“Fellowship” (koinonia transliterated from the Greek language) is a beautiful word in Scripture. It means that people have something in common. In the Bible, fellowship means that people have the most important thing – Jesus – in common. In the same way that every cell of a human body shares the same DNA, every cell of the body of Christ (the Church) holds Christ in common. The Triune God, who is a relationship unto himself, created his body with the intention that all of its members enjoy existing together in fluid harmony since they have so much in common. Christian fellowship is love and sharing and togetherness to be enjoyed.
Unfortunately, the majority of the times I’ve heard the word “fellowship” in my life, it’s been in the context of doctrinal divisions with other church bodies. Our WELS seminary website alone has over 100 essays on the topic, most of which pertain to breaks in fellowship. Now, to be fair, part of the reason that our church body (and Lutheranism in America in general) has a fairly splintered recent history is due to doctrinal differences. The fact that our church body would be a strong advocate for the defense of sound doctrine and write copious amounts of information on breaks in fellowship then seems about as natural as a skin cancer survivor’s desire to be an advocate to raise awareness to the damages of overexposure to the sun. After all, to a large degree, Confessional Lutheranism is THE faith group that ushered in the denominational explosion that we see today (21,000+ Christian denominations worldwide according David Barrett’s book Denominationalism written 30 years ago). Since Luther and others broke from Roman Catholicism at the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, churches have been regularly breaking off from bigger church bodies over doctrinal disagreements. However, as breaks in doctrinal fellowship occurred, the beauty of that word “fellowship” also seemed to disappear.
Enter the 2nd half of the 20th century. Although some successes of the first half of the 20th century led to the birth of the United States as the great global power, there was so much bloodshed, so much sadness in that time, that a longing for togetherness and relationship grew. As the postmodern spirit developed, many good changes arrived – improvements to civil rights for all was a wonderful development. But an element of the postmodern spirit that was potentially destructive to the concept of doctrinal fellowship also began to appear – tolerance. It pervaded American Christianity. And so was born the modern ecumenical movement – a movement that said, “If we have Jesus in common, does it really matter that much if we have all of Jesus’ teachings in common?”
So…..today we’re not going to go through a comprehensive study of fellowship. Doctrinal Fellowship is, by definition, the single most difficult doctrine to understand because it requires an understanding of all of the other doctrines of Scripture as well. What we will try to do today is explain doctrinal fellowship by using one of perhaps the most frequent modern occasions for confusion and offense – participation in a wedding.
The question of “Why can’t Aunt _______ sing at my wedding if she’s not a member of our church body?” (or some form of it) comes up for almost every wedding done nowadays at a WELS church. Again, it’s no surprise that this question comes up so frequently – of course you would want someone who you care about to play a role in one of your most memorable days. That’s only natural. And with thousands of Christian denominations in America, what are the realistic odds that every person will marry someone who has the exact same denominational background? Obviously very slim. Knowing that the question of marriages involving families of different denominational backgrounds will only continue to come up more and more, the doctrine of fellowship is worth understanding and knowing how to put into as simple of terms as possible.
With this specific question – “Why can’t so-and-so sing at my wedding?” – I think one of the difficulties many run into is in understanding what a wedding really is. Culture today suggests that a wedding is a grandiose occasion that you might even hire a planner for and everything has to be just right. At times, it becomes little more than a very formal family get together. So the first thing that couples would need to be reminded of when planning a wedding is that, first and foremost, this is a worship service. If weddings are not worship services, why on earth would we traditionally hold them in a church buildings? Make sense?
With that in mind, all of the normal things that would apply to a typical Sunday morning worship service still apply. For instance, would a Christian church ever ask a Jewish Rabbi to come lead worship on a Sunday morning? Of course not. Why? Because that worship leader would not share a unity in faith with those in the body of believers gathered there. Why would I want someone who doesn’t believe what I believe (from Scripture) to give me spiritual exhortation in worship. Not only does that not make sense but there’s plenty of New Testament admonitions that warn against it (we’ll get there in a minute).
Now, someone might argue that a “Jew and a Christian” is different from a “Christian and another Christian”. That’s absolutely true. Spiritual unity exists between two true Christians, despite denominational differences. Salvation is held in common. Unfortunately, I think this truth has perhaps not always been clearly stated when ministers attempt to defend the biblical teaching of doctrinal fellowship. Again, putting the best construction on it, I believe it has something to do with some natural sensitivities pertaining to the history of this church body and doctrinal splits, but that’s still no excuse. Thanks be to God that our church body is not the only one containing people who recognize Jesus as their Savior from sins and therefore possess saving faith. If we don’t express joy in speaking about the Christian saints that exist in various Christian church bodies around the world, then perhaps we’ve made “doctrine” into a god, and we probably are no better than the stubborn and close-minded people that we are sometimes characterized as by those who do not understand doctrinal fellowship.
All that said, what many fail to recognize is that God doesn’t put a limitation in the New Testament by saying some doctrines are important/inspired and others are not. In fact, he DOES say that “All Scripture is God-breathed” (2 Tim 3:16). Consequently, I simply don’t have the right to say that some doctrines just don’t matter. And if one believer, for instance, confidently proclaims that baptism is something in which primarily God washes away our sins and another believer confidently proclaims that baptism is something that we primarily do to show commitment to God – those are different. Both parties can’t be right. There is not complete unity there. Now, both can still be believers. After all, anyone who knows Jesus as their Lord and Savior from sins is a child of God and in the end will be united in heaven. But, if there’s a sure difference of doctrine, the Bible is clear that a separation from fellowship is necessary.
