The Gospel and Christian Fellowship
Unity is always a function of that which unites. In order to be unified, people must be united by something. That something defines the character or quality of their unity. Whatever unity exists will always reflect the properties of the thing that creates it.
Fellowship (koinonia) is something that is held in common. When nothing is held in common, no fellowship exists. The thing that is held in common always defines the nature or character of whatever fellowship is experienced.
People enjoy different kinds of fellowship or unity. People who hold joint title to property have fellowship in that property. People who share a common interest in horses or stamps have fellowship as equestrians or philatelists. People who share the same political principles will experience a kind of unity in their politics.
None of these forms of fellowship or unity is Christian. People can be united by all sorts of things. They can give their loyalty to any person, program, or activity. When they do, they will be united by the thing to which they are loyal. They will fellowship in that thing. But their unity and fellowship will not necessarily be Christian.
What constitutes Christian unity? This question has both a minimal and a maximal answer. Maximally, the fullest Christian unity and fellowship are enjoyed when God’s people share the whole counsel of God. Unfortunately, Christians disagree quite regularly about some aspects of God’s counsel. Therefore, maximal unity and fellowship are often hindered.
Minimally, Christian unity is created by the gospel. All Christians hold the gospel in common. They fellowship in the gospel. The gospel unites them. This is fundamental Christian unity.
To say that the fellowship or unity of the gospel is “minimal” is not to suggest that it is insignificant or unimportant. To the contrary, it is absolutely crucial. Unless people hold the gospel in common, they cannot enjoy any species of Christian unity. The gospel is the fundamental component in constituting Christian fellowship. All those and only those who have received the true gospel enjoy Christian unity and fellowship.
Someone may object that Christian unity is created by following Christ, by hearing His voice, and by responding to Him (as in the image of the flock, John 10). That is true! The gospel is nothing but the message about the Shepherd, about Who He is, and about what He has done for His sheep. Therefore, no one can have Christ who will not have the gospel. To receive the gospel is to receive Christ. To reject the gospel is to reject Him.
Someone else may suggest that real Christian unity is created by the work of the Holy Spirit, Who baptizes all believers into one body (1 Cor. 12:13). That is true! Since (as Paul says) we are all baptized into one body, it necessarily follows that the Spirit performs His baptizing work at the moment we believe, and what we believe is the gospel. In other words, all those and only those who have received the gospel are baptized by the Holy Spirit into the body of Christ.
However we look at the question, Christian unity always is created by and revolves around the gospel. Only those who believe the gospel are properly the subjects of Christian unity. Only those who have received the gospel are in a position to enjoy Christian fellowship.
This creates a problem for us, however. Sometimes people make false professions, and we cannot examine people’s hearts to tell whether they have genuinely received the gospel. We have no infallible mechanism for determining who is truly following Jesus, who has been baptized by the Spirit, and who is a fitting subject for Christian unity and fellowship. God alone knows the heart.
What we are permitted—and even commanded—to do is to judge people’s professions. We cannot tell whether a person truly possesses faith in the gospel, but we can tell whether she or he professes faith in the true gospel. Even though we make no pretence of judging the heart, we must evaluate each person’s profession. When we do that, we must be governed by one, simple dictum: we must never recognize anyone as a Christian who denies the true gospel.
The legitimacy of this dictum ought to be obvious. Muslims deny the gospel, so we must not recognize Muslims as Christians. (Incidentally, this does not imply that we should treat Muslims as inferior human beings.) Buddhists deny the gospel, so we must not recognize Buddhists as Christians. So far, so good.
But what about people who say they are Christians while denying the gospel? Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses claim to be Christians, but the message they preach is a direct denial of the biblical gospel. The messages of these cults clearly fall under the rubric of “another gospel of a different kind.” Paul clearly pronounces an anathema on people who proclaim a different gospel. In other words, when people preach a message that contradicts the true gospel, we must never recognize them as Christians, even when they name the name of Christ.
The gospel is news. The gospel is events. The gospel is the right explanation of the events. The gospel includes certain teachings that are assumed in or directly implied by those explanations. Those teachings are essential to the gospel. They are fundamental.
Whoever denies a teaching that is fundamental to the gospel is denying the gospel itself. Such an individual must never be recognized as a Christian. Such a person should never be featured as a Christian leader. Such a person is never a suitable subject of Christian cooperation. To pretend that fellowship or unity exists with such a person is deceitful, hypocritical, and scandalous.
It has been suggested that we practice ecclesiastical separation because we are concerned about the purity of the church. Strictly speaking, that is not true. We practice ecclesiastical separation because we are concerned about the purity of the gospel. Christian fellowship and unity are created by the gospel, and they cannot exist when the gospel is denied.
John Donne (1572-1631)
Father of Heaven, and him, by whom
It, and us for it, and all else, for us
Thou madest, and govern’st ever, come
And re-create mee, now growne ruinous:
My heart is by dejection, clay,
And by selfe-murder, red.
From this red earth, O Father, purge away
All vicious tinctures, that new fashioned
I may rise from death, before I’m dead.
O Sonne of God, who seeing two things,
Sinne, and death crept in, which were never made,
By bearing one, tryed’st with what stings
The other could thy heritage invade;
O be thou nail’d unto my heart,
And crucified againe,
Part not from it, though it from thee would part,
But let it be, by applying so thy paine,
Drown’d in thy blood, and in thy passion slaine.
The Holy Ghost
O Holy Ghost, whose temple I
Am, but of mudde walls, and condensed dust,
And being sacrilegiously
Halfe wasted with youths fires, of pride and lust,
Must with new stormes be weatherbeat;
Double in my heart thy flame,
Which let devout sad teares intend; and let
(Though this glasse lanthorne, flesh, do suffer maime)
Fire, Sacrifice, Priest, Altar be the same.
O Blessed glorious Trinity,
Bones to Philosophy, but milke to faith,
Which, as wise serpents, diversly
Most slipperinesse, yet most entanglings hath,
As you distinguish’d undistinct
By power, love, knowledge bee,
Give mee a such selfe different instinct
Of these; let all mee elemented bee,
Of power, to love, to know, you unnumbred three.
|This essay is by Dr. Kevin T. Bauder, president of Central Baptist Theological Seminary (Plymouth, MN). Not every professor, student, or alumnus of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.|