We believe that as Christians we should be continually devoting ourselves to fellowship” (Acts 2:42). This fellowship is based on our common relationship “with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). It involves a sharing of our lives in Christ with one another. This manifests itself in many ways, such as enjoying time together in worship, prayer, and Bible study, welcoming one another into our homes, and sharing our resources with those in need (Acts 2:44-46; Romans 15:26; 1 Corinthians 13:1-13; 1 Thessalonians 2:8).
We believe that our fellowship as Christians extends to all true believers. Together we are the church of God (Galatians 1:13), “the body of Christ” (Ephesians 4:12). We refer to the church as a whole as the universal church. The universal church is one: “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism” (Ephesians 4:4,5).
We believe that Christian fellowship should also be expressed between churches. In Scripture we find reference to the church in various locations: “the church in Jerusalem” (Acts 8:1), “the church at Antioch” (Acts 13:1), “the church of God which is at Corinth (1 Corinthians 1:2). Scripture refers to them collectively as “the churches of Christ” (Romans 16:16). We refer to the churches in various locations as local churches.
We believe that Christians gathering together as a local church should be one, making every effort to maintain their unity (1 Corinthians 1:10).
We apply these doctrines as follows
Fellowship in the Universal Church
Though the Scriptures teach that each local church is autonomous, reporting directly to the Lord, they also teach that churches are interconnected in Christ. Christians should pray for one another and show loving concern (2 Corinthians 11:28). They should be an example and encouragement to one another (1 Thessalonians 1:7; 2:14; 2 Thessalonians 1:4). They should be willing to support those churches which are in need (Galatians 2:10; 2 Corinthians 8:1). They should cooperate whenever possible in reaching their common goals. This should be especially evident among likeminded churches in a region, participating together in ministries such as church planting, leadership training, Christian publishing, campus outreach, evangelistic meetings, newsletters and magazines, and children’s camps. Conferences with a missionary or teaching focus are also an effective way to pull together and strengthen relations between churches.
In all that we do, we should be careful not to form sectarian, elitist, or critical attitudes toward other Christians who practice their faith differently than we do (Romans 14:1; 2 Timothy 2:14). We recognize that God is at work in many Christian groups today, using them for His glory. We should be teachable and able to learn from them, even if we cannot agree with all of their practices (Romans 1:11,12). We should express the unity of the universal church by acknowledging as brothers and sisters in the Lord all who truly know Him, regardless of their church affiliation. We should be open and gracious toward them in Christian love. It is our blessing to rejoice in every triumph of the gospel (Mark 9:39,40; Philippians 1:18).
This is not to say that we are to accept all who claim to be Christian regardless of their doctrine or conduct. Some have so tainted their testimony with such aberrant practices and sinful conduct that fellowship is no longer possible (Romans 16:17-19; 1 Thessalonians 5:22; 2 Thessalonians 3:6-15; 1 Timothy 6:3-5). Some churches no longer preach the gospel and have departed from the faith. This falling away or apostasy is predicted in Scripture (1 Timothy 4:1; 2 Timothy 3:1-9; Thessalonians 2:1-3). Some have “another Jesus . . . a different spirit . . . or a different gospel (2 Corinthians 11:4). Others hold to a false gospel of salvation through faith plus good works, the same heresy condemned by the book of Galatians. Our God is a jealous God (Exodus 20:5; 34:14; Deuteronomy 5:9). We cannot participate in prayer or worship with false Christians or with people of other religions (Exodus 20:3-6; 2 Corinthians 6:14-18; 1 John 5:21; Revelation 18:4,5).
Unity in the Local Church among Believers
Unity within the local church cannot be achieved without love. It is “the perfect bond of unity” (Colossians 3:14). Love brings brothers and sisters in Christ together. Above all,” the Spirit reminds us, “keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8).
Unity is only possible among humble people. Pride and division go hand-in-hand (Proverbs 13:10). Significantly, the same passages that tells us to be “of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose” (Philippians 2:2), also tells us: “Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself; do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others” (Philippians 2:3,4). The Lord Jesus is the perfect example (Philippians 2:5-11).
For a local church to remain united, those in fellowship must be careful in their speech. The Bible tells us, “Do not speak against one another, brethren” (James 4:11). Spreading a bad report, grumbling, or gossiping can only cause disunity in the body. Scripture warns that the tongue is a small part of the body, and yet it boasts of great things. Behold, how great a forest is set aflame by such a small fire!” (James 3:5). The tongue can divide a church, destroying the work of God. This is a very serious sin that God will not tolerate (1 Corinthians 3:17). They should also remember that the Lord considers grumbling against His delegated shepherds to be grumbling against Himself (Exodus 16:8). A careless or mean-spirited word can also damage a person’s reputation. A good rule of thumb is to not speak to others about an offense or a complaint, unless the person is directly part of the problem or part of the solution. This normally means speaking to the person who offended, not others.
Likewise, we must be careful regarding that to which we listen. We should remind a person spreading his complaints through the church that he is responsible to go and speak privately and directly to the person with whom he has the problem. He should not be speaking to others in the church about the matter. In this way the person is encouraged to resolve the issue in a biblical manner and the problem is not spread further. Scripture says, “For lack of wood the fire goes out, and where there is no whisperer, contention quiets down” (Proverbs 26:20). Similarly, if the person has a complaint about how things are being done in the church, ask him to speak directly to the person in charge of the ministry in question or to speak to the elders of the church. In this way the appropriate person can address the problem without creating disunity in the church.
