Many pastors believe and teach that fellowship with God can be broken, and that in order to repair or restore such a broken fellowship, a Christian must confess his or her personal sins to God and that this is the intent of 1 John 1:9. In this chapter, we will explore this idea and answer the question “Is Fellowship Frangible?”
The question before us concerns the intended meaning of the Greek word “koinonia” in 1 John, and whether that meaning matches with the way “fellowship” is understood under the Frangible Fellowship system. If there’s a match, then we should conclude that fellowship with God is frangible and may need to be repaired or restored periodically. But if there’s not a match, then it would be best to conclude that fellowship with God is not frangible.
As we explore the possible meanings, we should be aware that the Greek word “koinonia,” which is translated “fellowship” in 1 John, only appears four times in the epistle, and all in the first 6 verses, and that John doesn’t use the word anywhere else in his writings. This means that looking at how John uses the word elsewhere won’t help us understand his intended meaning. We can, however, look at other New Testament authors’ use of the word and try our best to reach a conclusion from that, keeping in mind things like context, etc.
A quick survey of widely trusted lexical resources reveals the following definitions for the Greek word “koinonia:”
Thayer’s Greek Lexicon defines “koinonia” as follows:
Association, community, joint participation, intercourse.
Strong’s defines “koinonia” in similar terms:
Fellowship, association, community, communion, joint participation, intercourse
It’s not clear from any of these that “fellowship” is necessarily frangible, but I would agree that in certain contexts it could be. Just as there’s nothing in these definitions that insists upon frangibility, any insistence to the contrary is lacking as well.
Looking at some of the words chosen to communicate the idea behind “koinonia,” any of those words could refer to a union of some sort. For example, a “community” is a group of individuals that are considered as one whole. That’s union. Any two people who are associated with each other are united with each other to some degree. The word “intercourse” communicates a “union” as well, as does “participation.” When you are doing something together with another, you are united with that person. So the big idea, then, behind “koinonia” could possibly be “union.”
It’s interesting to note that there isn’t anything in those definitions that would lead anyone to conclude that fellowship is necessarily frangible. I could describe the relationship between myself (a believer) and God in such terms without ever having to affirm that such a relationship is frangible. But under the Frangible Fellowship system, if you sin, your fellowship with God is diminished, damaged, broken, or lost. And since under that system “fellowship” is something distinct from your position in Christ, they insist that even one who has broken or even lost their fellowship with God remains saved… they still have eternal life.
The diagram above represents a typical understanding of Frangible Fellowship doctrine. Acceptance of the gospel takes the person from the outer dark circle into the center light circle and they are said to be “in fellowship” with God at that point. They might also be described as “walking in the light” or “abiding.” In this state, the believer’s prayers will be heard and they will grow spiritually. But the first time that believer commits a sin, they are said to be “out-of-fellowship” and prayers aren’t heard and no spiritual growth can occur, though they still possess eternal life. But in order to restore their fellowship with God, they must name their sins to God. And so “fellowship” in 1 John 1 is seen as something that is frangible. It can be interrupted, damaged, diminished or lost and needs to be repaired or restored by confessing personal sin.
Fellowship vs. Relationship
Under the Frangible Fellowship model, our permanent relationship with God and fellowship with God are seen as two distinct ideas. In the diagram, everything inside the “Salvation/Eternal Life” boundary represents our permanent relationship with God through acceptance of the gospel. But prayers are heard only within that center circle and spiritual growth can only happen inside that center circle as well. Whether you’re in or out-of-fellowship, you remain united with Christ. That is, your relationship with God is unchanged even though your fellowship with God has been compromised.
In order to examine this further, we need to look for other uses of “koinonia” in the New Testament and discover whether any of those uses necessarily imply a necessary distinction between relationship and fellowship.
One such example might be 2 Corinthians 6:14. Examining word use in this passage and comparing English translations might offer some insight.
“Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers…”
“For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness?”
But there’s something else to consider here. Would the meaning of this verse change in an important way if you translated either Greek word as “relationship?”
“For what relationship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what relationship has light with darkness?”
Don’t we get the same idea? And when you look at other translations, you see words like “partnership” translated from “metoche,” and we see that this is right in line with the range of meaning for “koinonia.” Partners, just like the oxen mentioned before, have a relationship; each is part of a whole. People who live in a community together have a relationship to each other; each is part of a whole. And so we see that the idea of a union is persistent.
