I have recently been stimulated to look into the original New Testament
meaning of the word "Fellowship". The stimulus came from various
sources. Firstly it came from the question that is so often asked when
Christians meet one another, "Where do you fellowship?" meaning
of course where do you go to church? Secondly I hear Christians talk sadly,
and sometimes disparagingly, of this one and that one who "is not
fellowshipping", meaning they do not go to church. Thirdly, I have
been wondering about the designation of Christian organisations as "Fellowships".
In the minds of the vast majority of Christians this word "fellowship"
implies belonging to some organised Christian body and regular attendance
at its meetings. This all caused me to ask myself, "What do the New
Testament Scriptures really mean by the word, 'fellowship'?"
With the help of a Greek-English concordance, I looked up all the occurrences
of the word and words with the same root as "koinonia", the
Greek word generally translated as "fellowship". What I discovered
was illuminating indeed. Most striking was that there was not one reference
which could be construed as meaning to belong to a Christian organisation
or to attend services. So, I had to conclude that going to church or not
going to church had little, if anything, to do with fellowship in its
New Testament sense.
Of very first importance in the New Testament is the fact that, in becoming
Christians we come into fellowship with the Father, with the Lord Jesus
and with the Holy Spirit.
"You were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our
Lord" (1 Cor. 1:9)
"The fellowship of the Holy Spirit." 2 Cor.13:14
"Our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ."
Perhaps the best commentary on this aspect of the subject is in the words
of Jesus Himself in John 14:15-26, which I suggest you read carefully
at this point. In this passage Jesus says, "If a man loves me he
will keep my word and my Father will love him, and we will come to him
and make our home with him." This coming to us is by means of the
Holy Spirit, as Jesus explains in vs.25-26. Thus the primary thought in
the New Testament concerning fellowship is that it is the most intimate
and real experience of relationship and communion with the Father and
the Lord Jesus through the indwelling Holy Spirit in the heart of the
believer. The triune God at home in my heart! That is fellowship!
Following on from this, because all those who have been born from above
are sharing in a common life and fellowship with the Father, the Son and
the Spirit, they have fellowship with one another. John says, "That
which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you may
have fellowship with us; and our fellowship is with the Father and with
His Son Jesus Christ". (1 John 1:3) Then in v. 7 of the same chapter
we have, "If we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have
fellowship with one another". Christians are in relationship to one
another and have fellowship with one another because they are drinking
from the same life-giving stream of love and grace.
The next major emphasis in these "fellowship" words has to do
with the very practical issue of sharing money and goods with Christian
brothers and sisters in need. The following are some of the references
in which these words occur. It is not always obvious in the English translations,
but if you use a concordance you will see that the words in italics are
all related to the Greek "Koinonia" which we translate, "Fellowship."
Romans 12:13, "Contribute to the needs of the saints". Romans
ch. 15 v. 26, Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make some contribution
for the poor amongst the saints at Jerusalem.
2 Corinthians 8:4. "Taking part in the relief of the saints".
2 Corinthians 9:13. "The generosity of your contribution".
Hebrews 13:16 "Do no neglect to do good and to share what you have".
To summarise thus far we have seen that, for the New Testament writers
the primary meaning of fellowship was heart-relationship with the Lord.
Those sharing that heart-fellowship were brought into loving relationship
with each other, one important aspect of which was that they were willing
to help one another in very practical ways. When Luke in Acts 2:42 says,"They
devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking
of bread and prayers", that is the kind of fellowship he was meaning.
A further aspect of fellowship in the New Testament is an emphasis
on the sharing of the sufferings of Christ. Philippians ch.3 v.10
"That I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and may share
His sufferings" A.V. rightly has "The fellowship of His suffering".
Also 1 Peter ch.4 v.l3 "Rejoice in so far as you share Christ's sufferings".
The way of Christ is the way of the Cross, and if we truly are followers
of the Lord there will be for each of us in some way or another a partaking
in the reproach of Christ which means suffering.
There is no question that for Christians of New Testament times fellowship
often implied togetherness. This is particularly emphasised in the early
chapters of The Acts, where there is portrayed a vibrant Christian community,
fully experiencing the kind of fellowship we have been discussing. There
is no evidence however that this togetherness was a thing of organised
meetings or services. Rather it was a spontaneous outcome of the new life
they had in common through the indwelling life of the Holy Spirit within
them. It was a seven-day-a-week, twenty-four-hour-a-day thing. Gene Edwards
captures the spirit of it well in his stimulating book on "The Early
Church". These first Christians did not go to church. They lived
in church. They would be utterly bewildered by modern Christendom with
its multiplied varieties of so called "churches" and "fellowships",
and by the range of liturgical menus on offer. As for church buildings;
they didn't have any.
Isn't it obvious that if we are to recover in experience the New Testament
meaning of fellowship there will have to be some radical transformations
of mind-set among present-day Christians ? One thing is certain, we will
never experience fellowship in the way those first Christians did so long
as we cling to our divisions and denominations.
Here is a passage from a little book by Thomas Kelly called, "A Testament
of Devotion". This expresses so much better than I can the true nature
"'See how these Christians love one another!' might well have been
a spontaneous exclamation in the days of the apostles. The Holy Fellowship,
the Blessed Community has always astonished those who stood without it.
The sharing of physical goods in the primitive church is only the outcropping
of a profoundly deeper sharing of a Life, the base and centre of which
is obscured to those who are still oriented about self, rather than about
God. To others, tragic to say, the very existence of such a Fellowship
within a common Life and Love is unknown and unguessed. In its place,
psychological and humanistic views of the essential sociality and gregariousness
of man seek to provide a social theory of church membership. From these
views spring church programmes of mere sociability and social contacts.
The precious word, "Fellowship" becomes identified with a purely
horizontal relation of man to man, not with that horizontal-vertical relationship
of man to man in God.
But every period of profound rediscovery of God's joyous immediacy is
a period of emergence of this amazing group inter-knittedness of God-enthralled
men and women who know one another in Him. The disclosure of God normally
brings the disclosure of the Fellowship. We don't create it deliberately;
we find it and we find ourselves increasingly within it as we find ourselves
increasingly within Him It is the holy matrix of "the communion of
the saints", the Body of Christ which is His church.
Yet still more astonishing is the Holy Fellowship, the Blessed Community,
to those who are within it. Yet can one be surprised at being at home?
In wonder and awe we find ourselves already interknit within unofficial
groups of kindred souls. A "chance" conversation comes, and
in a few moments we know that we have found and have been found by another
member of the Blessed Community. Sometimes we are thus suddenly knit together
in the bonds of a love far faster than those of many years' acquaintance.
In unbounded eagerness we seek for more such fellowship, and wonder at
the lethargy of mere 'members'".
Also two verses of a hymn by William Cowper express in profound simplicity
the true nature of fellowship.
Jesus, where'er Thy people meet,
There they behold Thy mercy seat;
Where'er they seek Thee, Thou art found,
And every place is hallowed ground.
For Thou within no walls confined,
Inhabitest the humble mind;
Such ever bring Thee where they come,
And going take Thee to their home.
May the Lord open our eyes to the fullness of the fellowship of the one
Body of Christ, and may we be ready to cast off the confining blinkers
of our current churchianity in order to enter into what is revealed in
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