Occasional Fellowship

...and its Limits

Arend Remmers

According to the scriptures, a local assembly has the liberty and the duty to receive visitors who desire this, if they meet the following qualifications: they are

1.       members of the body of Christ (1.Cor.10:17)

2.       pure in their walk (1.Cor.5:9-13)

3.       pure in doctrine (2. John 10-11)

4.       pure in associations (2 Tim. 2:21 ).

However, some have sought to argue that, on this basis, there is no problem with receiving a brother or a sister who used to be in fellowship with us but has left the ground of gathering, either by withdrawing from his or her home meeting, or because the home meeting had to separate from this believer. The purpose of this article is to show why this argument is untenable, and what the correct way of restoration is for such a believer.  

1. Reception of 'visitors' not applicable

In a number of assemblies believers who used to walk with us but are now separate from us due to shifts in doctrine and practice have been received for the breaking of bread. As justification for this they state that brethren have always received believers as visitors if they so wished, as long as they fulfilled the four conditions given above. In relation to the reception of ignorant visitors this is perfectly correct. But brothers such as JN Darby and W. Kelly made it clear that further important conditions apply which emphasise that in these exceptional cases it is really a matter of simple believers who have no knowledge of the ground of gathering according to the Scriptures. Today these conditions, unfortunately, are not known by many of those who advocate 'occasional fellowship', or they do not mention them.

I would like to briefly mention them here again for the sake of completeness:

a.) As we have stated already, according to the scriptures, a local assembly has the liberty and the duty to receive visitors who desire this, if they meet the qualifications mentioned above.

b.) It is necessary to instruct these believers in relation to the scriptural ground of gathering.

c.) The [visitor] who has been received in this way cannot afterwards 'alternate' between 'his church' and the scriptural ground of gathering because after his reception he is subject to discipline by the assembly (see among others the quotations [1] in: "Mit weitem Herzen auf schmalem Weg", CSV Hückeswagen 1992, page 77 etc. «Un Coeur large dans un chemin etroit», BPC, Valence 1993, page 79 etc.).

All of this shows that the practice of these brothers, at the time, was not a special or different kind of reception. The received visitor is subject to the discipline of the assembly. A different kind of reception cannot be derived from the scriptures, even if this would appear to the flesh as acceptable or 'loving'. In the cases under consideration, however, it is not a matter of 'ignorant visitors' but a matter of believers who know the scriptural ground of gathering and have left it or, to put it differently, who have separated from us because of the well known reasons (exceptions aside).  

2. Setting aside or despising assemblies

Normally the separations that have occurred in various assemblies have been preceded by long times of difficulties and by many conversations. In cases where those who changed their views on the breaking of bread and on the relationship between assemblies then finally left, or in cases where an assembly had to separate from them, it is impossible according to the Scriptures - which clearly teach the oneness of the assembly and of its testimony - that somebody who separated from us in this way should then be received for the breaking of bread somewhere else, without the normal relationship to his home assembly having been restored.

 

Obviously in such cases of separation a kind of discipline has taken place. It is true, the believers who are now separate from us have not been excluded but at least a communication in relation to them has been made locally and in most cases even a letter has been written stating that and why these believers are no longer in fellowship with us. If such a person - without the accord with his local meeting - is received for the breaking of bread elsewhere, one becomes guilty of the following mistakes:

(a) One is acting against "the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace", because one ignores the local gathering from which this believer is separate (Eph. 4:3). Similarly, someone who has "withdrawn" cannot just be received for the breaking of bread in a different place. If someone leaves one assembly he leaves all assemblies (except in case the meeting he left, itself, was on the wrong ground, but that is another case).

(b) One believes that one should show 'love' towards the one who has left the place of gathering, but in doing this one does not show love at all towards the meeting(s) which he left and with whom one is in fellowship. 'Love' of this kind is completely against the Holy Scriptures: "And the Lord make you to increase and abound in love one toward another, and toward all men , even as we do toward you" (1. Thess. 3:12).

(c) One becomes guilty by supporting insincerity in the assembly of God: this applies to the one who believes to be entitled to break bread in another assembly while he has left his home meeting, as well as to the receiving assembly that does not see anything wrong with someone who leaves the ground of gathering 'just like that'.

