Building on my previous post regarding the purity of the gospel, I want to raise two additional questions regarding fellowship and separation.
The first question is this: Can we have fellowship (meaning ministry participation) with those outside the gospel?
The answer is unequivocally “No.” We cannot reach across the lines of the gospel to participate in ministry with those who deny the gospel because whatever we do with them is not “Christian” ministry. Furthermore, we send a false message that they are Christians when we try to establish “Christian” ministry with someone who is not a Christian.
By the way, I am speaking here specifically of participating in ministry. I am not speaking of a “community cleanup day” whether your church and other local churches might clean up the same city park. I am not speaking of participating in a local food bank where food is given to hungry people. Your church may or may not choose to do this, but that is not “Christian” ministry. It is common grace kindness and mercy.
This leads to the second question: Must we have fellowship with everyone inside the gospel? Or to put it slightly differently, is there anyone inside the gospel that we must not have fellowship with?
The answer is No and Yes. (There are two questions there.)
We do not have to participate with everyone inside the gospel. Our fellowship may be limited by a number of things, including location, areas of theological or philosophical disagreement, or other practical matters. With Paul, we can rejoice that the gospel is preached, even by people with whom with disagree on some issues. We can (and should in some cases), simply agree to disagree and rejoice that God carries out his gospel work through sinners saved by grace, including those with whom we disagree.
However, there are people inside of the gospel (i.e., true Christians) with whom with must not have fellowship. 2 Thessalonians 3 makes this abundantly clear when it commands censure and withdrawal from a fellow believer, namely, the lazy man. Regardless of your understanding and application of 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15, the salvation of the lazy man is not questioned. In fact, it is presumed in v. 11 where he is “among you,” meaning in the fellowship of the body, and v. 15, where he is to be admonished “as a brother.”
So those who say that there is never any cause for separation from a fellow Christian are denying the plain teaching of Scripture. It is not only permissible; it is commanded.
The question about 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15 regards the scope of the command—whether it applies to only a lazy man (or some variation; cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:10-11), or whether it applies to all those who walk disorderly and not according to the apostolic tradition, meaning teaching (cf. 2 Thessalonians 3:6). I have read some impassioned defenses of both options given above by people who I respect and like.
For me, it is hard to imagine that Paul places his doctrinal teaching below the matter of laziness in a local church. In other words, it is hard for me to imagine that Paul is saying, “Separate from the lazy man and rebuke him for his sin, but do not separate from the man who has embraced some other kind of doctrinal disobedience.”
So my answer to this question of scope is admittedly the latter, that Paul’s commands apply not only to laziness but also to the matter of the apostolic teaching.
Furthermore, I think it applies to matters of apostolic teaching that are clear and “load-bearing”—the weight of Christianity falls on these doctrines.
For instance, the global flood is an undeniable teaching of Scripture. Those who say the flood was local either can’t read what the text says or refuse to accept what Scripture clearly says.
Yet a man who denies the global flood is clearly not on the same level as one who denies the deity of Jesus. He is not even on the same level as a man who questions the limitation of the canon to 66 books (even though the global flood is revealed in Scripture and the 66-book canon is not).
Must we separate from and censure a man who denies a global flood? I don’t know.
I certainly wouldn’t have him to speak at a conference on origins and geology, unless it was to present an opposing viewpoint for a debate. And for me, the fact that he denies a global flood would call into question how sound he is on other things. So as a practical matter, I would probably not participate in ministry partnership with such a one, at least on an ongoing basis. I might participate in an “Origins Conference” with him as opposing viewpoints.
But if you choose to partner with him, that is probably not going to affect our relationship.
Which is to say that if you participate with people I would not, that does not mean necessarily that I am going to refuse to participate with you. I may or may not. I don’t know until you do it and until we talk about it and seek mutual understanding. And if I don’t have anything to do with anyway, I certainly can’t separate from you.
In these matters, I think we need to exercise a lot of humility and a lot of grace towards others. We need to be humble to recognize that our interpretations might be wrong. Our applications of truth might be wrong. And if we separate over wrong interpretations or wrong applications, we are wrong even if we mean well and do it in good conscience.
There are some who are convinced that they are absolutely right in their understanding and application of passages like Romans 16:17-18, 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15, and 2 and 3 John that they believe that anyone who disagrees with them is unquestionably wrong.
I may be weak, but I do not have that kind of confidence. I have applications of all three of these passages that I have worked through. And I am willing to discuss them and advocate for them. But I don’t have the conscience that allows me to think that I am the next apostle to hand authoritative commands to others. Humility is not a strong point for me, but even this is too much for my proud heart.
We also need to exercise grace towards others in recognizing that the Holy Spirit is working in them and through them. We need to be cautious in our response. This is not some Rick Warren nonsense about not criticizing what God is blessing. (See I can take a stand.) Quite frankly, I have no way to know what God is blessing. All I have are the Scriptures and the community of faith through which the Spirit works to teach me. Numbers, results, growth, stagnation, whatever may mean God is blessing or not. It may mean any number of things. Since I am a cessationist, I don’t have any way of knowing. So I shouldn’t pretend to know.
I have no problem being critical. In fact, that is probably a problem with me—I tend to be too critical at (most) times. I rarely am too quick with grace and humility.
I would urge us to remember that the fact that someone does it differently than we do does not mean that they do it wrong. We might be wrong. Or there might be more than one way to faithfully carry out gospel ministry.