Author: Ron Graham
Fellowship among Christians has a certain basis. People who have a common purpose, work on the same premise, and follow the same principles, will be in fellowship. If these people have the same purpose as Christ, work on the same premise as Christ, and follow the same principles as Christ, then they will be in fellowship with Christ as well as with one another.
Paul loved the Christians in Philippi, and was in full fellowship with them. This was largely because they shared with Paul a common purpose. Paul says, "In the defense and confirmation of the gospel you are partakers of grace with me" (Philippians 1:7). Paul’s purpose and theirs was to discover the gospel, believe the gospel, preach the gospel, practise the gospel, be saved by the gospel, and preserve the gospel. The Philippians were partakers, or fellowshippers with Paul in that purpose.
Why does disunity, or at best a shallow fellowship, exist between denominations? It's because each denomination has a different purpose and these purposes clash; they are barriers to fellowship. The purpose of each denomination is mainly to promote itself and to make Christians of its own brand with its own unique features.
The car companies, such as Holden, Ford, and Mazda, exist to make and sell their own cars, not cars in general or each other’s cars. They might participate together in a motor show, or in a seminar on making cars safer. But each company’s purpose is to manufacture and promote its own brand. In the same way the denominations, such as Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, and Seventh Day Adventists, exist to make and promote their brand of Christian. And which among their brands is better than the Christian Jesus makes? And which has his authority and blessing? When Paul and the Philippians achieved Christ’s purpose, they had his authority and blessing. But never did they purpose to make a Roman Catholic, a Presbyterian, a Seventh Day Adventist.
Faced with this obvious fact, why don't denominational folk give up being denominational and join Paul, the Philippians, and Jesus Christ himself, in the purpose of making unbranded Christians and promoting and preaching only the gospel? Jesus commands these folk to go into the world and preach the gospel (Mark 16:15-16). So what do they do? They go into the world and preach Roman Catholicism, Presbyterianism, or Seventh Day Adventism, according to their loyalties. Jesus commands them to make disciples among all nations (Matthew 28:18-20). So what do they do? They make Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, and Seventh Day Adventists.
Some will retort, “Well you Church-of-Christers do the same; you preach church of Christ tradition and make Church-of-Christers. Who are you to criticise?” These folk know full well that anyone who wants to can accomplish exactly what Paul and the Philippians did. Why deny it's being done? Whatever a Church-of-Christer is, I refuse to be one or to make one. My purpose is to be a Christian, to belong to Christ’s church, and to help others do the same. That was Paul’s purpose just as it was the purpose of Jesus himself for all his disciples. I have fellowship in that purpose with thousands of other unbranded Christians. Furthermore by following this purpose we put no barrier to fellowship against any disciple of Christ.
It is impossible to have fellowship with others unless our faith rests on the same premise as theirs. That premise is that the scriptures are our only authority and are sufficient authority (2Timothy 3:16-17). The scriptures inspired by God provide our doctrine and lead us to be fully adequate as people of God. We need no more gospel than the scriptures teach us. Those who want more, and those who want less, thereby create barriers to fellowship. In contrast, those who rest their faith on the scriptures only, and all that the scriptures teach, are able, on that premise, to have full fellowship in Christ.
There's an advertisement on TV showing people drawing extra bits and pieces on a house plan, changing the garage, adding an observation deck, and making several whimsical changes. Apparently the building company is happy for customers to redraw the standard plan. The company will build the house as the customer dictates, insofar as that is practical and possible. Is the Lord’s church like that? Did he give us a standard plan but one that we can change according to our wish and whim? Is he happy to build his church how we want it? Or does he build his church his way (Matthew 16:18)?
The church is built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone (Ephesians 2:20) The writings of the apostles and prophets furnish us with the plan and description of the church. That premise is fully adequate, and we do not need to alter it, and indeed must not.
Whilst people can rarely agree on everything, there are always certain principles that they must agree on if they would have full and unbroken fellowship. For example, two members of parliament may comfortably differ on whether the speaker of the house should wear a wig. But if one believes in democracy, whilst the other believes in dictatorship, their fellowship would be limited, and I doubt you'd find them in the same party.
Likewise among Christians there will be differences that don't test their fellowship; and there will be differences that make any deep fellowship impossible. There are certain principles in which we must have fellowship and agreement, if our fellowship is to be anything more than a sham. I will just mention one such principle as an example —the principle of salvation by faith.
Everyone holds that we are saved by faith, and without faith it is impossible to please God (Hebrews 11:6). Some, however, hold passionately to the principle of salvation by “ faith alone” whilst others hold to the principle of salvation by “obedience of faith”. We note in passing that James denied salvation by faith alone (James 2:24), and Paul urged the obedience of faith (Romans 1:5). The issue is not whether faith leads to obedience. The issue is whether obedience is essential like faith; or whether only faith is essential.
This issue always seems to become a question of whether baptism is essential to salvation. It never seems to become a question of whether repentance from sin and confession of Christ are essential (Acts 3:19, Romans 10:9). So we will concentrate on the principle of “baptism for remission of sins” (Acts 2:38).
One person holds that believers are saved without baptism, and that baptism is not necessary to be saved. Another person holds that believers must be baptized in order to be saved. You can see that this is a vital question, especially because each assigns a different purpose to baptism. One says baptism is an optional sign of forgiveness already received. The other says that forgiveness of sins is received in baptism which makes baptism necessary.
Here you have in view two different faiths and two different baptisms. There's the faith that requires nothing else to make it save. There's a faith that is dead unless accompanied by obedience. Which is the true faith and which is bogus? There's the baptism that is not necessary to salvation, and the baptism which brings one into Christ and his death. Which is the true baptism and which is bogus? We can't have two faiths and two baptisms that are valid. Our fellowship and unity depend on "One Lord, one faith, one baptism..." (Ephesians 4:4-6).
If there is going to be true fellowship, it can only come from mutual commitment and adherence to the principles and "form of doctrine" given us by Christ (Romans 6:17-18). Whether it be baptism for the remission of sins or other important principles, we must not abandon the principles to get the fellowship. Rather, we must embrace the principles to get the fellowship, otherwise the fellowship isn't worth having.