It seems that the overarching idea behind “koinonia” is rather broad, referring to two or more individuals being united in some fashion, sharing something, having something in common, having some manner of relationship to each other where each is part of a whole. But a distinction between relationship and fellowship is not obvious at all.
I have been unable to find justification for distinguishing between relationship and fellowship. A relationship, after all, is some commonality between two or more people. And as we’ve seen, this is the idea behind the word “koinonia” as well. Two friends have a relationship with each other, as they share common interests, goals, and experiences. There’s no reason whatsoever that the word “fellowship” would be inappropriate to describe such a relationship.
That the believer is in some sort of union with Christ is standard, universally affirmed doctrine. And of course there’s no reason not to use a word like “relationship” to describe that union. But under Frangible Fellowship doctrine, one should not refer to that union with the word “fellowship.” Or, more imporantly, one should never suppose that this is how John is using the word “fellowship” in 1 John. But what is the basis for this? Do we not have enough in common to warrant using a word like ‘koinonia’ to refer our position in Christ?” Paul seemed comfortable using it that way in 1 Corinthians 1:9 and Philippians 1:5, so what’s the big deal?
One distinction I’ve often heard is that “fellowship” is more “intimate” than “relationship.” But notice that “intimate” can modify “relationship” just as easily as it can modify “fellowship.” For example, my wife would not be offended if I said I have a “relationship” with her. She wouldn’t insist that I use the word “fellowship.” Either word is appropriate with or without the adjective “intimate.”
The reason this distinction is not helpful is that “intimate” is a relative term. We might well ask “Intimate compared to what?” Is an intimate relationship less intimate by definition than “fellowship?” Why must we strain to create such distinctions?
My conclusion, therefore, is that the distinction between “relationship” and “fellowship” has been contrived. The word “koinonia” is ultimately about union with Christ. Some will say that “fellowship” is more intimate than that, but that’s just saying that, through my own good behavior, I can get closer to God than Christ can. Jesus just gets me inside the gate, but if I keep my nose clean and/or admit when I don’t, I can get even closer. And that calls into question the sufficiency of the cross, which is not a good idea.
In examining the concept of Frangible Fellowship further, there is another important question we could ask:
If fellowship with God is something that can be lost or diminished, what does that actually mean in a practical sense? What’s going on behind the scenes? In what way is our relationship with God changed? And in what sense is it repaired or restored? And if fellowship with God can be lost or diminished, what are the possible causes?
One very widespread understanding is reflected in the study notes in The New Scofield Reference Bible, p 1342: “Sin interrupts fellowship but cannot change relationship.” This understanding is reflected in the following quote by R. B. Thieme, Jr.:
“Every time we decide to sin we move out of the bottom circle losing temporal fellowship.”
The phrase “bottom circle” is a reference to a diagram Colonel Thieme created to communicate that fellowship could be lost while the eternal relationship with God, represented by the “top circle,” remained. In Thieme’s view, a believer moved in and out of the bottom circle (temporal fellowship) frequently. Sin takes you out, confession puts you back in. All the while, the eternal relationship (top circle) remains undisturbed. And so personal sin (on this view) is seen as the efficient cause of a loss of fellowship.
Zane Hodges expresses a similar idea when he writes:
“Of course, our sins do not result in the loss of eternal salvation. But they do interrupt harmonious personal relations with God our heavenly Father, and forgiveness restores that harmony.”
However, some insist that sin itself is not what interrupts fellowship with God. Instead, they teach that it’s the failure to confess sin that causes an interruption of fellowship.
Careful examination, however, reveals that such a distinction really isn’t useful. If a believer is “in fellowship” and then commits a sin, every moment that passes after that sin is a moment in which the believer has failed to confess that sin. Either way, as soon as the sin is committed, the believer is “out-of-fellowship.” And if “confess our sins” in 1 John is a prescription for believers, and the believer fails to do it even for a moment, then that in itself would have to be a sin anyway.
So it seems inescapable that if fellowship can be broken, damaged or diminished at all, it’s our sin that does the trick. There doesn’t appear to be any way around that.
