In our last number we copied the Circular Letter of the Delaware Association, written by Elder E. Rittenhouse, on the subject of Gospel Fellowship. It is a well written article on that subject, and worthy of the serious consideration of all the disciples of our Lord Jesus Christ. It contains many important suggestions, arguments, demonstrations, admonitions and exhortations which are of vital importance. In reperusing and admiring that letter we have been led to extend the consideration of the subject of fellowship to the numerous branches of the kingdom of our Redeemer. In the letter referred to, the fellowship of the saints, and that in their relation to the church, has been as fully treated upon as could well be in the limits of a Circular Letter, but it may be useful to consider the relation which exists among sister churches of the same faith and order. The entire kingdom of Christ, embracing as it does the whole mystical body, of which Christ is the Head, is known in the Scriptures as the general assembly and church of the firstborn. (Hebrews 12:23) And although some of the constituents of it are now in heaven, some on earth, and some yet unborn, she is a unit.
“The saints on earth, and all the dead,
But one communion make;
All join in Christ, the living Head,
And of his grace partake.”
Paul says, “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.” (Eph. 4:4-6) The same relationship exists throughout the whole church of God, and all her branches, as that which exists between each branch and its members. The union is vital, it is a union of life, and the life of this union is God himself; for he, as we have seen, is over all, through all and in all the branches and members. Christ is the life, and our life is hid with Christ in God. This spiritual and divine life is the foundation of fellowship, and constitutes each branch and each member the fellow of every other branch or member. Thus the smitten Shepherd is the fellow of the Lord of hosts. (Zech. 13:7) And through him our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. (I John 1:3) It is therefore impossible to extend this fellowship, as shown in the Circular, beyond the body of Christ, to any foreign substance, however closely that substance may be attached by art or by nature. The christian is himself, while in the flesh, an illustration of this. He cannot fellowship his own depraved, wicked nature, which is so very closely connected with his spiritual identity, but has to crucify the old man with its affections and lusts. There is no kind of discipline he can apply that will bring his flesh and spirit into fellowship, for the flesh lusteth against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh, and these are contrary one to the other. Flesh is born of the flesh, and spirit is born of the Spirit - is born of God. The flesh has low, groveling and earthly propensities, appetites and desires, but the spirit loathes them, and only has heavenly, spiritual and holy aspirations. How then can there be any fellowship between parties so opposite and hostile? Flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor the things of the Spirit of God. (See I Cor. 2:14; 15:50.) Neither doth corruption inherit incorruption. “For what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? and what concord hath Christ with Belial?” (II Cor. 6: 14, 15)
This gospel fellowship being based on immortal life in Christ, permeates all the branches or individual members of the church of God, because it cannot be separated or divided from Christ as its vitality. In this fellowship all who are born of God are members of Christ. (I Cor. 12:27) “For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ. For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many.” (I Cor. 12:12-14)
If then every individual member is an integral part of the church of Christ, and every branch of the church of Christ is an integral part of the body of Christ, wherein do the several branches of the church of Christ differ in their relation to each other, as churches, from that of one member of the same church to a fellow-member of the same?
So far as fellowship is concerned, the several churches are but the several branches of the one church. Churches or branches may hold a kind of nominal connection together, without being animated by the same life, or joined together in the same judgment, but gospel fellowship cannot exist where this foundation for it is not found. The evidences required of an applicant for church fellowship are such as shall satisfy the church to whom such application is made that the applicant has passed from death unto life, and has received of God that life which alone can unite to the church. The fruits of this life are joy, peace, love, faith, etc., and when presented are satisfactory, and those who show them are welcomed, through the ordinance of baptism, into the church. This makes the baptized convert not only a member of the branch of the church into which he is received, but he is baptized into the whole body of Christ, and comes manifestly into the fellowship of all sister churches of the same faith and order. If this were not so, he would be required to be baptized in every branch of the church with whom he communes, or whose fellowship he desires to enjoy. If the church to which he has applied be a gospel church, and in gospel order, and in that order has received and baptized him, he is no more a stranger or foreigner, but he is become a fellow-citizen with the saints, with all the saints of God, in heaven and on earth, and is of the household of faith, and built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the foundation and chief corner-stone. (Eph. 2:20,2 1) His fellowship is with the holy city, new Jerusalem, which came down from God out of heaven, and not merely of some part of it; it is in common with all the saints of God, and as a citizen he cannot be lawfully disfranchised, except by the same law of the city which is binding on all the citizens of the same commonwealth. His standing is upon the same one foundation which bears up all the building, and it being the foundation of the apostles and prophets, no delinquency on his part, or action on the part of the church, can deprive him of the fellowship of the saints, that would not, were the circumstances otherwise alike, expel from fellowship the apostles and prophets. When a church is in gospel order, and in the Spirit, and according to the laws of Christ, receives into or expels from fellowship, what is thus loosed in earth we believed is loosed also in heaven; whatsoever she binds on earth is also bound or approved in heaven.
