The word “fellowship” itself in the Bible means to have things in common. Real fellowship exists when we have the truth of God’s word in common. Belief in the same Savior and the same teachings of the Bible binds us together in a bond of real fellowship – in the pulpit, at the communion rail, in prayer, in supporting the work of the Church. It is a very positive thing.
There is such a perfect fellowship of kindred hearts that can never be destroyed. We confess it regularly in the Apostle’s Creed: “I believe in…the Holy Christian Church, the communion of saints.” The Holy Christian Church or communion of saints is really the one true Church. It is made up of all believers in Christ – and only of believers in Christ. This is worth repeating: All those who believe in Jesus Christ alone as their only Savior from sin are members of this one, holy Christian Church, regardless of the race, nation or church body to which they belong. We do not and have never held to the ridiculous notion that only Wisconsin Synod Lutherans are going to heaven.
But we call this one Holy Christian Church by another name – the invisible Church – invisible because its membership is known only to God. “The kingdom of God does not come with your careful observation,” says Jesus in Luke 17, “…because the kingdom of God is within you.” Only God knows who truly believes in Jesus as their Savior. We rejoice to know that there are such fellow believers all over the world in many different Christian Churches and that all Christians will enjoy perfect fellowship in heaven.
But the invisible church is a gathering of hearts which only God can see. You and I are not God. So you and I can only deal with the visible church. You cannot attend an invisible church with invisible people.
So when you want to know where to find believers in Christ, you have to look for what the fathers called “the marks of the church.” Here in deer hunting country, you may refer to “the tracks of the church.” What are the marks or tracks of the church? The gospel purely preached and the sacraments rightly administered. Where you find these “marks,” believers gather – even though hypocrites and hangers-on may be mingled in that visible gathering.
There have been tragic divisions in the visible church from the beginning. Church bodies which were once orthodox or right-teaching no longer are. Some think the solution is to agree to disagree, to share altar, pulpit, communion rail, prayer and mission work without first agreeing on what the Bible teaches.
But outward union without doctrinal unity is dishonest. It is phony. And it leads us, step by step, away from the truth of God’s word and our salvation. Real fellowship at the communion rail, in our worship or church work happens when we first agree on the teachings of Scripture, and when we separate from false teachings and false teachers. Only in this way, as Paul once put it, can we keep “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.”