When I was in seminary I was fortunate to receive excellent spiritual mentoring from the pastor whose church I attended. I was theologically sharp, but had a lot to learn about loving people. This was my pastor’s strength, fortunately, and, over time he helped me become better at caring and connecting. During that time, one day, he happened to mention that he did not attend the local ministerial. When I asked why, he said, essentially, that there were theological liberals in it, and he did not want to identify with them. He would hang with his own kind.
Interesting. This began a dialogue in my mind that has continued up to the present. There is a vast theological spectrum in the Christian world including, on the far left, those who have rejected most historically orthodox Christian doctrines, while still retaining parts of its practices and culture, to those on the far right who not only hold firmly to historic Christian orthodoxy, but also just as firmly to the additional traditions and practices distinctive to their group or the denomination. They often see themselves as in the “inner circle” and, in some cases, as the only true church.
We’re a motley bunch, we Christians. What are we supposed to do with one other? What does faithfulness to Christ require? The word “fellowship” comes from the Greek word “koininia” which means “common”. Fellowshipping is sharing something in common. In the case of Christians, our common connection is Christ, but how much agreement is necessary about who Christ is and other associated biblical doctrines is necessary for us to have deep, substantive fellowship; to live as true brothers and sisters in Christ? I have no easy answers, but let me at least raise a few questions to get us thinking.
Why might we hesitate to deeply fellowship with believers outside our group?
1. We hesitate to pursue deep fellowship with outsiders because we’re afraid that it might compromise our doctrinal purity
Our beliefs, and the beliefs of our church or denomination are very important to most of us. We’ve built our spiritual lives on these foundations and hope to be found faithful before the Lord on judgment day based, at least in part, on these beliefs.
What if we associate too closely with others who hold different Christian beliefs and become corrupted by their errors? This isn’t just paranoia, by the way. Both the Old Testament and New Testament contain numerous warnings about false teachers (2 Peter 2:1).
2. We hesitate to pursue deep fellowship with outsiders because it may appear that we condone all that they believe
The very fact that we treat them as a fellow believer and pursue spiritual activities with them can be taken as tacit approval of all that they stand for, even though we may not do so.
3. We hesitate to pursue deep fellowship with outsiders because we find the other groups unappealing
They’re too loud. They’re too quiet. They genuflect. We’re comfortable with the style and practices we’ve grown up with and enjoy their familiarity, and, let’s be honest, their “rightness”. Other distinctively different Christian practices may feel uncomfortable and our if faith is about comfort we resist the necessary stretching.
4. We hesitate to pursue deep fellowship with outsiders because we’re too busy with other priorities
Again, to be candid, many of us don’t even pursue deep fellowship within our own church. We’ve packed our lives with so many other priorities that we limit our fellowship to mainly Sunday morning chatter. And even if we’re more committed, our local church itself can easily engulf all our free time, leaving little time for other believers outside of our group.
5. We hesitate to pursue deep fellowship with outsiders because our Christian life is mostly compartmentalized to church activity
If our Christian life is mainly about our local church activities, and then we set it aside the rest of the week, we lose most opportunities for deep fellowship with other believers since they don’t attend our church. But if we’re actively living Christ during the week with co-workers, neighbors and friends then there are many opportunities for faith intersection
6. We hesitate to pursue deep fellowship with outsiders because we don’t really care that much about the church as a whole
What matters most to us is our own spiritual life and then, if we’re a little more mature, the life and welfare of our church and maybe our denomination. How the Methodists or Baptists are doing is often of little concern to us. That’s their problem. We forget that Christ isn’t fixated just on us or our little group, but cares just as much about the other church down the block. There’s ultimately only one Church.
7. We hesitate to pursue deep fellowship with outsiders because it doesn’t seem necessary
We may accept other groups and even wish them well, but feel as though they’re big boys and girls who don’t or at least shouldn’t need us. This, I suspect, is one reason that the American church is slowly declining. Our rugged American independence is both our strength and our Achilles heel. It allows us to survive as local churches, but robs us of what we can give and receive from different bodies – new insights, combined resources, mutual love and encouragement.
8. We hesitate to pursue deep fellowship with outsiders because we see them as competitors
The attendance at U.S. churches is, for the most part, declining. When churches are growing numerically much of that growth is transfer growth – in other words, people travel from one church to another. Not that much growth comes from new converts or from reaching the unchurched. My people grow dissatisfied and go to your church or vice versa. If your church increases, mine decreases. The noble-minded among us say: “What does it matter? There’s only one Church?” In practical terms it does matter, though. Losing people is discouraging and can, ultimately lead to a church shutting down. You can’t pay the bills and staff ministry without sufficient people and the “universal church” doesn’t supply these.
So it’s hard not to see other churches as competitors, especially the local mega-church with ten acres on the edge of town that’s slowly draining the little churches dry. We just can’t compete with its staffing, programs and facilities.
These are some of the reasons that fellowship between different churches, and between individuals in those churches, is often weak today. Yet I find myself growing increasingly dissatisfied with the status quo. When I read Scripture I find marvelous statements which promise so much more. While there are different locations (Ephesus, Phillipi, Corinth, etc.), there’s only one church. Period. Jesus prayed “that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you.”(John 17:21 This may be the actual case, but in reality, the bride of Christ seems badly splintered, with, at worst, hostility toward each other, and, at best, benign disinterest and territoriality. There are, praise God, notable exceptions. But that’s what they are – exceptions. Is this the best it gets? Can we do better without compromising truth and integrity? Tune in next time.