The Right Hand of Fellowship
"When James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that had been given to me, they gave me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised" (Galatians 2:9).
Paul and Barnabas were given the right hand of fellowship. Paul preached to the Gentiles and Peter preached to the Jews, but the gospel was the same.
What is the basis of Christian fellowship?
The bond of fellowship among Christians is difficult for non-believers to comprehend. We have fellowship in our common salvation and in the breaking of the bread. We have fellowship with the Father and the Son through the doctrine of the Apostles.
In the description of what happened on the day the church was established, we read: "And with many other words he testified and exhorted them, saying, 'Be saved from this perverse generation.' Then those who gladly received his word were baptized; and that day about three thousand souls were added to them. And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers" (Acts 2:40-42).
This new fellowship, the church of Christ, was a fellowship of the saved: "And the Lord added to the church daily those who were being saved" (Acts 2:47).
Many years later, when the church was being infiltrated by false teachers, Jude wrote: "Beloved, while I was very diligent to write to you concerning our common salvation, I found it necessary to write to you exhorting you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 3). Our fellowship is based on our common salvation in the faith, once and for all delivered to the saints. We must contend earnestly for that faith to maintain fellowship with Christ and with one another.
We have fellowship with the sacrifice of Christ as we continue steadfastly in the breaking of the bread.
"The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ? For we, being many, are one bread and one body; for we all partake of that one bread" (1 Corinthians 10:16,17). The word 'communion' here is the same word that is translated 'fellowship' elsewhere. The loaf is a fellowship with the body of Christ. The cup is a fellowship with His blood.
Paul goes on to explain: "Observe Israel after the flesh: Are not those who eat of the sacrifices partakers of the altar? What am I saying then? That an idol is anything, or what is offered to idols is anything? But I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice they sacrifice to demons and not to God, and I do not want you to have fellowship with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the Lord's table and of the table of demons" (1 Corinthians 10:18-21).
Fellowship with the body and blood of Christ precludes fellowship with evil.
"Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial? Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: 'I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.' Therefore 'Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you. I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty'" (2 Corinthians 6:14-18).
This refers to God's call to Israel in the Old Testament to come out of Babylon and restore the true worship in Jerusalem, which was a prefiguration of God's call in our time for believers to come out of false religions and serve the true God, as we read in the Revelation: "And I heard another voice from heaven saying, 'Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues'" (Revelation 18:4). The Greek word translated 'share' means 'have fellowship with'. We many not have fellowship with false religions.
"And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather expose them" (Ephesians 5:11).
We have fellowship with God and Christ by continuing steadfastly in the Apostles' teaching and fellowship. John wrote: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, concerning the Word of life -- the life was manifested, and we have seen, and bear witness, and declare to you that eternal life which was with the Father and was manifested to us -- that which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ" (1 John 1:1-3). "But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin" (1 John 1:7).
"God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. Now I plead with you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment" (1 Corinthians 1:9,10).
What are the limits to Christian fellowship?
Obviously, in the light of these passages, our fellowship is limited to those who are saved by the blood of Christ, to the extent that we are able to determine such. We cannot have fellowship with those who are clearly unsaved according to the Scriptures.
In Christendom, many preach a perverted gospel that cannot save: "I marvel that you are turning away so soon from Him who called you in the grace of Christ, to a different gospel, which is not another; but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed" (Galatians 1:6-8). "Note those who cause divisions and offenses, contrary to the doctrine which you learned, and avoid them" (Romans 16:17); "Reject a divisive man after the first and second admonition, knowing that such a person is warped and sinning, being self-condemned" (Titus 3:10,11); "From such people turn away!" (2 Timothy 3:5).
Some think we should fellowship all Christians. But even in our relationship with Christians, there are limits to what we can condone and there are limits of conscience.
If we fellowship immoral Christians, we condone their lifestyle and bring dishonor to Christ: "I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner -- not even to eat with such a person. For what have I to do with judging those also who are outside? Do you not judge those who are inside? But those who are outside God judges. Therefore 'put away from yourselves that wicked person'" (1 Corinthians 5:9-13).
If we fellowship Christians who are false teachers, we condone their error: "If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds" (2 John 11). The Greek word translated 'share' means 'have fellowship with'.
We cannot extend the right hand of fellowship to Christians who are false teachers, who are living immoral lives, or whose behavior is in serious conflict with Christian principles.
There are also limits of conscience. "But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin" (Romans 14:23).
We must train our conscience by careful study of the word of God so we will not think something is wrong when it is not wrong, or think something is good when it is not good. Our conscience can be misinformed. Paul persecuted Christians with a clear conscience before he learned better (Acts 23:1; 1 Timothy 1:12,13)!
But after we have carefully studied the word of God we, like Paul, must "always strive to have a conscience without offense toward God and men" (Acts 24:16). See also 1 Timothy 1:5,18,19; 3:8,9.
This means that we cannot have fellowship with other Christians in activities that violate our conscience. We cannot be a member of a congregation if it involves participating in forms of worship or activities that we believe are wrong.
One young man told me he was upset because he could not conscientiously worship with a certain congregation (because of unscriptural things they were doing). Yet, he felt that refusing to worship with them was the same as condemning them all to hell, which he did not think he had a right to do! I explained to him that just because he could not conscientiously worship with them did not mean that he was condemning them all to hell. God will judge them on the last day for their departure from the New Testament pattern which excludes others from their fellowship. In any case, he may not violate his own conscience by participating in something he knows is wrong.
This limitation of conscience has to do with participation and approval. I have fellowship with many brethren who hold views quite different from mine on certain points. In these instances fellowship is still possible because the differences are of such a nature that I am not forced to practice or approve something that violates my conscience. But when an association involves personal participation in, or endorsement of, something I believe to be wrong, fellowship is no longer possible. As Paul wrote: "Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves" (Romans 14:22).
The limits of Christian fellowship are clearly defined in Scripture.
A well-known preacher who presented some lectures in Germany said that, although many people think of the church as a circle, he prefers to think of it as an amoeba with hazy edges and with Christ as the nucleus.
This man is trying to erase the Scriptural limits to fellowship.
According to the Word of God the church is not just a circle, it is a walled city! The "great high wall" of Zion (Revelation 21:12) is salvation: "In that day this song will be sung in the land of Judah: 'We have a strong city; God will appoint salvation for walls and bulwarks. Open the gates, that the righteous nation which keeps the truth may enter in" (Isaiah 26:1,2; see also Isaiah 60:18-21). Our fellowship in Christ is based on "our common salvation" (Jude 3) which we have by the grace of God because we keep the truth.
Christians can conduct themselves in such a way that fellowship is disrupted: "But we command you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you withdraw from every brother who walks disorderly and not according to the tradition which he received from us" (1 Thessalonians 3:6). We may not condone immorality, false doctrine or unscriptural practices, and we may not participate in something that violates our conscience.
What a joy it is to extend the right hand of fellowship to those who are like-minded in Christ: "Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind" (Philippians 2:1,2). "The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all. Amen" (2 Corinthians 13:14).
The Scripture quotations in this article are from The New King James Version. ©1979,1980,1982, Thomas Nelson Inc., Publishers. Permission for reference use has been granted. Published in The Old Paths Archive