is fellowship the same as unity

We are in a series of posts which serve as commentary on Kevin Bauder’s tenth lecture on the subject of Biblical Separation, delivered at International Baptist College September 15-17, 2008. This is post number 7. Earlier posts on the lecture series can be found here:

Posts specifically regarding Lecture 10:

  1. is separation a fundamental doctrine
  2. indifferentists defined
  3. not indifferent, but not allies
  4. how should we proceed
  5. the danger of theological drift
  6. NE is dead, long live NE

In concluding this series, I am first going to discuss one remaining point of philosophical difference that may or may not be important. After that discussion, I’d like to add a few summary thoughts.

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I have no clips to play for you for this post. I am just going to quote a statement made frequently throughout the lecture series, almost as a defining mantra:

“Unity is a function of that which unites; fellowship is a function of that which is held in common.”

Are unity and fellowship really synonymous terms, as the statement (and much of the lecture series) implies?

We are united in Christ with a whole host of characters. I find that there are myriads of true believers with whom I have serious differences, yet there is a bond we share in common: one body, one Spirit, one baptism, one Lord, one God and Father of us all. This is a precious concept and reminds me that the Church is the Lord’s and its success doesn’t depend on me, my arguments, my skills, my influence… the Lord’s Church will succeed because of the Church’s Lord.

But what about fellowship? What does it really mean? Does it mean that since we have things in common with all believers that we can and should at some level have fellowship with them?

I have posted on the meaning of fellowship before, “on Christian fellowship“.

Biblical fellowship really isn’t just ‘hanging out at the same place together.’ If someone shows up at a Together for the Gospel conference, he isn’t automatically in biblical fellowship with everyone who is there. He may be a nice guy, and have coffee and conversations with lots of people there, but that isn’t fellowship.

Biblical fellowship is better understood by the term ‘partnership’. It is active. It is cooperative. It involves Christian men joining hands (and cash – see the letter to the Philippians) in a cooperative effort, an ecclesiastical partnership. When men and women join a local church and lend their money, time, and effort to the ministries of that local church, they are in fellowship. When a Christian sends money to some other Christian worker somewhere else in the world, they are in fellowship (even if they never physically meet one another). Fellowship is active partnership together in a common religious cause. [BTW, while attendance at a conference may not equal fellowship, what would it mean if you put your 2 cents — or more — into the offering plate? Buying books, I think, doesn’t count as partnership, but financial support seems to fit with Philippians.]

So… when we have significant differences with other Christians, there is almost no way we can have fellowship with them. We can’t support their work, we can’t work together, we simply have too many disagreements. We would find ourselves at odds, at cross purposes perhaps, and unable to cooperate together, no matter how friendly we might be outside of a fellowship relationship.

It seems to me that a great deal of confusion reigns in all these debates by the current ambiguous meaning of the word fellowship. We would do well to give up its use altogether when it comes to cooperative efforts between Christians. What we need to know is this: can I support a ministry with the time and treasure God has given into my stewardship, or would I be unwilling to give account to the Lord for supporting that cause with my time and treasure? An example Bauder used was a Presbyterian friend of his. Both Bauder and I would never give time and treasure to a joint church planting effort with this brother. We wouldn’t likely support the same missionaries, and probably not exchange the same missionaries in our pulpits. There might be some ministries that a Presbyterian friend supports that I could support. But we would be very careful which those would be. I would assume the care would be exercised on both sides. At the same time, the Presbyterian and I could be great friends on a personal level, praying for one another, etc. But our partnerships would be severely restricted.

When it comes to the Conservative Evangelicals, then, I agree with Bauder when he says that there are significant differences that remain between us. These remain as yet as severe and significant barriers to cooperative effort, to joint partnerships (i.e., to biblical fellowship). We have too many disagreements.

Bauder’s little mantra quoted above is almost meaningless. It confuses the issue. It is a concern to hear this being taught at fundamentalist schools. The emphasis is misplaced.

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Now, where does this leave us? I have expressed some differences with what Dr. Bauder taught in this seminar. I have also expressed some agreement. I think in a lot of ways Bauder and I share the same philosophy. I think he clearly sees the problems with Conservative Evangelicals. However, I think he is too ready to give them the benefit of the doubt and too eager to find ways to cooperate with them.

This difference stems in part from a different perception of the history. I suspect it also may come from a desire to placate the younger set who are vigorously challenging the traditional application of fundamentalist philosophy to the ecclesiastical scene. If this is the case, I think it is the wrong response to this challenge. I wrote the following line to a friend of mine recently:

The questions shouldn’t be “How do I be sure that the applications of Biblical principles are most reasonable to my questioning crowd?” The question should rather be, “How do I lead my questioning crowd to adopt Biblical authority and Biblical principle making?”

Now, I don’t think we need to go on a witch-hunt when it comes to the CEs. (They regularly provide us with examples of problematic partnership with them.) What we need, however, is to be regularly, faithfully, carefully, and biblically teaching the distinctives and differences in our colleges and seminaries so that your young men can be fully equipped to face the confusing world they will enter in their own ministries. I am afraid this just isn’t being done in several Fundamentalist institutions these days.

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