Project Wittenberg

The Nature and Implications of the
Concept of Fellowship

Part I

A Report of the
Commission on Theology and Church Relations
of the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod
April 1981

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Part I


- Introduction

- I. The Nature of Fellowship

    - A. The Scriptural Concept of Fellowship
      - 1. Fellowship: Having Part in a Community Thing
      - 2. Fellowship: A Spiritual Relationship Which Is Given
        - a. Unity with Christ
        - b. Unity in the Church, the Body of Christ
      - 3. Fellowship: An External Relationship to Be Manifested and Maintained
        - a. "Forbearing One Another in Love"
        - b. For the Sake of the Spiritual Unity of the Church
    - B. Scriptural Principles of Fellowship
- II. The Implications of the Nature of Fellowship for Church-Body-Level Relationships
    - A. Principles -- Not Specific Procedures for Individual Cases
    - B. A Brief Review of the Church's Application of the Sriptural Principle of Fellowship
    - C. Models for the External Unity in the Church
      - 1. Conciliarity
      - 2. Reconciled Diversity
      - 3. Selective Fellowship
      - 4. Ecclesiastical Declaration of Altar and Pulpit Fellowship
- Conclusion
- Postscript: A Plea for Responsible Freedom in the Contest of Responsible Commitment


Many complex and sensitive problems regarding inter-Christian relationships confront Christendom today. The multiplicity of denominations and movements, the high degree of mobility in the modern world, and the proliferation of ideologies and beliefs complicate the efforts of Christians to build relationships at both the individual and church-body levels which will be faithful not only to the Biblical mandates to proclaim and preserve the pure Gospel but also to the Scriptural exhortations to show love for all people and especially for fellow members of the household of faith.

Members of The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod are not exempt from the effects of these developments. Lay members of the Synod are seeking guidance regarding participation in numerous kinds of joint activities with members of other Christian churches in Bible study groups, mass evangelism programs, interdenominational workshops and retreats, and a variety of religious associations. Pastors are increasingly confronted with requests to take part in ecumenical weddings, funerals, and occasional services and rallies of every description. Many congregations are discussing their policy for admission to Holy Communion, and the question is frequently asked: "How much agreement with another church body is necessary before altar and pulpit fellowship can be declared?" Some today are even questioning whether ecclesiastical declarations of altar and pulpit fellowship are workable in this age of "ambiguous denominationalism." [1] It is in the context of questions such as these that the Commission on Theology and Church Relations has prepared this report in response to a 1977 request of the Synod that it "prepare a comprehensive report on the nature and implications of the concept of fellowship." [2]

The CTCR has attempted to involve the entire Synod in the preparation of this report. In 1978 it conducted 55 synodwide conferences involving over 4,000 pastors, teachers, and directors of Christian education on the topic "Formula for Concord." A Bible Study on Fellowship, which included a response questionnaire for the use of congregations and individuals, was distributed in January of 1980 to all congregations of the Synod and to pastors not serving congregations. The CTCR is grateful to all those who took the time to participate in these discussions and to share with the Co mmission the insights which they gained through these studies of the S criptures and the Lutheran Confessions on the subject of fellowship.

The discussions which took place in the "Formula for Concord" conferences and the responses to the Bible Study on Fellowship indicate that both aspects of the Commission's assignment to prepare a report on the nature and implications of the concept of fellowship are in need of clarification. On the one hand, the discussion of the nature of fellowship is complicated by the fact that the word "fellowship" itself is frequently used to refer to a number of different relationships, often without an awareness that this is being done. On the other hand, the discussion of the implications of fellowship is made more difficult by the frequent failure to distinguish between the principles which should guide inter-Christian relationships and their application at different levels.

