We need to distinguish friendship from fellowship

I, like most believers, have friends from all different walks of life. Some are Christians and some are not. I have friends with all sorts of different views and opinions to me. I have African, Asian and American friends. I have Muslim, Jewish and Atheist friends. I have Labour, Liberal and Tory friends, as well as friends who follow a range of others and some who resolutely remain unaffiliated. I have friends from Oldham and friends from other places. I have university education friends and non-university educated friends. I have working class and middle class friends. For most people, this is relatively normal.

All of these people (and plenty of others beside) I would gladly meet up with. I would go for coffee, have a chat, help them with stuff and they would help me with stuff. We might go to the same places together, hang out together, enjoy each other’s company. We do all the usual things friends might do. It doesn’t really matter that we all think different things, have different backgrounds and experiences, it doesn’t really impact our friendship. Most Christians today would consider this a good thing.

But as much as I like all my friends, I do not have Christian fellowship with them. That is obvious enough when it comes to my imam friend. We like each other. We eat together. We chat together. We help each other out from time to time. But neither he nor I thinks we are in fellowship together. When our respective congregations come together – and we do this every month – it is never for the purposes of shared worship or mutual Christian fellowship. How could it be! It is always for the purpose of talking together and sharing our respective beliefs in the expressed knowledge that we think very different things and would dearly like each other to start believing the things we already do. We do that as friends. But we aren’t having fellowship.

Some people find it a little harder to grasp with my Catholic friends. Aren’t we all Christians? Well, however you slice it, we have some pretty fundamental differences over the gospel and so – whatever you want to call us – we are practising different religions. But I have Catholic friends I would meet, talk to, am friendly with, eat with, and all that. But when we do that – as glad as I am to call them friends – we are not having fellowship together. Certainly not in the sense the Bible would understand.

What about people who attend my church but who I do not consider to be believers? What about those in my church who claim to love Jesus but are not in church membership? They may come and sit under the Word most weeks and engage in the prayers. I really like quite a lot of these guys. I find them friendly. I get on well with them. I enjoy chatting with them at the back of church. But am I in fellowship with them? Ultimately, we have to say no. Because friendship and fellowship are not the same thing. Being friendly, and liking people, and spending a bit of time with them, is also not fellowship.

Now, let’s be clear, I think there may be issues with our understanding of fellowship if it doesn’t stretch to a level of friendliness too. I can’t very well say I’m in fellowship with someone I hate. John is clear that we cannot say we love God and yet hate our brother. That does not compute. Sometimes, our fellowship might be lacking. But we would be totally wrong to suggest that having a cup of tea and being friendly is the essence of fellowship.

Fellowship, as I understand it, is about partnership. So, I am in fellowship with the members of my church because we have formally committed together to hold each other accountable to our walk in the Lord Jesus. We have formally committed together to encourage each other to maturity. We have formally committed together to be about the work of making-disciples that Jesus gives us to do. There is a formal commitment and partnership among the members of my church.

Similarly, I might be in fellowship with other churches. My church belongs to the Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches. That is a gospel partnership of Independent churches across the UK who all subscribe to the same gospel who are committing to reach the UK for the cause of Christ. By belonging to it we are expressing a level of partnership and fellowship with the churches therein. This is the case for any denomination of gospel partnership. Our joining together under this umbrella, however it is conceived, it an expression of fellowship in the gospel. There is a sense of shared value, commitment to gospel priorities and linkage together on some level.

Fellowship is to do with partnership in the gospel. Of course, there are different forms of partnership. What we have come to term “partnership” very often carries with it a greater sense of commitment than our term “fellowship”. I think that is okay. Because fellowship, in essence, is saying we share the same gospel commitments and we recognise each other more formally as gospel churches. Partnership might imply more active fellowship and engagement in joint ventures, sharing resources, praying for one another more meaningfully. But in essence, my fellowship with another church is a recognition that we serve the Lord and subscribe to the same gospel and could, at least theoretically, work together in some way in that cause. Our partnerships thereafter might vary.

But simply put, I would see friendship differently to fellowship. Friendship is not dependent on any shared commitments whereas fellowship is. I can, theoretically, be friends with anybody, I cannot have fellowship with anybody. Friendship is not an affirmation of another person and their views of itself, fellowship involves an affirmation of shared convictions and values. Friendship doesn’t make any specific demands, fellowship implies a level of partnership that might demand something (albeit something small and minimal much of the time). Friendship is typically not bounded, whereas fellowship centres around distinct values. These are some of the differences I see.

