The disciples asked Jesus what world events would take place near the time of the end (Matt. 24:3). Jesus warned believers about religious deception. Notice what He said: “. . . Take heed that no man deceive you. For many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ; and shall deceive many” (vv. 4-5). Jesus said many would be deceived. Many who? The answer: The text refers to many Christians. Jesus was talking to His disciples. He was not talking to the world. He said many of His disciples would be deceived. And who would deceive them? The answer: those who came in His name, that is, those who had been authorized to represent Christ.
The Apostle Paul warned about a “falling away” in the “last days.” He wrote the Thessalonians: “Now we beseech you, brethren, by the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by our gathering together unto him, That ye be not soon shaken in mind, or be troubled, neither by spirit, nor by word, nor by letter as from us, as that the day of Christ is at hand” (2 Thess. 2:1-2). Notice: Paul is writing about the return of Jesus Christ. What Paul says in the next verse is shocking. “Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition” (v. 3). Stop and consider. What do the words “falling away” mean? “Falling away” is the translation of the Greek word apostasia, which means “defection,” “forsaking,” or “apostasy.” A defection or forsaking of what? Paul was addressing Christians, and since the text refers to the return of Christ, Paul was speaking to Christians today. The word apostasy does not mean a departure from a church organization. What Paul states is that near the time of Christ’s return, there would be a departure from the Truth. What Paul said was that in the time of the end there would be a “falling away,” or a departure from revealed doctrine. One cannot “fall away” from the Truth if he never had it in the first place. Paul is warning true Christians, not people who were never called to understand the Truth.
In 1974-75 the Worldwide Church of God made major doctrinal changes. These were the change from a Monday to a Sunday Pentecost, and the change in the teaching on divorce and remarriage. Some fail to realize that these changes had a profound effect upon the Church. Many members lost all confidence in the Church and the doctrine. Thousands left in disillusionment, many in total disgust. There was no local pastor who did not experience this in his church or churches. Today, the end result is the division of the Worldwide Church of God into over 200 groups. The teachings of these groups vary all the way from ultra-liberal, to ultra-conservative. One can now choose any stripe of belief that suits his fancy.
A Time of Trial
True Christians are being tried in a way comparable to what happened during the first few centuries of the Christian era. At that time there was a gradual abandonment of the Truth taught by Christ and the Apostles. What took place in the early centuries occurred over a period of two or three hundred years, but in our day it took place over a period of twenty years. Jesus said that the way would be difficult, narrow, and strait, and that few would find it (Matt. 7:14). Today, it has been made broad, acceptable, and easy. This is the way that leads to destruction (v. 13). It is the way of the majority, the way that makes many feel comfortable. This is what happened to the Church of God, beginning in 1974. The prophet Daniel spoke of this time. He said: “And some of them of understanding shall fall, to try them, and to purge, and to make them white, even to the time of the end: because it is yet for a time appointed” (Dan. 11:35). True Christians are being tried today. They are being put to the test to see whether they will follow God, or a man and a church organization- a test to see whether they will follow Truth, or whether they will follow error. The Bible clearly indicates the majority will follow error. One of the major tests they must face is if they are willing to stand alone, rather than choosing to fellowship with those who are in spiritual error.
Fellowshipping with Those in Error?
As a result of what happened in the Worldwide Church of God, those who could not tolerate the ungodly doctrinal changes that took place, or were taking place, chose to separate. They are now forced to be alone and have a desire for spiritual fellowship. But with whom should they fellowship? Many who were a part of the Church of God have gone back to the various churches they attended before being called. These are the churches that profess Christ, but do not practice what He taught. They are the churches of the world. Others have opted to attend one of the many churches that were once a part of the Worldwide Church of God-churches that accepted some of the major doctrinal changes that were made in 1974, but could not tolerate later changes. Those who want to fellowship with these Churches of God reason that it is better to have fellowship with someone than no fellowship at all. After all, they reason, it is not edifying to be alone. But how edifying is error? How edifying is gradual compromise? How edifying is eventually accepting falsehood? Paul warned: ” . . . Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?” (1 Cor. 5:6). And James warned: “For whosoever shall keep the whole law,and yet offend in one point, he is guilty of all” (Jas. 2:10). James emphasized: “Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God” (Jas. 4:4). How can true fellowship with those who hold to doctrinal error be achieved? It cannot. It is not possible for true Christians to have any real spiritual fellowship with the churches of the world, or with those who have gone off into error.