Another question worth asking is “How, or in what way, is my relationship with God affected when I sin?” That is, if fellowship with God is frangible, then it’s important to understand whether broken fellowship is a function of God’s disapproval of me in my failure, or is it my own attitudes and unwillingness to have fellowship with God when I have sinned? Perhaps an illustration would help communicate the distinction I’m looking for:
If you do harm to a close friend, you can imagine either of two scenarios might follow: One possibility is that you are so ashamed of your actions that you can scarcely face your friend, even though your friend has forgiven you. Or, you might seek your friend, but their anger and/or disappointment with you produces in them a “talk to the hand” sort of reaction. In either case, your actions have had an effect on the relationship. But which is it? Is your friend still wanting to spend time with you, but you’re just too embarrassed and ashamed to approach him? Or are they so angry with you that they won’t give you the time of day? Which of these two scenarios best represents the situation when our fellowship with God is broken? When we’re “out-of-fellowship,” can we not make eye-contact with God even though He wishes we would? Or will He not make eye-contact with us when we come knocking?
This is actually a very important question, though on the sruface it may seem somewhat trivial. If we say that the loss of fellowship is our own inability to make eye-contact with God, then perhaps we can affirm that we are totally and in every way forgiven by God. He, after all, is not the one who can’t make eye-contact. His posture towards us, on this model, has not changed. And so confessing our sins would not be something we would do to regain His approval. Instead, confessing our sins would be oriented toward assuaging our own guilt… a form of personal therapy, you might say. On this model, it would be a way to make ourselves feel more comfortable about approaching God when we know we’ve done something wrong.
Well, that’s an interesting possibility, however it doesn’t seem to fit 1 John 1:9. The verse doesn’t say that if we confess our sins, we’ll feel more comfortable about approaching God. It actually says that God will “forgive” us. If God has to forgive us, then our sin must be something that triggers disapproval on God’s part, and so confession must be something we do to placate Him. That is, our failure has caused the loss of God’s approbation and confession becomes a way to regain it.
So… problem solved, right? Not really. If Christ died to pay the penalty for our sins, then on what basis can God disapprove of us? If God has declared us righteous, if we are identified with Christ and in union with Christ and if what’s true of Christ is true of us from God’s perspective, then what could cause a loss of God’s approval? When Christ said “tetelestai,” He was saying “Paid in full. It is finished.” But if our failure can arouse God’s disapproval, then it doesn’t sound like Christ really did all He could have. This is a huge problem, because it strikes directly at the issue of the sufficiency of the cross. Was Christ’s payment enough, or wasn’t it? Does the cross provide complete forgiveness, or doesn’t it? How can we insist that we are forgiven completely and still say that there’s a sense in which we’re not forgiven until and unless we name our sins? What manner of “complete” forgiveness is that?
Two Kinds of Forgiveness?
The typical solution to this problem under the Frangible Fellowship model is to bifurcate the concept of “forgiveness” into two categories. The names for the categories vary from teacher to teacher, but “Judicial Forgiveness” and “Temporal Forgiveness” are common. The idea is that we are judicially forgiven even for sins we’ve not yet comitted, but we’re not temporally forgiven until and unless we confess. But of course these categories are inferred. Such a distinction isn’t explicit anywhere in the Bible. We infer this distinction as a “workaround” to the obvious problem of insisting that we need forgiveness when we already have it.
Another workaround that’s sometimes offered to solve this dilemma is to say that all of our “pre-salvation sins” were forgiven when we accepted the gospel, but our “post-salvation” sins can only be forgiven if we confess them. But this presents a huge problem: If that’s true then faith in Christ isn’t really enough to gain salvation. If you fail to confess a post-salvation sin and then you die, then you’ve died with unconfessed sin “on the books” and this is a sin that wasn’t paid for by Christ and if there’s sin that hasn’t been paid for by Christ’s work on the cross, then, well… you’re in heap big trouble.
The fact of the matter is that when Christ hung on the cross, all of my sins were yet future… the ones I committed before I accepted the gospel, and the ones I committed afterward and the ones I have yet to commit. So making a distinction between pre-salvation and post-salvation sins just is not going to fly.
Examining a few choice quotes gives us the opportunity to see that Frangible Fellowship doctrine puts us in some precarious positions. For example, Tom Constable (Dallas Theological Seminary) writes:
“If we confess our sins, God will then forgive the sins we confess and will, in addition, cleanse us from all unrighteousness. Consequently we do not need to worry that He has failed to forgive us for sins of which we are unaware! Sin incurs a debt to God, but forgiveness cancels the debt and dismisses the charge.”
“Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect?”
