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.

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