In the first part of this document the Commission presents an overview of what God's Word teaches about the nature of fellowship, together with a listing of the basic Scriptural principles which should guide Christians in the relationships with one another. Section 11 discusses the implications of the principles for church-body-level relationships. The CTCR concludes this report with a suggestion that the Synod continue to study the topic of fellowship by directing its attention specifically to the application of the principles of fellowship presented in this report at the congregation pastoral, and individuals levels. [3]



    1. Fellowship: Having Part in a Common Thing

    In the New Testament the word koinonia (and its cognates), the Greek term for fellowship, appears in a number of places. This is the word which St. Paul uses to refer to the offering which the churches of Macedonia collects for the saints in Jerusalem (Rom. 15:26; 2 Cor.9:13; cf. also 2 Cor. 8:4). The apostle also employs it with reference to the relationship existing between the wine and the blood and the bread and body of Christ received by participants in the Sacrament of the Altar, who, though many, are one body in Christ (1 Cor. 10:16-17). Not only does St. Paul speak of the Philippia Christians as "partakers (synkoinonoi) with me of grace" (Phil. 1:7), but he also says that partaking (synkoinoneo, koinoneo) in the sins of others is to be avoided (Eph. 5:11; 1 Tim. 5:22). Luke calls James and John partners (koinonoi) with Simon in the fishing business (Luke 5:10).

    The New Testament describes Christians as partners who share in the Gospel (1 Cor. 9:23), in faith (Philemon 6), in sufferings and comfort (Phil. 3:10; 2 Cor. 1:7; Rev. 1:9), in the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 13:14; Phil. 2:1), and in eternal glory (1 Peter 5:1). St. Paul tells the Corinthians that they have been called "into the fellowship (koinonia) of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord" (Cor. 1:9), and St. John writes that he proclaims that which he has seen and heard "so that you may have fellowship (koinonia) with us; and our fellowship (koinonia) is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ" (1 John 1:3). St. Luke reports (Acts 2:42) that the early Christians "devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship" (koinonia), and St. Paul writes that when James, Cephas, and John "perceived the grace that was given to me," they gave to him and Barnabas "the right hand of fellowship" (koinonia) (Gal.2:9).

    Without referring to every place where koinonia (and its cognates) appears in the New Testament, it can be concluded that this is a term which has as its root meaning "having part in a common thing." [4] It is with this meaning in mind that the New Testament writers use it to refer to a variety of relationships. Important in this discussion on the nature of fellowship in the context of inter-Christian relationships is the fact that koinonia most frequently appears in connection with that spiritual unity which exists in the body of Christ (e.g.,1 Cor.1:9; 1 John 1:3), but it is also used at times to refer to the attempts of Christians to manifest this unity externally (e.g., Acts 2:42; Gal. 2:9). It dare not be overlooked, however, that the Scriptures also have much to say about each of these two distinct (but not separate) relationships without making specific use of the term koinonia at all. For example, this word appears neither in Paul's discussion of spiritual unity in the body of Christ in Eph.4:1-6 nor in Christ's High Priestly Prayer in John 17:20 f., nor is it used in many of those sections of Scripture which exhort Christians to guard the truth and to live together in the church in an external relationship of peace and love on the basis of agreement in God's Word (e.g.,1 Cor.1:10; 2 Tim. 1:13-14).

    The implications of that which has just been stated are clear. This study on fellowship will have to be more than a mere word study on the meaning and usages of koinonia in the New Testament. If we are to be faithful to the Scriptural understanding of the nature of fellowship in the context of inter-Christian and inter-church relationships, then it will be necessary not only to examine those sections of the Scriptures where the word koinonia appears but also to take into account what God's Word has to say about the spiritual unity which is given with faith in Christ and to heed the guidance the Scriptures give to Christians regarding external unity in the church.

    2. Fellowship: A Spiritual Relationship Which Is Given

      a. Unity with Christ

      Even before the foundation of the world, God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ planned for our redemption and chose us to be His sons and daughters (Eph. 1:3-14). Although God had created the human race to be in fellowship with Him (Gen. 1:26-29; 2:16-17), this relationship was destroyed when Adam and Eve yielded to the temptation of Satan and transgressed His command (Gen. 3). But in the fullness of time God, in accordance with His plan, sent His Son Jesus Christ, "born of woman, born under the Law, to redeem those who were under the Law" (Gal. 4:4). St. Paul tells the Galatians that "in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ" (Gal. 3:26-27). "By the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit" God unites us with Christ and makes us "heirs in hope of eternal life" (Titus 3:5-7). The apostle Paul writes: "Justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 5:1). We are given access by faith to His grace (Rom 5:2).