In a recent blog post, I looked at the Church of England vote to allow prayers of blessing in churches for those who have entered into same-sex marriages and civil partnerships. You can read here what I suggested will likely need to happen, particularly as far as dissenting churches are concerned, in light of this. In a number of places, I spoke about fellowship. The fellowship we will not have with, for example, Roman Catholics. The fellowship that has become untenable between us and Methodism. In light of this vote in General Synod, I was speaking about the possibility of fellowship between dissenting and Church of England churches. There I noted:

[A]s a nonconformist, I think the only course of action is, if we do not see clear and evident moves out fairly quickly, to begin withdrawing fellowship ourselves. If Church of England ministers do not see that they are compromised by remaining and do not make moves to formally withdraw, nonconformity will necessarily begin to withdraw from you. This is not a matter of secondary separation of whom you are willing to entertain in fellowship, but a first degree matter of what you are now affirming by continuing to belong. As my friend rightly put it, ‘To do nothing now as a local church/minister in the CoE you are saying I am OK with my church/ministry being based on a gospel that includes blessing sin. I don’t think I could have fellowship with a church or minister who made that call. It’s not secondary, it’s primary, because they’re happy to redefine the gospel.’

But it strikes me that it is important that we define what we mean by fellowship, because it is so easily misconstrued and misunderstood.

It bears saying, I am not suggesting that this vote means we cannot be friendly towards those who remain as individuals. I am not suggesting we have to shun them and refuse to even speak to them. Very rarely are calls for shunning biblical. The point is, if I can meet up for coffee with an imam or a Catholic priest, there doesn’t seem to be any reason I couldn’t do that with a Church of England minister who chooses to remain in that denomination. These are the things of being friendly, not the things of fellowship.

Nor does broken fellowship imply that a person is necessarily not a believer. I am certain there are Roman Catholics who, despite the official teaching they receive, are genuine believers. Most people I know would affirm it is possible to be a believer and a Roman Catholic. What they question is whether it is possible to be faithful in such a position. Though it is possible one might be a believer, due to the compromise involved by remaining therein, most would say that we cannot have meaningful fellowship. Similarly, there are those who would withdraw fellowship over all sorts of doctrinal matters that, whilst denying them on their own do not necessarily mean you don’t belong to the kingdom, are serious enough to make gospel partnership extremely difficult and meaningful fellowship all but impossible.

When it comes to our Church of England friends, with whom we might currently be in fellowship and active partnerships, we have to begin having these same conversations. It does not mean we cannot be friendly. It does not mean that we cannot ever speak to them. It does not mean we have definitively determined – as if it were within our paygrade – that they are reprobate. It doesn’t mean any of these things necessarily.

But it does mean that gospel partnership is necessarily impaired. It means we cannot have formal fellowship with those who, as we might judge it, are not compromised if they remain where they are. The implications concerning formal fellowship are just that; formal. It does not mean informal friendship nor a desire to pray for you suddenly disappears. Those things exist with people who are clear and self-professed un believers.

Rather, it means we may not be able to formally associate our churches together in gospel partnership. We may not be able to send our people to training colleges under the auspices of bishops who have officially adopted an unfaithful stance and are associating their church with it. We may not be able to work together in the planting of churches. We may not be able to share resources. We may not be able to send people together. We may not be able to publicise each other’s activities in any formal sense. We may not feel comfortable directing people to churches that would be aligning themselves to a church that is allowing gospel-denying sin to be called acceptable and blessed. For some of us who need support, it means we may not be able to accept money and workers from churches who might want a say in how it is utilised. For some of us, these things will have significant implications and we will have to count the cost of our own understanding of what it means to be faithful.

But is important to be clear what we mean when we say withdrawing fellowship. We do not mean ceasing to be personally friendly or cutting all contact with longstanding friends. It does not mean shunning individual people. It means not being able to have formal gospel partnerships. It means not being able to work together in the gospel unless and until there is meaningful separation. It means the help we offer will not come at the cost of our own faithfulness but will likely take the form of offering viable routes out of the situation faithful Church of England minister will almost certainly want to be out of. We can offer friendly help to leave so that we can continue in godly fellowship and gospel partnership. To help with that, we may not be able to remain in fellowship with those who insist on staying put.