Selective fellowship is what we in the ELS call a situation where three or more public groups of Christians have an inconsistent fellowship relationship between them. To understand this, you must first know what is meant by fellowship. That’s what we call a relationship between two groups of Christians who officially recognize that they both believe, teach, and confess according to the doctrine of the Bible. They express their shared fellowship through acts of public worship, such as public prayer and joint services.
Fellowship becomes more complicated when a third group of Christians is added to the mix. Now, each of the others must decide whether they share fellowship with the third group. If one does and the other does not, then the situation is called “triangular fellowship,” and either of the two original groups might accuse the other of “selective fellowship.”
I have just described one way that the situation of triangular fellowship might come to pass: when a third group is added to the fellowship relationship between two other groups of Christians. Practically speaking, this is unavoidable, because it takes some time for any group of Christians to come to a decision about fellowship, and when two groups are aiming to reach the same conclusion, they will probably not do so at the same time. Though it’s unavoidable, this situation should always be temporary, because it compromises the teaching or confession of the groups involved. Jesus told His disciples to hold to His Word. If we persistently compromise our teaching, then we are not holding to much of anything. Such compromise is sinful, and we have a name for it: unionism. See the Triple-U.
In recent weeks, the congregations and pastors of the ELS have been warned against forming a triangular or selective fellowship situation. I’ll describe that warning momentarily. First, allow me to point out that there is a second way that such a situation can develop. Let’s begin with a single grouping of Christians. If some within that group decide to break fellowship with some of the others, then those who remain are automatically faced with a decision. They can join the breakers of fellowship, or they can join the opposite party, or they can continue to recognize fellowship with both parties. In that case, a triangular fellowship situation has developed.
Whether selective fellowship develops from three separate groups coming together, or from a division within a single group, there are two serious and related questions that must be addressed. The answer to one will often provide an answer to the other. First, is the group wishing to maintain fellowship with both of the opposing groups guilty of unionism?
Second, is one or both of the opposing groups guilty of separatism? Unionism and separatism are equally wrong and sinful. Again, see the Triple-U.
In the ELS, a party has formed within the synod which has broken fellowship with several churches and at least one pastor. It is seeking to break fellowship with other like-minded churches and pastors. The method of breaking fellowship has loosely followed the synod guidelines for discipline. They were not followed literally. (In fact, if the discipline stands, then the ELS probably ought to amend the guidelines to include the new reason for suspension that was recently used.) The explanation given for this discipline is that those under discipline have refused to accept the normative authority of our synod’s newest doctrinal statement, officially adopted in 2005 by a simple majority of 62%.
Meanwhile, those under discipline have insisted that they do not regard their position as a break of fellowship, but rather as one step among many toward reaching a common expression and understanding of our doctrine. They have emphatically stated that they do not charge the synod or any individual with adhering to false doctrine.
Automatically, a third party has been created from those who are unconvinced that the discipline and break of fellowship is biblically or even procedurally correct. They are the ones who have been warned against practicing selective fellowship. If they continue to recognize fellowship with those who are (or will be) under discipline, then the first party will regard that as selective fellowship. Those in the third party have had a choice forced upon them. They can join with the first party, join with the party under discipline, or try to continue in fellowship with both parties. Their choice will have to be informed by the two questions that must be addressed.
Would it be unionism to remain in fellowship with both conflicting parties? Would it be separatism to join with the first party? The second question may be easier to answer fairly, because we can examine the theological reasons for the actions of the first party to see if they have already become separatistic. Since this is a theological issue, it is important to resolve it theologically. In other words, we must identify the biblical doctrine that pertains to our situation and follow it. To “fix” the problem with procedural or administrative reasoning would be to neglect or even compromise our doctrine. Yet in all of this, every individual conscience must reach its conclusion and act in keeping with God’s Word, so we must have great patience and charity toward one another.
So in the ELS at present, the choices before those in the third party would either (1) recognize the discipline as scripturally sound and legitimate, (2) recognize the discipline as wrong in some way, or (3) recognize that discipline is warranted, though not as a breach of fellowship. It seems 3 is unlikely, but you can make that call for yourself.