True Christian fellowship should be only with those who are like-minded. Anyone who is a true Christian should withdraw from fellowship with those who: (1) refuse to obey God’s Truth, (2) depart from the Truth in any way, (3) or begin to teach and practice sin. Ask yourself this question: Why do you fellowship with the people you do? Is it because you desire social fellowship? While social fellowship with fellow members who are like-minded is certainly acceptable, the fact is: The only thing that really binds the people of God together is the Truth they share-the true doctrine. Such things as hobbies, sporting interests, homemaking interests, vocations and businesses that are similar, etc., wear thin in due time. What has real lasting value is the Truth of God. Fellowship with those who attempt to sway true Christians to accept error, or a lifestyle that is contrary to God’s Law should be avoided. Believers who fellowship with those in error, or who live ungodly lifestyles, are, in reality, condoning these things.
What about fellowshipping with those who once believed the Truth but no longer do so? Some regard the doctrinal changes made in the Worldwide Church of God in 1974 as minor, but what is not realized is that these changes set in motion all the apostasy that followed. The changes that were made in 1974 were monumental. Why? Because the Pentecost change was a rejection of the knowledge that Christians come to the Truth by means of the Holy Spirit. God reveals spiritual truth (1 Cor. 2:10). It does not come by means of scholarship, yet this is what was accepted in 1974. Jesus made this promise: “But the Comforter, which is the Holy Ghost [Spirit], whom the Father will send in my name, he shall teach you all things, and bring all things to your remembrance, whatsoever I have said unto you” (John 14:26). The Holy Spirit is the Spirit of Truth (John 14:17). Consider: Either the Church of God was led by the Holy Spirit and had the Truth of God, or it was in error all the years before 1974. If this is true, then what confidence can you have in what you now believe? Why? Because if “scholarship” has the answers, God is not the source of spiritual understanding. One then must completely rely on men for enlightenment. What does the Bible say about human wisdom? “For it is written, I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and will bring to nothing the understanding of the prudent” (1 Cor. 1:19). Belief in God requires the conviction that God leads by His Holy Spirit. God does not lead anyone into error (Deut. 32:4). Yet, thousands have come to accept the idea that God did not lead the Church of God into Truth, and that it was full of error until after 1974 when doctrine was made “mainstream.”
What did the Apostle Paul warn about fellowshipping with those in error?
Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? for ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you. (2 Cor. 6:14-17)
There is also a dire warning in 2 Peter 2:18. Peter warns about those who live in error: “These are wells without water, clouds that are carried with a tempest; to whom the mist of darkness is reserved for ever. For when they speak great swelling words of vanity, they allure through the lusts of the flesh, through much wantonness, those that were clean escaped from them who live in error.” Those who have escaped the pollutions of the world, and yet dabble with those who have compromised the Truth, or fellowship with those who live it half-heartedly, can be adversely affected. Those who have compromised and are now half-hearted in their zeal should heed this warning: “I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth” (Rev. 3:15-16). Paul tells us to have ” . . . no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them” (Eph. 5:11). How can you reprove them by fellowshipping with them? “Make no mistake about this: ‘bad company is the ruin of good character'” (1 Cor. 15:33, Moffatt). Again, notice this warning: ” . . . Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump?” (1 Cor. 5:6). The Apostle John warns: “If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds” (2 John 10-11). Ask yourself this question: What is the difference if you go to him because you desire fellowship, or if he comes to you?
Fellowship with True
Believers Not Always Possible
During regular weekly Sabbath services, Christians can meet with those who are like-minded and who practice the principles of Christianity. But what should one do if he or she does not have a church to attend, and has no others near who share his or her beliefs? How can we fellowship under such circumstances?
There have been times in the past when the true followers of God have been isolated. Elijah, for example, was alone and discouraged. He told God: ” . . . I have been very jealous for the LORD God of hosts: for the children of Israel have forsaken thy covenant, thrown down thine altars, and slain thy prophets with the sword; and I, even I only, am left; and they seek my life, to take it away” (1 Kings 19:10). How did God reply? ” . . . I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him” (1 Kings 19:18). At that time, it was not God’s purpose to bring together those who truly worshipped Him. Perhaps we live in similar circumstances today? Elijah did not know who these faithful were. But God did. The faithful few have always been disregarded and impugned.
Here is the record:
And others had trial of cruel mockings and scourgings, yea, moreover of bonds and imprisonment: They were stoned, they were sawn asunder, were tempted, were slain with the sword: they wandered about in sheepskins and goatskins; being destitute, afflicted, tormented; (Of whom the world was not worthy:) they wandered in deserts, and in mountains, and in dens and caves of the earth. And these all, having obtained a good report through faith, received not the promise. God having provided some better thing for us, that they without us should not be made perfect. (Heb. 11:36-40)
The fact is: There are times when God’s true people have been unable to meet together or to fellowship with other true believers. God certainly understands this. To please God, we must be willing, however, to accept the conditions. “By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter; Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompence of the reward” (Heb. 11:24-26). How much do we esteem the reproach of Christ above the treasures of this world, including the desire to have spiritual fellowship with the wrong kind of people?
