This article first appeared in Theology for Life on July 31, 2021, as part of the series, “What Is Church Membership?” issue (Vol 8, Issue 2).
I can see God’s eastern canvas from my pillow each morning, a front row seat to the glorious awakening of the sky. No matter how it’s painted, no matter how tired I am, my eyes are glued to the horizon. There’s no sleeping in because the one missed may be the best sunrise yet. How I feel about the morning sky is how many people feel about special events or unique experiences. It’s popularly known as FOMO, the “Fear of Missing Out”. Sometimes it’s the party or the latest movie, the new car or the best friend. But how often, for Christians, is it fellowship?
Walk into any church in North America, evangelical or mainline, traditional or contemporary, and there will be a reference to fellowship somewhere in the building—on a board, in a bulletin, part of a media presentation. Today, churches are encouraged to draw visitors by including the word in their marketing material. While some traditions plan events, others tick the box by adding a line in the liturgy or a handshake during the service. And with each occurrence, we are prone to hang expectations for what we think fellowship should look like on hooks that are not meant to bear that weight—the weight of misplaced hopes, inevitable disappointment, and despair. Sadly, this is what fellowship looks like to many in the church, but what is God’s vision for fellowship?
In the New American Standard Bible, the Greek word koinonia is translated into fellowship twelve times, as well as being rendered as sharing, participation, and contribution.[i] In all usages, the writers employ koinonia to describe the manner of life lived by the early church, but God introduced fellowship to His people long before the New Testament.
Man Is a Social Being
God, whose own nature is three persons in one, made man a social being. He saw that there was no companion for Adam and determined a good world would include the creation of Eve (Genesis 2:18)—establishing the first social group, and it was also good. Soon on its heels, however, the first social dysfunction erupted and infected every human interaction after it. Though we are made for fellowship, like our first parents, we do it with the obstacles that come with being fallen and full of a rebellion that lashes outward as much as it does upward. Perhaps that’s because we’re not supposed to do fellowship. We are supposed to be [in] fellowship—abiding in Christ with one another, “being of the same mind” (Philippians 2:2) and “becoming like Him” (Philippians 3:10). The mark we bear as Jesus’ disciples is fellowship—a partnership in the gospel has begun in us, that He will complete in the final day (Philippians 1:6).
We all have ideas about what fellowship should look like. We often anticipate a certain outcome—affirmation, an invitation, a best friend. And when the results don’t measure up to our expectations, we fear we’ve missed out on the good life. We blame faulty fellowship, cold churches, and fake people, but fellowship isn’t based on any of those things. It’s timeless, having been established before the foundation of the world. It’s bound together by a sacrifice made to secure peace and reconciliation, yielding gratitude in the hearts of worshipers. It is essence preceding practice. And it’s grounded in truth about who Christ is.
Christian Fellowship Begins with God
As disciples of Christ, our spiritual rebirth transforms our being. We are known to be His through a love that is informed by this transformation (John 13:35). Christian fellowship differs from what the world has to offer because it begins with God. The Trinity provides the template for unity (Philippians 2:1–2), its sweet, perfect, reciprocal fellowship acting together, yet as one in the creation of the world (Genesis 1:26), the redemptive plan of salvation (Matthew 3:16–17), and the ministrations of grace and peace to the elect (1 Peter 1:2).
Sin brought discord, and the first couple fell out with one another and then with God. Through succeeding generations, sins of ingratitude, partiality, and grumbling compounded, yet God chose and called out a family, formed them into a nation, and made a covenant with them that included reconciliation and peace. In the midst of the statutes and laws established for the formation and governance of the nation of Israel, God encoded the opportunity for any of the people to present a peace offering (Leviticus 3; 7:11–17). This was also known as a fellowship offering because it acknowledged that any hope for restored fellowship between God and the one making the offering was due to the peace that God had initiated and granted on His own terms. The worshiper was declaring gratitude for God’s generosity.
The offering reflected the condition of the heart. It was not mandatory, but voluntary. It was not a duty, but a privilege. It was personal because it was made by an individual and not on behalf of the people. It was spontaneous in that it wasn’t according to the tabernacle cycle, but usually predicated upon an event, a circumstance, or a Spirit-directed inclination. It announced that the worshiper was moved by the kindness he experienced and humbled that he, a sinner, had received mercy and not rejection at the hands of a holy and just God. Fellowship restored by God was being celebrated.
The declaration of gratitude took place at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting with all the congregation looking on (Leviticus 3:1–5; 7:6–36). The worshiper’s personal act called on the entire Body to rejoice in God along with him, giving testimony to the wondrous works of the Lord. It was as if he was saying, “Listen to how benevolent Yahweh is! Let’s party and exalt our magnificent God!” Full of gratitude and goodwill, it’s no wonder our Levitical worshiper extends fellowship to his neighbors, beckoning all to feast and celebrate the mercy of God.
Be, Then Do
Thankful, humble proclamation about God’s praiseworthy and remarkable offering; the bountiful celebratory feast shared with fellow believers; spontaneous, voluntary, and personal testimony to the goodness and mercy of the Lord—doesn’t this describe the early church?
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. And awe came upon every soul, and many wonders and signs were being done through the apostles. And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need. And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they received their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved (Acts 2:42–47).
Look beyond the things the early church did together to the language used to describe the nature of their fellowship: devoted, awed, in common, generous, consistent and persevering, glad, praise-filled, favored. These identify who God’s people are. Christian fellowship is unique in essence and, therefore, in practice—beginning with God’s benevolence and culminating in man’s gratitude.
