A faithful reader asked the question; “Does the IFB incorrectly teach that the Believer loses fellowship with God when he/she sins?”. That question got me thinking about the topic of losing fellowship with God and it brought up some memories of what I was taught in the IFB church. I’ve come to the conclusion that this is yet another major error in the exegesis of scripture committed by the IFB.
Unfortunately, this concept of losing fellowship with Christ when the Believer sins is pervasive among the teachings of most modern Christian denominations. The teaching goes something like this: When a Believer sins he/she loses fellowship with Christ. If a Believer wants to restore that lost fellowship, he/she needs to repent of his/her sin and be forgiven.
In my personal experience with the IFB I was taught this and the idea that we lose fellowship with Christ when we sin has always troubled me. I remember as a child and teen feeling extremely conscientious about my behavior and thoughts because I was terrified of “losing fellowship with Christ.” In my mind the only way to have fellowship with Christ was to be in a constant state of prayer for forgiveness. I remember trying so hard to be in a constant state of prayer so that I restored fellowship with God as quickly as possible. It became exhausting, but because of the fear of “breaking fellowship with God” I kept on confessing every single thing I did that was sinful. I was even careful enough to confess things which I thought may be sins so that I didn’t lose fellowship with God. I remember that my prayers consumed me because there was always something I had to ask forgiveness for such as having an impure thought, a poor attitude, delayed obedience, not doing my best in school, being lazy, and the list went on forever. It was exhausting and I never felt that I had the time or capacity for anything other than asking for forgiveness.
I remember thinking that it would be more practical to wait till a certain time of the day to ask forgiveness, but as I went throughout my day I couldn’t help but focus on all the wrong things I was doing. I didn’t want to wait until that time of day when I confessed my sins up until that point because I didn’t want to be ‘out of fellowship’ with God for that length of time. Freedom came when I realized how wrong this idea of “losing fellowship with God when we sin” is.
Someone once scolded me, when discussing this issue, that I was sacrificing the truth for the convenience of not having to pray constantly and that I needed to work on my behavior rather than try to change what the scripture teaches (that we lose fellowship with God when we sin).
As I contemplated what this person was saying I came up with only 4 available options:
Option 1 was to continue living my life consumed by all the wrong I was doing and remain in a constant state of prayer so as to maintain as much fellowship with God as possible. This option wasn’t working for me and was becoming so burdensome that trying to maintain fellowship itself because a road block to maintaining fellowship.
Option 2 was to just give up all together and forget about fellowship with God since it was impossible for me to do what was necessary to maintain fellowship with God. This option wasn’t a good one for me since I value my relationship with God.
Option 3 was to not worry about constantly trying to maintain fellowship with God and just go through my day and if I sinned then so be it, I would confess it later. This option didn’t appeal to me because, like I said earlier, I didn’t want to be out of fellowship with God for the day. After all what good is it to be out of fellowship with God during the day and then in fellowship with God during the night while I was sleeping?
Option 4 and the only other option I can think of was to delve into scripture and figure out for myself why this was so burdensome to me and perhaps I would see a better alternative to what I was being taught. I ended up seeing a very different picture of who God is and what He expects of us. As a result I chose this option and I’ve never looked back.
Now that I’m free from this manipulative line of thought, I can clearly see that trying to maintain fellowship with God by my efforts is an impossible task. We are constantly sinning or in a state of sin. We are imperfect human beings. It is impossible for us to not sin. We often sin and don’t even realize it. God does not refuse fellowship with us just because we sin. In fact, the opposite is true. Everything I read about God in the Bible is about a God that pursues us and especially pursues us in times of sin and unrighteousness.
Michael Youssef writes about this very topic in his book “The God Who Pursues Us”. He writes on his website:
At the beginning of Luke 15, we see the religious leaders murmuring against Jesus: “But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, ‘This man welcomes sinners and eats with them’” (v. 2). The Pharisees considered anyone who admitted his need for God’s forgiveness as ignorant and weak. Though they studied the Scriptures, they were far from knowing and comprehending the heart of God.
Jesus was not intimidated by their intellectual arrogance or elitist attitude toward faith. He responded to their muttering by telling the parable of the lost sheep. “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them,” Jesus said. “Does he not leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep’” (Luke 15:4-6).
