Thoughts on Fellowship
At the beginning of the Church’s history there was a clearly defined “within” and “without” (1 Cor. 5: 12, 13)—you were either in fellowship with the apostles (see Acts 2: 42; 1 John 1: 3) or you were not. This early clarity was soon lost. Now, it is not possible to point to a particular company and say ‘There is the Church’ because Christians are scattered into innumerable sects and denominations. This sometimes results in the anomalous situation where one can share and enjoy together what properly belongs to fellowship, without being technically ‘in fellowship’. Thus two brothers in Christ may be found talking over heavenly things together on Saturday, while on Sunday they go their separate ways. This was never the divine intention.
Fellowship is centred in God’s Son.
Paul reminds the Corinthian saints of the impossibility of fellowship between light and darkness (see 2 Cor. 6: 14), a fact clearly taught on the first page of Scripture (see Gen. 1: 4). Thus “If we say that we have fellowship with him,” (Christ) “and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not practise the truth” (1 John 1: 6). Christ is in the light, and “if we walk in the light” (where He is), then “we have fellowship with one another” (1 John 1: 7). The sense is not how we are walking, but where. Every Christian walks in the light by virtue of being a Christian, and it is as in the light that he finds fellowship. It is this fellowship which Paul speaks of in 1 Cor. 1: 9: “God [is] faithful, by whom ye have been called into [the] fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord”—a fellowship centred in Christ. There are other fellowships of course, but they are characterised by darkness not light.
The NT recognises only one Christian fellowship and we have no warrant for forming another. It has been argued that because the Scriptures not only speak of the Church or Assembly (as one universal whole) but also of ‘churches’ or ‘assemblies’, then it follows that it is permissible to speak of Christian ‘fellowships’ as well. However, assemblies in the plural existed because it was simply impractical for all to assemble in one place. Without overlooking the essential meaning of the Greek word for assembly, I would suggest that when we talk about assemblies, we are surely thinking primarily of assembling. This, however, is not quite the same thought as fellowship. We do not read of ‘the fellowship which is at Corinth’ or wherever. Why? Because all saints everywhere were called to one fellowship, and this one universal fellowship could be realised in a way that was impossible with assembling. For example, practical fellowship between Corinth and Jerusalem existed even though assembling together did not (see 1 Cor. 16: 3). The reality is that the moment we begin to talk of this or that fellowship instead of the fellowship of God’s Son, our outlook is inevitably narrowed.
Fellowship is Partnership.
Fellowship implies a shared or common interest. With Christians, it is based on an interest in the death of Christ, a shared recognition of “precious blood” (1 Pet. 1: 19) and a mutual affection for the One who loved them and gave Himself for them (see Gal. 2: 20). Yet true as this is, it is not a complete definition, for the full thought of fellowship not only involves participation, but partnership as well—not only privilege but also responsibility. Although the example is imperfect, there ought to be something of what was seen between Solomon and Hiram king of Tyre. In 1 Kings 5: 12, Solomon made a “league” with Hiram, and Hiram subsequently refers to Israel’s king as “my brother” (9: 13, my emphasis). Many years later, the inhabitants of Tyre are condemned by God for forgetting “the brotherly covenant” (Amos 1: 9, my emphasis). This was no vague ‘sharing in common’ but a definite bond, an alliance based on agreement. I would suggest that these are features that ought to mark fellowship among Christians.
When we are told that James and John were “partners with Simon” (Luke 5: 10) in the fishing business, the Greek word used for partners (koinonos) is the basis of the word used elsewhere for fellowship (koinonia—see 1 Cor. 1: 9 etc.). It was not that on one day Simon Peter would work with James and John, and the next day he could be with someone else. No, they were bound together under a defined agreement. Certainly the fundamental basis of their fellowship was that they were all fishermen, but it was also more than that. They were business partners, with corresponding responsibilities to work for the good of the partnership. There was nothing vague about such a relationship: it was a definite bond that was entered into.
