the weblog of Alan Knox

Fences Make Good Neighbors – Part 2

Posted by on Dec 1, 2009 in blog links, community, fellowship | 8 comments

In Part 1 of this two-part series, I pointed my readers to Lionel’s (from “A Better Covenant“) post called “There’s Fellowship and Then There’s Fellowship.” Lionel suggests that a three-tier fellowship (some closer than others) will create or demonstrate unity among believers.

My desire in this series is to consider the boundaries to these different levels of fellowship or relationship. At the end of my previous post, I asked these questions:

Do we set the boundaries [of fellowship or relationship between us and other people]? Should we set the boundaries? Do other people set the boundaries? Should we allow other people to set the boundaries? Are there boundaries beyond our control? How do these boundaries aid or hinder unity among the church?

To begin with, we should recognize that some boundaries are completely beyond our control. For example, I have never met most of the people that are alive today in the world. Therefore, I cannot have a relationship with them at any level. However, I believe that according to Scripture the love of God compels me to be ready to begin a relationship with anyone that God brings into my life.

Also, some people will not allow you to build a relationship with them. We cannot control what other people do or don’t do. We have neighbors that we’ve tried to get to know. We’ve invited them to our house, invited them to their favorite restaurant, and talked with them while we’re all outside. But, they do not want to get to know us better. We can’t control this. However, once again, we can be open and ready to build a relationship with them (and others) whenever the opportunity arises.

For the most part, our concern should not be with those relationships that are “fenced” out due to reasons beyond our control. What about other relationships?

First, there are legitimate reasons for refusing to have fellowship (or build a relationship) with someone. We see some of these in Scripture. For example, if someone calls himself (or herself) a brother (or sister) in Christ and yet lives a consistently immoral (and unrepentant) life, then we are to refuse to fellowship with them. As Paul says, “Do not even eat with that person.” Similarly, if someone denies the gospel, the deity or humanity of Christ, refuses to work to support him- or herself, or is acting divisive toward other believers, then we should refuse to fellowship with that person.

Are there other reasons to refuse fellowship with someone? This is the crux of the issue. Is it valid for us to choose whom to fellowship with and whom to refuse to build a relationship with based on other factors (that is, factors that are not listed in Scripture).

If someone were to suggest that race, economic status, educational level, ethnicity, or nationality were a reason for choosing to withhold fellowship (or refusing to build a relationship), most Christians would disagree. Yet, we often choose to withhold fellowship for other reasons. For the church today, the biggest reasons for withholding fellowship or choosing not to build a relationship would be organizational membership (“church membership”) and doctrinal differences, especially related to salvation and the end times.

Are these valid reasons for creating boundaries… either boundaries for starting relationships or allowing relationships to deepen?

At this point, I would argue that these are not valid reasons to withhold fellowship. However, I will also admit that I don’t know what it would look like to build relationships with those who differ from me in many of these areas. I welcome these types of relationships, primarily because I think they would be beneficial in helping me live for Christ. I also think that fellowship between people who are different from one another would better demonstrate to the world the love and acceptance of God in Christ Jesus.

So, what do you think? Besides the scriptural reasons that I listed, are there other valid reasons for withholding fellowship (or building deeper relationships) with someone? How do we decide what those valid reasons are? How do we decide that those reasons are valid?


8 Comments

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  1. 12-1-2009

    Alan,

    Unlike Christ I often enter into “relationships” with one hand on the door knob, ready to bail at the first sign of struggle. If it doesn’t seem like I will be compatiable I just opt out early, uncommitting before ever committing. For me this cuts down on all the drama and wierdness that I have experienced in the past. Loving people is very difficult, especially real love. The superficial “I love them” with no real pursuit of connecting emotionally, relationally and so forth is hogwash and I know it so I just decide instead of superficialness how about not doing it at all. I often say I have enough relationships adding on will only take away from others, but I am not being honest. We make time for things that are important to us, that is why I am at work today.

    I honestly think I walk around with boundaries already erected. As it relates to fellowship from a church perspective, the first thing I look for is the doctrinal statement and if I disagree there, I never go and visit. They may be the best group for me, but I will never find out because I have already put them in a tier/put a boundary up, that will prevent me from ever loving them from the gate. I often justify it by saying I don’t need the drama and weed people out based off of everything I shouldn’t.

  2. 12-1-2009

    Besides the scriptural reasons that I listed, are there other valid reasons for withholding fellowship … ?

