Is all non-fellowship the same? Is there any category of “lack of participation” that is not “separation”?
There are some who argue that all fellowship is non-separation, and all separation is non-fellowship. In other words, there are two categories: fellowship and separation. To the degree that we are in fellowship, we are not separated. To the degree that we are not in fellowship, we are separated. This idea is based on the idea that fellowship is things held in common. Where we hold things in common, we are in fellowship. Where we do not hold things in common, we are not in fellowship.
There are others who strongly object to this because it does not leave room for simple non-participation without censure.
I have typically been of the first position, and I have great sympathy for it. Some might even say fellowship. I do think that all non-fellowship is some sort of separation. But I am almost persuaded (cue the invitation hymn) that a two-option position is unworkable because it does not leave room for simply non-participation.
Let’s take, for instance, a pastor in California. I won’t name him, but the guy I am thinking of is a graduate of the same seminary I went to, and he has planted a church in California. Are we fellowshipping or separated?
The answer is neither. I have nothing to do with him, not because we disagree, but because we are separated by a few thousand miles. I know the guy, and have talked to him at a few conferences. I like him. I think he is a doing a great work and rejoice about it. But we have no fellowship. However, several local pastor friends (who may or may not claim me as a friend) do have ministry fellowship with this individual. They have sent money, people, and resources to help. They have even had him to preach at their church.
With this good brother, there is no censure. I do not need to rebuke him, call him to obedience, or expose him for some dastardly compromise. I know of no reason to. But neither do I need to pretend that we have fellowship. If we did, “fellowship” would have no meaning that I can see.
Let’s take, for another instance, some pastor who subscribes to what I believe unbiblical positions, and let’s say that he has some influence in my realm of influence. I don’t have any fellowship with him and I can’t really separate from him (because we weren’t together to begin with), but I need to say something in terms of correction or rebuke for the sake of those in my ministry sphere who are being influenced by him. It’s neither fellowship nor separation, so far as I can see. But there is some public statement of caution.
Let’s take, for one last instance, some pastor with whom I have participated in the past but who has now embraced some positions that I think are clearly unbiblical. (I have no friends in this category that I can think of at the moment.) Now that he has embraced these unbiblical positions, I must act. Depending on the severity and visibility of the positions, I may have varying responses.
Let’s say that he has been a regular speaker at my church, and he has now embraced a local flood. I may simply stop having him come, and privately tell him why.
Let’s say that he has switched to being a paedobaptist, which I say, to the chagrin of some of my friends, is no baptism at all. Our churches are close and we now must stop doing some of the things that we have done together. I may have a more public response because it marks a distinct and public change in his church.
Let’s say that he has embraced baptismal regeneration. That is different than being a paedobaptist, or embracing a global flood. That is a clear denial of the gospel that makes participation in ministry disobedience. It requires public rebuke to the degree that he is an influence in my sphere of ministry. (However, I don’t feel the need to rebuke some small church in Texas for embracing baptismal regeneration.)
Let’s say that he has joined up in an ecumenical evangelistic effort. Now my response will be public. It will be a public censure because it is a community wide issue where the church’s name is published as a supporter of a public effort in ministry. I cannot stay silent and let people think that we agree. My non-participation is inadequate, I think. A private conversation will not suffice. I must do more.
My point in all of this is to say that I think at one level, all non-fellowship means that we are separated. But not all separation is equal.
Some separation is merely practical (e.g., distance). Some separation may be philosophical (e.g., different styles of ministry). Some separation may be theological (e.g., global flood, baptism, ecumenism).
In all of these cases, I should respond differently. Some things are merely “agree to disagree.” Others are “censurable,” which is to say we do not merely agree to disagree; we expose and publicly rebuke.
Again, I urge caution based on humility and grace.
At one level, I urge fear—fear that we might take a stand that proves to be the wrong one.
At another level, I urge boldness—boldness to stand and contend earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.
Let us treat our body kindly and have a tendency towards skepticism in our understanding. Let us be learners and students.
Let us be humbled by the gospel while at the same time being emboldened by it.
Let us pursue fellowship where we can. Let us embrace separation only where we must.