Thursday, September 27, 2007

Pakistan Christadelphians

A new blog has been launched with information and news about the Christadelphians in Pakistan and their progress in preaching the Gospel of the Kingdom.

The first Christadelphians in Pakistan - 10 of them - were baptised in 2002. Since then there have been more than 800 baptisms, which makes this one of the fastest growing areas in the Christadelphian community.

As well as providing updates on developments and breaking news, the blog is also intended to provide some commentary on why the Pakistan Christadelphians have been so successful in preaching the Gospel in a country where Christians are persecuted. It also plans to explore what Christadelphians in other countries can learn from the Pakistan experience which would be helpful elsewhere.

This is a 'private' blog and access is by invitation only.

Why is access to this site by invitation only?

Pakistan is an Islamic country and Christians are a tiny minority (about 2%). The safety and security of our brothers and sisters is a prime concern for us.

For this reason we have to be very careful about publishing information which could identify individuals and put them at risk. Consequently this is a 'private' site and is not searched by search engines. That's also why access is restricted to people we can trust.

The Islamic world is a vastly different place to the western world, people do not have the same rights to religious freedom that we experience in the west, and information put on the internet might put lives at risk.

If you'd like to access the blog you can send an email to, including your name and ecclesia, and mentioning why you'd like to visit the blog.

Monday, September 17, 2007

50 years of the Australian Unity Agreement (12)

From the pen of John Thomas:
I have received the conclusion to which Paul leads me. Did he tell the orthodox Corinthians to cast their heterodox friends out of their synagogue, or to non-fellowship them? No; and further than this, he still fraternised with the church, although they gave him so much annoyance ... His object was to enlighten and reclaim, not to cut off ...

Robert Roberts, Dr. Thomas: His Life and Work, p. 263
Orthodox means those who uphold the 'standard' or 'official' view, especially in matters of doctrine, while heterodox refers to those who hold a contrary, unorthodox or 'heretical' view, differing from the accepted beliefs or standards. Apparently John Thomas (at least at one stage) was all for allowing those with different views (even 'heretical' ones) to remain 'in fellowship' and not to cut them off.

Sunday, September 16, 2007

50 years of the Australian Unity Agreement (11)

What is 'fellowship'? (4)

I'd like to elaborate on a comment I made in my last post:
If we are in fellowship with God and with Jesus then it will automatically follow that we will be in fellowship with each other.
This is what John said clearly in his first letter: " But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another" (1:7). In other words, we don't have to agree to have fellowship; we don't have to decide if fellowship is possible; we don't even have to formulate a basis for fellowship. If we walk in the light we have fellowship with one another. Fellowship just happens when people walk in the light.

In my opinion, the Unity Agreement failed in Australia because it was unnecessary and because brethren failed to grasp the simple truth that fellowship with each other automatically flows out of our fellowship with God. The error was compunded by confusing fellowship with the ritual of Communion, or Breaking Bread.

Let's come back to John's expression "if we walk in the light". Some Christadelphians claim that by this John meant that if have been enlightened and understand certain fundamental doctrinal truths then we can have fellowship with other people who have also been enlightened and believe the same doctrinal truths. However, John was actually arguing against the notion of enlightenment. Most scholars agree that the background to John's letters was the growing movement of Gnosticism (click here or on the Gnosticism label on the right for other messages I've posted about this). The Gnostics were named from the Greek word gnosis = to know, because they believed they knew things that others didn't, and that this knowledge of the truth was what saved them. John argues against this in a number of ways throughout these letters.

The modern notion held by some Christadelphians that "walking in the light" means understanding certain doctrinal truths is simply a revival of the Gnosticism that John was opposing. In fact, if we read on we see that John explains what he means by walking in the light. In the next chapter he says "Anyone who claims to be in the light but hates his brother is still in the darkness. Whoever loves his brother lives in the light, and there is nothing in him to make him stumble. But whoever hates his brother is in the darkness and walks around in the darkness; he does not know where he is going, because the darkness has blinded him." (2:9-11).

