Cross Congregational Fellowship
by Jeffrey W. Hamilton
Christians do travel. An obvious statement, but it needs to be pointed out because it raises issues we don’t often think about. A Christian drops in on a congregation while in town for business. It is common for brethren to invite him over for a meal so they can get better acquainted. It isn’t unusual for a congregation to plan a special series of studies, say for a teenage audience, and invite other teens from the region to come for the lessons. Members of the congregation then open their homes so those traveling have some place to stay. A family may decide to have a singing in their home and put out the word that any who wish to come may do so. Some of our brethren have organized camp-outs for various groups and invite Christians to come. Others have set up singing schools which draw brethren from across the country. Still others have founded colleges and encourage brethren to make use of the facilities. Christians throughout the ages have had fellowship with brethren of other congregations.
But these opportunities to enjoy each other’s presence are not totally care free. Every member of a congregation is not necessarily faithful to the Lord. The parables of the wheat and tares (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43) and the dragnet (Matthew 13:47-50) tell us that the very nature of the church requires that it brings in the unfaithful in order to gain the largest harvest of the faithful. If it was possible to restrict membership in a congregation to just the faithful, we are told that many who might have made it to heaven would not make it. “The servants said to him, 'Do you want us then to go and gather them up?' But he said, 'No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, "First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn."'" (Matthew 13:28-30). Later Jesus explains that the harvest is not until the end of the age. Therefore, on this earth there will always be unfaithful Christians among the faithful in any gathering, whether in a congregation or in some other cross congregational fellowship.
Can Withdrawals by Other Congregations be Ignored?
This doesn’t mean nothing is to be done about sinners in our midst. We are told to deal with sin as we find it, to encourage those in sin to leave it behind, and if they do not, to cast them out of our fellowship (Matthew 18:15-17; Romans 16:17-18; I Corinthians 5:9-11; II Corinthians 6:14; Ephesians 5:11; II Thessalonians 3:14). This restriction of fellowship is not limited to a congregation. Notice in II John 10-11: “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds.” John is referring to false teachers who travel. And it is here that problems begin.
There is no earthly organization of brethren maintaining membership roles for all the faithful Christians on earth. The highest earthly organization is the local congregation. So what happens when a congregation discovers a false teacher in their midst, or an adulterer, or any other type of sinner? What happens when a congregation does withdraw from the wayward and they go off to another congregation or continue to attend gatherings without mentioning they are no longer members of a local congregation? This problem isn’t unique to our day. It has been addressed in the pages of the New Testament because it did happen to our early brethren.
First, we need to note that while a withdrawal is done by a congregation to discipline a wayward member, you won’t always get 100% participation. It ought to be unanimous, but the reality is that we are still dealing with people. While the Corinthians withdrew from a member committing fornication and that withdrawal did bring the person back from sin, it didn’t have 100% participation. “This punishment which was inflicted by the majority is sufficient for such a man” (II Corinthians 2:6). It is a small comfort to know that a withdrawal can be effective even if a handful do not remove their fellowship as they ought to do.
Second, when a Christian or congregation does know that a wayward member is going elsewhere, concern for other brethren demands that some warning should be given.
“This charge I commit to you, son Timothy, according to the prophecies previously made concerning you, that by them you may wage the good warfare, having faith and a good conscience, which some having rejected, concerning the faith have suffered shipwreck, of whom are Hymenaeus and Alexander, whom I delivered to Satan that they may learn not to blaspheme” (I Timothy 1:18-20).
“for Demas has forsaken me, having loved this present world, and has departed for Thessalonica” (II Timothy 4:10).
“Alexander the coppersmith did me much harm. May the Lord repay him according to his works. You also must beware of him, for he has greatly resisted our words” (II Timothy 4:14-15).
This has caused some problems in our lawsuit-happy country. Congregations have been sued for libel when they sent out warnings regarding members they had disfellowshiped . Yet, it still can be done. Notice that Paul’s warnings told us who were causing problems, but the details of the problems are left unstated. Those who lost lawsuits did so because too much information was relayed. It is notable too that the examples of warnings are in letters which went to individuals. I’m not certain if we should draw a conclusion that it should always be done that way or not, but certainly in touchy situations a discrete letter to key individuals will at least give people warning.
