Do Christians have to believe alike in order to be in fellowship with one another? According to the ultra-conservative in the churches of Christ the answer is yes. We are told that because of 1 Cor 1:10 and 2 John 9, all Christians must believe the same things in order to be in fellowship. Is that what these passages are really teaching? What does the word fellowship mean exactly?
In common everyday usage, the word fellowship is usually meant to express the idea of companionship or friendly association. While this notion is not inconsistent with the Bible usage, the word fellowship is a little more specific in application when used in the Scriptures. There are several Greek words in the New Testament that are translated using the word fellowship. Their meanings all overlap to a great degree and they convey the idea of sharing in common. It is insightful when trying to understand the concept to consider that the word fellowship is not the only english word chosen to translate these Greek words. Other words are:
Thus we see that the idea conveyed by the Bible when speaking of fellowship is a sharing, partnership or a joint participation. Fellowship is not simply a nice word that means people socialize together. In the Bible, Christians were partnered with each other working toward common goals and sharing in the burdens and the joys that went along with the work. For example, if a person supports a preacher financially, he is in fellowship with him because he contributes a portion of his monetary resources. He is partnered with the preacher and shares in his work of spreading the gospel. It is possible that the two may have never met face to face, yet they are still in fellowship. When disciples of Christ in a particular geographic area decide to pool their resources and work collectively as a congregation, they are in fellowship. They are companions in the endeavor and jointly participate with one another working toward the common goal of worshiping God and doing the other works God set forth for His people. In other words, they are doing something collectively and are all pulling for the same thing.
Now the Bible is clear that Christians are to have no association with evil works, "what communion has light with darkness?" (2 Cor 6:14). However, many assert that we can no longer be partners in the work (be in fellowship) when we disagree with each other doctrinally. Many church splits have occurred, not because there was disagreement regarding what their congregation was doing collectively, but because a disagreement arose about some point of doctrine. Granted we can have no fellowship with those who would deny the divinity of Christ or the plain passages that teach one how to become a Christian. But, disagreements that arise among brethren today are almost never over such foundational principles. If we are honest with ourselves, we'll have to admit that some within the Church of Christ will break fellowship with one another at the drop of a hat! The cause of much of this division is a misinterpretation and/or misapplication of 1 Cor 1:10 and 2 Jn 9. Because of this we have missed the mark on what the basis of our fellowship with one another should be. Let's take a look at these passages one at a time.
1 Corinthians 1:10-13
10 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. 11 For it has been declared to me concerning you, my brethren, by those of Chloe’s household, that there are contentions among you. 12 Now I say this, that each of you says, “I am of Paul,” or “I am of Apollos,” or “I am of Cephas,” or “I am of Christ.” 13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?
It is said that this passage teaches that we must all speak the same thing, have the same mind and same judgment. Indeed it does teach this but some have concluded that the only way this can be achieved is for all to believe alike. If it isn't teaching that all must believe exactly the same thing what does it teach? Please note that this passage does not say anything about them having disputes over doctrinal matters. It does not say their division and contentions are brought about by differences of personal opinion or conscience. What then was the source of their contention? Verse 11 tells us they were starting to divide up into sects giving their allegiance to various preachers instead of to Christ. Notice in verse 10 that Paul instructs them to speak the same thing. In verse 12 he calls attention to the fact that they are not speaking the same thing since each one brags about how he follows a different preacher. This was the source of the division and controversy that they were involved in. Paul begins a thought in verse 13 that he doesn't conclude until chapter 3:
1 And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. 2 I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able; 3 for you are still carnal. For where there are envy, strife, and divisions among you, are you not carnal and behaving like mere men? 4 For when one says, “I am of Paul,” and another, “I am of Apollos,” are you not carnal?
They weren't arguing about whether they should use one cup or many. They didn't contend with each other over the women should wear a veil or not. They weren't arguing about the proper way to send money to preachers. Their divisions resulted from the fact that they were following men and not God. He tells them that Christ is not divided and that Paul and Apollos work together as one in spreading the gospel and following Christ. Those who spread the Gospel are nothing; it is God who is important. To fall into sectarianism is to be carnally minded. They are to be united in speech, mind and judgment in their allegiance to Christ. When they get it right in their minds about whom they should be following, then they can be united in thought and speech and end the strife and division. Clearly, Paul is telling them to be of the same mind in regards to who they give their allegiance to; he gives no instruction which tells them to all believe exactly alike!