To walk in the light is to love your brother. To hate your brother is to be in darkness. The idea of walking in light is about the loving relationships we develop with each other, flowing out of and reflecting the truth that God is love (4:7). In the previous verse John said "I am writing you a new command; its truth is seen in him and you, because the darkness is passing and the true light is already shining." Here John equates "truth" with "light" and relates it to the "new command" he is giving them. What was this new command? It was no different to Jesus' "new command": "A new command I give you: Love one another" (John 13:34), and was the same command that John later said was not a new command at all "but one we have had from the beginning [i.e. of Jesus' preaching]. I ask that we love one another" (2 Jn 1:5).

John may have picked up the expression to "walk in the light" from the Hebrew Bible where it is used of living in God's presence (Psalm 89:15; 90:8) and in peaceful and harmonious relationships with others (Isaiah 2:4-5).

So this "truth" or "light" was the command to love and to "walk in the light" was to live a life of love. John went on to say that the Gnostics practiced separation from other believers who didn't believe the same as they did on doctrinal matters, and this this separation was evidence of their hatred for Christians who were ignorant of "the truth" as they understood it (see my post on the separatists mentioned in John's letter here).

Does any of this sound familiar? The clauses in the Australian Unity Agreement which deal with 'fellowship' only say when to disfellowship and how. It has failed to produce harmony because it is based on this Gnostic idea that "the truth" has to be preserved by separating from people who are ignorant of it or don't believe it in the same way. On the other hand, John was appealing for practical demonstrations of brotherly love as the consequence of being in a loving and intimate relationship with the God of love, and that this, and only this, would produce true fellowship between believers.

The hypothetical examples I've already given in this series are also obvious enough that fellowship simply happens. It happens automatically when people who are in relationship with God come together, and it happens regardless of whether they 'Break Bread' together or gather in a religious service. It can't be legislated against, agreed to, or prevented. It just happens.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

50 years of the Australian Unity Agreement (10)

What is 'fellowship'? (3)

In previous posts I looked at some of the things that 'fellowship' is not. When we look at how the Bible speaks of fellowship we'll see that some of the common ideas about fellowship are not grounded in the Scriptures.

The Greek word which is sometimes translated 'fellowship' is koinonia. This word is also translated "communion", "communicate", "share" and "participate" in English translations. Koinonia occurs 20 times in the New Testament, and is translated 'fellowship' 12 times in the KJV. In only one of those places is the word used in connection with what we would commonly call "Communion" or "Breaking of Bread" i.e. the religious rite which re-enacts the Last Supper. In most places the key concept behind the word is "sharing", whether it's a meal, money, experiences, or ideas.

One of the key texts which helps us to understand koinonia is 1 John 1:3 - "We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ."

One thing we see immediately from this passage is that John is not using koinonia to refer to Breaking Bread in the sense of a Communion service or a 'Memorial Meeting'. "Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son" is a reference to the intimate relationship which a believer has with God and Jesus. We don't "break bread" with God, but there is a sharing on a very deep and personal level. John says that this personal relationship with God and Jesus is the model and basis for the relationships we have with each other. The fact that as believers we are all individually united to God and His Son is the basis, the only basis, for being united with each other. Our "basis of fellowship" is the union we have as individuals with God and Jesus.

There are two implications of this.
  1. If as individual believers we don't have a relationship with God and Jesus, then we have no hope of achieving any kind of meaningful fellowship with each other. Too often the driving force in ecclesial 'unity' discussions has been to find a way of defining doctrine on which everyone will agree, when the real focus should always be on doing whatever we need to do to ensure that everyone is experiencing intimacy with God. If we are in fellowship with God and with Jesus then it will automatically follow that we will be in fellowship with each other.

  2. Any other way of trying to achieve unity between believers is 'carnal' or fleshly. It may produce something which is a form of fellowship and has the appearance of Christian unity, but if it is the result of negotiations, compromises, powerplay, politics or intimidation then it is only a counterfeit fellowship and not the real thing.
You may recall an example I gave in an earlier message. I asked you to imagine you arrived late at a meeting, left feeling agitated, and didn't speak to a single soul, yet participated in the Breaking of Bread. The act of taking a morsel of bread and thimbleful of wine means that you have 'had fellowship' in the technical Christadelphian sense. (The fuss about whether ecclesias or individuals are 'in fellowship' with each other is almost always about whether or not they can 'break bread' together.)

