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The Importance of Fellowship

A Balance Between the Pursuit of Truth and the Pursuit of Fellowship

In shepherding there is an emphasis on being in submission to church elders or your own personal shepherd in order to "hear God." In other words, if you follow what they say is the correct relationship of being under "spiritual authority," you will be better able to understand the truth. This "truth" would include both biblical truth and personal truth, in what God is speaking to you individually.

There may be a misunderstanding, though, of what happens if we reject this interpretation, and rely on Jesus as our Shepherd to lead us into truth (as I believe we should do). Does this mean that we do not really need any involvement with the church to hear God? Isn't Christ able to speak to us directly, and lead us into all the truth we need?

Of course Christ is able to speak to us, and if we are in any situation where we need an answer I would say that we will always get it if we have given our lives to the Lord. It may not be in an audible form or in a manner that would really be clear to us at the time, but I believe those in the shepherding movement would have the same expectation about how Jesus speaks to us or gives us an answer through other means.

A philosophical question I have is that if Christ is always leading us, how do so many Christians get into traps such as the shepherding movement or other doctrines which stifle their growth or lead them into a less than productive Christian life? The answer for me was that when I became involved in the shepherding movement it was not because I was seeking it, but because other Christians taught it to me and said that I needed to have this type of relationship with spiritual elders in order to "hear God" (or in other words, to know the truth). This point is a little aside, but I want to make it--the people in eldership positions in this group were probably biblically qualified to be so and the group was a Christian group--it just got into this unbiblical position through a misguided zeal of wanting to follow the Lord and get into deeper truths.

If we are not involved in a church, then, we should theoretically be spared from other people leading us into false doctrine such as shepherding (since most people I have met are like I was, and are persuaded to get into shepherding rather than coming up with the idea on their own through their personal Bible study and communication with the Lord).

Therefore one main point to get across is that we should not fear being involved with other Christians just because other people may at times teach false doctrines or say things that are very confusing to us. Yes, there are potential problems with being involved in just about any Christian group, and we will probably hear things that are not in accord with scripture if we open ourselves up to learning as much as we can and sometimes getting out of our comfort zone for the sake of having fellowship with others. Our own church can sometimes give us false teaching, such as the ones which get into the shepherding movement. The article quoted in the next section of this page gives biblical principles that will help prevent a church from falling into these traps of false doctrine. If we do see false doctrines I think we need to acknowledge them as such, and then decide if we can stay in that particular group. I believe, though, that recognizing that Jesus Christ is our true Shepherd gives us more liberty to fellowship with people of different backgrounds and viewpoints, knowing that the Lord is able to keep us in the truth.

To be technical, it is the Holy Spirit who speaks to us (I John 5:6; Rom. 8:14). We can and should be willing to learn from elders and other Christians, and I believe this is not in opposition to following Jesus directly.

When I was persuaded to accept the shepherding teachings for a while, the Lord ultimately led me out of it. Listening to Christians got me into it, and listening to a Christian friend of mine also got me out of shepherding. Ultimately the Lord showed that He could set me on a better path because I believe I made myself teachable to hear His voice.

How to Have Fellowship With Others Without Being Led Astray

I believe God has purposely set up a tension between hearing Him directly and hearing Him through others. The Lord does not want us to blindly follow what the leaders in the church tell us (this is an extreme form of shepherding and would clearly be classified as being cultic). On the other hand, we can be in danger when we just rely on our own ability to listen to the Lord (this is what shepherding warns against, although their solution to the problem is less than optimum). God wants us to follow His Son Jesus as our Shepherd, but at the same time He seems to have placed a need in us for the fellowship, advice, and ministry we get from other believers.

These ideas, and the desire to find a biblical solution to them, are not new. I am not offering any original ideas about the subject, but hopefully this article will provide a balance to the fact that we should not get into shepherding in order to "hear the Lord."

I know that through the years I have heard many things taught in the church which I either believed at the time or now know for sure were wrong. This is probably part of the process of learning the word of God and growing in our Christian life. I would rather not have to hear erroneous teaching or statements from the church, and if I could trust someone to be correct all the time there would probably be no danger in setting up a system along the lines of shepherding (although it would still be wrong because it would distract us from listening directly to the voice of the Lord).

I do believe that in most cases we should leave a group which goes into shepherding, but this is not so much because of the danger of us all of a sudden not being able to hear the Lord on our own, but because we would knowingly put ourselves in an unbiblical situation. The shepheding movement likes to use "covenants" and other means of forcing us to either accept their system or leave the group (this is why I think people confronted with this situation usually need to leave the group).

Simply because there may be a diversity of ideas, teachings, or doctrines in a church, though, does not necessarily mean we need to leave. I have yet to encounter a church with perfect teachings or doctrines. In fact, when dealing with Christians on a day-to-day basis in our normal lives, usually outside any church, there can be great intellectual stimulation by listening to different ideas. I do not think we need to avoid fellowship because others have different ideas than our own.

"As I Have Loved You" (Article in Searching Together)

One article which was recently published gives a good insight into the tension between maintaining fellowship in the body of Christ and allowing for different opinions which do not lead to false doctrine, church splits, or the de-emphasis of biblical truth so that we can maintain our "unity."

