“That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.” (I John 1:3)
Now, isn’t that interesting? John states that the purpose for declaring what has been seen and heard about Christ was so that those being taught might “have fellowship” with the brethren. What does this mean? It is so that there might be a basis of common faith between John and the recipients of his letter. John teaches so that the instructees might be able to share in the same like precious hope, with the joy that it brings (v.4), as that held by the apostles. In a sense, John’s teaching to the recipients serves as a preparation for fellowship – once those being taught learn and understand the truths of the faith as taught in Scripture, there can be that much closer fellowship between these saints and the others who are with John, including the apostle himself. Having right doctrine – the things believed about Christ, the Bible, Christian living, etc. – enables Spirit-filled Christians to have unhindered fellowship in Christ. “Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3)
What this chapter really does is to some parameters that define our spiritual fellowship as Christians. We hear a lot about separation in fundamentalism, mostly in reference to II Corinthians 6:14-71, Romans 16:17-18, Ephesians 5:11, and so forth. Many people have the impression that separation, especially for doctrinal reasons (you know, “doctrine divides!,” said as if it were a bad thing), is “unloving,” “un-Christian” or even “unscriptural.” But, the Bible clearly tells God’s children to maintain doctrinal and personal purity. And perhaps somewhat counterintuitively, it is separation which actually MAINTAINS unity among true believers in a local church.
Fellowship is a word – koinonia – that goes beyond mere sociableness. It entails ideas of partnership, cooperation, intimate social intercourse, and benevolence in joint activity. To have fellowship doesn’t merely mean to sit around a table, eating and gabbing about the weather. Fellowship, in the sense the Bible indicates that members of a local church should have, is cooperative and binds the various members in a unity of structure that directs behaviour and group activity. By extension, this unity is between Christ and His church.
And all this is predicated on having right doctrine. Without that right doctrine, no true unity can exist. If you have believers and unbelievers in a religious body, or perhaps believers with right doctrine and those with doctrine that has gone askew, you don’t, you CAN’T, have true “fellowship” as the Biblical usage defines it. They will often, perhaps always, be working at cross purposes to each other on everything having to do with the Lord’s work. This is because doctrine does not exist in a vacuum. A person’s doctrine will lead to the concomitant practice in their lives. Orthodoxy should begat orthopraxy, and heterodoxy certainly WILL cause heteropraxy. John tells us that in his letter. After having given his stated intention of imparting correct doctrine so that there can be fellowship, John proceeds to point out that there is no darkness in Him, in the light of the truth of Scripture, no wrong action can escape unnoticed, and certainly no wrong action will be caused by properly-understood biblical truth. Implicit in this, then, is the assertion that failure to properly understand and/or hold to right doctrine will lead to darkness, something which is made explicit later on in this letter (2:4,19; 4:3, etc.) And we cannot properly say that we have fellowship with Him if we walk in darkness, if we’re in some way deviating from the truth of Scripture (v.6). Conversely, if we walk in the light, if our steps are guided by the truth of Scripture rightly understood, rather than twisted or taken out of context, then we DO have fellowship – both with Him, and with one another.
The fellowship of the saints, predicated upon right doctrine, then becomes practicable only when our PRACTICE, as guided by our doctrine, is in line with Scripture. Paul told Titus to teach those “things which become sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1), i.e. are fitting and true in light of Scriptural teaching. Immediately after come a whole list of behaviours that Titus was to try to inculcate into his church members as their pastor. In I John 5:2, we see,
“By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments.”
We really are being loving brethren to other children of God only when our lives are first centered upon Christ in active loyalty demonstrated by submission to His Word. When we allow sin into our lives, we break both types of fellowship. And if a professing Christian (who may not actually even be saved) leads a life more or less characterised by sin, then there cannot really ever be fellowship between him or her and faithful brethren in a church – since they walk not together in unity of purpose, and also the faithful brethren are required by Scripture to “have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness…” (Ephesians 5:11)
Hence, the doctrinal separation and separation from sin (which are in many ways two sides of the same coin), instead of being the horrible, un-Christian act of intolerance and mean-spiritedness which most Evangelicals make it out to be, is actually a lubricant to true Christian fellowship. It enables and strengthens the bonds of real fellowship in the body of Christ, the local church, as well as among like-minded brethren across churches, and it does so by dispensing with the false and friction-filled “fellowship” that gives many people warm and fuzzy feelings, but which hinders them from truly serving the Lord because it yokes them to those who are working against them in purpose and plan.