Saturday, September 01, 2007

50 years of the Australian Unity Agreement (8)

What is 'fellowship'?

This series of posts was prompted by discussion about how to celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of the Australian Unity Agreement, formally known as 'The Australian Basis of Fellowship'.

While this 'Basis of Fellowship' includes an explanation of certain clauses in the Birmingham amended Statement of Faith, on which the parties were in agreement, it has precious little to say about 'fellowship' (which is strange, seeing it is the Basis of Fellowship). The architects of the Agreement no doubt assumed that everyone understood what was meant by 'fellowship' and felt no need to explain it further. After a lengthy explanation of the doctrinal matters which had been disputed (under the heading 'General Beliefs') the Unity Agreement then had a much smaller section headed 'Fellowship'. This section contained just three statements, all of them being 'negative' statements about disfellowship and when to dissociate from an ecclesia.

The 'Basis of Fellowship' actually has nothing to say about what fellowship is, only when to take the "extreme action" of disfellowshipping someone. And because the bulk of the Agreement was about doctrinal matters it has led to the wrong assumption that if you have agreement about all the 'fundamental' doctrinal matters then you automatically have fellowship.

No wonder then that during the subsequent fifty years there has been a great deal of confusion about what 'fellowship' actually is. In practice the statements about "ecclesial disfellowship of the offender" and when it becomes "necessary to dissociate" from an ecclesia have come to mean whether someone is allowed to participate in the Breaking of Bread, or whether members of one ecclesia are allowed to visit another ecclesia for the Breaking of Bread. 'Fellowship' has been understood simply as 'Breaking Bread'.

The problem is not only confined to Australia. In North America the situation sometimes arises that members of both the Amended and Unamended fellowships join together for Bible Schools but go to separate rooms for the act of Breaking Bread. In my opinion they have missed the point completely. Let me give you some examples and then you decide whether 'fellowship' in these contexts is the same as 'Breaking Bread'.
1. You attend a Bible School but because of work or other commitments you can't be there for the whole time. During the time you are there you enjoy some wonderful discussions about the Word of God and the Christian life. There is a great sense of sharing at the Bible School, with everyone getting in and helping each other. There are opportunities for praying together. At times some people feel that there is such an atmosphere of open and honest communication that they feel safe to unburden and to share their problems with others and to reciprocate by offering support and encouragement to those who need it. You fully participate in all these things. However, you have to leave early because of your other commitments, and consequently you miss out on the Sunday Breaking of Bread meeting. Have you had fellowship or not?

2. The next week you learn that some of the people who had been at the Bible School, and with whom you worshiped and prayed together, and who had actively participated in the week's activities in every way, were from an ecclesia which was "not in fellowship" with your ecclesia. Although you didn't Break Bread with them on the Sunday, you did share with them in many other ways in the same way you did with everyone else. Did you have fellowship with them?

3. Another week goes by and you learn that a couple from your own ecclesia have been called to an Arranging Brothers' meeting to explain why they broke bread with people who are out of fellowship. You discover that you haven't been called to give an explanation because you left early and didn't fellowship with the out-of-fellowship people. What do you do? Did you fellowship them or not?

4. Over the next few weeks you share a lot of your time with someone you met at the Bible School and realise that you have a great deal in common. You are a great help to each other, have very similar outlooks, and seem to be walking very similar spiritual paths. Your friend is from the out-of-fellowship ecclesia. So long as you don't Break Bread together there won't be a 'fellowship problem' with your ecclesia. After all, you're not actually having fellowship, are you?

5. One Sunday, after a particularly difficult week, you get to your ecclesia's Sunday morning meeting late because you had some car trouble as you were leaving home. A neighbour lends you their car, but they need it back soon. The meeting had already started when you arrive so you don't get to speak to anyone. At the end of the hymn and prayer the doorkeeper lets you in and you take a seat at the back. The exhortation is about commitment, and the exhorter gives some examples which indicate lack of commitment, including arriving late for the meeting. You feel he is looking at you when he says this, and for the rest of the meeting you feel uncomfortable and agitated. The emblems come round, and you take the bread and wine. However, you have to leave before the meeting is over so you can return the car to your neighbour. You have to rush out before the closing hymn and prayer and don't get an opportunity to speak with anyone, still feeling uncomfortable and agitated.

Later that day you meet up with your friend from the 'out-of-fellowship meeting' and go to a cafe. Over coffee and cake you unburden about your feelings and feel much less agitated. Your friend suggests a very helpful way of resolving your negative feelings towards the exhorter, and you briefly pray together. You go home from the cafe feeling spiritually revitalised.

Where did you have fellowship? At the meeting where you didn't speak with anyone, and where you felt uncomfortable and agitated, but where you took the bread and wine; or at the cafe where you shared your problem, got sound spiritual advice, prayed with another believer, and had coffee and cake?
The Unity Agreement says nothing about fellowship, except when to disfellowship. In practice it is an agreement about when to disfellowship, and not really a Basis of Fellowship. The failure of the Unity Agreement to produce ecclesial harmony is also the result of a failure by the Christadelphian community to properly understand what constitutes 'fellowship' and a confusion between 'Breaking Bread' and fellowship.

In future posts I'd like to explore what the Bible means by 'fellowship'.