    Your choice of the word “withhold” helped me see something. To the extent that fellowship is something that can either withheld or freely shared, like tapping into an existing reservoir or not, I think you are right that in general it shouldn’t be withheld from any brother. Perhaps this is akin to being neighborly, where we make ourselves available to meet the needs of others.

    But there is also an aspect of fellowship which is not a matter of tapping into a reservoir but more a matter of creating something that doesn’t yet exist, a relationship that we don’t just make available but that we have to invest our time and energy in creating, what some would call a relationship. And since each person’s time and energy is limited, they will need to pick and choose among the potential relationships they might build with others.

    I think this is exemplified by Jesus himself, who appears to have distinguished three levels among the group of twelve, namely the group itself, the three in the inner circle (Peter, James, and John), and then John himself, the disciple whom Jesus loved.

  3. 12-1-2009

    Lionel,

    You said, “I honestly think I walk around with boundaries already erected.” Yes. That’s what your original post made me think about – the boundaries that I’ve already placed between me and other people.

    Rick,

    I think the question that I’m asking is this: Did Jesus make the distinction between the three levels, or did other people make that distinction for him? In other words, would Jesus have welcomed anyone to get to know him better?

    -Alan

  4. 12-1-2009

    Did Jesus make the distinction between the three levels, or did other people make that distinction for him? In other words, would Jesus have welcomed anyone to get to know him better?

    Alan,

    I think there is a third possibility, namely that with Jesus some of the twelve were a better fit than others, just because of who they were. As an analogy, of all those who love and admire Dave Black (me included), I think the ones who live and breathe New Testament Greek and the ones whose hearts are on fire for Ethiopia would likely end up closer to him than the rest. I wouldn’t choose either of those passions even if I could just to be closer to Dave, and I don’t think he would expect me to. But the reality is that because I lack those passions, it places a natural limit on how close we could be.

  5. 12-1-2009

    Rick,

    Thanks. That certainly gives me something to think about. I think our passions and gifting and talents will naturally draw us toward some people as opposed to others.

    I guess I’m asking about those people who were drawn to Jesus. Would Jesus have pushed them away because they were in tier 3 and not tier 2? What about us? How should we handle relationships with people who desire to know us better, or with whom we have opportunities to get to know better?

    -Alan

  6. 12-1-2009

    How should we handle relationships with people who desire to know us better, or with whom we have opportunities to get to know better?

    My goal, which I don’t always meet, is twofold: I try to be a better friend than the other person deserves; and I try to be a less demanding friend to others than I deserve. I think there are points, fairly easy to discern, which you aren’t required to go beyond in being friendly with others. I try to allow others to push past those limits, partly in hope that I can teach them a better way and partly for much-needed practice in esteeming others more highly than myself. And I try to stop far short of pushing others to those limits with my own behavior.

    For example, I will put up with someone who is being unnecessarily and thoughtlessly boring, partly in hope that I can help them become more sensitive to their listeners, and partly to teach myself that my own boredom is usually less important than giving someone else a chance to speak their piece. But there are limits to this, since I am not yet thoroughly sanctified and can only do so much to choke down my own boredom. (And, in at least some cases, it is the less loving thing to do to indulge a bore.)

    And I do my best to be interesting to the person I am talking to, and to be sensitive to their lack of interest, trying not to push them anywhere near their own limits.

  7. 12-1-2009

    “Similarly, if someone … is acting divisive toward other believers, then we should refuse to fellowship with that person.”

    This is one I’ve struggled with. I believe seeking unity as an essential. But how do I relate to the many Christ followers who are content within the walls of their separate traditions… and are content judging those outside their walls? I think protestants who are still protesting 500 years later are being more divisive than constructive. And there are people in each ‘camp’ like this.

    Do I refuse to fellowship with them because they don’t see unity the way I see it? Then I’d be no better than they.

    Good question, would Jesus still fellowship with them? Yes, I think I can see evidence in individual lives that He is. So I should too.

  8. 12-1-2009

    Rick,

    I like your goal of trying to be a better friend that the other person deserves. It sounds like you are always willing to allow someone to build a closer relationship with you.

    Jon,

    The idea of separating from someone because of divisiveness did not originate with me. Paul told Titus to stay away from a divisive person after warning him twice (Titus 3:10). I do agree, though, that we need to think carefully about what this would look like in the current situation when so many believers separate from other believers and are taught that this divisiveness is a good thing.

    -Alan