When alone, we must rely on personal Bible study, spiritual instruction via tapes, printed material, personal correspondence, and attending God’s Holy Days.
The Importance of Convocations
It is true we all need fellowship. There is, after all, the human desire to share our feelings and views with others of like mind. Such fellowship is beneficial in rounding out our personality and character. Those who prefer isolation generally lack balance with respect to issues, ideas, and concepts. Due to selfishness, they also fail to appreciate the emotional needs of others. Contact with others makes life’s experiences more meaningful and fulfilling. When one expresses an outgoing concern for others, he or she has an opportunity to apply the principle stated in Acts 20:35. “I have shewed you all things, how that so labouring ye ought to support the weak, and to remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said, It is more blessed to give than to receive.”
Spiritual relationships with others is provided by means of fellowship, and one of the primary ways to achieve this is by taking advantage of the convocations God has ordained. These are the “set times” the Bible speaks of, times set aside for fellowship and learning to appreciate one another. Notice: “Speak unto the children of Israel, and say unto them, Concerning the feasts of the LORD, which ye shall proclaim to be holy convocations, even these are my feasts” (Lev. 23:2). A convocation is simply a “calling together,” “an assembly called together,” “a sacred convocation” (Gesenius’ Hebrew and English Lexicon, p. 504). This was emphasized in the New Testament when Paul wrote: “And let us consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works: Not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some is; but exhorting one another: and so much the more, as ye see the day approaching” (Heb. 10:24-25). Man was never intended to be an individualist, and God’s instruction places great emphasis on fellowship and godly instruction.
But here is what is important: We should meet and fellowship with those of like mind only. Some tell us that it is a mistake to base one’s fellowship on a very narrow doctrinal definition. After all, they say that the churches in Revelation, chapters two and three, tolerated a number of doctrinal errors, yet Christ did not command brethren to leave them. Rather, he commanded these churches to repent. This view begs the questions, what if these churches refused to repent? And what did Christ say would happen to those who refused to do so? What should the believer do under these circumstances? Also, this idea ignores the many Scriptures that command Christians not to fellowship with those in error, or even allow error in your home. To associate with those in error is tolerating leaven. “A little leaven leavens the whole lump.” The fact is: The Bible is quite explicit in delineating who and what is acceptable for spiritual fellowship. ” Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Ps. 133:1). By associating with those in error, the very silence of the believer tacitly approves that error. In such a circumstance, speaking out against what is wrong will soon guarantee ostracism or worse. It should be pointed out, however, there is no need to restrict fellowship with relatives, family members, and friends who have departed from the Truth unless there is a persistent attempt to persuade the true Christian to follow them in their error.
By means of convoking with those of like mind, the Christian principles of fellowship can be realized. Many brethren who are undergoing trials can be greatly encouraged and buoyed up by a kind word, a little sympathy, a smile of understanding, and a shoulder to lean on. Those who refuse to fellowship are not able to grow in the spiritual manner God requires. We are to “provoke unto love and good works.”
Fellowship with God and Christ
Even though many true Christians are scattered and can have little fellowship with those who are like-minded, no human relationship compares with the spiritual relationship that we can have with God and Christ. The Apostle John wrote: “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full” (1 John 1:3-4).
The spiritual fellowship we do have with other Christians is the direct result of the Spirit of God. This is why John wrote above: “That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.” What motivates true Christian fellowship is the love of God and obedience to His law. We read: “By this we know that we love the children of God, when we love God, and keep his commandments. For this is the love of God, that we keep his commandments: and his commandments are not grievous” (1 John 5:2-3). The moment Truth is cast aside, however, that fellowship comes to an end.
Jesus promised: “I will not leave you comfortless: I will come to you” (John 14:18). ” . . . I will never leave thee, nor forsake thee” (Heb. 13:5). Even if we are in a scattered condition, unable to meet with true brethren, we can take comfort in the words that God told Joshua: ” . . . I will be with thee: I will not fail thee, nor forsake thee” (Josh. 1:5). Regardless where we may be, true followers of God must worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:23-24). That is, we must have a spiritual relationship with God according to the Truth of the Bible. Fellowshipping with others begins with a spiritual relationship with God and Christ. If this does not exist, fellowship with other human beings has no spiritual significance. The entire basis for fellowship with other Christians is obedience to the Truth of God.
There have been historical periods in the past when true Christian fellowship was limited. The same is true today. While we may be separated geographically, we are not separated spiritually. True fellowship, either with God or man, rests on a right relationship with God. Even in spiritual fellowship “. . . our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). A right relationship with God will always mean a right relationship with our Christian brethren.