And you, being dead in your trespasses and the uncircumcision of your flesh, He has made alive together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses, having wiped out the handwriting of requirements that was against us, which was contrary to us. And He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross.
We seem determined to resurrect the charges against us, don’t we? Consider the following quote from Bob Wilkin (Grace Evangelical Society):
“When I am honest with God and confess the sins I am aware of, His forgiveness and cleansing extend to everything that is wrong with me. ‘All unrighteousness’ is dealt with by His grace so that, after my confession to Him, I can walk with Him knowing that my harmony with Him is fully repaired.”
Although Wilkin doesn’t use the term “fellowship” here, it’s clear that this is what he is referring to when he says that “harmony with Him is fully repaired.” The “harmony” here equates to Frangible Fellowship, and this kind of fellowship needs to be repaired occasionally. Wilkin says that the only way he can he know that his fellowship with God is intact, is after he has confessed. So strictly speaking, this brand of fellowship is not based upon Christ’s work on the cross as much as it is based on whether Wilkin confesses or not. Why should I not conclude from these words that Wilkin thinks he has repaired his fellowship with God by confessing? What happened to resting in the finished work of Christ?
Zane Hodges (Dallas Theological Seminary, Grace Evangelical Society) throws another interesting twist into this issue when he writes:
“What a perfect provision! … When God is ready to reveal them [sins] to us, He will (see Phil 3:15). Meanwhile, honest confession of known sin will bring complete restoration to fellowship with our gracious heavenly Father.”
James Van Dine (Dallas Theological Seminary) offers the following perplexing statement:
“However, if the believer chooses to live in such a way that his or her life is continually exposed to the directives and correctives of the word of truth, then fellowship ensues and any defiling spot of sin is taken care of by the blood of Christ (1:7).”
If that’s not a valid conclusion to reach, then how is Van Dine’s statement of any value? If the believer’s sins are “taken care of by the blood of Christ” whether the believer lives the way Van Dine describes or not, then why make the statement? Why waste the ink?
There seems to be quite a bit of confusion on this issue, and we need to ask “Why?” We need to ask “What are we missing?”
It would lend some support to the Frangible Fellowship tradition if John (or any other New Testament writer) used phrases like “restoring fellowship” or “out-of-fellowship” or “broken fellowship.” But such expressions are curiously absent, even in instances like 1 Corinthians 5 where Paul describes a situation where a man is sleeping with his father’s wife. Not only is there no mention that the man might be “out-of-fellowship,” but Paul also neglects to pass on instructions for the man to confess his sins. All by itself, this doesn’t necessarily exclude the possibility, but it certainly gives us warrant to consider other possibilities and it becomes one more component of a powerful cumulative case against the Frangible Fellowship model.
The notion that fellowship must be “restored” has simply been inferred, and prior assumptions factor heavily into that inference, an inference which carries so much weight in the minds of those who are committed to Frangible Fellowship, that the apodosis of verse 9, which says that God is “faithful and just to forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” is understood, essentially, to mean “restore your broken or damaged fellowship.” But when you compare that language to similar language used throughout the Bible to refer to justification, it becomes quite a stretch to say it’s not a reference to justification.
What we’ve seen here is that there really appears to be no justification for thinking that fellowship with God is frangible. Fellowship with God appears, instead, to be one of a number of ways that a believer’s permanent relationship with God can be described. We were once far off, but the blood of Christ has brought us near. We were once at enmity with God, but now we’re at peace. There was one a barrier between us and God, but Christ took that barrier down. To be “in fellowship” with God is to no longer be under condemnation, to no longer be dead in trespasses and sins, to no longer be at enmity with God, and this “fellowship” is permanent because it is a grace gift which we never earned in the first place. Fellowship cannot be broken, damaged or lost any more than salvation itself can be broken, damaged or lost. What is it within us that drives us to imagine a second barrier, one that we must take down?
The kind of doublespeak that emerges on this topic is just what we would expect to see if there was some rudimentary assumption underlying the doctrine… an assumption that turns out to be false. The kind of assumption which, when we accept it, is like switching the frog on a train track. Once the train passes the frog, there’s no way to jump back over to the other track. You must stop the train, back up and then switch the frog to the right set of tracks. The doctrine of Frangible Fellowship looks very much like a result of having gone down the wrong track and trying to make sense of things on that particular track. Let’s back the train up and challenge some assumptions. Maybe a better solution will present itself.