Why a Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches?
The reasons for independent evangelical churches to be in fellowship are just as valid now as they were 50 and 100 years ago.
Johnny Prime recently uncovered the text of his father Derek Prime’s address as President to the FIEC National Assembly in April 1968. In his session (titled ‘Can we justify our existence?’), Derek sought to make a case for FIEC and his arguments are remarkably up to date, addressing issues which are as contemporary today as they were over 50 years ago. As part of our centenary, we thought it would be good to reproduce it in full.
We are gathered together as a fellowship of independent evangelical churches. What is our justification for doing so? Clearly, we feel it is right; but why?
We gather together and are in fellowship on the grounds of what we believe, and of what we know to be right. It is necessary to affirm, in the present climate of opinion, that there is such a thing as right, and there is such a thing as wrong. Truth exists, and so does error.
Some maintain that such an attitude is out-moded, unintelligent, and old-fashioned; and, because it can bring conflict, it is regarded as uncharitable and undesirable. For us, rightness and wrongness are determined by the Scriptures. We would humbly and sincerely ask, with regard to every issue which arises, “what does God say?”
There are those who would suggest that there is a leading of the Holy Spirit today which is independent, separate, and additional to the Scriptures; but we would reject such suggestions as being contrary to the Scriptures, and thus erroneous.
In an age of indefiniteness and vagueness – and perhaps deliberately so in the theological world where certain ecumenical objectives motivate men’s action – it is necessary to say not only what we do believe, but also what we do not believe. We have to exercise care too in listening to men’s statements. We are to listen to what they say charitably, but also with discernment. By what men fail to say, that may in fact detract from the good that apparently they do say.
We rejoice rightly in fellowship. The Scriptures tell us that there is a fellowship which is wrong, and a fellowship which is right. The apostle Paul spoke of the fellowship which is wrong in his second letter to the Corinthians, ‘be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? Or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols?’ (2 Corinthians 6:14-16).
By this appeal Paul shows that the test of fellowship is right belief, along with righteousness and light. The test of fellowship must be truth, and in particular, the truth of the gospel. If the truth of the gospel is compromised, we must speak out, and preferably face to face. We should not be surprised that regenerate Christians sometimes fall into the snare of compromising the gospel – we have a subtle enemy.
Paul speaks of his confrontation with Peter in his letter to the Galatians, ‘When Peter was come to Antioch, I withstood him face to face, because he was to be blamed… I saw that they walked not uprightly according to the truth of the gospel.’ (Galatians 2:11-14)
Paul appeals to the Corinthians to separate themselves from fellowship with unbelief, unrighteousness, and darkness in order that they may know true fellowship with God (2 Corinthians 6:17-18). True fellowship among Christians is a fellowship in the Spirit (Philippians 2:1), and in the truth; and these two benefits cannot be separated because the Holy Spirit is the Spirit of truth (John 14:17). There is no such thing as spiritual fellowship apart from truth.
The most glorious truth God has made known to us is the truth of the gospel (Galatians 2.14), and true fellowship has as its basis the truth of the gospel, as revealed in the Scriptures. There has been a tendency to make the unity of evangelical Christians centre around evangelism, but this has only added to the present confusion. We cannot separate our understanding of the gospel and our preaching of the gospel from our understanding of truth.
The fellowship of the gospel is not merely co-operative evangelism, but to quote Paul’s words, it means ‘with one mind striving together for the faith of the gospel’ (Philippians 1:27). The preaching of the gospel is never to be separated from proclaiming and contending for the faith which was once for all delivered to the saints (Jude 1:3). We rejoice in the fellowship of the Spirit – the Spirit of truth.
The churches to which we belong are independent in the sense that each has the right to elect its own officers, manage its own affairs, and to stand independent of, and not responsible to, any authority, saving that of the supreme and divine Head of the Church, the Lord Jesus Christ.
There is an independence which is wrong, as well as independence which is right. Independence can, and unfortunately does, sometimes, lead to isolation. The isolation of one Christian from all others, and one church from all others, is inconsistent with the relation in which all believers stand to each other, and with the express commands of the Scriptures.
There is too an independency which is proud and self-sufficient, and which makes judgements on all who differ from it.
But there is an independency which is right – the independency which accords with the New Testament pattern of churches. The churches in the New Testament were – under God – self-supporting, self-governing, and self-extending. A distinguished church historian has summarised the early church situation as follows:
‘We have to think of a great many full-time missionaries moving rapidly in many directions, and also of that mass of unprofessional missionaries…through whose witness churches were coming into being all over the place, unorganised, independent, yet acutely aware of their status as the new Israel and of their fellowship with all other believers in the world’ (Stephen Neill: A history of Christian missions, p.29).
