It’s almost never clear to me what it actually means when someone says, “We don’t ‘fellowship’ with ________.”
On a congregational level, I think this language is most often used in my social and religious circles (traditional churches of Christ) when doctrinal differences between churches reach a level that someone decides that their church can no longer work together or associate with another church. In some cases they may even stop acknowledging that other church is “the Lord’s church” at all, and they might think it would be better for them to disband than to continue to exist. This attitude can spring from just about anything a church is doing that someone thinks is wrong, or “unscriptural”, and from the outside looking in, these divisions can seem extremely minor and petty whether they actually are or not. Does the church use a piano? Does the church allow eating in the building? Does the church teach a particular nuanced understanding of this or that?
Sometimes our differences, however minor they may seem to others, create necessary divisions. If I really believe that 1 Corinthians 11 teaches that God forbids eating together and assembling for worship in the same place, then even if I’m wrong, I can’t join in on such a meal for the sake of my conscience. If I really believe it violates a command of God to use instruments in worship, then even if I’m wrong, I can’t join in with a group worshiping with instruments for the sake of my conscience.
This sort of division can be avoided in some cases. The person who believes it is okay to worship with an instrument can at times choose not to, and in doing so fellowship in song with those opposed to it. The person who believes it’s okay to eat in the church building can likewise associate with and work with a group that is against doing so if they are willing to simply eat somewhere else. Giving up on our preferences is worth our unity. The apostle Paul wrote to a struggling, divided church and said, “If food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble.” That doesn’t mean you have to pretend to agree on everything, or even permenently give up excercising your freedom to eat or worship in a place or a way you believe God is pleased with. We should even be able to discuss these diffences and seek unity in thought on them, without insisting that unity in thought is a prerequisite to all types of fellowship together.
I was part of a small church in Orlando, Florida where this kind of unity was achieved. I think I was too “liberal” to some and too “conservative” to others, but those words soon lost meaning. We are one in Christ. We disagreed on many important things, but we prioritized our unity in Christ and our mission to share his love, and our love for him, with others under the mantra, “LOVE NEVER FAILS”. Always, we remained united in mutual respect, we learned from one another, and we stayed united despite how passionately we sometimes disagreed. We were able to put aside what threatened to divide, respect one another, and have what I think was a huge influence on the lives of those we sought to serve. We experienced great joy and great pain together, and more than I’ve ever experienced with any other church, we became family. This family of mine no longer meets as a church and the circumstances of life have widely dispersed us, but they will be some of the very first people I seek to embrace and rejoice with at the resurrection.
In the Bible the word “fellowship” is a noun, not a verb. It seems to me to be less something we choose to do or not to do based on a blanket judgement made about a person or group, and more something that we have in varied degrees with those who likewise seek to follow and exalt Christ in their lives. John explains what fellowship is all about in his first epistle, especially in the opening chapter. The whole chapter is essential to consider on this subject. Take time to meditate on it. 1 John 1:7 says, “If we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.” Our fellowship fundamentally comes from our common pursuit of Jesus in the midst of our imperfect sinfulness. We are united in our need to humbly submit to the awesome grace of God in his sacrifice of himself.
Jesus’ prevailing desire as he prayed the night before he was murdered was that his followers, then and now, would be one. Let’s seek unity everywhere we can. When we are necessarily divided, let’s strive to show one another the grace we receive from God in our own failings. And please, let’s stop drawing lines of division where they aren’t absolutely unavoidable. Let’s focus on, rejoice in, and share together the fellowship we do have rather than allowing ourselves to be characterized by who we reject. Let’s continually reconsider those things that have been allowed to divide us, and explore ways we can repair what has been broken, or work together in spite of it. Don’t compromise the truth, but recognize your still-imperfect understanding of it and your own desperate need for grace.