Ηaving spent the last few months contemplating the theme of forgiveness, we cannot now conclude without turning our attention finally to perhaps one of the greatest needs that confront those who bear local church testimony in this generation: the need of forgiveness and fellowship between assemblies. Discord among the body of Christ is a poignant reality, and it’s with genuine sadness that any mature believer observes such conditions within the global sphere of professing Christian testimony. The witness of the Church has been marred by fleshly actions down the centuries, bringing into disrepute the precious Name of our Lord Jesus Christ and dishonouring His desire for unity. We catch the sentiment of Samuel Stone in his precious hymn concerning the church, “though with a scornful wonder, men see her sore oppressed, by schisms rent asunder, by heresies distressed,” and wonder what God feels, as He alone knows the true cost to purchase this Bride for His Son.
In the NT there was not only fellowship within a local assembly (Act 2:42) but fellowship with local assemblies, even in spite of diverse and serious problems that assailed many of them. It’s clear when we come to the seven assemblies in Revelation 2-3 that the Lord never envisaged them as isolationists, without fellowship of each other, but instructed them to share their letters, for what was written to one was applicable for all (Rev 1:11). Paul, likewise under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, advised the assembly in Colossae to pass on their respective letter to the assembly in Laodicea and vice versa (Col 4:15-16). All of this naturally requires fellowship, and demonstrates to us that in spite of perplexing difficulties among them, they sought to maintain that principle which our Lord desires – fellowship among assemblies.
In the presence of God, I hang my head in shame, acknowledging that numerous longstanding divisions among present-day assemblies have been caused, not by doctrinal error but by petty feuds, influencing who has fellowship with whom, based upon manmade dictates. Tragically, there have been past personality clashes of prominent teachers which affect fellowship between assemblies, not only within a country but across the globe, and a subsequent generation has been caused to carry the can and perpetuate the strife. We would have to confess that if such attitudes had been accepted in the NT, fellowship between assemblies would have been minimal or perhaps non-existent.
Reading 3rd John, I am reminded that fellowship among assemblies is certainly not based on the grounds of human rules and regulations, and any sectarian behaviour that divides them in this manner is plainly sinful. Certain “groups” of assemblies have attempted to protect “their own” by forming an identity under a certain banner, but this is contrary to the teaching of 1 Corinthians 1:1-15, and though it may seem to work for a while, it will never bring lasting blessing. Each local assembly is responsible to see the little flock taught in accordance with the Word of God, and it’s that which will fortify the saints. If the assembly at Corinth had been in a neighbouring town, one may have advised the assemblies in the region to avoid it. But Paul informs us that not only did all the churches of Asia warmly embrace them but Aquila and Priscilla likewise did with the church that was in their house (1Co 16:19). All the brothers connected with Paul at Ephesus sent their warm greetings too! Paul also encouraged Apollos, Titus and Timothy to visit this assembly in all their need.
Is it possible that where contention and factional conditions have existed among assemblies, forgiveness can be experienced and fellowship between them enjoyed once again? Absolutely! But this requires humility. If we’ve learned anything in these studies, it’s that when one is prepared to take the first step toward forgiveness with a view to reconciliation, they reflect the very heart of God Himself. We’re not to bury our heads in the sand, refusing to deal with issues just because a past generation ignored them. Dealing with such issues is an unavoidable requirement for a successive generation. Turning back to the nation of Israel, we see certain men facing the fact that problems of the past now plagued the present and needed to be addressed for progress to be made. How delightful when we see the humility of one assembly willing to accept responsibility for past failings and another prepared to forgive in the process of reconciliation. We recognise the impossibility of this being accomplished in human strength, and we need the power and guidance of the Holy Spirit to enable in these matters. In certain cases, details of past grievances are unknown and it’s best to leave them with God, continuing in the present to develop and enjoy fellowship in accordance with the Scriptures. As with all things, the first move is always the hardest, but what blessing can flow as a result. Beloved, considering that we are undeserving of God’s unhesitating attitude of forgiveness towards us, we are obligated to act rather than look for reasons to prolong the unhappy discord of a former day.
Concluding this topic of forgiveness, we do so with a reluctant spirit. The subject is exceedingly vast and has been both challenging and humbling to consider. Who of us can plumb the depths of what it cost God to secure such freedom from sin, absolution from guilt, releasing us from its binding power and translating us into the Kingdom of the Son of His love? There is forgiveness that causes us to enjoy fellowship with our heavenly Father and with each other as fellow saints, forgiveness that restores us in an avenue of service for God, forgiveness that sweetens the pathway of marriage and opens doors to fellowship within assemblies.
Musing further upon the eternal effects of forgiveness, one feels like a child at the edge of a vast ocean. May we wholly be found going in for it. We could not close with more appropriate words: “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Psa 133:1 KJV).