-A. Ralph Johnson


The difficulty as to whether to “fellowship” or not is as old as the church.  Let’s begin with the question of what we mean by the word.




The word, “fellowship”, in our Authorized Version (King James) is a transla­tion of several Greek words, some related and some not.


koinoonia”: (noun)


Acts 2:42.  “...fellowship, and in breaking of bread,...”

Ro. 15:26.  “ make a certain con­tribu­tion...”  

1Cor. 1:9. “...called unto the fellowship of his son...”

1Cor. 10:16. “ it not the communion of the blood...”

Gal. 2:9.    “...the right hands of fellowship;...”

Philemon 6. “That the com­munica­tion of the faith...”

1John 1:7. “...if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another...”


koinoonos”: (noun )


1Cor. 10:18. “...partakers with the alter?”

1Cor. 10:20. “...not that ye should have fellowship with demons

2Cor. 8:23. “ partner and fellow helper...”

Heb.  10:33. “ became companions of them...”


The adjective form, koinoonikos,” is found in I Tim. 6:18 translated, “willing to com­muni­cate.” 


The verb form, koinooneoo


Ro. 12:13. “Dis­tribut­ing to the necessity of saints;”

Gal. 6:6. “Let him that is­muni­cate unto him that teacheth

Ph’p 4:15. “ church com­muni­cated with me...’

2John 11. “ partaker of his evil deeds.


Another related noun, sunkoinooneoo”               


Eph. 5:11. “...and have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness but rather reprove them.”


 “reprove them”  #1651 elegchoo {el-eng’-khoo} verb

¤ AV - reprove 6, rebuke 5, convince 4, tell (one’s) fault 1, convict 1; 17

¤ 1) to convict, refute, confute

1a) generally with a suggestion of shame of the person convicted

1b) by conviction to bring to the light, to expose

   2) to find fault with, correct

2a) by word

2a1) to reprehend severely, chide, admonish, reprove

2a2) to call to account, show one his fault, demand an explanation

2b) by deed

2b1) to chasten, to punish


Ph’p. 4:14. “ have well done, that ye did com­muni­cate with my affliction.”


Rev. 18:4.  “that ye be not partakers of her sins.”


#4790 sugkoinooneoo {soong-koy-noo-neh’-oo}

¤ from 4862 and 2841; TDNT - 3:797,447; v

¤ AV - have fellowship with 1, communicate with 1, be partaker of

¤ 1) to become a partaker together with others, or to have fellowship with a thing


share together in, associate with, participate with in something (Eph 5.11); with a sympathetic attitude share with (Ph 4:14).


These should give a pretty good picture of the meaning of the word, “fellowship”.  As Thayer defines it,


“...Fellowship, as­socia­tion, community, communion, joint partic­ipa­tion, in­ter­course...”


Thus, to be “in fellowship with,” indicates to share together, --the Lord’s supper, to eat a common meal with, to give help to or even to share in the common support together.  However, there are many other stronger words to describe withholding or breaking fellowship.  We will look at these later.


II.                   TYPES OF “NON-FELLOWSHIP”


The issue of what should be standards of “tests of fellowship” must first take into con­sidera­tion the nature of certain kinds of “non-fellowship.”  There are different types of relation­ships that may involve different types or extents of “fellowship.” 


  1. Dis­cipli­nary withdrawal of fellowship.


Withdrawal of fellowship was clearly ordained from the beginning of the church.  Jesus himself laid down the conditions and procedures that were to be followed.  Those who would not hear the church were to be cut off in order to protect it and to bring the person to repentance.


In Matthew 18:15-20, Jesus taught that, after being in­dividually approached, followed by an approach with two witnesses, and refusal to hear the church, a brother should be treated as a “heathen man and a publican.”  The sin is left un­specified.  The nature of the process is such that, if followed, abuses will be minimal.


Un­for­tunately, these rules are rarely followed.  Either the matter of the whole church par­ticipat­ing in the decision is disregarded (cf. Matt. 18:17; 1Cor. 5:4-5; 2Cor. 2:6; Gal. 2:15; I Tim. 5:20), or no disfellowship is taken at all. 


