One Fellowship

Some believe that the fellowship of God’s Son (see 1 Cor. 1: 9) does not have in view what is ecclesiastical but concerns only that spiritual communion with the Lord that every believer ought to have. Leaving aside the awkward fact that the verse speaks not of fellowship with God’s Son, but the fellowship of God’s Son, it follows that this fellowship is not connected to the “within” and the “without” described elsewhere (see 1 Cor. 5: 12, 13; Col. 4: 5) since such boundaries are clearly ecclesiastical.

   The Greek word used in 1 Cor. 1: 9 for fellowship is koinonia, which is closely related to two other words: koinoneo (to have fellowship) and koinonos (a fellowshipper). All three words are rooted in the adjective koinos which means common (as in Acts 2: 44 and Jude v3—that which was true of all). None of the words necessarily has a spiritual meaning. Thus in Matt. 23: 30, the Pharisees said they would not have been “partakers” (koinonos) with their forebears in the death of God’s prophets, and in Luke 5: 10 we read of how James and John were “partners” (koinonos) with Simon in a fishing business. What is readily apparent from both these cases is that the commonality is not just a matter of similarity but also of association, and with it, responsibility.

   In 2 Pet. 1: 4, Christians are said to be “partakers” (koinonos) of [the] divine nature”. Some might say, ‘I do not see any association or responsibility there’ but the very Scripture that tells us that “God is love” (1 John 4: 8) also tells us that “He that loves not has not known God”. The test of whether we “have passed from death to life” is “because we love the brethren” (1 John 3: 14).

   In Gal. 6: 6, “him that is taught in the word” is to “communicate” (koinoneo) “to him that teaches in all things”. This speaks of a sharing of knowledge between one believer and another. We see a beautiful picture of this in how Aquila and Priscilla took Apollos aside and “unfolded to him the way of God more exactly” (Acts 18: 26). These things are not optional but the result of “holding fast the head, from whom all the body, ministered to and united together by the joints and bands, increases with the increase of God” (Col. 2: 19).

   Similarly, Paul writes of how the Philippian saints had “fellowship” (koinonia) “with the gospel” (Phil. 1: 5) and how “ye have me in your hearts, and that both in my bonds and in the defence and confirmation of the glad tidings ye are all participators” (sugkoinonos) “in my grace” (v7). Can we absolve ourselves of this responsibility to those actively labouring in the Gospel? No, for the work is one, even though not all may preach. Thus, elsewhere Paul tells Timothy to “Be not therefore ashamed of the testimony of our Lord, nor of me his prisoner, but suffer evil along with the glad tidings” (2 Tim. 1: 8) and goes on to describe another believer who “has not been ashamed of my chain” (v17).

   What Paul is describing is essentially a quality of fellowship that is genuine (as over against what is merely feigned). Thus, elsewhere he writes “if any fellowship of [the] Spirit” (Phil. 2: 1). However, the desirability of what is genuine in fellowship does not mean that there is not also a sense in which fellowship rightly exists in a formal or structured sense—that is, as a visible association, with definite boundaries and standards. That is why the Corinthian saints were instructed to “Remove the wicked person from amongst yourselves” (1 Cor. 5: 13). He (if a genuine believer) could not be removed from the body of Christ, but he could be removed from among the saints—from their fellowship.

   The fundamental basis of Christian fellowship is given in 1 John 1: 7 which says that “if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship” (koinonia) “with one another”. This means that believers are brought together by virtue of their shared position as being in the light of Christianity. In a practical sense, the light of Christianity is inextricably bound up with the doctrine and fellowship of Christ’s apostles (see Acts 2: 42; 1 John 1: 3) for Christ’s Assembly is built upon their “foundation” (Eph. 2: 20). In NT times, walking in the light meant walking with the apostles. Now in Acts 9: 26, the newly converted Saul of Tarsus “essayed to join himself to the disciples” but was initially excluded since “all were afraid of him”. How could this be since Saul was certainly walking in the light of the Christian revelation? He was outside the apostle’s fellowship! Only when “Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles” (v27) could he be said to be in their fellowship. The situation was anomalous, but the incident serves to illustrate the fact that fellowship has firm boundaries and is not just a nebulous or transitory ‘sharing’. Today, of course, the apostles are all dead, but we have the record of their doctrine in the epistles, and it is therefore possible to walk in the light of their fellowship (that is, by following their precept and example).

   So how does all this fit in with 1 Cor. 1: 9? That verse begins with the words “God [is] faithful” and this was clearly intended to remind the Corinthians that there had been no failure on God’s part. No failure in what? In the fact that He has “called” us “into [the] fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord”. That fellowship is available to us through divine provision, and we are called to it. What of the Corinthians then? How had they responded to that calling? “Now I exhort you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (the One at the centre of the fellowship), “that ye all say the same thing, and that there be not among you divisions” (v10). They had failed in their response to the calling and had structured narrow circles of fellowship around party-leaders (see vs. 11, 12). God was faithful, they were not. To say that the apostle was not writing here about koinonia in its ecclesiastical sense is nonsensical. Go back a few short verses where the epistle opens with Paul addressing the Corinthians as “the assembly of God which is in Corinth” (1 Cor. 1: 2). He addresses them as an assembly (Greek: ekklesia)—clearly, he is going to take up ecclesiastical matters with them in a very definite way (the epistle to the Romans, by contrast, is simply written “to all that are in Rome”—Rom. 1: 7).

   Turn over to 1 Cor. 10: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not [the] communion” (koinonia) “of the blood of the Christ? The bread which we break, is it not [the] communion” (koinonia) “of the body of the Christ? Because we, [being] many, are one loaf, one body; for we all partake of that one loaf. See Israel according to flesh: are not they who eat the sacrifices in communion” (koinonos) “with the altar? What then do I say? that what is sacrificed to an idol is anything, or that an idol is anything? But that what [the nations] sacrifice they sacrifice to demons, and not to God. Now I do not wish you to be in communion” (koinonos) “with demons. Ye cannot drink [the] Lord’s cup, and [the] cup of demons: ye cannot partake of [the] Lord’s table, and of [the] table of demons” (vs. 16-21). Unquestionably this refers to formal association—what is ecclesiastical. To partake of the Lord’s table (see 1 Cor. 10: 21), is to be at His table—that is, to be in His fellowship. A helpful parallel is drawn in which those who ate the sacrifices in Israel are said to be in communion with Jehovah’s altar (see v18). There was one fellowship in Israel centred around the altar, and there is one fellowship in Christianity centred around Christ’s death.

   Sadly, the real reason why believers want to evade the plain ecclesiastical force of 1 Cor. 1: 9 is not difficult to discern: if we are called into the fellowship of God’s Son, then the many ‘fellowships’ than man has created have no more merit than “I am of Paul, and I of Apollos, and I of Cephas, and I of Christ” (v12). God has provided one fellowship, and it is centred in Christ.