      Fellowship with Christ is therefore given with faith in Him. Through the means of grace God offers and conveys to us forgiveness for our sins. By Baptism we are incorporated into the body of Christ, and we are now privileged to call God "Father." The treasures of forgiveness, life, and salvation are ours already now in this life through faith. Furthermore, the Holy Spirit works through the Word and sacraments to preserve us in union with our Savior until He returns on the last day. This vertical relationship of spiritual unity with Christ is not something we can achieve. It is a gift from God to all believers in Jesus Christ.

      b. Unity in the Church, the Body of Christ

      Faith not only places believers in Christ into a spiritual fellowship with their Lord, but it also unites them with one another. St. Paul writes: "There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all who is above all and through all and in all" (Eph. 4:4-6). The apostle refers to Christ as "the Head of the body, the church" (Col. 1:18), and he says that "we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another" (Rom. 12:5). This means that, properly speaking, there is only one church. [5]

      Since the one holy Christian church (una sancta ecclesia) includes believers in Christ, its members are to be found throughout the world in Christian denominations where the Gospel is taught and the sacraments are administered. (Is. 55:10-11; Rom. 1:16-17, 10:17; Matt. 13:37 f.; 26:26-28; Gal. 3:27-28; 1 Cor. 1:2; 2 Tim. 2:19a). The members of this church do not exist as pebbles in a box but as branches on a vine (John 15:5). "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, among those who have put on Christ in Baptism, for they are "all one in Christ Jesus" (Gal. 3:28). Christ speaks of members of His body as being one "even as Thou, Father, art in Me, and I in Thee" (John 17:21). But not all who are listed as members of Christian churches are necessarily included in this fellowship, for church rosters may contain the names of unbelievers and hypocrites. [6]

      Like the vertical fellowship of the believer with Christ, this spi ritual unity which binds all true Christians together in a horizontal relationship in the body of Christ is a gift from God and not the product of human efforts.

    3. Fellowship: An External Relationship to Be Manifested and Maintained [7]

      a. "Forbearing One Another in Love"

      Since it is faith in the heart which binds believers together with Christ and with one another, no human eye can see this spiritual unity. But there is an inner dynamic to faith in Jesus Christ which works toward an external unity embracing all those who confess faith in Jesus Christ (1 Cor. 1:10). What the church is by God's design is what He wants the church to show itself to be--one--so that "the world may believe" (John 17:21). The Scriptures, therefore, exhort Christians to manifest the unity which has already been given them by virtue of their incorporation into the body of Christ. St. Paul writes: "I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:1-3). Those who have been grafted into Him who is the true vine are to bear the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22). Having been incorporated by Baptism into the body of Christ, they should manifest love for the fellow members of His body. Love for the brethren, writes St. John, is evidence that we have "passed out of death into life" (1 John 3:14; cf. Eph. 5:2). This external unity, although involving human efforts, is also a gift from God.

      To the extent that love controls their conduct, Christians seek fellow believers in Jesus Christ in order to build them up and to be built up them (Rom. 1:11-12). Love rejoices with those who rejoice, it weeps those who weep (Rom. 12:15; 1 Cor. 12-13). It works to strengthen weak, encourage the strong, and admonish the erring (Gal.6: 1-2). Above it seeks to help fellow believers remain faithful to Christ and to His Word. This love may in certain situations lead members of the church to separate themselves from fellow Christians and even to exercise church discipline although it be with many tears (1 Cor. 5:5; 2 Cor. 2:4).

      b. For the Sake of the Spiritual Unity of the Church

      Error in the understanding and use of the Scriptures threatens unity with Christ and with the saints. Since teachings contrary to God's Word Iead away from Christ and not to Him, it is necessary that the Gospel be preached purely and the sacraments administered rightly. Love for Him who is Truth and for the saints for whom He died will have nothing to do subverting or compromising in any way the only means through which Christians are made one with Christ and with one another.

      Members of the body of Christ are therefore commanded by God to seek external unity in the church for the sake of the spiritual unity of the church. The Holy Scriptures exhort Christians to teach sound doctrine as it is given in the writings of the prophets and apostles and to defend and preserve the Gospel against all error. It is for the sake of the spiritual unity of the church that the Old Testament prophets repeatedly speak out against false prophets and their false teachings (e.g., Deut. 13:1-5; Jer. 9:13-15). It is for the sake of the spiritual unity of the church that Jesus Himself warns against false prophets who come in sheep's clothing (Matt. 7:15; cf. Acts 20:28-30) and commissions His disciples to "observe all that I have commanded you" (Matt. 28:19-20). It is for the sake of the spiritual unity of the church that St. Paul condemns those who "pervert the Gospel of Christ" (Gal. 1:7), that he stresses the necessity of avoiding those who cry "dissensions and difficulties, in opposition to the doctrine which you have been taught" (Rom. 16:17) [8], and that he encourages his co- worker Titus "hold firm to the sure Word" and rebuke "sharply" those who "reject truth" (Titus 1:9-16).