In His high priestly prayer (John 17:6–26), our Savior-Advocate uncovers the mystery of fellowship and its foundation in the Trinity. Christ is one with the Father and the Spirit, entering into our human social sphere to share Trinitarian fellowship with us. In Christ, we abide together with the indwelling Spirit, perfectly one with Him and the Father, and one with one another (17:21–23). The Trinity seals believers in fellowship, and in fellowship we are preserved for glory (John 17:11)—our simplest acts glorifying God because we are in Christ (John 17:10). What a privilege it is to be united with God! Sinclair Ferguson writes: “The triune One is greater in glory, deeper in mystery, and more beautiful in harmony than all of the realities in creation.”[ii] We get to reflect that mystery in Christian fellowship.
Fellowship Requires Death
Jesus, the Prince of Peace, also warned that He came with a sword (Matthew 10:34). Reconciliation with God would require the spilling of blood, as in the days of Leviticus. The sword had been raised against the perfect Lamb, and in union with the suffering of our Head, all of the members of His Body are called to die to self. The cost of reconciliation that God paid was much greater than we can ever know because the Father is holy and the Son is without blemish. We are neither, but we are made able to apprehend it through fellowship in a type of sacrifice of our wills, affections, and circumstances, walking in a manner worthy of our calling:
With all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4:1b–6, ESV).
We have numerous accounts of what Christian fellowship looks like in the New Testament, but here are three: Christ stooping low to wash His disciples’ feet, urging them to serve others as their Master served them (John 13:1–17); the communion table shared by all believers—Gentiles and Jews—coming together without partiality or grumbling, confessing sins to one another, and giving thanks for the real and true peace offering bringing about real and true peace with God (1 Corinthians 11:17–34); Peter, James, and John perceiving the grace in Paul and offering him the right hand of fellowship for the sake of the spread of the gospel (Galatians 2:9).
Just as God’s offering cost Him, our offering of peace to one another must cost us. We’ve all been to church functions meant to celebrate the Lord’s blessing in a community, and inevitably, tension arises. Past hurts are recalled, and instead of bearing with one another, we highlight the differences, regarding one another with suspicion as one might an enemy who would betray us. And as quickly as that, joy evaporates. Pride, distrust, and partiality drive wedges, and an undercurrent of grumbling begins. Second-century Roman historian Tacitus wrote, “Men are more ready to repay an injury than a benefit, because gratitude is a burden and revenge a pleasure.”
It seems counterintuitive, but daily intervention with other members of the Body is the antidote to disunity. I cannot alone perceive my own blindness because I don’t even know myself (Jeremiah 17:9). Self-deceived, I easily convince myself that I am able to save my soul and guard my injured heart, but God’s grace for my life comes in the form of fellowship with my brothers and sisters. “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another” (Proverbs 27:17). The Sword of the Spirit, God’s word, spoken in exhortation to one another, comforts and strengthens in times of temptation and despair and builds up the Body of Christ.
Hebrews 10:24–25 reveals that community is critical to preserving what God has done and will continue to do in you and me: “Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.”
Avoiding this actually puts us in peril. Simply practicing the “one anothers” repels the danger that we are to our own hearts as well as to others. We read earlier in Hebrews:
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. For we have come to share in Christ, if indeed we hold our original confidence firm to the end (Hebrews 3:12–14).
Fellowship: a Vision of Glory
Fellowship and communion cannot happen where everyone arrives as rulers of their own little kingdoms. There is no glory in winning the argument over the best way to do a potluck. The church gathering provides the context for Christ’s prayer for His disciples when He expresses His desire that “they may be with me and may see my glory” (John 17:24). Not a potluck, not a picnic, but together with Him to see His glory. Where does that glory manifest itself but in the gathering of believers putting to death pride and partiality, dying to self in the workspace of fellowship? (Mark 8:35–38; John 12:24; Romans 6:1–23). The Lord chisels through suffering, disappointment, and fear and applies the healing balm of affliction to our lives and our gatherings. Hard surfaces yield the most glorious designs when the Holy Spirit is our sculptor.
To get the attention of a selfish world, there’s nothing like the fellowship of messy people surrendering to Christ, putting His truth before self for the sake of the Kingdom. God calls us to gather regularly because we forget every time that we can’t go it alone and we put our sovereign little selves back on the throne. We forget our need for Christ’s Spirit working through the Body, both for us and for us as tools in others. God ordains the variables of fellowship to do His best work in sin-scarred individuals as a witness of His glory to the world.
After a year of shutdowns and social distancing, fellowship is looking pretty anemic. In the post-pandemic period of confusion, lethargy, caution, and discovery, many are asking the question: Can Christian fellowship survive in this new era? Fellowship’s impact on this era and eternity is considerable. Remember in the early church, where devotion and a common call reflected the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace—there were 3,000 souls saved! I think there are other questions to soberly ponder:
- Am I thankful God has made me for fellowship and fellowship for me?
- Am I thankful He has restored fellowship with me by means of His perfect peace offering?
- Is impartial, grace-filled, Trinity-powered fellowship the jubilant hope I have for my sisters and brothers?
- What would reconciliation and fellowship cost me?
- Can souls that survived a pandemic afford the loss of Christian fellowship?
I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to sleep in and miss the glory the Lord has in store when He unites us with the rest of His Church.
[i] “Koinonia” in the New American Standard New Testament Greek Lexicon (1999), N.p., cited http://www.biblestudytools.com/lexicons/greek/nas/koinonia.html
[ii] Sinclair Ferguson “Union with God the Trinity.” Ligonier Ministries, February 1, 2013, http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/union-with-god-the-trinity/.
Photo by Cristina Cerda on Unsplash