As I read that excerpt, I remember being taught that the ‘lost sheep’ represented the unsaved person or unbeliever. As I grew in my knowledge of the Bible, however, I found out that the exact opposite is true. Christ being referenced as the Shepard and Believers as sheep is pervasive in the Bible, especially the New Testament. This parable represents a Believer who as ‘gone astray’. Lost here, by the way, doesn’t refer to being lost or unsaved as we think of it today. The idea is a sheep that has gone astray or been separated from the flock in some way. Christ pursues that ‘lost sheep’ until found and returned to the fold.
I realize and believe that blatant and chronic sin hurts God and there is something to the idea that our blatant sin causes stress in our relationship with God, just like doing something wrong can strain a relationship we have with a family member or friend. But God isn’t human and I reallly think that the IFB has taken this way out of context. This idea of sin breaking fellowship with God is often used to coerce people into a legalistic righteousness. I see it being used by the IFB to make people feel guilty for not living perfect lives or at least for not striving for perfection. Some leaders of the IFB will even go as far as to say that if you aren’t repentant from your sin you probably aren’t saved. I find this rather arrogant and judgmental. Just because a Believer has a chronic sin or is living a sinful lifestyle doesn’t mean that God has turned His back on him/her. He will continue to pursue that person until that person either returns to a relationship with Him or dies.
Our relationship with God is not dependent on our behavior. We do not have to do anything to have fellowship with God. Jesus took care of what was needed to have fellowship with God when He died on the cross. When God looks at me He sees the Blood of Christ, NOT my sin. It’s freeing to know that my fellowship with God is not dependent on my behavior.
When the IFB teaches this they often use Old Testament scriptures to support their belief. What they fail to realize, however, is that the Old Testament was governed by the ceremonial laws of cleanness which no longer apply to us NT Christians. The purpose of breaking fellowship in the OT was to avoid that which was unclean. NT Christians are purified and cleansed by the Blood of Christ’s work on the Cross and no longer need to worry about ceremonial cleanliness.
Paul tells the church at Corinth in I Corinthians 1:8-10 that God has called the believer into fellowship with Christ and is faithful to that person. It doesn’t say that God has called the believer into fellowship with Christ and is faithful unless that person sins! How ridiculous.
The IFB also uses passage like 1 John 1:5-7 to teach that Christians lose fellowship with Christ when they sin. This is simply an unfortunate misinterpretation of scripture. This passage is talking about salvation not sinning. The “walking in darkness” mentioned in this passage is referring to the darkness of those who are not believers. It has nothing to do with a Believer who sins. Believers who sin are not walking in darkness because they are Believers. They may be walking in sin, but not darkness since darkness is a reference to being a non-Believer. If you notice, as the passage continues, verse 9 is the famous I John 1:9 “But if we confess our sins to him, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” It’s interesting to note that the verse stops with the thought of cleansing rather than restoring fellowship. The verse doesn’t say “…and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness and restore lost fellowship.” It ends with a cleansing from unrighteousness nothing more because nothing more is needed.
There are many more passages that the IFB uses to support this idea such as Acts 8:13-24, 1 Corinthians 5:1-7, Matthew 18:15-17 and Galatians 6:1. The purpose of this post is not to address each instance of scriptural manipulation in this area, but to inform and help people see that it is a mistake to think that fellowship with God is broken when a Believer sins.
Some churches use this concept to teach that a person can lose his/her salvation as a result of sin. I hope we all know that that is incorrect. I think the IFB does a good job, in my experience, of not taking this idea that far, however, I would imagine, given the diversity of IFB churches, that there are those that do take it too far.
This concept is also used in a manipulative way to justify disassociating with people who are hard to get along with or who have some type of addiction or chronic/habitual sin they are struggling with. It’s easier for a church to teach that we should break fellowship with that person rather then try and help him/her which I think is a shame. I’ve been to some IFB churches that teach the congregation to ‘dis fellowship’ or permanently cut off the relationship from people they deem are sinning “too much”.
This leads people to believe that they need to somehow play the role of Holy Spirit to try and convict others of what they feel is a need to restore fellowship. Many relationships have been broken as a result of this teaching. Wouldn’t it be nice if we helped each other rather than turn our back on someone because we are being taught that God turns His back on people who sin? How sad it is to think of all the people who are so confused and tormented by this teaching that they simply reject the faith because they feel that they can’t measure up! I can’t stress enough how freeing it is to know that I don’t have to be sin free in order for God to like me and want to have fellowship with me.