The Agora
Biblical Fellowship

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13. The First Letter of John

Jesus loved all his disciples, but there was something very special and unique about John. It must have been because of John’s special character; it was certainly not mere favoritism. The depth and closeness of love depends upon mental and spiritual affinity; it is limited only by the comprehension and capacity of the participants. John was especially beloved because of a deeper unity with the mind of his Master.

“John was the first to believe after the resurrection when he saw the empty tomb. Though not prominent in the history, John wrote the deepest gospel, the deepest epistle (this one) and the deepest prophecy (Revelation)” (G.V. Growcott, “Fellowship with Him”, The Berean Christadelphian, Vol. 56, No. 9 — Sept. 1968 — p. 274).
John was the disciple chosen by the Holy Spirit to record the deepest and most beautiful expressions in Scripture of “fellowship”. His searching words reach far beneath the thin veneer of man-made “fellowship” and man-instigated “disfellowship”; even those verses (1 John 1:6,7) which are often quoted to justify rapid and ruthless “cutting off” will be seen under a closer inspection to have a fuller, richer significance.

“There is only one major book in the Scriptures which may be said to deal specifically with the subject of fellowship, and significantly it was penned at the very close of the apostolic age: 1 John. Its origin is linked with the departure from fellowship of a substantial and influential group of members:
They went out from us, but they were not of us: for if they had been of us, they would no doubt have continued with us; but they went out, that they might be made manifest that they were not all of us’ (2:19)”

(A. Eyre, “Problems of Fellowship in the First Century”, The Christa-delphian, Vol. 108, No. 1283 — May 1971 — p. 212).
It is worthwhile to note this, in the epistle that has more to do with “fellowship” than any other: The primary resolution of an ecclesial disagreement was not the excision of the unfaithful by the faithful, but the final withdrawal from the faithful by the unfaithful. Obviously, this is not the only prescribed method for dealing with error or misconduct, but all too often we lose sight of the fact that it is one divinely-approved outcome! The extremist’s position is that an otherwise righteous brother may become unrighteous through a passing association with unrighteous men, regardless of his endeavors to uphold the Truth personally. But to John this is just not the case! There is no condemnation of the faithful remnant even though they were “tolerating” errorists in their midst. (The Old Testament affords at least two similar instances of the unfaithful withdrawing from the “one body”: “Every man to his tents, O Israel” of Sheba in 2 Samuel 20:1, and “What portion have we in David?” — the revolt of the ten tribes — in 1 Kings 12:16.)

It is safe to assume there is at least one statement of Brother Thomas that is never quoted by the “pure fellowship” advocates. Towards the end of his life, in 1870, he wrote the following words:

“It is not my province to issue bulls of excommunication, but simply to shew what the truth teaches and commands. I have to do with principles, not men. If anyone say that Jesus Christ did not come in the flesh common to us all, the apostle John saith that that spirit or teacher is not of God; is the deceiver and the anti-Christ, and abides not in the doctrine of Christ; and is therefore not to be received into the house, neither to be bidden Godspeed (1 John 4:3; 2 John 7,9,10). I have nothing to add or to take from this. It is the sanctifying truth of the things concerning the ‘name of Jesus Christ’. All whom the apostles fellow-shipped, believed it; and all in the apostolic ecclesias who believed it not — and there were such — had not fellowship with the apostles, but opposed their teachings; and when they found they could not have their own way, John says, ‘They went out from us, for they — the anti-Christ — were not all of us’ (1 John 2:19). The apostles did not chase them out, but they went out of their own accord, not being able to endure sound doctrine (2 Tim. 4:3).

“Then preach the word, etc., and exhort with all long-suffering and teaching. This is the purifying agent. Ignore brother this and brother that in said teaching; for personalities do not help the argument. Declare what you as a body believe to be the apostles’ doctrines. Invite fellowship upon that basis alone. If upon that declaration any take the bread and wine, not being offered by you, they do so upon their own responsibility, and not on yours. If they help themselves to the elements, they endorse your declaration of doctrine, and eat condemnation to themselves.”
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“That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3).