After laying out 16 verses of expressing his joy in the fellowship (used in a positive sense) that he has with the Roman Christians, the Apostle Paul also says to them, “I urge you, brothers and sisters, 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.” (Romans 16:17) This is a theme that runs through the entire New Testament, since from the beginning of the Christian Church, Satan was working to tear it apart with false teaching. (note also: 1 Timothy 4:1-6; 2 Timothy 3:1-9, 4:3-4; Titus 3:10).
Now the argument is often made that the main false teachings that the Apostle Paul warns against in the New Testament are directly related to the chief doctrines that pertain to salvation. In other words, when Paul is talking about not worshiping together with people who don’t confess the same doctrine, those people are denying things like salvation through Jesus’ work or the fact that Jesus truly was true God or true man – essential issues to distinctly Christian faith. Therefore, when it comes to differences in opinion over the length of Creation, roles of men and women, an understanding of the Sacraments, beliefs about the End Times, and other “lesser” doctrines, maybe these issues aren’t big enough to warrant a separation of believers.
Well, it’s true that many (and the most destructive) of the false teachings that Paul warns about pertain directly to essential beliefs of the Christian faith such as salvation by grace and faith in Christ alone. But not all of his warnings are about such things. Here’s a list of other reasons Paul gives to break fellowship with a person or group:
- 2 Timothy 2:18 – denial of the resurrection of the body
- Revelation 2 & 3, Jude 1:3-4 – allowing Christ’s forgiveness to be used as a license to sin
- 1 Timothy 4:3 – forbidding marriage and prohibiting certain foods
- Titus 3:9 – quarrels about genealogies and the law
This list gives us enough information to understand that “doctrinal fellowship” or what we might call “worship fellowship” in the New Testament was seen as more than just knowing who Jesus was and believing what he did. Saying “Well we have Jesus in common so doctrinal unity doesn’t matter all that much” doesn’t appear to be a defensible concept in the New Testament.
Let’s bring this back to our practical example of inviting someone outside of our church body to sing a solo in worship: Ultimately, the doctrine of fellowship indicates that we should worship with, and be united to, those of similar faith. Therefore, as a pastor, for instance, it wouldn’t make much sense for me to unite myself in a worship service with another person who is recognized as a worship leader (like a soloist – who is also proclaiming God’s Word) in that service if I don’t share the same confession of faith with that person.
Weddings are obviously joyous occasions. I certainly have no desire to squelch anyone’s enthusiasm as they plan for the big day. But, I’m a confessional Lutheran pastor. By conscience and biblical fellowship, I can only lead a confessional Lutheran worship service. Some couples understand this. Others don’t.
In all honesty, I’m not always convinced that our current format for public worship best communicates the doctrine of fellowship clearly. In the early Christian church it appears that it was standard practice for non-confirmands (i.e. non-members) to be dismissed from the house church after the sermon. At that point, acts of worship that were distinctly acts expressing unity of faith – joint prayer, joint praise, creeds, offering collections, and of course, Holy Communion – were celebrated as a body of believers that confessed doctrinal truth together. This is a little different from today, when we invite anyone and everyone to public worship, encourage them to participate in prayer, praise, and even contribute offerings with us, and then say “NO” when it comes time for the Lord’s Supper and our explanation is “because you’re not in fellowship with us”. Visitors become confused perhaps not because the doctrine is complex as much as because our practice appears a little confusing.
I don’t know as that we’re ready to change the full procedure of our normal Sunday worship experience at this time or even that we should. What I would like to see, however, is continued education on how to communicate doctrinal fellowship in simple terms. So, I’d like to offer a suggestion. If someone asks, “Why can’t Aunt _______ sing at my wedding if she’s not a member of our church body?”, maybe start with this…
I would begin by assuring the person asking the question that I believe that EVERYONE who confesses Jesus as their Savior from sins will be in heaven. If Aunt __________ confesses that too, I’m thrilled that she will be my sister in heaven. You MUST let the questioner know the that reasoning of Aunt ___________ not singing has nothing to do with her personal worth or your judgment on her character. After that, I’d lead them through these brief steps:
1) We believe that the entire Bible is the inspired Word of God, and therefore we don’t have the right to add or subtract from it, or dispense with some doctrines as “unimportant” or “irrelevant” to the discussion of fellowship. (Revelation 22:18-19)
2) The Bible encourages us to unite in worship with those who practice the same teaching as us (rejoice in fellowship) and stay away from worship with those who practice what we believe to be false teaching (break in fellowship). (Romans 16:17)
3) If two worshipers (or worship leaders) do not have a unity in what they believe, how can they unite in worship if they truly respect God’s warnings concerning point #2? (logical conclusion)
Personally, I cannot wait until heaven and not just because we’ll all understand the doctrine of fellowship and I won’t struggle to make long bullet-point lists of explanation :). I can’t wait because it’ll be my first experience of perfect fellowship. I’m thankful for the many wonderful relationships God has blessed me with in this life – friends, family, spouse. But none of them is perfect. In heaven I will know perfect relationship. I will be in perfect relationship. I will be in true fellowship.
For further reading on the topic, I’d recommend Dr. John Brug’s essay “The Biblical Doctrine of the Church”, which can be found @ http://www.wlsessays.net/node/286