Many reasons are given as to why the whole church need not par­ticipate.  “Most people are not suffi­ciently knowledge­able or emo­tion­ally equipped to par­ticipate in such a decision,” is the usual claim. Strife, division and lawsuits are feared. The offender will be lost forever.


These concerns are real but they were also problems con­front­ing the churches of the first century (1Cor. 6:1).  Trust and obedience are the fundamental issues (2Cor. 2:9; 7:11-12).  If we handle such matters according to the rules laid down: a genuine desire to restore; with two witnesses; fair op­por­tunity for the accused to be heard; patience; love and, perhaps some tears, the dangers and dif­ficulties will be greatly reduced.  We have taken such action several times and there has been no critical backlash.  The church was stronger and most of those people have returned and repented. 


It is often overlooked that serious problems result from failing to take action. Others are infected with the problem  (1Cor. 5:7), conflict, division and occasions of stumbling persist (Rom. 16:17-18), and the church may “lose it’s candle­stick.” (Rev. 2:5)


I seriously question the practice of “de facto” dis­fel­low­ship where the in­dividuals are just made to feel so un­com­fort­able that they leave.  The claim is then made that these have “dis­fel­low­shipped themselves.”  “How can we dis­fel­low­ship those who are no longer in fellowship?”  It appears that under this practice the church escapes ever following the scriptural pattern.


Un­for­tunately, these people often go elsewhere and, because there are no first-person witnesses there, or basis for dealing with their problems, they are able to continue their behavior and in­fluenc­ing others until the problem gets so big that they again must move on.  Thus they do their damage repeatedly and are never really called to account.  They do not face the united discipline of the church which would provide the most impact to likely bring them to repentance and to demonstrate to others that such behavior cannot be tolerated in the Lord’s church. 


  1. With­hold­ing fellowship.


Paul indicates to the Corin­thians that some needed letters of com­menda­tion in order to be accepted (2Cor.  3:1).  In Gal. 2:9, when they perceived the grace that was given unto Paul, they extended the right hand of fellowship.  Again, specific issues to define the basis are not laid down.  This appears to be more protective in nature, left to the judgment of those involved.  This requires the person under question to show he has met the scriptural basis for acceptance.


Romans, 14:1 indicates they were to receive those who are weak in faith but not to doubtful dis­puta­tions.  He then specifies such matters as whether one eats all things, or eats only herbs, and whether a day was kept “unto the Lord.”  These probably involved the Jewish dis­tinc­tions concerning foods, their Sabbaths and feast days.  In chapter 15 it concludes that God has accepted the Gentiles and admonishes, “Now the God of patience and of comfort grant you to be of the same mind one with another according to Christ Jesus: that with one accord ye may with one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.  Wherefore receive ye one another, even as Christ also received you, to the glory of god.”


However, Paul sternly warns against some such as Hymenaeus and Philetus who were “erring concerning the truth, saying that the resur­rec­tion is past and over­throw­ing the faith of some” (2Tim. 2:17).  Hymenaeus and Alexander, he says, made shipwreck of the faith and that he had delivered them unto Satan that they might learn not to blaspheme  (1Tim. 1:19-20).  


John warns against those deceivers who confess not that Jesus has come in the flesh, who do not walk after his com­mand­ments and abide not in the teaching of Christ.  He says they should not be received into their house nor given greeting (2John 10).  Some would try to pin these down to a very narrow particular point concerning coming in the flesh but the evidence in the passages would indicate a somewhat broader ap­plica­tion.  However, in all instances it is important that the issue be a clearly scriptural one which God has indicated to be of such sig­nificance as to endanger people’s salvation.   


  1. Individual Limits of “fellowship” with non-Christians.


There are some matters of fellowship that relate to broader areas of as­socia­tions within the world in which we live.  Of these, we are warned not to be “unequally yoked with un­believers” (2Cor. 6:14-18).  Christians are to marry, “only in the Lord” (1Cor. 7:39).  And we are warned that, “evil com­panion­ships corrupt good morals” (1Cor. 15:33).  These could be further backed up with other scriptures warning against the influence of those with whom we have close relation­ships.      


