The Basis of Fellowship

In Reply To A Letter Written Over 60 Years Ago…

You ask me, “What is now the basis of fellowship among believers, assembling as we were accustomed to do thirty years ago, and what is the way of reception to that fellowship?” Judging from certain pamphlets which have reached us, and from the testimony of some, both seem to be changing; or at least, an effort is evidently being made to change them, from what we gathered from the Scriptures, and have sought to give effect to in our practice.

I shall endeavour to answer these questions, and seeing I am writing a letter rather than expounding a subject, I shall do so in a free and familiar manner.

When over thirty years ago, you and I, as young believers in Christ, were received into a small, but very happy, assembly of Christians, gathered simply in the Name of the Lord Jesus, there was no diversity of opinion amongst us as to the basis of our fellowship, or the way of reception into it. We had all been led into the position where we then were, by the Word of God; some through long exercise of soul, and at much cost to themselves, in the severing of links of long standing, and others of us as newly-saved ones, who had no such separations to make, but simply to begin as “free born,”with” God and the Word of His grace,” never having known the bondage of traditional religion. We all learned what we knew from one Book, and, as we firmly believed, were taught by one Spirit. We all believed and spoke the same thing.

There was one mind and one mouth, and, consequently, unity of spirit and uniformity of action. Those who had been brought out from denominations, at much personal cost to themselves, involving the snapping of many links of cherished friendship, had no desire to return even for a day. They had gone forth “without the camp” to own an earth-rejected but Heaven-exalted Christ as Lord; to be where they could carry out what they had learned of His will, and gather as worshippers according as His Word had commanded, amid much opposition manifested by the religious world, to give effect to the principles set forth in the Word of God, regarding the corporate and assembly character of His people.

All this continued happily and with much blessing from the Lord, for a number of years. Many companies came into existence gathering in the same way, and long-neglected truths – such as the Lordship of Christ; the present indwelling of the Spirit in the Church; the common priesthood of all believers; separation from worldly religion and sectarian churches; the constitution, fellowship, and rule of the Christian Assembly, and the coming again of the Lord Jesus, and, of course, believers’ baptism by immersion, were taught fully and continuously with much power and blessing to God’s people, many of whom were attracted by the truth.

“The fellowship of saints “was very sweet and very real; and the testimony thus borne to the long-lost truth of “The Lord in the midst” of His gathered people, feeble and much opposed as it was, led many of the Lord’s people to search the Scriptures for themselves, and as they became convinced that the will of the Lord for His people is, that they should be separate from the world, and together according to the pattern set forth in the Word, they severed their connection with the religious systems in which most of them had been brought up, and sought fellowship with those who were seeking as a feeble remnant in the midst of surrounding ruin, to return to the ancient pattern of God’s assembly as set forth in His Word.

This was the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ (Matt. 18:20), unto which the Spirit through the Word always leads the saints. The common confession of that Name; the acknowledgement of His Headship over, and Lordship in the Church (Ephes. 1:21-23; 1 Cor. 12:3), with the Supreme Authority of the Word as the all-sufficient guide in everything pertaining to the fellowship, worship, ordinances, and service of the Assembly, were considered sufficient to give the needed confidence in receiving any “born again” person, sound in faith and godly in walk, who sought to be identified with the Assembly thus gathered, and in order to give all the opportunity of satisfying themselves and of welcoming thus, the name of each applicant was submitted to the Assembly by those who were its guides, and the following Lord’s Day the new-comer was welcomed heartily by the whole Assembly.

Many “exercised” and inquiring Christians came to the Assembly as onlookers, and compared what they saw with what they read in the Word; but none were hurried, or in any way pressed into the Assembly, much less asked to “break bread” casually for the day, simply because we saw no warrant in the Word for such a course. We firmly believed that a desire for fellowship, or separation from Sectarianism, must be the result of God working in His people by means of His truth, and that time was needed to effect such a result.

These were our earliest convictions and practice and I confess that after thirty years, I have seen nothing in the Word of God to cause mine to be modified or altered. I firmly believe that this is the only Scriptural basis of fellowship among saints, but it needs Divine Wisdom in its application, and Divine Power to give it due effect. God’s ways need God’s help, and can only be practiced by those who are in a right spiritual condition. This lacking, they will fail, and turn aside into some bypath which human wisdom will devise, and in which man’s own resources will avail to carry him forward. I am perfectly satisfied that this is the chief cause for some getting tired of, and turning away from, the simple but godly way of assembling, set forth in the Scriptures. But in the Lord’s grace, I am happy to be able to testify, that in the main, the principles I have named, as being those we first learned, and the practices I have stated, as those which first obtained among us, continue to the present time in the greater number of assemblies, and, I believe, through grace, will by preserved by those whose desire is to “go by the Book” and honour the Lord in the midst of His gathered saints.

