Fellowship in Closing Days
A “circle of fellowship”…stands condemned, in my judgment, on the following grounds:
It is sectarian: It is a unity that falls short of “the unity of the spirit;” a “with us” that is unknown to Scripture, and which breeds the most improper feelings in the heart toward those not included in it (Eph. 4:3; Luke 9:49, 50). With what recklessness are the most serious charges hurled by those in the different circles against each other, in the earnest endeavour to prove that their own particular circle is the only true one!
It dishonours the name of the Lord: Such is our present condition, that His peerless name is not sufficient to secure us an entrance into the different companies of saints; for the names of men have to be used instead, or in addition. It is painfully common for saints to say, “I am in fellowship with So and So,” and to be received on that ground.
It involves us in independency; Within each circle the deepest interest is taken in all that transpires, and the discipline of every affiliated assembly is universally owned. But it is a most exceptional thing for any work of God’s Spirit outside of the circle to receive the smallest recognition from those within; it is still more exceptional for the discipline, however godly, of any “unaccredited” assembly to be recognized in any way,. Thus it frequently happens that persons who have been put away from one “circle of fellowship” are welcomed triumphantly into an antagonistic circle.
It destroys faith; i.e., in ecclesiastical matters. It is impossible for the rank and file of God’s saints to adequately weigh the evidence produced by each party in defence of its position, with the result that, in the majority of cases, the word of a favourite leader is accepted as a quietus for the conscience. (Should the fellowship of the Church of God depend upon a right understanding of controversial pamphlets?) It is a well-known fact that frequently saints belonging to opposite parties are quite unable to tell each other, in private conversation, why they worship apart. Where is faith in this? “Whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23).
It neutralizes conscience: In 1 Timothy 2, which chapter all agree furnishes us with special instruction for the last days, each individual saint is called upon to separate himself from iniquity, and to “follow righteousness, faith, love, peace, with them that call on the Lord out of a pure heart.” This lays each one under responsibility to pick his way carefully through the ruin, and charges him to discriminate as to the company he keeps. (Pastoral counsel may come to the aid of the inexperienced in the practical carrying out of this principle; ,… but this is quite a different thing from that which is objected to … usurped authority over the conscience.) This course, when rightly followed, keeps the conscience in constant exercise before God. The “circle of fellowship” idea leaves no room for this.
Each person is furnished with a printed list of meetings to which he may go, nay, to which he is required to go when in their locality, whatever may be their condition. The holder of the list, knowing the serious consequences that would result from going outside its limitations, invariably pockets his conscience, closes his eyes to the disagreeable facts when they came before him, and walks submissively according to his human rule.
It involves us in fellowship with evil: Alas, how much evil has been tolerated for the sake of unity! If a party leader falls into bad ways, or into unsound doctrine, what happens? As a public rupture would probably be the result of attempting to reach such an one with scriptural discipline, the offense is frequently screened and palliated, and a whole confederacy of assemblies is banded in permanent fellowship with evil. It was regarded as a greater sin for Dr. C. to break bread outside the “circle” at R. than to have worshipped with an assembly which was notoriously… “unclean.” To have fellowship with such evil might not be considered desirable; but to go outside the “circle” was an unpardonable offense, involving the most extreme punishment.
I am conscious that the foregoing constitutes a heavy indictment; but is it heavier than it is just? Has not party strife rent the hearts of thousands of God’s saints, destroyed the usefulness of many valuable servants of Christ, and wrecked the happiness of multitudes of Christian homes? “Shall the sword devour forever?” Is it not time for us to discover the root of these evils, and judge it as sin before God?
Many godly souls feel the gravity of all this, but the question is frequently heard: “In view of the fact that the various defined circles exist, and will doubtless continue to exist, what is to be done?” Before giving an answer to this question, it is important to clear the way a little. We must cease to be frightened by mere names. For more than 50 years, saints have been accustomed to the terms “open” and “exclusive brethren.” (In more recent years many other strange designations have come into use. — Editor) These titles, when they originally came into use, were understood to mean that the one class of brethren was lax, and the other stringent in dealing with evil. But the titles have long since ceased to be descriptive of those to whom they are applied. On the one hand, we sometimes see “Exclusive” brethren stoutly defending heterodoxy, and at other times excusing moral depravity, when the offender happens to be a favourite leader; on the other hand, we frequently find “open brethren” firm in their rejection of evil doctrines and ways, and sometimes even carrying their zeal so far as to reject really godly people, solely because they do not apprehend their ground of meeting. All this being true, we must cease to concern ourselves with names, and deal with facts.
To return to our question… The answer is really very simple. Let us judge, as sin before God, our recognition of parties hitherto, laying aside the prejudices with which others have filled our minds, and let us recognize the work of God’s Spirit wherever we see it. When our fellow-saints come to us, let it no longer be a question as to what “circle of fellowship” they belong, but let us seek to ascertain how they stand personally in relation to Christ and His Word. Further, when we find a company of saints professedly gathered to the Lord’s Name, let us inquire if they are morally and doctrinally pure… If we are able to satisfy ourselves in these important respects, let us thankfully own them… irrespective of names and parties. I suppose no one would pretend, on the one hand, that any one party includes within its borders all the godly; nor, on the other hand, that all those in other parties are unfit for Christian communion. This being so, we can only follow out the holy requirements of 2 Timothy 2:22 by a policy of careful discrimination on the right hand and on the left.
Will any assert that new principles are here being advocated? Far from this being the case, the principles here laid down are the old ones —those that “brethren” learned from God at the beginning of their testimony. It is because we have so grievously departed from our original simplicity that God, in His governmental dealings, has permitted so much sorrow and shame to come upon us… By all the distress that has come upon us, God has been calling us back to the simple ground from which we have (perhaps unconsciously in many cases) departed.
Shall we not hear His voice? The Spirit might well say to us, as to the Galatians: “Have ye suffered so many things in vain?” (Gal. 3:4). Though we shall never again have things as they were at the beginning of the Church’s history, nor even as they were three quarters of a century ago, we may still receive much gracious blessing from the Lord, for His Spirit remains with us yet, unchanged in power and grace. But ere we can receive fresh favours from His hand we must confess our sinful departure from His truth, our ungracious treatment of one another, and our failure to perform our mission to the Church at large. “To the Lord our God belong mercies and forgivenesses, though we have rebelled against Him” (Dan. 9:9). “To this man will I look, even to him that is poor and of a contrite spirit, and trembleth at My Word” (Isaiah 64:2).