; I’ve no good excuses!

    What I wrote probably reflects my reaction to modes of expression among the circle of brethren where I have found practical fellowship – your phrase, with which I agree – over several decades. I Corinthians 12:12,13 gives the constitution of the body of Christ and I recognise no membership system in the Christian profession other than membership of His body. As we find others with whom we seek to “walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, “ (1 John 1:7) and there is a distinctive expression of this fellowship in participation in the Lord’s Supper.

    Many thanks for your comments. Jude had to address threats to what belongs “to our common salvation” but, in the faithfulness of God, it continues. I’ll use a few words of Jude’s opening salutation in closing: “Mercy to you, and peace, and love be multiplied.”

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