I would refer the reader to the article "As I Have Loved You: Outworking the Life of Christ among His Ekklesias" by Jon Zens, published in Searching Together Vol. 39:1-2, Spring-Summer 2013.

Background of the Article: The article is addressed to believers "outside of the traditional churches," primarily house churches. Mr. Zens was an early critic of the shepherding movement, and has proposed home gatherings or house churches as a way of addressing many of the problems found in the traditional church, including those pointed out by the shepherding movement.

My purpose in presenting this article is not necessarily to promote the house church movement, but to point out that fellowship, or "the church" has a broad definition, and I believe can include many different kinds of Christian groups. Christians should not be "Lone Rangers," but this does not mean that the only alternative is to join a traditional church (although anyone can do so if this is what they believe is correct). I believe Mr. Zen's article is important because it focuses on biblical ways of doing things rather than trying to make things fit into the denominational structure (as is frequently the case with traditional churches).

Following are portions of the article:

Believers who begin to practice ekklesia outside of traditional churches usually face a number of obstacles. Obviously, everyone brings their past churchy baggage with them to some degree. Folks can often see the problems with how most churches try to do things, but they are not always sure how to avoid such pitfalls in the fresh setting of home gatherings. In this article I would like to set forth some basic, fundamental perspectives that past experience tells me will go a long way toward helping the saints to get started on the right foot. First, we will look at the foundation we must work from, then we will examine some very practical issues about getting along with one another and working out problems together.

The article next points out that the church has to be built on the foundation of Jesus Christ. Having Christ as our foundation means that the church is built on His commandment that we love one another.

The author was struggling with the question about why there were so many church splits in Bible believing churches if our mandate is for love and unity in the body. The next section talks about the subject of this article:

Churches tend to illustrate the pendulum swing--they either pursue truth in an atmosphere without love and caring (which results in witch-hunts), or they emphasize acceptance and love with little interest in Christ's revealed will (which results in gushy sentimentality). Why do we sever what God has joined together? Why can't we cultivate and encourage an atmosphere of acceptance in which we will learn to speak the truth to one another in Love? Our tendency is to reject other Christians who disagree with our understanding of Scripture in what we regard as crucial issues. Or, there is the tendency to so underscore acceptance that there is no concern for revealed truth. To fully accept one another in the bonds of the Gospel and to instruct one another in an atmosphere of acceptance is a tension we must face and work out.

The author points out that we should "work together, study together, pray together and even fast together in order to seek the Lord's mind and come to greater agreement." Christians also have a duty to "point out what they feel to be the errors in other's thinking" (Rom. 15:14).

One thing missing in many assemblies is this:

Much more important than having the truth is being in a position to receive the truth; thus, the life of the church always must be open-ended toward God.

The next section states:

When physical families have problems they don't run away from each other. Hopefully, there is a commitment present that will stick it out during the process of resolving issues. How much more in the spiritual body of Christ should we be willing to persevere with one another in anticipation of the Lord by His Spirit enhancing our fellowship as we speak the truth in love?

The church in Corinth provided a case where splits were happening unbiblically, with some saying "I'm of Paul; and I'm of Apollos; and I'm of Peter; and I'm of Christ." Paul gives instructions in 1 Corinthians concerning how a split church can come back together:

As used in the context of 1 Corinthians 1:10 we can see an important implication of being "perfectly united in mind and thought." While we are not given any of the details as to how they worked this out, at a minimum we can say that the Corinthians had to work through this matter until the breach was "mended" and they finally "agreed." A process that results in unity is in view. They were already split apart, so in order for the torn garment to be repaird they had to: (1) take the apostolic instruction; (2) come back together; (3) face and discuss the word of the Lord together; (4) repent of their sins; and (5) be restored again to their original oneness.

One further point is that Paul does not look to the elders of the church of Corinth to solve the issues, but to the whole assembly together.

What We Can Learn from 1 Corinthians

This article has so many implications for the shepherding teachings that I have to fight the urge to do my own commentary and instead let the article and the passages by Paul in First Corinthians speak for themselves. One thing is apparent to me, though--the men who started the shepherding movement were concerned with many of the same problems in the church addressed by 1 Corinthians.

The solution to divisions in the body, though, are not through a top-down approach of letting the leaders in the church decide issues and letting the church members "submit" to these decisions. Instead, I think Mr. Zens successfully argues that Paul was suggesting a more organic solution--one from the bottom up.

One of my main problems with shepherding is that it fails to recognize the individual believer's right and duty to hear God and look to Jesus Christ as our Shepherd. At the same time we do not have to go off and be a "Lone Ranger" as the shepherding movement fears will be a result.

I do not know the whole answer to seeking truth versus maintaining fellowship with those who have differing opinions, but I have found in my studies that the approaches such as the one Paul lays out in 1 Corinthians provide a much better answer than trying to have a forced unity through "submission to shepherds" or other methodologies tried in the various shepherding movement groups.

A Personal Note

Please contact Searching Together for more information about the article "As I Have Loved You" or other articles. I would encourage everyone to subscribe to the Searching Together (the subscription price is quite reasonable, and issues are published several times per year). For me this magazine always provides food for the spirit as well as the mind.

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©2013 Steve Coleman

Biblical Response