Let's use that same example and imagine another scenario. We've looked at the hypothetical situation of someone who took the Bread and Wine but didn't experience any meaningful fellowship. Imagine that on the same Sunday a couple turn up at the meeting who are just visiting - they're actually on holidays (or "on vacation" as our American friends would say) and aren't aware of the local 'fellowship' situation. They arrive early and are greeted at the door by the Recorder who asks what ecclesia they are from. He hasn't heard of this ecclesia, so he enquires about which fellowship it's part of. The visiting couple aren't sure - there is only one ecclesia in their home town and they tend not to get involved in the 'issues' which go on in the big cities. The Recorder tries to make it easy for them, so he hands them a card with a number of doctrinal statements on it and asks them if they agree with it. As they read it they come across some terminology they aren't familiar with, but overall it looks ok. They say they think they agree with it. "You think you agree with it!?" the Recorder says. He decides that to be on the safe side it would be best if they didn't take the bread and wine, but they'd be welcome to stay for the meeting.

Well, it turns out to be a very pleasant meeting for them. They get chatting with some people before the meeting who apparently know some friends of theirs, and they are made to feel very welcome (apart from the little incident at the door). They join in with the worship wholeheartedly and enthusiastically (and after the meeting a couple of people thank them for singing so well and so loudly). They enjoy the exhortation and jot down some notes of things they find helpful. After the meeting they are told that because it's the first Sunday in the month that most people will be staying at the hall for lunch and they'd be welcome to join in. They stay for lunch and participate in the discussions about the exhortation, they chat about their home ecclesia and how they are preaching the Gospel locally, and pick up some ideas as well. It turns out that there are a few connections and some of the brothers and sisters have met some of their friends from back home while travelling or through ecclesial activities of some type. They feel very much part of a worldwide community and have a wonderful time.

After lunch they are invited home to have tea with one family, and another family offers to take them sight-seeing during the week. They decide they'll also come to the Bible Class on Wednesday night.

Did they have fellowship? They couldn't take the bread and wine for whatever reason, but they shared a great deal in common with the believers, participated in their worship, shared a meal or two together, and celebrated their common faith. Remember that you arrived late, left early, and didn't speak to anyone, although you took the bread and wine. So which of you had 'fellowship'?

Sunday, September 09, 2007

He's always there

I know that many Christadelphians struggle with depression, addiction and abuse, and there has been a disturbing increase in the numbers of suicides (especially youth suicide).

This video may help someone.

Sunday, September 02, 2007

50 years of the Australian Unity Agreement (9)

What is 'fellowship'? (2)

Before looking at what the Bible says about 'fellowship' I'd like to give a couple more examples which illustrate what fellowship is not.
1. A Christadelphian you know has just returned from a week-long Bible School saying they had a fabulous time and you ask them what they enjoyed most about it. "Oh, that's easy" they reply, "the wonderful fellowship". By "wonderful fellowship" did they mean the five or ten minutes during the Breaking of Bread service when the emblems were passed around? Or did they mean the hour or so of the Breaking of Bread meeting? Or were they referring to something else?

2. Your ecclesia has decided to promote its Youth Group activities to other ecclesias in the area. The promotional flyer designed for other young people says "Come along on Friday night for practical and relevant Bible study, meet new friends, and enjoy great fellowship with other people your own age." Do you interpret "great fellowship" to mean that the youth group will be conducting a Breaking of Bread on Friday night? As the meeting involves "fellowship" would you also take this to mean that non-baptised young people or school friends will not be allowed in?
These examples, and the ones I gave in my previous post, are quite typical of the general use of the word 'fellowship' in Christadelphian conversation. So why is it that the 'Basis of Fellowship' only uses the word 'fellowship' in the context of disfellowshipping someone or dissociating from an ecclesia? And why has the word taken on a kind of forensic application, referring to Breaking Bread with someone?

In subsequent posts I'd like to rescue the word 'fellowship' from its legalistic use, and show that in Biblical usage it has very little to do with church/ecclesial membership or taking part in a religious meeting known as "Breaking of Bread".

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'.