Much is said of the independence of churches; but let us tread softly here. In what sense, and to what extent, are churches independent? These are very important inquiries. We believe she is, when considered in her indissoluble union with her divine Head, and acting under his law, according to its letter and spirit, independent of the world, the flesh and the devil. She is independent of popes, cardinals, friars, of kings and potentates of the earth, and of ecclesiastical courts, councils and dictators of all sorts and kinds. But is she independent of Christ and of his laws? Has she any right to transcend or to transgress any of them? Has she a right to do wrong, or to transact a particle of business, either in receiving, governing or excluding her members, without a warrant from the law of Christ? Nor is any branch of the church, as we understand this subject, any more independent of her sister churches than one member is of the other members of the same church. Can one church say to another church, We have no need of thee? “For the body is not one member, but many. But now hath God set the members every one of them in the body, as it hath pleased him. And if they were all one member, where were the body? But now are they many members, yet but one body. And the eye cannot say unto the hand, I have no need of thee: nor again the head to the feet, I have no need of you.” (I Cor. 12:14,18-21)
The saints and the churches are not only members of the one body of Christ, but they are members one of another; so that they can no more be independent of each other than they can be independent of the body. Remember, God hath set the members in the body as it hath pleased him. It hath, therefore, pleased God that the members of the body shall be mutually dependent one on another. The hands and feet and all other members are dependent on the eye to see, the eye dependent on the ear to hear, the feet to walk, and the hands to do what the other members are not qualified to do; but all these gifts belong to the church, and all are for the edifying of the body of Christ. That the whole body may travel, it is indispensably necessary that there shall be harmony in all the members, each duly appreciating the importance of all the rest. The perfect harmony and symmetry of the body has been clearly set forth in the Circular alluded to, but we wish to apply the same idea to the whole Zion of God, which is in her gospel order the perfection of beauty. No branch of the church of God is or can be independent of all the other parts. No member of the whole body detached from the body can independently subsist. How would an eye, an ear, or a hand or foot, see, hear, labor or walk independently of its union and fellowship with the whole body? Separated from the body, they cease not only to perform their functions for the common benefit of all the body, but in their disconnection they cease to participate in the vitality of the body, and therefore perish. ‘Where two or three,” saith the Savior, “are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst.” Ten thousand may voluntarily assemble together of their own accord, without being gathered together in his name. However large or small the gathering may be, the essential points are that it is in his name, by his authority, and that Christ himself is the grand centre of attraction; that he, as their Life, gives vitality, by his laws, as their rule of government, and by his Spirit, having a desire to walk in all his ordinances, of one accord, of one mind, of one spirit, and all in one hope of their calling. Such is the church of God.
We are led to examine this subject from a consideration that a wrong impression has prevailed to some extent in regard to the independence of churches. The impression seems to be entertained, at least by some, that each branch of the church of God is invested with a right to act for itself in all matters of faith and practice, without reference to the approval or disapproval of the other branches of the same church. If this impression be correct, where is the Scripture to sustain it? How is fellowship to be maintained on that principle? The church of Christ in all her departments must be of one mind, of one heart and of one judgment, or their professed fellowship for each other is deceptive and hypocritical. If all the churches, as we call them, meaning the branches of the one undivided church of God, are led by the one Spirit, ruled by the same law of Christ, and joined in the same judgment, all the acts of each will be the acts of the whole. This will, we conceive, apply to the reception, government and exclusion of members. But if some churches hold themselves so independent of the others that they do not desire or respect the concurrence of their sister churches in their action, the one may receive members, and such members be denied fellowship and communion with sister churches, or they may expel members, and the expelled members still be held in full fellowship with the other churches; but how then can all be called sister churches, of the same faith and order? Whatever faith they may profess to hold, their order is far from being the same.
To avoid such confusion and irregularity it has been the practice of the churches of the same faith to maintain a correspondence with each other, through associations, conferences and other meetings, and by dismissing and receiving members by letter, and such other friendly correspondence as may be convenient from time to time. And when difficulties arise in which there is an important diversity of judgment among the members of one church, which involves a question of the common order of the house of God, if such church desires to maintain the union and confidence of her sister churches, it has been our practice to say to them, “Come and behold our order.” Or to call on them to send approval and faithful brethren to aid the church in the adjustment of her difficulties. Whenever churches decline this course, and refuse to be advised, or to exhibit their order to their sister churches, suspicion is excited that something is wrong, and will not bear investigation without exposing disorder. “For every one that doeth evil hateth the light, neither cometh to the light, lest his deeds should be reproved. But he that doeth truth cometh to the light, that his deeds may be made manifest, that they are wrought in God.” (John 3:20,21)
July 15, 1862.
Elder Gilbert Beebe
Editorials Volume 5
Pages 216 – 221