These relate more to personal welfare than to church discipline.  Paul makes the dis­tinc­tion in 1Cor. 5:9-11 when he says that in giving his injunction not to keep company with those guilty of certain types of offenses, he did not mean those of the world but brothers in the church.  To make it otherwise would require them to go out of the world.


  1. Cooperation within the church.


Often there is confusion as to the limitations on individualism within the church.  Is it possible to “love the brother­hood” and yet make the choice not to work together?  It appears that one can.


Paul and Barnabas had such a sharp difference over the wisdom of taking John Mark with them that they chose to work separately (Ac. 15:36, 41).  God gives no judgment against either in the matter.  It appears that the church at Antioch chose to support Paul but in the end Mark was accepted by Paul. He even became one of the gospel writers.  It is possible for men of God to disagree to the extent of working separately and yet be in the body of Christ.  I do not believe that I am bound to join everyone who is not worthy of out-and-out repudia­tion.


The problem arises when there is bitterness and unchristian conduct towards each other.  However, unchristian conduct should not be manifested even against outsiders.  We should love our enemies.


This is where I believe a lot of the con­troversy about “tests of fellowship” arises.  For example, my background, ex­periences and ob­serva­tions about the general softness of many churches in areas such as the purpose of baptism, women leading men, church “boards,” voting in un­qualified Elders and Deacons, charis­matic influences and such like, have made me wary about becoming associated with their programs.  On the other hand, they target the super-legalism among us that attacks everyone who has a television set and is viciously abusive on any difference and they want none of us preaching in their churches. 


Both of us have problems that need to be solved.  We need to talk about those problems to keep them in focus, but not be abusive.  However I do not believe that either side is obligated to open the door to the other for them to propagate their particular ec­centricities.  Christ does want us to all speak the same thing and that there be no divisions, but the things we are to speak are what Christ wants, not what we want.  Each must make his own judgment as to what is of God.  It seems to me that a lot of people who are prodding others to liberalize are a little hypocriti­cal.  They want others to liberalize for them and yet they themselves draw lines of their own, against those who they are criticiz­ing.  The question is who’s ox is being gored!


Do I not have the right to choose where I recommend young people to go to camp?  May I not direct them towards a college in which I have confidence?  May I not avoid supporting certain conventions and associations?  Or have we no right to get together a group of churches to cooperate in starting con­grega­tions with a more acceptable approach than joining some area church “Evan­gelis­tic As­socia­tion”?  I think so.


That does not mean that I have repudiated them as brethren.  I have par­ticipated in some such activities.  They are brethren and many of them faithful to the word.  They are not my enemies.  However I have used the best judgment God has provided me to lead the people I work with on an in­de­pend­ent course, neither rejecting others as Christians nor endorsing the problems often associated with them.  I simply do not want those with whom I am working subjected to those problems.  I do not feel that “brother­hood” requires me to join in lock-step with others.


III.                 TESTS OF FELLOWSHIP.


A.      General listing of tests.


The following is a list of the scriptural tests of fellowship.  Most of them would more commonly come up as a matter of discipline within the con­grega­tion but certainly all would be a basis for rejection of fellowship with those who professed to be brethren beyond that scope. 




Matthew 18:15-20


Sin against a brother and

refuse to hear the church.


Let him be as a heathen man and as a publican

1Cor. 5:1-13.  compare 2Cor. 2:5-11; 7:8-12   (also, 2Cor. 6:14-18; 1Cor. 15:33; Rom. 1:24-32)



Judge them (1Cor. 5:3, 12; cf. 6:1-10)


Taken away from among you (5:2)


Gathered together to deliver such a one unto Satan (5:4-5)


Purge out the old leaven (5:7)


Not to keep company (5:9, 11)


With such a one, not to eat (5:11)



I Timothy 1:19-20  cf. 2Tim. 2:14-21; 4:14-15

NAMED: “Hymenaeus and Alexander”

Thrusting aside faith and good conscience

Delivered unto Satan (I Tim. 1:20)


Preserve himself from these (2Tim. 2:21)

Erring concerning the truth,

saying  that the resur­rec­tion is past and

over­throw­ing the faith of some.