By “we” John must mean the apostles, who heard and saw and touched the living Christ “from the beginning” (vv. 1,2). The apostles were commissioned to share this living reality with others, that they might have fellowship with the apostles, but primarily that they might through that knowledge have personal fellowship with God and His Son. The oneness depends upon our learning and accepting and harmonizing ourselves with the revelations of the apostles.

“And what is fellowship? We must ever be on guard against letting technicalities take the place of realities. Fellowship is not an external agreement to associate, but communion, harmony, unity of mind and spirit... Fellowship with God is not just a technicality — not just a form — not just the accepting of certain beliefs or joining a certain group. It is a way of life — a thinking like God, a walking in harmony with His revealed will and commands” (G.V. Growcott, “Fellowship with Him”, pp. 274,277; see also J. Marshall, “The Living Ecclesia”, The Christadelphian, Vol. 108, No. 1280 — Feb. 1971 — pp. 55,56).
We do not make the rules governing this fellowship, nor for that matter did our “pioneer brethren” in the last century! “Fellowship” is not like “the law of the land”, with higher courts of human judges, case histories to memorize, and a confusing array of legal precedents established before we were born.

True Biblical fellowship is a way of life, a life renewed in the image of our Lord Jesus Christ. Each brother and sister shares the fellowship of a common bond, an awareness of God’s love and mercy in Christ extended toward all Christ’s brethren. For a brother to claim oneness with Christ, but to treat lightly or harshly his oneness with his brethren, for each of whom Christ died, is to miss the mark entirely. A brother acting in an unloving or unforgiving way toward another brother may suppose that he is cutting that person off from true fellowship, and perhaps making his own position more secure. But in reality he is violating the supreme law of his Savior’s life, the law confirmed by his shed blood; he is loosening the bond of love and forgiveness that binds him to Christ, for:

“If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar” (4:20).
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“And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full” (1:4).

This is the whole purpose of John’s epistle — to exhort to a meaningful faith that results in a joyful life, not to recount a form of words without power. Joy is the great identification, the “secret ingredient” of the Truth that defies the art of the apothecary. Do we confuse the “counterfeit” fellowship of rules and laws and prohibitions with the “real” — a life of loving service, of openness and warmth? Rules are necessary in a certain measure, but they must be applied with love and joy, in the spirit of unity and cooperation; otherwise they become a dead Pharisaic letter to those who observe them. Love and joy must cast out fear — the unscriptural fear of contamination that hides behind legalities and never realizes the “joy” which is at the heart of the Truth! Jesus touched the defiled, the dying, and the dead with impunity, because the power of light and joy was stronger than darkness and fear. It is not that from without which defiles the spiritual man, but if within his heart there has never been engendered the joy of the Truth — a joy that flows out to embrace others, to seek peace and unity and mutual edification — then he is “defiled” indeed!

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“If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1:6,7).

In keeping with our theme, it must be noted here that the emphasis is upon “walking”. We reveal whether or not the Truth has made an impression upon us by our personal conduct, by the extent our lives have been transformed by the Spirit-power of the word and prayer. “Light” undoubtedly does originate in true beliefs, but true beliefs are not an end in themselves — as may be mistakenly supposed if one’s life in the Truth has been one long continuous “warfare” against error. Let us beware of imbalance here; let us also beware of misapplication of such verses as these, to justify an extreme position.

Another point arises from verse 7: The conditional portion of the sentence specifies that we must “walk in the light as he is in the light.” If we take a rigid “fellowship” stand on such a passage as this, then let us be honest: Let us realize that a comparison with God and Christ in regard to “light” places us all — every one — on the wrong side! Alongside God and the perfect man, we are, relatively speaking, all in “darkness”, and if “darkness” nebulously defined is the ground of excommunication, then none of us deserves fellowship with God and Christ. But of course, this is true! None of us deserves to be included in God’s Family; it is the gift of God. Let us wrap ourselves in the robe of His “light”. It is a warming, cheering, health-giving, joyful blanket of love and hope. Here is the “fellowship with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.”

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