When we break fellowship with one another over differences of opinion or conflicting points of doctrine are we not doing essentially what Paul reprimanded them for? Are we not being sectarian and carnal when strife and divisions arise? When was the last time you met someone who believed in all points as you do? There is no basis for demanding complete doctrinal conformity in this passage!
2 John 9-11
9 Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. 10 If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; 11 for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds.
There is controversy about whether the "doctrine of Christ" refers to the teachings about Jesus or the things which Jesus taught. To be sure it includes that which is taught about Christ because that is the context under consideration in this passage. Verse 7 says there were decievers who deny that Jesus came in the flesh. Therefore, we can be certain that verse 9 would apply specifically to those who attempt to decieve with this false teaching. John tells us that if we encounter any such person, we may not have fellowship with him. Does this passage authorize drawing lines of fellowship based on other criteria? I don't think we can safely conclude that it does. To extend this passage to other issues would be to "go beyond that which is written", exceeding the boundaries of John's context.
Ultra-conservative brethren think that only those who believe everything as they do "abide in the doctrine of Christ". If someone disagrees with them they are to be "cut off" because John says to have nothing to do with them or else you'll become a partaker with them in their evil deeds. John does teach that Christians are to draw a line in the sand when it comes to supporting error regarding the incarnation of Christ. However, there is a big difference in someone who would deny the fundamentals about the incarnation of Christ and people who have honest disagreements about the number of communion cups or whether or not instruments may be used.
We must remember that unity is more than just something nice we are to hope for. We are commanded to maintain it! Jesus prayed for His followers to have unity (John 17:21). We are to be humble, gentle and patient in our quest to maintain unity (Eph 4:1-3). When it is not maintained, we generate strife and division and demonstrate how carnally minded we are (1 Cor 1:10, 3:3). Galatians 5:19-21 lists some words that describe disunity along with other heinous sins.
19 Now the works of the flesh are evident, which are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness, 20 idolatry, sorcery, hatred, contentions, jealousies, outbursts of wrath, selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies, 21 envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like; of which I tell you beforehand, just as I also told you in time past, that those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.
It is interesting that the word "heresies" comes from a Greek word used nine times in the New Testament and is translated as "sect" in five of those instances. In fact, the word means "dissensions arising from diversity of opinions and aims". It might have been good to put the words "hatred" and "selfish ambitions" in bold as well because they usually go along with "church troubles". Has it ever occurred to you that in parting fellowship with those whom we so haphazardly determine to be unsound, that we place our own souls in grave jeopardy? Has it occurred to you that being so fast to draw lines of fellowship may indicate that we are carnally minded? It is funny that you never hear preachers calling the division among the Churches of Christ what it really is - SIN! Rather, we usually hear some preaching on why we must have nothing to do with those who we don't agree with.
Unfortunately it is the norm among the right wing Churches of Christ, generally speaking, to draw lines of fellowship over trivial matters. We must show love, patience, mercy, understanding and open mindedness and not just pay these notions lip service!
Since when does assembling with someone who doesn't believe as you do make you a "partaker of their evil deeds"? If someone you assemble with believes that instrumental music is ok in worship, does that affect you? If another person thinks that multiple communion cups are scriptural, have you some how been tarnished? In neither of these examples am I speaking of someone pushing a point of view to the point of causing dissension since that would be sinful. In spite of this, many of my brethren would feel it was their duty to run around offering to "study" with these people to get them "straightened out". Indeed, I think study is called for, but not to straighten them out, but to discuss the Scriptures with the goal of finding the truth. If two of us study together and miraculously come to the same understanding of everything, as soon as a third person comes along we are right back in the same boat! Let's use some common sense and acknowledge that no two people will ever be in complete harmony.
The unending splits among the Churches of Christ will continue unabated until we figure out that we are deciding our fellowship on the wrong basis. The scriptures do not teach that we must base our fellowship on perfect doctrinal conformity, but rather it must be based upon the fact that all Christians have been adopted into God's family.