One distinctive of the “assembly movement” is the use of the word “fellowship” as opposed to “membership”. The reason being, all believers are members of the body of Christ and there is no need for any other membership. Belonging to that body is the basis for fellowship.
Fellowship, by definition, is a partnership, a sharing together of mutual interests and concerns. The New Testament talks of fellowship in the gospel, in service, in finances, and in assembly life. The meaning suggests common interests and concerns, of working together.
No clear mandates
The New Testament does not spell out in any detail the entrance into “fellowship” and gives few instructions on limitations for fellowship. Local churches are autonomous and answerable to the Lord alone in all areas of assembly life. This would include those areas the Bible clearly states as the mind of the Lord as well as those aspects of corporate life not addressed. Scripture does not state what precedes reception, (apart from salvation), the minimum age, the extent of differences allowable, or the level of participation demanded.
In a changing world, local churches must wrestle with any number of issues in this regard. For instance, whom to receive, how to receive, the requirements for reception, and what differences are tolerable. There are also issues such as how long a person must wait before reception, how well do those in the assembly have to know them, and what level of spiritual maturity must they attain. Traditionally, “Open Assemblies” have looked to Romans 15:7 as the mandate or charter, “receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God”.
Life, not light
The general application of this verse is that the basis for reception is life, not light. That is, life in Christ is the main requisite as opposed to how much a person knows. One problem with using “light” as the standard is that the benchmark is arbitrary often going beyond the Word of God.
There is diversity in how assemblies function under the above charter. Some would have baptism as a prerequisite while others would look only at the profession of faith. Some would accept those who strictly adhere to the “statement of faith” – doctrinal adherence – while others would allow for a diversity of views.
There is a wide difference of views in local churches today on practice, dress, music, prophetic events, and even some doctrinal issues. As with most of our society, believers move for employment or for affordable housing, bringing personal preferences and a diversity of views and convictions to their new assembly.
Corinth or Ephesus? Finding the balance
Two New Testament examples come to mind. The Corinthian church was wide open; they did not discipline and were seemingly proud of their inclusiveness. The Lord intervened in discipline and some were sick, while others died. The Ephesian church seemed sound in every way. They were active, they disciplined and they persevered. What was missing was love; they left their first love. Love for Christ is visible in love for His people.
There must be a middle ground – where there are Biblical standards but there is love shown to the Lord’s people. Some of us may feel it is better to be in Ephesus as opposed to Corinth, but the reality was that both were found wanting.
Editorial note: Many churches use the word “membership” instead of “fellowship” and are speaking about the same biblical principles. We do not wish to disregard their practice based on a different word and we commend those churches who hold to a biblical practice of fellowship.