The False Fence of Fellowship

Growing up, there was a nasty concept that floated around my church culture like the pungent aroma of a chicken house. The notion of "guilt by association" was prominent among the preaching circles I hung out with in my younger years. But I admit that it never made a lot of sense to me, and I don't think it ever made sense to Dad either. The mindset says that if you associate with evil or wickedness or those in religious error, then they essentially "sully" you. Like throwing your wife's fine white linen tablecloth in with the clothes you just mowed the yard in.

For example, some would say it is wrong for me to speak at an event which has another speaker who associates with less-than-righteous people. That speaker doesn't have to be personally immoral or in error—just those with whom he has co-spoken at an event. In other words, guilt by association and six degrees of Bacon operate on the exact same principles.

Some would go further with this reasoning by saying that one cannot patronize restaurants that serve alcohol, gas stations that serve alcohol, attend award ceremonies that have dancing, or the like.

I'm open to the idea that I'm wrong on the guilt-by-association theory. But I would humbly like to share some reasons why I simply think it doesn't hold water. I present these for sincere consideration and discussion. I want to please God in all things, and I know you want to also.

1. Jesus ate with sinners.

Granted, I'm not foolish enough to think that's a novel point. But I do think it to be an important one. In fact, let's just take a moment (vs. taking it for granted) and reflect on the fact that GOD ATE WITH DIRTY SINNERS! Whores, cheats, and religious leaders wound a little too tight. What is more, Jesus would eat with sinners BEFORE demanding their repentance. In fact, wee little Zaccheus didn't repent until AFTER Jesus ate with him.

This isn't to say Jesus NEVER got around to addressing the spiritual elephant in the room. But one gains the impression that Jesus used warmth and sincerity to break down walls, paving the way for a productive discussion concerning whatever error or evil existed in a person's heart. When it comes to rebuking error and correcting sin, we would all do well to consider Jesus' example and Paul's reminder, "God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance" (Rom. 2:4).

Maybe if we fellowshipped the guilty a little more often, there would be fewer guilty people at all.

2. 100% Consistency is impossible.

I'm well aware that Paul warned against light fellowshipping with darkness (2 Cor. 6:14). But I struggle to believe that the Apostle asked for the theological convictions of the merchant in the Ephesian market before purchasing his groceries. I might be wrong on that, but it's a bit fanciful to believe.

None of us have proven capable of keeping the law perfectly; this is among the most fundamental assertions of the book of Romans. How else am I to gas my car if I boycott gas stations that serve alcohol? Am I to also boycott restaurants that serve alcohol? Am I to disassociate myself with those who disagree with me on this point? How far does one go? There has to be something to being in the world but not being of the world. I have no problem with others doing whatever their conscience dictates in these matters, but since when I am to be subjected to their personal taboos?

That brings me to another point I think is important:

3. Marking those who cause divisions (Rom. 16:17) is a two-way street.

For one thing, I would take issue with the KJV's wording of this verse. We too easily equate marking with branding (e.g. branding Tom Brady as a cheater or Tony Romo as unreliable in the 4th quarter), but the word used in Rom. 16:17 only means "to pay careful attention to" (BDAG), which carries an entirely different nuance altogether.

That said, I think it's crucial to point out the context of the statement. In Rom. 14-15, Paul had shamed those in Rome who were unfairly judging their brethren when it is God alone before whom we stand and are judged (14:1-12). His comments ended with the command to "Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you" (15:7). Considering how Christ welcomed us and died for us while we were still sinners, that statement is loaded with all sorts of implications.

Sometimes we cause divisions by loosing where God has not loosed. Other times, divisions are caused by those insistent on binding where God has not bound. Could it be that, in the immediate context of Rom. 16:17, Paul had in mind those who were disfellowshiping brethren they shouldn't have? It would, after all, be a clear violation of the doctrine Paul had just taught in Rom. 14-15.

4. There are good people in bad churches, and vice versa.

For a long time, I more or less operated on the unchallenged assumption that we would be judged on the final day for the collective beliefs of the congregations we attended on earth. That seems like a safe conclusion to draw... until one considers Jesus' own words to the 7 Churches in Rev. 2-3.

  • Christians in Ephesus went to church with "false apostles"
  • Those in Pergamum were in fellowship with the sexually immoral and followers of the Nicolaitans
  • The Thyatirans tolerated the woman Jezebel
  • The Sardinians were spiritually dead
  • The Laodiceans were infamously lukewarm

Granted, in all these situations Jesus expected sin to be rooted out and error to be addressed. But in many of these congregations, he commended the faithful, those "people who have not soiled their garments," those whom Jesus dubbed "worthy." It appears I can go to church with terrible people, eat in restaurants that serve alcohol, and buy gas from stations that sell booze, all while being a worthy person. The key seems to be whether I am glorifying Christ in heart, keeping myself unspotted from the world while being in it. Playing six degrees of church lectureships doesn't seem to be a part of that.

My conclusion, then, is that Jesus does not expect us to "withdraw" like hermits from all those we deem unrighteous or immoral. Rather, in his own spirit of gentleness, meekness, self-control, and (most importantly) love, we CREATE a relationship before we CONFRONT error. Perhaps if we spent as much time creating relationships as we did confronting sin, we'd learn the true fence of fellowship: a spirit that says, "I'm not entirely OK with everything I perceive you to stand for, but I do love you in Christ, and I'd love to have an awkward conversation with you in order to bring glory to God."

"Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God" — Rom. 14:10

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