The Lord reward according to works

Of whom be thou ware (2Tim. 4:15)



Romans 16:17-18


Causing divisions and

Occasions of stumbling contrary to the doctrine.

Mark them and

Turn away from them



1Corin­thians 16:22 (cf. Jn. 14:15, 21, 23;  1Jn. 5:2-4; 1:5-7; 2:3-6; Jn. 15:10, 14;  Mt. 7:21)

       If any man love not the Lord Jesus


Let him be anathema  (cf. Lk. 6:46; Tit. 1:16)

2Thes. 3:6-15      “We command you in the name of Jesus” (cf  1Tim. 5:8)


“If anyone provides not for his own.”

      (cf. 2Pe. 2:20-22)

Walking disorderly

Not working


Not obeying the word

Withdraw yourselves

Note that man and Have no company with him

Count him not as an enemy but Admonish him as a brother.



2Timothy 3:1-9


Lovers of self, 


Lovers of money,

Slanderers, Boastful, 

Without self-control,




No lovers of good,

Dis­obedient to parents,






Without natural affection,

Lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God;

Holding to a form of godliness,

but having denied the power thereof...

(cf. Tit. 1:16)

Ever learning but never able to come to a knowledge of the truth...

Corrupted in mind,

Reprobate concerning the faith.

From these also turn away

Their folly shall be evident unto all men.



Titus 3:10-11


        A factious man (or “heretic”)

Refuse (avoid or reject)





7. Deceivers who confess not that, Christ is come in the flesh.

   Deceiver and antichrist

9. Goes onward and abideth not in the teachings of  Christ, has not God                

10. Brings not this teaching

...Evil works

10. Receive him not into your house

      Give him no greeting:

11. for he that does partaketh in his evil works



Galatians 1:6-10


Pervert the gospel of Christ

Let him be anathema (or be rejected)



Galatians 5:7-12 (King James)


Hinder you that you should not obey the truth.

I would they were cut off  (from the church)

(Some think it means, to mutilate themselves)



1Timothy 6: 3-5 (King James)


Consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus, and to the doctrine according to godliness; proud, knowing nothing, but doting about questions and strifes of words...

Perverse disputings of men of corrupt minds, and destitute of the truth, supposing that gain is godliness

From such withdraw thyself



2Corin­thians 6:14-18

(cf. Eph. 5:3-11; 1Cor. 15:33)




Be not unequally yoked with... for What fellowship have righteous­ness and iniquity? or what communion hath light with darkness?...

what portion hath a believer with an unbeliever?...



Revelation 2:14-16 (cf. 2:2, 6-7, 20)


Hold the doctrine of Balaam...

eat things sacrificed to idols,

and commit for­nica­tion

hold the doctrine of the Nicolaitans

Jesus was against them for permitting such to remain in the con­grega­tion



Revelation 18:4 (cf. 17:5-6)


Mother of the Harlots

Drunken with the blood of the saints.

(Rome and her “daughters”)

Come forth, my people, out of her that ye have no fellowship with her sins.



In con­sider­ing these it will be noted that while many of them are very explicit, some are quite general.  Some have maintained that only gross immorality and denial of the resur­rec­tion are legitimate tests.  However, the above indicate otherwise.


B.      Con­sider­ing these tests in relation to denominationalism.


Those who do not meet the re­quire­ments revealed to be “born again” (Jn. 3:3-5) cannot be regarded as brothers in Christ.  I am thankful for whatever truth they teach.  I can have friendly relations.  I can try to teach them more perfectly the way of the Lord (Acts 18:26).  However, until they have met God’s re­quire­ments, we cannot be in Christian fellowship. 