Third, congregations need to accept the fact that just because someone shows up at the door, it doesn’t imply they are faithful brethren. It would behoove any congregation, when dealing with someone they don’t know, to inquire about where they came from and check to see if it is true. There are people who lie and mislead. To ignore this simple fact is dangerous and naive. Congregations have control over their membership. The congregation in Jerusalem was reluctant to allow Saul in as a member, and for good reasons, until they had evidence that Saul had truly converted (Acts 9:26-27).
Can we keep a gathering of Christians pure?
Even with checks, the checks will never be totally effective in keeping wayward members out. All Christians need to be observant. Notice that in II John 10-11 two conditions are mentioned: someone comes and they bring with them false teachings. Sometimes you discover that someone isn’t whom they claimed to be until after the fact. What do you do? The same thing any Christian should do, you denounce the false teaching and refuse to give any sign of acceptance of its teacher (Romans 16:17-18; Titus 3:10-11; I Corinthians 5:9-11). In some gatherings, such exclusions won’t be highly effective. You’re not likely to get into discussions at a singing which will reveal a doctrinal issue. You might not find out until a month later that the person you had overnight was withdrawn from the week before. But we’ve noted that there will always be some tares in among the wheat in most gatherings. It isn’t what we want or strive for, but it remains an unfortunate fact.
Are withdrawals only dealing with social events?
“I wrote to you in my epistle not to keep company with sexually immoral people. Yet I certainly did not mean with the sexually immoral people of this world, or with the covetous, or extortioners, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But now I have written to you not to keep company with anyone named a brother, who is sexually immoral, or covetous, or an idolater, or a reviler, or a drunkard, or an extortioner – not even to eat with such a person” (I Corinthians 5:9-11).
People tend to focus on the command to not eat with a withdrawn from Christian, but eating was given as an example of a much broader command of not keeping company with a Christian who is actively involved in a sinful lifestyle. When a brother is involved in a sin, the Christian doesn’t need to wait for an official withdrawal by a congregation before fellowship is severed. This is why Paul was upset with the Corinthians. They had a man involved in a form of fornication that even Gentiles abhorred, yet they acted pleased to have this man in their midst. This wasn’t a sin being done in secret. Paul heard about it all the way in Ephesus! Paul’s point is that they should have already have taken steps to separate themselves from someone actively in sin.
The phrase “keep company with” comes from the Greek word sunanamignumi. It is a compound word which means “mixed up together.” It was used in the Septuagint version in two verses, Ezekiel 20:18 and Hosea 7:8, to refer to the Israelites intermingling with Gentile idolaters. It is used twice in this passage from I Corinthians and “And if anyone does not obey our word in this epistle, note that person and do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed” (II Thessalonians 3:14). It refers to any association with a person which might give the impression that you accept the person as they are. That is why John warned, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds” (II John 10-11). Any form of hospitality, not just sitting in the same room to eat, can show approval to someone who is in sin.
Therefore, the command to separate is not limited to eating meals with a brother who is in sin. It includes inviting him over for games, giving him a place to stay, joining him in shared activities, etc.
Is Honoring All Withdrawals Required?
These matters should seem straight forward, but there are more points to consider. If a congregation withdraws from a Christian, must another congregation honor it by excluding that Christian from their fellowship? On the surface it would seem the proper thing to do, but there are many hidden snares.
The Problem of Autonomy
First, unquestioningly honoring all withdrawals means it is possible for one congregation to hold some form of authority over another congregation; that is, the second congregation gives some control of its own membership to the first congregation. If the Street Church (just a name for clarity) always rejects any member withdrawn from by another congregation, then that congregation has some control over who can be a member at Street Church. Such is never mentioned in the New Testament. The congregation in Damascus had accepted Saul (Acts 9:19-20) when later Jerusalem rejected the same Saul for a while (Acts 9:26). Membership at Damascus did not automatically grant Saul membership at Jerusalem. Each congregation had to make up its own mind. Jerusalem considered Saul at the recommendation of brethren who knew of his conversion. In the same way, if a warning comes from another congregation, the warning should be considered, but ultimately each congregation must make up their own mind about who they will accepted as members.
It might seem strange, but there are congregations who withdraw from people months after they have left their fellowship and joined another congregation. The congregation who then declares the departed brother as withdrawn from becomes upset that the congregation where they are currently members doesn’t withdraw their fellowship. What they don’t see is that each congregation can only control their own membership. They can state that someone is no longer accepted as a member of their congregation. They can warn other congregations about the problem they found. But they cannot demand control of another congregation’s membership.