There are few assemblies in which there are not those who would either widen the basis of fellowship and admit those to whom the Word gives no welcome. But these must be withstood, and for the same reason, namely that they would, for what they think necessary reasons, change that which an All-Wise God – who saw the end from the beginning, and knew all the difficulties that would arise – has given as the abiding pattern of His Church, and the unalterable basis of its fellowship, until the Lord shall come.

For a number of years, as you know, the line of separation was fully maintained between those thus simply gathered, and the various systems and denominations of the world’s religion. The saints in these denominations, were distinguished from the systems which held them in bondage, and, as brethren in Christ, recognized and loved. Whatever could be enjoyed in common, of the things of God, outside their unscriptural position was, and many of them, while not prepared to give it up, were glad to come to our Bible Readings and meetings for ministry, which they confessed helped them more than all that they got in their “churches.” This I can testify continues also in many places, where the truth has been maintained and is preached, and by means thereof a continuous work of grace goes on among God’s people, as well as in the conversion of the lost.

“UNDENOMINATIONAL UNIONS

A result of fruitful work carried on by well known preachers was the formation of what they called “Undenominational Unions” for the carrying on of evangelistic work outside of, yet in nominal connection with all the churches. These are now to be found all over the country, some of them actively engaged in continuous Gospel effort. For a time they were supported by the ministers, but this gradually fell off, and as most of the “ordained” men dropped out, the help of certain gifted brethren in the assemblies was permitted – in some few cases, sought after. It was something new, to find those who had been branded as “heretics” and written against as “Plymouthists,” on platforms alongside leading men in denominations, and in some few cases preaching with clerics from the same platform. Nothing beyond the most elementary truths could be spoken there. Nothing to disturb ecclesiastical position, or separate saints from worldly religion dare be mentioned, or if it ever was, the man who did it, never found himself there again.

Two results followed. First; those who went into such circles, lost the power of all the truth once practiced and preached by them, bearing on the separation of believers from sectarianism. Very soon they manifested little sympathy with any who spoke of it, and finally, most of them opposed it altogether. Second; believers in these “Unions” (who, according to their constitution, are all supposed to be members of the churches), in order to show their liberality, or because they were not at ease in their unscriptural position, were willing to come occasionally to “break bread,” without however, either asking to be received to the Assembly’s fellowship, or disturbing their connection with the sects of which they were members; indeed, they would have spurned identification with any Assembly. They simply wished to come as casual “visitors” when away from home.

Some prominent men, among those who so practice, have publicly denounced the “separated” position and applied to those in it, unlovely epithets. Some within the assemblies – chiefly those who had formed acquaintance with such believers by going to their “Unions,” and even to the very denominations from which they had professedly “come out” some time before – advocated that such should be allowed, and a few went further, taking the law into their own hands, and bringing them to the Lord’s’ Table on their own responsibility, without consulting any one, claiming on the ground, that as “The Lord’s Table was for all the Lord’s people,” they were at liberty to bring any week-end visitor, whom they recognized to be a Christian, and set him down at the Lord’s Table, with the same ease, as if it were their own tea table; the same individual in many cases being announced to preach in a Free Church, a Baptist Chapel, or Gospel Mission, on the same evening, where collections are taken from the ungodly; where instrumental music and many unscriptural practices are recognized and upheld.

Need you wonder, that young believers were stumbled; others driven to schisms, parties and cliques formed within assemblies, which have rent many, and reduced others to “All sectarian Missions,” with little to distinguish them from the world’s religious denominations. But the Word of the Lord will stand and must be held fast, notwithstanding all the failures of men. I believe God has used all this as a testing and sifting process, and that there will come forth to be maintained in more lowly but godly ways, a feeble but true testimony to the Name of the Lord Jesus Christ, and to the great truths of the present time-His Headship, His Lordship, His Coming, with the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, by whom alone such a testimony can be sustained.

May we be found always in such a spiritual condition that we shall not be hinderers, but “fellow workers with the Truth.” (3 John 8)

This then, is a brief but true account of some changes, which you would observe among certain assemblies well known to you in years gone by. There is still a measure of the former simplicity and warmth in many country and village gatherings, where believers are cast in their weakness upon God, and where the old spirit of persecution dies hard. But in the cities, where worldliness has made terrible inroads, especially among some who take the place of leaders and preachers, there is increasing departure from the Lord’s way, and I fear, deep and determined hostility to all who through grace would seek to hold fast and act upon the Truth of God. This is grievous, but it is no more than we are taught to expect, and to prepare ourselves to meet, in the strength of the Lord and His grace. (2 Tim. 3:1)