      Moreover, the Gospel which Christians cherish they are also to proclaim. The church's commission to proclaim the Good News is part God's plan to unite all things together in Christ (Eph. 1:3-10; 3:7). Believers are God's chosen witnesses (Acts 1:8). Through the Word which the church proclaims, people actually receive forgiveness for their sins and become fellow citizens with the saints and members of God's household (Eph. 2:19).


    1. Spiritual fellowship with Christ and with all believers is given with faith in the heart (fides qua) [10]

    (1 Cor.1:2; John 10:16; 17:20-21; Rom. 3:28; 12:4-5; 1 Cor. 12:4 f.; Eph. 1:15-23; 2:8-9; 4:3-6; Gal. 3:26-28; 1 John 1:1-4. Cf. AC, VII, 2; Ap, VII and VIII, 5, 31; SC, II, 5). All Christians are united in a spiritual unity with Christ by faith in the heart (fides qua). As members of the one holy Christian church they are also one with every other Christian who lives or who has ever lived on the face of the earth.

    2. Faith in the heart (fides qua) comes into being through the power of the Holy Spirit working through the Gospel

    (Mark 16:16; Rom. 1:16-17; 10:17; 1 Cor. 1:21; 4:15; 12:3; 2 Thess. 2:14; John 17:20; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 1:23. Cf. AC, V; AC, VII, 1, 2; IX, 1, 2; XIII, 1; Ap, VII and VIII, 8; SC, II, 6; IV, 1-14.) The word Gospel is here used in its narrow sense (i.e., "the delightful proclamation of God's grace and favor acquired through the merits of Christ") [11] Faith in the heart (fides qua) is produced not by the teaching that the Bible is a holy book, not by the acceptance of the inerrancy of Scripture, and not by concern for pure doctrine, but only by the Holy Spirit working through the means of grace, i.e. Word and sacrament.

    3. For the church today Holy Scripture is the only judge, rule, and norm of the Gospel

    (Ps. 119:105; Luke 1:1-4; John 20:31; Rom. 1:2; 15:4; 1 Thess. 2:13; 2 Tim. 3:15-16; Gal.1:8. Cf. LC, V,31-32; Ap, IV, 81; Ap, XV, 17; FC Ep, Rule and Norm, 1-2; FC SD, Rule and Norm, 3; SA, II, ii, 15). Although the first proclamation of the Gospel preceded the writings of the prophets and apostles, for us today in the post-apostolic church Holy Scripture is the only norm for the preaching and teaching of the Gospel. The Holy Spirit creates faith in the heart through the Scriptural Gospel. Any qualification of the divine authority of Scripture (for example, through the use of historical criticism as it has been developed over the past two hundred years in the investigation of Scripture) endangers the Gospel in the narrow sense and consequently the unity of the church.

    4. Good works flow out of faith and are responses to the Gospel

    (John 15:1-11; 17:17; Eph. 4:1-3; Gal. 5:6; 1 Peter 1:22; 1 John 3:14; 4:7-12. Cf. AC, XX, 27-34; Ap, IV, 74, 106, 111; XII, 37, 82; FC Ep, IV, 11; FC SD, III, 27; IV, 9-12). Justification comes before sanctification. Apart from faith in the Gospel there can be no good works. But when the Holy Spirit is given through faith, the heart is moved to do good works. In the same way that faith precedes good works, it is proper and necessary to speak of the priority the truth of the Gospel over love.

    5. Love, which heads the list of "the fruit of the Spirit," always seeks the edification of the members of the body of Christ

    (Gal. 5:22-25; 6:1-5; 1 Cor. 8:1; 13:4-7; 14:12; 2 Cor. 2:4; Rom.15:1-3; 12:9-13; Eph. 4:15-16; Col. 3:14-15. Cf. Ap, IV, 125, 225-226, 231- 232; FC SD, IV, 10-12). Love, which is a response to the Gospel, stands uppermost in the realm sanctification (1 Cor.13). But because love always seeks the edification of the members of Christ's body, it manifests itself in a variety of ways, depending on the situation and need. At one time it shows itself in tears, at another time in rejoicing, at yet another time in admonition, but never by compromising the means by which the spiritual unity of the church comes into being.

