Unity of the Spirit and "Lines of Fellowship" - Matt Dabbs

Paul was much more ecumenical than I was growing up. The more I read Paul the more divisive I became, not because of what Paul wrote but because of how I read Paul. I read Paul looking for the rules, not that they aren’t there but that I found what I was looking for even when it wasn’t there. I read Paul looking for the marks the true believer and the true church. In reading Paul with that intent I missed the obvious – Paul was more inclusive than I was in terms of who are Christians and who are not. Here is what I missed – Paul was writing to people he believed were Christians and yet were in error on various matters. I read Paul’s correction as lines of fellowship that never registered with me that Paul himself never kept or observed.

I believe this comes out of a faulty way of reading the Bible. I also believe this level of divisiveness comes from a misunderstanding of fellowship. In the New Testament fellowship is about partnership and partnership is about participation. What is so odd about the way the more divisive among us view fellowship is not about partnership at all but about doctrine. It isn’t about gospeling together but about who believes what. What puts you in fellowship is what you believe on a whole slew of issues. Believe wrong on one of those and you are “out of fellowship.” There are certainly beliefs that put you outside of the Christian faith but it is not on any and every issue, again refer to Paul. More on that in a moment. But in the New Testament fellowship presumes presence. You cannot disfellowship someone you aren’t united with and participating with in the Gospel. You are not really in fellowship with someone you aren’t present with. You may be in some ontological/existential way – but not in the same way the biblical writers typically envisioned it.

God wants His people to be united and that unity doesn’t come from a checklist of 100 doctrines that fit the predetermined pattern. That unity comes from the Spirit. If there is some sort of existential use of fellowship that goes beyond the local congregation and believers you actually know it is the unity that the Spirit brings to the universal people of God. The Spirit’s checklist is not the same checklist that I see people using today on who is “in fellowship” and who is not. I know that because I believe the Spirit inspired Paul to write what he wrote and so Paul and the Spirit are in agreement on this – that we don’t draw lines of fellowship around things that the Bible itself, through the inspiration of the Spirit who brings unity, didn’t draw Himself.

What lines does the Spirit draw in the Word the Spirit inspired? When lines of fellowship are drawn in the New Testament they are usually drawn around morality issues rather than doctrinal issues. When they are drawn around doctrinal issues they are drawn around the very basic core essentials of the Christian faith (like Jesus is Lord) and not a litany of tradition and prooftexts. This is interesting because I have known people who lived horrible lives but were dedicated Christians because they followed the pattern of the New Testament teaching. The lines are drawn in all the wrong places because they aren’t drawn where the Bible itself draws them. People get more concerned over someone being wrong on instrumental music than they do that someone is a glutton or having an affair. It is as if the moral issue can be forgiven but the doctrinal cannot and so the lines are drawn.

The path forward is to only draw the same lines we see drawn in scripture and yes, there are lines in scripture. This is, of course, only important if you want to be biblical!

By Matt Dabbs, October 24, 2020 - This article was originally posted in Wineskins on May 31, 2018 - Reprinted here by permission. 

Matt Dabbs is a minister and the managing editor of Wineskins.org. Matt earned a M.Div. from Harding University. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching.  Matt and Missy are raising two wonderful boys in Auburn, Alabama.