This has led to the question of how to handle an erring brother, who seeing which way the wind is blowing, leaves a congregation just before the decision to withdraw is made. In truth, the departure only advances the separation. Since they have left, they are no longer members of that congregation and a congregation is certainly in its rights to acknowledge that separation. If they know where that brother has gone, they should let that congregation know that a problem exists which should be investigated. The rest is up to the other congregation.
The Problem of Accuracy
Second, just as individuals stray from the truth, whole congregations depart as well. Even when we try to do our best, we make mistakes at times – individually and as congregations (I John 1:8). The plain fact is that sometimes faithful Christians are withdrawn from. “I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to have the preeminence among them, does not receive us. Therefore, if I come, I will call to mind his deeds which he does, prating against us with malicious words. And not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church” (III John 9-10). John had just stated that brethren ought to receive the faithful who are traveling. “I have no greater joy than to hear that my children walk in truth. Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the brethren and for strangers, who have borne witness of your love before the church. If you send them forward on their journey in a manner worthy of God, you will do well, because they went forth for His name's sake, taking nothing from the Gentiles. We therefore ought to receive such, that we may become fellow workers for the truth” (III John 4-8). But Diotrephes not only rejected these traveling brethren, he refused a letter from the apostle John, stopped others from receiving faithful travelers, and if they didn’t listen to him, threw them out of the church.
So would you expect other congregations in the area to reject people because the congregation Diotrephes controlled had withdrawn from them? No. John tells us that to do so would be wrong. “We therefore ought to receive such, that we may become fellow workers for the truth” (III John 8). Both who we accept into and who we reject from our fellowship is a declaration of where we stand in regards to the truth.
When dealing with withdrawn-from brethren, individuals and congregations must decide whether a person accused of sin had indeed sinned. Because people are involved, people and congregations will make mistakes at times, rejecting those who should be accepted, such as the case of Saul being rejected for a time by Jerusalem, or accepting those who should be rejected, such as the congregation in Thyatira (Revelation 2:20). To support someone who is in sin is also a sin (Romans 1:32), but to reject someone who isn’t in sin is also a sin (John 13:34).
Thus, there can be no “one size fits all” policy for dealing with any gathering of Christians. Most gatherings will have some unfaithful brethren because it is not possible to perfectly exclude all who do not belong. Nor can we be so zealous in trying to obtain absolute purity that we allow ourselves to reject the faithful. “The servants said to him, 'Do you want us then to go and gather them up?' But he said, 'No, lest while you gather up the tares you also uproot the wheat with them” (Matthew 13:28-29). We do our best but realize that some issues will just have to wait until Judgment Day. “'Let both grow together until the harvest, and at the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, "First gather together the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them, but gather the wheat into my barn."” (Matthew 13:30).
Ever try to plan a wedding where two relatives are friendly with you but aren’t speaking to each other? Because of the imperfections of maintaining fellowship with only the faithful, the same issue arises in gatherings of brethren. A congregation might have a singing and a brother withdrawn from by a neighboring congregation might attend as well as members from that same congregation.
If we don’t know a reason why a person ought to be excluded from our fellowship, then the best solution is to let everyone know that people from both sides had been invited. This takes the burden of trying to choose who we want to be at our gathering off of our shoulders and allows those involved to make their own choice. For example, if a nearby congregation split over whether to sell the church building and move to a better location in town, one could conclude that it was a silly quarrel which you won’t get in the middle of, so you treat both sides alike. Or a congregation who withdrew from a family because their daughter and the preacher’s daughter had an argument over a minor issue that shouldn’t have gone beyond the parents telling the daughters to behave themselves. I’ve seen both happen.
For the host of a wedding to choose one family member over the other is to take sides. However, in a gathering of Christians, taking sides against a brother who has sinned and has been withdrawn from by a church is the proper thing to do. We cannot have fellowship with those in sin (Romans 1:32). But if you don’t think the person was in sin and that the withdrawal was in error, it is not proper to judge against a brother just to make some people happy. “Who are you to judge another's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4).
Generally what happens at a wedding is that one family member or the other chooses not to come. In gatherings of Christians, the same thing often occurs: one side or the other chooses not to come. But it becomes their choice, not yours.
The Problem of Conscience
But doesn’t inviting both sides mean I’m going to cause someone to offend their conscience? If people from Boulevard Church find out that someone Boulevard Church withdrew from is coming to an event they planned to attend, they will be concerned about joining in fellowship with the person the Boulevard Church had rejected. Members of the Boulevard Church would not agree that other Christians looking at the situation could possibly conclude that their rejection wasn’t a proper withdrawal.