    6. The confession of the apostolic faith (fides quae) [12] as it is taught in the Scriptures is mandated by God for the sake of the edification and extension of Christ's body, the church

    (Matt. 28: 18-20; l Tim. 1:3-5; 6:3f.; 2 Tim. 2:14-18; Acts 20:28-32; Gal. 2:4-5, 14; Eph. 4:14-16; Heb. 13:9. Cf. Preface to The Book of Concord, p. 13; Preface to Apology, 15-17; Ap, XX, 6-8; FC SD, Rule and Norm, 14 f.). Faith in the heart (fides qua) continues to be saving faith as long as it has as its object the Scripture Gospel of Jesus Christ. God therefore commands that the church teach and confess the faith (fides quae) as it has been recorded by the prophets and apostles in order that the body of Christ may be edified and extended.

    7. Church fellowship (in the sense of external unity in the church) is constituted by agreement in the faith which is confess, (fides quae) and not by faith in the heart (tides qua) [13]

    (Matt. 3:12; 13:24-30, 36-43; 1 Cor. 1:10; 2 Tim. 1:13-14; 2:19; Gal. 2:9; Acts 2:42. Cf. Ap, VII and VIII, 12-13, 17-19; Preface to The Book of Concord, p. 6; FC SD, XI, 94-96; FC SD, VII, 33; FC SD Rule and Norm, 14; FC SD, Rule and Norm, 1). Faith in the heart (fides qua) is, to be sure, presupposed in those who confer faith in the Gospel. However, if this faith in the heart constituted church fellowship, it would be impossible to speak of church fellowship in the sense of external unity in the church, since spiritual fellowship in the body of Christ is a matter of faith in the heart (Thesis I) and is hidden from human eyes. [14] According to the Scriptures, external unity in the church is a matter of the right confession of the prophetic and apostolic faith.

    8. The refusal to affirm church fellowship (in the sense of external unity in the church) with those who do not confess the faith (tides quae) as it is taught in the Scriptures is not an optional matter but a Scriptural mandate

    (Rom. 16:17-20; Gal. 1:6f.; Matt. 7:15-16; Acts 19:8-10; Titus 1:9-16; 2 John 9-11; 2 Thess. 3:14; Treatise, 41-44; FC SD, X, 21 f.; AC, XXVIII, 21-26, FC SD, VII, 33). Just as the law of Christian love leads members of the body of Christ to assume that faith (fides qua) exists in the heart of all those who profess faith in the Gospel (narrow sense), so it also, in the interest of the Gospel and that faith, forbids the affirmation of church fellowship where there is a lack of agreement in the confession of the faith (fides quae). [15] Although the Scriptures do not present a timetable or the specific procedures to be followed in delineating external relational with those who do not correctly confess the faith (fides quae), they do clearly teach that separation from them (refusal to affirm or continue church fellowship) is commanded by God.

    9. The quest for church fellowship (in the sense of external unity in the church), as well as its acknowledgment when agreement in confession of the faith has been achieved, are not optional matters but Scriptural mandates

    (Rom. 12:14-21; 15:5-6; Eph. 4:1-3; 1 Cor. 1:10-13; 2 Cor. 13:11; Gal. 2:9; Phil. 4:2. Cf. Preface to The Book of Concord, pp. 13-14; Preface to the Augsburg Confession, 4, 10; FC SD, Rule and Norm, 14; X, 31) [16] The refusal of church fellowship for any reason other than disagreement in the confession of the faith (e.g., differences in ceremony polity, national origin, language), violates the law of Christian love, even as does all loveless and misguided "concern" for the truth. Separatism (sectarianism) is condemned by God's Word. The Scriptures command those who are one in Christ both to seek agreement in the confession of faith (fides quae) with all those who profess faith in Christ and to acknowledge the existence of church fellowship once this agreement been reached.


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Rev. Robert E. Smith
Walther Library
Concordia Theological Seminary.

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