Turning now to Christian fellowship itself, the same principles can be seen. What did Paul mean when he said to Philemon regarding Onesimus: “If therefore thou holdest me to be a partner (koinonos) [with thee], receive him as me” (Philemon 17, my emphasis)? The sense is this: ‘If you are really in fellowship with me—if you really are my partner—then since I have received Onesimus then you should receive Onesimus as you would receive me’. In effect, a “brotherly covenant” bound the three men together as one, and Paul expected Philemon to respect the terms of it. Yes there is an immediate link with anyone who truly loves Christ, because we share that common interest in Him, but it would be quite wrong to state (as some do) that that is all that fellowship is. The full thought of fellowship is partnership. Such a definition is not popular because of the responsibilities it brings.
Fellowship is for the Day of Adversity.
At the present time there are three companies in the sight of God—the Jews, the Greeks (Gentiles) and the Church of God (see 1 Cor. 10: 32). Both Jew and Gentile are opposed to Christ’s interests here and both were involved in putting Christ to death (John 19: 15, 16; Acts 2: 23). Christian fellowship is therefore a partnership in the face of adversity—there would be no need for fellowship if the whole world had bowed the knee to Christ. The Lord Jesus Himself said “because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, on account of this the world hates you” (John 15: 19). Ekklesia, the Greek word translated assembly, itself means a calling out of. Those who talk of ‘Community Churches’ have lost all sense of the present position of the Church in the world. How can an assembly act as a focal point in what is loosely termed ‘society’, when the divine instruction is to “come out from the midst of them” (2 Cor. 6: 17)? When Peter and John were released by the rulers of the Jews “they came to their own [company]” (Acts 4: 23, my emphasis). Christians are called out of the world into the fellowship of God’s Son.
Fellowship is a Serious Matter.
Scripture does not envisage Christians opting in and out of aspects of fellowship as they see fit. Some speak in glowing terms of the wonders of ‘fellowship’, while at the same time practising ‘easy come and easy go’. This is simply individualism masquerading as fellowship. Such have forgotten the ‘brotherly covenant’. The author of Hebrews talks about Christians having “an altar of which they (i.e. the Jews) have no right to eat who serve the tabernacle” (Heb. 13: 10). Of course he is not referring to a physical altar. The word altar means a place of sacrifice and for the Christian that means the death of Christ. There are other altars, however, for Paul in 1 Corinthians 10 alludes to both Jewish and heathen altars (see vs 18, 20). Referring to the former, he asks “are not they who eat the sacrifices in communion with the altar?” To eat is to be in fellowship with the altar, and just as there are three altars (Christian, Jewish and heathen) so there are three tables to eat from. To “partake of [the] Lord’s table” (v21) is to be in fellowship with the Christian altar. This is not limited to Sunday, nor is it in abeyance when I am away from home. Mephibosheth was characterised by eating bread at David’s table “continually” (2 Sam. 9: 7, my emphasis). Of course he wasn’t always literally eating there—his eating merely illustrated the circle of intimacy with the king into which he had been brought. In a similar sense, Christians sit continually at the Lord’s Table—they are characterised as eating from it. This isn’t the Lord’s Supper exactly although that is clearly involved. Rather than the literal table on which the bread and wine sit, the expression the “Lord’s table” really refers to the fellowship to which Christians belong all the time. Thus, since we all “partake of that one loaf” (1 Cor. 10: 17), we, “[being] many, are one loaf”.
Fellowship is a Simple Matter.
Fellowship is for both old and young, and learned and unlearned. Christians sometimes forget this and place unwarranted demands on those who would walk with them. “Unity of the Spirit” is essential, complete “unity of the faith” (Eph. 4: 3, 13), though desirable, is not. Paul asks: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not [the] communion of the blood of the Christ? The bread which we break, is it not [the] communion of the body of the Christ?” (1 Cor. 10: 16). Thus the very basic principle of fellowship is a shared interest in the death of the Lord Jesus. Certainly that ought to be manifested in a faithful walk, pursuing “righteousness, piety, faith, love, endurance, meekness of spirit” (1 Tim. 6: 11), but let us not lose sight of what is most important of all, namely genuine affection for Christ.
May these few thoughts on Christian fellowship lead us into a deeper and abiding sense of its value in an evil world. As a prophet of long ago said: “Then they that feared Jehovah spoke often one to another; and Jehovah observed [it], and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before him for them that feared Jehovah, and that thought upon his name” (Mal. 3: 16).