We ought to be concerned about not offending the conscience of a brother, but there are limits to how far we can go in accommodating a brother’s conscience. Usually Romans 14:21 is cited, “It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak.” This we ought to do, so long as we don’t in turn sin by accommodating a brother’s belief. As an example, if I know a brother thinks celebrating the Christmas holiday is sinful, I’m not going to invite him over for a holiday party. It isn’t wrong to choose not to celebrate a holiday, nor is it wrong to choose to treat the Christmas season as a secular holiday. But what if someone strongly believes it is a woman’s right to terminate a pregnancy that she doesn’t want. Do I make accommodations for her beliefs? The answer here is “No” because the belief is contrary to the teachings of God. “Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves” (Romans 14:22). Throughout Romans 14 is the assumption that what a person chooses to do or not do is within the boundaries of what God declared to be right. A person might be more restrictive than you think is necessary or he might be more accepting than you feel comfortable, but always the question must be whether God accepts the person or not. “But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. For it is written: "As I live, says the LORD, Every knee shall bow to Me, And every tongue shall confess to God." So then each of us shall give account of himself to God” (Romans 14:10-12).
Who we have fellowship with does not fall into a realm of acceptability no matter what is chosen. If we accept a brother who is in sin, then we have sinned. If we reject a brother who has not sinned, then we have sinned. Fellowship is not a matter of conscience but of God’s law. In other words, I accommodate the conscience of a brother so long as doing so doesn’t cause me to sin. If a brother strongly feels eating meat is wrong, my not eating meat is not a sin and I can refrain for my brother’s sake. But if a brother strongly feels it is wrong to associate with people who have dark skin, I would be sinning against my dark-skinned brother and against God if I broke off my association with my dark-skinned brother for the sake of some brother’s conscience.
If we determine that a brother was wrongfully withdrawn from, to exclude him would be a sin. Yes, another brother might not fully understand, but I cannot let his lack of understanding cause me to harm my relationship with a faithful brother in Christ. “Beloved, you do faithfully whatever you do for the brethren and for strangers, who have borne witness of your love before the church. If you send them forward on their journey in a manner worthy of God, you will do well, because they went forth for His name's sake, taking nothing from the Gentiles. We therefore ought to receive such, that we may become fellow workers for the truth” (III John 5-8).
If I invite someone to enjoy fellowship with me and they decline because they know someone else will also be there, then the choice was their own. They acted in accordance with their conscience, though I might not agree with their choice. It cannot be claimed that I violated their conscience when they acted in accordance with their conscience. Whether they sinned in following their conscience is a matter God will address in Judgment.
The Problem of Ignorance
It isn’t possible to always know what is happening all around the world. What happens if someone who was withdrawn from comes to services and you invited them over for dinner? Did you sin by unknowingly dining with a brother who was in sin? What happens if a host welcomes someone he determined was faithful though he was improperly withdrawn from by some other congregation? Did the host cause others, who were unaware of the situation, to sin?
These questions have broader implications than just entertaining a sinning Christian. Can a person be charged with sin when they did not know and could not have known that what they were doing was sinful? In other words, could Adam and Eve have sinned if God had not told them in advance that eating from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was wrong?
The clear answer is “no.” “For until the law sin was in the world, but sin is not imputed when there is no law” (Romans 5:13). The key here is the word “imputed.” God isn’t saying that a person with no knowledge never breaks a law, but that He doesn’t hold the sin to their account when they couldn’t have known that what they were doing was wrong. That is why God did not wipe out all of Israel in the wilderness when the people sinned. “Moreover your little ones and your children, who you say will be victims, who today have no knowledge of good and evil, they shall go in there; to them I will give it, and they shall possess it” (Deuteronomy 1:39). The children didn’t have a knowledge of good and evil; therefore, God didn’t hold them accountable.
God held the Gentile world accountable for sin because they did have the ability to know at least some things were wrong. “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:18-21). Even though their knowledge was incomplete, what they did know was sufficient to prove that they couldn’t even abide by what they knew.