(d) One possibly becomes one with wrong teaching, practice and associations of the believer concerned (1 Tim. 5,22)."

The reproach has been brought forward against those who do not agree with this wrong practice of adding a fifth - unscriptural - condition for the reception to the breaking of bread (see above), namely: "A person cannot be received if recently separated from us". This is completely off the mark, for two reasons. First, it is not a matter of receiving ignorant visitors, and secondly, to say the least, it is overlooked that someone who recently separated from us cannot simply be admitted to the breaking of bread in any given assembly but only in the "local meeting" or, if this is not possible, in spiritual harmony with it.

3. The body of Christ or a 'Circle of meetings'?

One argument in favour of the reception of those who are under discipline or who have withdrawn elsewhere runs like this: "We see primarily the body of Christ and not a circle of meetings". This is an illegitimate trade-off between the unity of the body and the keeping of the unity of the Spirit. These two distinct sides of the same truth must not be played off against each other. The body of Christ and its unity are the result of the grace of God, of the redemptive work of Christ, and of the baptism with the Holy Spirit (1.Cor. 12; Eph. 1-3 etc.).  The keeping of the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Eph. 4:3), i.e. the matter of displaying the unity which God has made in our practical assembly life belongs, on the other hand, into the domain of the responsibility of the members of the body of Christ. The circle of those who keep the unity of the Spirit is - at least since the exclusion mentioned in 1 Cor. 5 - no longer identical with the body of Christ.

The history of the church demonstrates that Christendom has not kept its eye on the matter of keeping the unity of the Spirit. Not even all true believers aspire to this. But it is my desire - and also the desire of many brothers and sisters - to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Inextricably linked with this is the separation from every kind of evil, including insincerity and acting in independence of, or even against, (an)other meeting(s) (1. Cor. 5:22; 2 Tim. 2:19-22).

An intimation in this direction is provided by the fact that Paul writes about letters of commendation which have been necessary since the days of the apostles (2 Cor. 3:1). A letter of commendation derives its value from its sender. If the sender is unknown the letter of commendation carries no weight whatsoever. So these letters are the proof of decline but at the same time they show that even in times of decline and separation it is possible to show spiritual unity, not only locally, but also in a larger sphere. Therefore, a 'circle of meetings' that know each other is unavoidable, but also indispensable, otherwise there would be no reason to write letters of commendation. This does not automatically imply that outside of this circle there are no believers who, in all simplicity, desire to be faithful. If such a person comes to our meetings with the desire to break bread then this is possible under certain circumstances (see above: 'reception of visitors'). But the application of this procedure to believers who have left the known path is, in the light of these facts, inconceivable.

4. Annulling necessary separations?

The practice of receiving those we separated from would convey the impression that the separation the new and independent [2] principles was neither necessary nor justified. The fact that in some places unwise actions were taken is an occasion for deep humiliation, but this does not alter the correctness in principle, nor the necessity [3] , of this separation. Casual reception of believers who are separated in this way conveys the impression that one is trying to slowly turn the wheel back in the matter. One should consider the fact that, the longer the more distinctly, one ends up in the same position of identification with the ways of these believers.

Can believers who recently separated from us never break bread with us again? It must be the desire of each upright and loving believer that these sad - but necessary - separations may be healed in a way that pleases God. But the way indicated by the Scriptures is not the reception of these believers as visitors in other locations but rather mourning and return to their own home assemblies.

May the Lord lead us in His grace and through His Word in uprightness and true brotherly love until He will return to unite us with all those who are His in the glory of the Father's house.


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[1] Translator's note : the quotations in this book 'With a wide Heart on a Narrow Path" are from: 'Letters of JN Darby', vol. 2, pp.10-12;  pp.212-213; vol. 3, pp. 459.460; and "The Bible Treasury", vol. N 4, p. 64 (1902). See also "Reception" by Frank Wallace.

[2] The teaching that local assemblies are independent of one another, therefore only act for themselves and not also for and on behalf of the whole church of God (which would imply that assemblies are not bound, prima facie, by the discipline exerted by another assembly - in contradiction to Mt. 18:18).

[3] The 'open and independent' stand point is an imitation of the truth of the assembly of God on the earth - an imitation which is extremely cunning but carnal and therefore appealing to the flesh.