Who Is My Brother: Congregational Fellowship

December 2, 2006

The last of the Fivefold Fellowship levels, described by F. LaGard Smith in his book Who Is My Brother, is called Congregational Fellowship. Smith says,

Congregational fellowship is God’s sublime answer to Cheers, “where everybody knows your name.” [p. 159]

He compares it to a Neighborhood Watch, where people know us and watch out for us. It is our family.

However he confesses difficulties in the family. As the “token conservative” in his congregation he struggles with doctrines and practices that make him uncomfortable. He wrestles with the question of whether to remain or to leave:

So what shall it be? Stay or go? Fight or withdraw? Maintain unity in the bonds of peace, or abandon unity in the same spirit of peace? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve revisited these tough questions.

…I can’t help but think that learning to honor differences of conscience and style within an immediate family of brothers and sisters in Christ is a noble quest. Indeed, a spiritual imperative. [p. 161]

He discusses six questions that help him clarify his decision to go or stay:

1) Is my discontent a matter of conscience or comfort zone?
2) What efforts have I made to effectuate change?
3) What endorsement am I lending by my continued presence?
4) What good influence might I have by staying?
5) What are my alternatives?
6) Is my discomfort worth the cost of broken fellowship?
[pp. 163-165]

He then acknowledges that there is little or no scriptural instruction telling us when we should leave a congregation. The biblical record does not show people leaving one congregation for another because of doctrinal differences or personal preferences. Perhaps that option is not supposed to be on the table. First century Christians did not choose a congregation. Instead they, themselves were chosen and placed in a congregation. To me this is the biblical answer. As long as they remain brothers and sisters in Christ, do not separate from them over disputable matters.

The freedom of each Christian to follow his conscience (in the sense of Romans 14) must extend also between congregations. While two congregations may not share identical convictions on every disputable subject, they must embrace one another with “In Christ” fellowship despite the differences. Biblical congregational autonomy means embracing one another without binding one another. Inter-congregational encouragement and teaching is appropriate. But each congregational leadership is accountable before God for its own flock, and there is plenty for them to keep busy without attempting to police all the other congregations.


  1. Dear Brother, Could you help me discern an issue that I have been dealing with for years? At what point does disagreement with doctrine disqualify someone as a brother? (Not disagreement with me, but with God.) I moved into a small rural town in Eastern Ky. 16 years ago and have been intermittantly addressing this question since that time. I grew up in a fairly conservative congregation, went to medical school in different state, married and moved into an underserved area of rural Ky…The town I grew up in had two CofC's-one with music, one without…That was the only doctrinal issue that separated the two…But here, there are 6 small CofC's (none large enough for elders, having 10-50 people each), who have separated and disfellowshipped over multiple issues (head coverings, kitchens, giving to needy outside of congregation, paid (and located) preachers, etc.)…I just don't understand it all. My husband and I try to re-unite these factions, but seems useless..In depth study of God's Word has shown me more about grace than I ever learned from any of these pulpits. My own beliefs have changed to the point that it seems that I have more in common with my Baptist/Pentecostal Brothers that I do my own tribe. At what point does one stop being God's child? Brenda

  2. Hi Brenda,In order for a person to be baptized into Christ, they have to meet a short list of conditions. First, they have to believe in Jesus as the Son of God, that he died for our sins, and that he rose from the dead. (That's the gospel message repeatedly taught to people prior to their baptism in the book of Acts.) Second, the person needs to repent of sin and to make Jesus their Lord. (Also part of the gospel message we read about in Acts). It is my conviction that, as long as that person remains true to those initial conditions, he or she remains saved. So, if the person continues to believe those basic gospel facts about Jesus, and continues to repent of sin and to obey Jesus as their Lord as far as they understand Jesus' commands, then I believe they continue to be saved. If they reject their belief in Jesus, they are lost. If they decide to return to a life of sin, ceasing to repent of sin, then they are lost. If they deliberately decide to stop obeying what they understand from Jesus' teachings, they are lost. If a person is convinced one way or the other on issues like head coverings, kitchens etc, but fails to live by that conviction, they are in sin (Rom 14:23). If they do not repent of that sin, they stand condemned, according to that passage. On the other hand, if a person has an honest misunderstanding of some command of Jesus, and if they obey what they believe to be the teaching, I believe they continue to stand (Romans 14:4). That's how I see it. Some on the conservative end of the church of Christ spectrum would call that heresy. They act as if they believe you must be perfect in your doctrinal belief and practice in order to be saved. Yet they themselves are not perfect (and they don't all agree with each other on many points.) Several months ago there was an online debate / discussion between some conservatives and progressives from churches of Christ on this very subject. I think you'd find that discussion enlightening. Seehttp://graceconversation.com/

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