One concept within Christianity is that when a person becomes a Christian they share a commonality or fellowship with each other. They become part of a divine family and this is why Christians will often call each other “brother” and “sister.” One metaphor used to describe this is “the body of Christ” and the idea is that Christ is the head and Christians are his body. In scripture the unity they share is called “the fellowship of the Spirit.” This would be universally acknowledged by Christians and this section considers how it relates to the Christadelphians.
Within the church structure of the Christadelphians there is a concept which is called “the basis of fellowship” where statements of faith and rules are elevated to determine who should or should not be considered to be a brother or sister in Christ. This seems to parallel the Biblical idea of “the fellowship of the Spirit” setting it within the scope of a humanly defined creed such as the Birmingham Amended Statement of Faith (BASF). If someone attends a Christadelphian Bible School or gathering or service at a certain time Christadelphians will meet and take part in a ceremony of eating a piece of bread and drinking a sip of wine. This is called “the breaking of bread” or “the emblems.” It is also sometimes called “the table of the Lord.” It comes from the request that Christ gave that Christians should meet together in remembrance of him and it represents his death. At these times it may be said that it is reserved for those who accept fully a Statement of Faith such as the BASF.
In practice those who don’t share Christadelphian beliefs are not allowed to remember the death of Christ with them in this way. Different Christadelphian breakaway groups will likewise not share this ceremony with each other. In fact there is one strange rumour that at certain Christadelphian gatherings in America which both Amended and Unamended Christadelphians attend everyone treats and calls each other “brother” and “sister” until the Sunday “breaking of bread” when they separate and hold separate remembrances.
In summary the Christadelphians elevate a “basis of fellowship” which parallels the scriptural idea of “the fellowship of the Spirit” and which if taken to its logical conclusion would make the body of Christ the Christadelphian denomination and bound it with a humanly devised creed as follows:
This all raises the obvious question about whether baptism into Christ truly is synonymous with baptism into a denomination and whether the body of Christ parallels the Christadelphian system of church authority. When pressed most Christadelphians would perceive some difficulties in making this claim and would not feel inclined to be dogmatic because it is akin to a claim of divine validation. They would acknowledge that God is the ultimate judge and determinator of who is part of the body of Christ and suggest he has the right to choose who is his, whilst acting in practice now as though church authority has divine validity.
Christ put this very simply when he said, “I know my sheep and they know me” – but this simple idea of a personal knowing of God is not sufficient when it comes to the Christadelphians. In the middle of this personal knowing of God they insert church authority and have an idea of a “basis of fellowship” that revolves around defined statements of faith. This is particularly relevant to the Christadelphians because their concept of salvation is based upon correct intellectual knowledge.
Nowhere is this difficulty more apparent than when it comes to those who sincerely question or move away from historically maintained Christadelphian positions. The question of divine validation moves from the realm of the theoretical to that where those who are in positions of leadership have to decide whether maintaining a statement of faith measures up to the will of God. To excommunicate or disfellowship someone whom Christ accepts is a grievous wrong and requires not only intellectual certainly, but a recognition of the limits of our knowledge and understanding. Set against this is of course the fear of “fellowshipping error.”
In less judgmental and exclusive churches this is less of a problem because they do not believe that sharing the remembrance of Christ with someone of differing theology can lead to contamination. In theological terms this is called “an open table” as opposed to the Christadelphian belief in a “closed table.” In many churches anyone who considers themselves to be a Christian is allowed to participate. By denying those with differing understandings the Christadelphians in effect are saying “we make the judgment that you are not a Christian and have no right to remember the death of Christ” that other churches are not willing to make. They do not make the remembrance of Christ into a legal matter.
Sooner or later most people end up having at least some thoughts about this (after all, if it is wrong it is schism), one brother noting that after years of being a Christadelphian he found that there are “grey areas.” In other words, can we really be sure that excluding someone who believes in the devil or being strengthened today by God’s Spirit is a reason to exclude someone from “the table of the Lord” or to not consider them a brother? Those who join therefore should realise they will be joining a community which maintains a very exclusive view of who should be considered a true Christian and that maintaining that exclusiveness and justifying it in one’s own mind is required. The difficulty for the community in openly reassessing this position or advocating for a less exclusive one is that expressing these kinds of thoughts can lead to questions over whether one has altered or may be altering one’s own position. In other words it can easily lead to disfellowship.
The boundaries to the idea that we can have these discussions without needing to disfellowship and exclude each other will hopefully be dealt with in another article.
It is also worth knowing that Christadelphians maintain a very detailed record of attendance, most meetings having a register and that adherence to formal ideas of fellowship is considered to be a measure of obedience to a verse in the Bible that we should not “forsake the assembling of ourselves together, as the manner of some.” It should be noted that this register was not set up to control, but is maintained for practical purposes. Being conscientious objectors and with a knowledge of how that issue has been treated by governments in the past, a record has value in establishing the genuiness of such a claim in time of war.
The difficult issues involved in this topic are rarely addressed because of their potential divisiveness. There is a broad range of “core doctrines” on which all Christadelphians are agreed, but there is no simple way of answering the objections of anyone who moves from them on this issue and there is a growing desire to have answers. In particular these questions are being raised on internet forums repeatedly. Few members are interested in the complex issues over which people have historically divided, particularly on the issue of the atonement. In that sense as many of the very small breakaway groups would maintain the community is not true to the importance attached to these issues when the statements of faith were formed.
An historical Christadelphian topic has been “can a divided Christendom save?” If we look at Christadelphian history we find it was formed on the basis of “salvation through correct belief” and that without the correct belief baptism and repentance are considered ineffective. We can see that has led to debate and division and those divisions were seen as being salvation matters. Whilst those issues today are diminished in importance the issues raised by them still raise issues about whether a denomination accurately defines the limits of the body of Christ and whether its system of church authority reflects God’s will.