Unity in the Local Church between the Saints and the Elders
For the flock to be united, the elders must be men of conviction who know where they stand on important issues and are able to communicate their position to the flock. Elders must hold fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, that he may be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict” (Titus 1:9).
There may be times when some in the church do not understand or agree with a decision of the elders. At these times, they should trust their elders and pray for them. Often there are confidential matters involved that have affected the elders’ decision which they cannot share publicly. The congregation should take comfort in the fact that it is the elders, not they, who must give an account to the Lord for the flock.
When Christians disagree on matters of secondary importance with their elders, they should still submit to the decision of their elders as to what will be the position of the church and what will be publicly taught.
Christians who differ with their elders should refrain from trying to persuade others in the church of their own opinions or beliefs. This can only cause division (Romans 16:17; 2 Timothy 2:23-26; Titus 3:9-11). They should feel welcome to discuss the matter privately with their elders. They should be willing to study the Scriptures with their elders to resolve such differences. This will take time, commitment, and prayer. If in the end they are still unable to find agreement, it would be hoped that they could remain in fellowship in the assembly, holding their views privately. As to the fundamentals of the faith, there should be unity. As to matters of application and beliefs of secondary importance, there should be liberty. In all things there should be love, living our faith with balance, moderation, and mutual respect.
If for some reason a person who has different views is unable to remain in happy fellowship, he should find another church where he will be content. He should leave the church quietly and peacefully, not taking others with him, communicating with his elders, and hopefully receiving their blessing.
Maintaining unity in the local church is essential if the work of God is to go forward. When churches divide, the results are tragic and long lasting. When Christians overcome their problems, God is glorified and the saints grow in character and in their relationships. Even churches fragmented by pride, offenses, and controversies can be reunited with God’s help. The church of Corinth was in such a state, nevertheless Paul wrote to them, “I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you all agree, and there be no divisions among you, but you be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment” (1 Corinthians 1:10). Restoration to unity requires repentance. Once achieved, we must be “diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3).
Often broken relationships between individuals are the cause of division in the church. Even small offenses, if not covered by love or resolved in a biblical manner, can accumulate and drive people apart. Resolving an offense can be difficult, but is a necessary part of maintaining unity and love among Christians. Jesus outlined a four-step process for resolving offenses.
The first step is to talk to the person privately. Jesus taught, If your brother sins, go and reprove him in private; if he listens to you, you have won your brother” (Matthew 18:15). Beginning with prayer, the person should explain the nature of the offense to the offending party, stating it clearly and fairly. He should use the Scriptures, explaining how the person’s actions were contrary to God’s Word. He should avoid inflammatory words, overstating the matter, or dredging up long past events. He should express his desire to see the problem resolved and the relationship maintained. He should keep the situation private. Telling others about his offense would spread disunity and make resolution more difficult.
If the person refuses to listen to him, the second step is to take one or two persons along with him and go and confront the person again. The Lord said, “But if he does not listen to you, take one or two more with you, so that by the mouth of two or three witnesses every fact may be confirmed” (Matthew 18:16). Those accompanying him should be prepared to exhort the person who sinned to repent and to verify what is said.
Should this step also fail, the third step is to bring the matter before the church. “And if he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church” (Matthew 18:17). The person should inform the elders of the situation and give them time to deal with it. Should their personal efforts on behalf of the church also fail, they may decide to take the fourth and final step, that is, bringing the matter before the whole church for public discipline. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax-gatherer” (Matthew 18:17).
Though church discipline is regrettable it is often necessary both for the good of the sinning person and for maintaining the holiness of the church (Hebrews 12:5-11). Sometimes God disciplines straying Christians directly (1 Corinthians 11:29-32). Other times He gives the responsibility to the elders. This requires leaders who are firm, decisive, and impartial, as well as gentle, loving, and humble (James 2:1; 1 Timothy 5:21; Ephesians 4:15; Galatians 6:1). Unchecked sin can spread like leaven (1 Corinthians 5:6).
Elders should determine the facts carefully before forming an opinion (Proverbs 18:13). They should obtain the testimony of two or three witnesses (Matthew 18:16). They should not judge the case without speaking directly to the person and others who may be involved (John 7:24; 7:51). Many problems resolve themselves when elders take these steps.
As to the form of discipline, there are several options. Elders who are attentive pastors will sometimes observe a person just beginning to stray. Here they should use preventative measures, such as a private appeal, a reminder, or a gentle warning (1 Timothy 4:6; 5:1; Colossians 1:28; 3:16). At other times, a private rebuke is warranted. In the case of a serious sin that is public, a rebuke before the congregation after the Lord’s Supper may be necessary (Titus 1:13; 1 Timothy 5:20; Galatians 2:11-14). In the most serious cases of unrepented sin, excommunication may be necessary.
Elders should be careful to select the appropriate response and not overreact. Repentance, reconciliation, and restoration to full fellowship are always the goals in church discipline (2 Corinthians 2:6-11). Whatever the case, the elders should faithfully and carefully follow the steps outlined in Matthew 18:15-17.