The independency which is right means the deliberate endeavour of the local church to recognise the absolute headship of Christ so that we may say, ‘We know no Head but Christ, no church but that which bears his name, no Guide but the Spirit that he has given, no laws but those found in his word, and no bond of union but his love, uniting us in obedience to his will, and in adherence to his word.’
The recognition of the absolute headship of Christ makes us acutely aware of our fellowship with all other believers who like us are ‘in Christ’ through his sovereign grace alone.
The most important word by which we would describe ourselves is ‘evangelical.’ By the word ‘evangelical’ we seek to express our desire to be unconditionally loyal and true to the gospel of Christ as revealed in the Scriptures. And thus, we affirm our belief in the divine inspiration and infallibility of the Scriptures, as originally given, and their supreme authority in all matters of faith and conduct.
Evangelicalism has not been without its faults and is not so at this present time. There is an evangelicalism that puts an emphasis upon men, and the names of men – a mistake of the Corinthian Christians also (1 Corinthians 1:11-13). The party-spirit within evangelicalism cannot be spiritual; it must be recognised as carnal.
There is an evangelicalism that puts an emphasis on secondary things, such as baptism and church government. The Corinthians also fell into this snare over baptism and Paul had to declare, ‘Christ sent me not to baptise, but to preach the gospel’ (1 Corinthians 1:17); he did not deprecate baptism, but he knew that to put an emphasis upon secondary things is to bring discredit upon the essential message we are commanded to preach.
There is an evangelicalism which is orthodox but cold, ruthless, and unfeeling about error. Such evangelicalism sometimes makes the mistake of the disciples in forbidding those whom the Lord would not forbid (Mark 9:38-40). Jealousy and quarrelsomeness can all too easily be beneath the surface of some expressions of evangelicalism, as in the case of those who opposed the apostle Paul, and about whom he wrote to the Philippian church (Philippians 1.15-16).
But genuine evangelicalism is right, for it alone conforms to the scriptural command to stand together with one common purpose, and fight together with only one wish, for the faith of the gospel (Philippians 1:27). A genuine evangelicalism is marked by warmth, fervency, and goodwill (Philippians 1:15, 18), and mourns, even with tears, the activities of those who shows themselves to be ‘enemies of Christ’ (Philippians 3:18).
But we must consider, finally, a distinctive feature of our gathering together; we gather together in fellowship because we are a fellowship of independent evangelical churches. The differing views of the church are the dividing factor among evangelical Christians at this present time, perhaps more than we readily appreciate.
There are those who use the word ‘church’ in a denominational manner, and other who use the same word in a territorial sense: on the grounds of the example and teaching of Scripture, we are unhappy at both of these uses.
There are many whom we know as our brethren who accept the authority of the Scriptures concerning the gospel, but who do not appear to accept the principles of the Scriptures as regulative for their views of the local church and its life. There are yet others who place the stress on the individual, and upon the gathering together of likeminded individuals into evangelical societies for the pursuing of particular evangelical aims.
We cannot speak for others, but we see the need to conform to the Scriptures in our doctrine of the Church as we need to do in our preaching of the gospel. We acknowledge that our understanding of the biblical doctrine of the Church over the years may not have been all that it ought to have been; but the understanding of the Scriptures given us makes us concerned for evangelical church unity – and we thank God for that unity which we clearly enjoy together.
A Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches
Our fellowship is a fellowship in the truth, and thus in the Spirit; our independency in church government means neither an independency of God nor of one another but a whole-hearted dependence upon the Head of the Church and an awareness of mutual responsibility and dependence within the whole Body of Christ; our evangelicalism must be neither cold nor ungracious, but must lead to an evangelicalism of life as much as of preaching (Philippians 1:27); our view of the Church is not narrow but we desire to express our identity with every company of those whom the Lord has called to Himself.
The assurance we have that our position is right must not make us proud - for we have nothing to be proud of in ourselves - our glorying is in Christ Jesus alone, and in His Cross, and let it be there alone. Believing that in some measure, by God's grace, we stand where He wants us to stand, we must, nevertheless take heed lest we fall. We must not be possessive of this fellowship: all that is good about it belongs to God. We must not be ignorant of the devil's devices.
Can we justify our existence? Yes, we can, but we can only continue to do so as we are watchful, and prepared to examine ourselves and bring ourselves into increasing conformity to the Word of God. We must not allow ourselves to think that we have attained.
Let us, therefore, rejoice in fellowship and actively hold fast to the truth, determining to know and understand the truth more. Let us deliberately and continually acknowledge the Headship of our Lord Jesus Christ in the local church, bringing our whole corporate life into conformity to that principle. Let us be evangelical in personal life and in church practice, ensuring that our manner of life is worthy of the gospel of Christ. And, finally, let us persevere in demonstrating and extending evangelical church unity, with only one end: that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ.
Pictured: A 1974 gathering of FIEC churches and the 2022 FIEC Leaders' Conference