Returning then to the question of having someone over whom you did not know was a Christian in sin, it seems clear that God doesn’t expect us to know the unknown. That is why in the warning against false teachers it says, “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds” (II John 9-10). There are two conditions that must be met before someone indirectly participates in false teaching: 1) A false teacher has to come, and 2) he has to bring his false teaching. If a false teacher travels through and never mentions the false doctrine he upholds, I haven’t supported his false doctrine because I wasn’t aware that he taught false doctrine. But once I become aware that he is a false teacher, any continued fellowship is an acceptance of his false doctrine.
If a host knows someone was withdrawn from, but has determined to the best of his ability that the one withdrawn from had not sinned, and invites him and others to join him in an act of fellowship, the host hasn’t sinned because he made the best judgment he could. “Do you not know that the saints will judge the world? And if the world will be judged by you, are you unworthy to judge the smallest matters?” (I Corinthians 6:2). He doesn’t tell others about what he has determined to be a non-existent sin because to do so would disparage a brother. “Hatred stirs up strife, but love covers all sins” (Proverbs 10:12). He has not caused people who were unaware of the situation to sin because of that very fact: they were unaware. It is not possible for a person unaware of a problem to violate his conscience.
Did the host take away the freedom of others to make up their own mind? That would be just like two brothers having a dispute, settling it, and then someone else in the congregation complain that because they were not made aware of the dispute, they were denied their “right” to decide who was in the wrong. Once sin is forgiven or determined that it doesn’t exist, the situation is no one else’s business. To make it known would be to gossip. “But let none of you suffer as a murderer, a thief, an evildoer, or as a busybody in other people's matters” (I Peter 4:15).
If someone later becomes aware of a situation, he can then make his own determination. He did not sin before when he had fellowship with someone he knew little about.
Saul’s Rejection in Jerusalem
“And when Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles. And he declared to them how he had seen the Lord on the road, and that He had spoken to him, and how he had preached boldly at Damascus in the name of Jesus. So he was with them at Jerusalem, coming in and going out” (Acts 9:26-28).
Here is a case where a congregation wrongly rejected a brother in Christ. They had good reason for the rejection. Saul was known to persecute members of the church (Acts 8:3). It isn’t hard to imagine that this could have been another ploy to find out who was a member of the church. Of course, the congregation’s rejection was done out of ignorance. They did not know Saul had been converted since that took place in Damascus.
Some argue that since there were apostles in Jerusalem that this justified their rejection of Saul. After all, apostles were inspired by God. First, it must be pointed out that inspiration did not take away a person’s free will. The case of Balaam illustrates this well. Balaam was a prophet of God. He knew he could not speak on behalf of God anything he wanted, yet it didn’t stop him from trying and he did tell the king of Midian how to get God to reject Israel (Numbers 31:16). Peter also illustrated that apostles could make the wrong choice when he stopped eating with the Gentile brethren (Galatians 2:11-13). Thus inspiration and apostleship was no guarantee against personal sin. Second, there is no indication in Acts that the brethren or the apostles sought God’s advice on the matter.
But what needs to be noted for our discussion is not what they did in their ignorance but how they responded when they were informed that Saul was converted. They did not stubbornly hold on to their rejection of Saul, but welcomed him into their number. When the leadership in the congregation understood that Saul had been converted, Saul was accepted by the congregation. One can understand a mistake being made due to insufficient information. It is quite a different matter when a person continues to do wrong knowingly. “Therefore, to him who knows to do good and does not do it, to him it is sin” (James 4:17).
There is no mention of polling the congregation to see if there were any who might continue to object to Saul’s presence. Given the large size of Jerusalem, it is easier to imagine that there might have been a few than that they all were in 100% agreement. But there is no mention of needing to obtain unanimous agreement before accepting a Christian. The only question they faced was whether Saul was a Christian and having received assurance through Barnabas of Saul’s conversion, he became one of them. The doubters, if there were any, were not put in control of those who knew what was the right thing to do.
Peter’s Rebuke in Jerusalem
“Now the apostles and brethren who were in Judea heard that the Gentiles had also received the word of God. And when Peter came up to Jerusalem, those of the circumcision contended with him, saying, "You went in to uncircumcised men and ate with them!"” (Acts 11:1-3).
Since the days when the Jews returned from captivity, they became isolationists. When Peter first went to Cornelius, he mentioned, “You know how unlawful it is for a Jewish man to keep company with or go to one of another nation” (Acts 10:28). This belief was not founded on anything God had taught; it appears to be an overreaction to God’s command not to marry into the seven Canaanites nations.