I seriously question bringing novice Christians into joint meetings with such religious groups who do not immerse believers into Christ or who teach the modern-day tongues babbling and falsely prophesy.  To do so is to blur the scriptural standards as to how one becomes a Christian and what is a Christian.  It is suicidal for scriptural standards.  They will not permit the truth to be taught.


Those standards involve:




-That God is and that he is a rewarder of those who diligently seek Him. (Heb. 11:6)


-That Jesus is the Christ, the son of the living God.(Jn. 20:31 )


-That Jesus died for our sins, was buried, was raised from the dead the third day and appeared to the disciples. (1Co. 15:1-7)


-That he will appear again from the heavens to raise the dead and reward each man according to his works. (2Tim. 4:8)


REPENT: -and turn again that our sins may be blotted out.(Ac. 3:19)


CONFESS: -That Jesus is Lord. (authority over our lives -Rom. 10:9-10)



(In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit -Mt. 28:18-20)

Acts 2:38; 22:16; 19:1-7; Rom. 6:3-7; 1Pe. 3:20-21


Mt. 15:1-14.  Human doctrines may result in their worship being in vain.


John 8:31-32.  To be His disciple we must abide in His word. (cf. 1Jn. 2:3-6; 5:3)


Jn. 14:21-24. The TRUTH is what makes us free. (cf. John 17:17)


2Tim. 4:3-4.

There are those who will not endure the sound doctrine; but, having itching ears, heap to themselves teachers after their own lusts; and turn away their ears from the truth, and turn aside unto fables.                                  


Mt. 7:13-29. 

The way is narrow and all do not go to the same place (13-14). 

We must beware of false prophets who dress up like sheep (15). 

Not everyone who says, Lord, Lord, shall enter -- even if they claim to prophesy, cast out demons and do many mighty works (21-23).

We must hear and obey Christ’s words (24-29).


We are not obligated to join in inter-denominational activities and have the flock of God taught by false prophets and those who would destroy scriptural truth about salvation and holiness of life. 




One of the great problems of the issue of fellowship is the human tendency to try to resolve the problem by some extreme.  Some are concerned about the problem of compromise of the truth and end up making mortal issues of things which are not vital.  Others want to accept everyone without reserva­tion under the misguided claim that to do otherwise is to fail to “love”. 


The fact is that God warns “Ye shall not turn to the right hand or the left”.  (Deut. 5:32)  The ditch on one side of the road is just as deep as the other.  We are to “teach the truth in love” (Eph. 4:15). Truth and love are not mutually exclusive and love does not preclude discipline  “Whom the Lord loves he reproves and chastens” --Heb. 12:5-7). Jesus said that those who do not keep his word do not love him (Jn. 14:23-24).


However, sometimes those who profess to be “defending the faith” are actually imposing their man-made command­ments and human traditions upon others.  In so doing, they are perverting the Gospel (Gal. 1:8-9) and are guilty of the very thing of which they accuse others.


There are other factors which must be considered in drawing con­clu­sions about fellowship, such as whether by reason of time the persons should know better. Are they ready for the “meat” of the word? (1Cor. 3:2)  Growth and op­por­tunity are legitimate con­sidera­tions (Heb. 5:12, 14). 


And finally, in dealing with a brother, there is the con­sidera­tion of whether we have yet removed the beam in our own eye before we start digging around in someone else’s.  The same harshness and impatience we show to others can be expected for ourselves. (Mt. 7:1-5)


While we are warned against harsh and unjust judgement, we are also admonished to “judge ye righteous judgment” (John 7:24). We are not to cast that which is holy to the dogs or our pearls before swine (Matt. 7:6.).  We are to choose the straight and narrow, leading to life and to avoid the way that is broad, leading to destruc­tion. (Matt. 7:13-14).  We are to beware of false prophets and build upon the rock. (Matt. 7:15, 27)


The question of who we should fellowship and under what conditions or to what extent is difficult.  Each one is going to have to resolve that for himself and answer to the Lord for his choice.  My main con­sidera­tion is the damage done to the person or to others and the potentials for furthering the needs of the church and the in­dividuals.  All of this must be weighed in the light of what God’s will reveals.