Peter was aware that fellow Christians had a sincerely held belief against associating with Gentiles. He had fellow Jewish Christians with him. “And those of the circumcision who believed were astonished, as many as came with Peter, because the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out on the Gentiles also” (Acts 10:45). Their astonishment makes it clear that they did not approve of Peter’s visit. Peter was also aware of their possible objections because he asked before having Cornelius and his household baptized, “Can anyone forbid water, that these should not be baptized who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” (Acts 10:47). These people were convinced that God had accepted the Gentiles because they stayed several days (Acts 10:48).
But those back in Jerusalem were not convinced and rebuked Peter. Peter did not back down or say that Gentiles were to be avoided because the conscience of these weak Christians were being violated. He strongly proved that the Gentiles were being offered salvation. He silenced the objections and they accepted that Gentiles could be Christians (Acts 11:18). But it was only in part because there still remained Christians who insisted that Gentile Christians had to become Jews (Acts 15:1, 5). Thus, we see that a decision was made without unanimity or accommodation for those who disagreed.
Peter’s Rudeness in Antioch
“Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed; for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision. And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy. But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, "If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews? ...”“ (Galatians 2:11-14).
Peter once gave full fellowship to the Gentiles in Antioch, but when people came from Jerusalem he separated himself out of fear of the Jewish Christians. One could argue that Peter was trying not to offend the sensibilities of weaker Christians who thought that Jews eating with uncircumcised Gentiles was wrong.
But notice that Paul calls it hypocrisy and a twisting of the Gospel. Though the Jewish Christians had sincerely held beliefs regarding the need for circumcision, it was a false belief (Galatians 5:1-4). Though it did not matter whether a person was circumcised or not in regards to the Gospel (Galatians 5:6), to give credence to requiring circumcision was wrong. And Peter was giving support to these Jewish Christian’s teaching by whom he kept or rejected company. Paul correctly rebuked him publicly. I’m sure it hurt, but Peter respected Paul (II Peter 3:15-16). By this we know that Peter stopped his sin against his brethren; whether immediately or at a later point we do not know.
Here is a clear case where the misguided beliefs of some Christians (the Jewish Christians) were not accommodated in rejecting fellowship with Christians who should be received. The conscience of those who were in the wrong was not a consideration in the matter.
Paul’s Rejection of Mark
“Then after some days Paul said to Barnabas, "Let us now go back and visit our brethren in every city where we have preached the word of the Lord, and see how they are doing." Now Barnabas was determined to take with them John called Mark. But Paul insisted that they should not take with them the one who had departed from them in Pamphylia, and had not gone with them to the work. Then the contention became so sharp that they parted from one another. And so Barnabas took Mark and sailed to Cyprus; but Paul chose Silas and departed, being commended by the brethren to the grace of God” (Acts 15:36-40).
This event was more personal that the prior ones. Paul did not want to travel with Mark because he abandoned them on the prior journey and he didn’t want a repeat. Barnabas strongly insisted that he should come on this trip. In this sharp disagreement, it wasn’t a matter of a moral choice; that is, Paul’s refusal wasn’t because Mark had sinned. Mark merely had disappointed him in the past. Yet most people read this account and understand that while Paul had his reasons, he was in the wrong in the long run. We conclude that because Paul later retracted the very reason he rejected Mark. “Get Mark and bring him with you, for he is useful to me for ministry” (II Timothy 4:11).
It is sad that two traveling companions, who had worked so well together, split over an issue such as this. It didn’t hurt the spread of the Gospel. God used it to spread it further by more territory being covered. But we note that it should not have happened in this manner.
It Is Good to Grasp This Without Letting Go of the Other
“Do not be overly righteous, nor be overly wise: why should you destroy yourself? Do not be overly wicked, nor be foolish: why should you die before your time? It is good that you grasp this, and also not remove your hand from the other; for he who fears God will escape them all” (Ecclesiastes 7:16-18).
People have a strong tendency to move to extreme positions. In the case of fellowship, it is tempting to be either too strict or too free because often those positions appear to be simpler to follow. But often extreme positions involve sinful stances and a Christian must not advocate sin.
Ideally we restrict our fellowship to those who are faithful brethren. We reject those who sin and accept those whom the Lord has accepted. But we must face the fact that we are human, prone to make mistakes either through ignorance or being lied to. Our fellowship will never be perfect in the scope of whom we have welcomed in. We strive to do our best, make corrections as situations appear, and accept that ultimately the truth will come out in Judgment.