Of all the Bible words that fall into the ‘used and abused’ category one ranks high among the most frequent casualties of them all. It is ‘fellowship’. The most glaring evidence of this is in the way churches – even the best ones – choose to identify the different rooms and halls in their premises.
Some churches name them after great figures or events from church history. Others are more utilitarian and simply give them numbers. But the most common label applied to these meeting areas is, ‘Fellowship Hall’. Of course, in so doing, they inadvertently downgrade the whole idea of fellowship into ‘where we socialise over coffee’ or ‘where the recreation happens in our church’. Neither these, or variations on this theme come anywhere near what the Bible means when it talks about fellowship.
This oversight is made worse by another even more common mistake, namely, the tendency to see fellowship merely in terms of Christians relating to each other. Even though such a view may recognise the spiritual dimension in how this happens, it often struggles to define what it should look like in practice.
When we explore the various references to fellowship in the Bible we see it is much greater than just ‘Christians being together with other Christians’. The New Testament uses a word for fellowship that at its most basic level simply means ‘sharing’. So, for example, when Luke lists ‘the fellowship’ as one of the key characteristics of the embryonic New Testament church (Ac 2.42), he goes on to illustrate what it looked like in the life of that church in the verses that follow. The early Christians quite literally shared their possessions to care for each other’s needs and shared their time and enjoyed meals together as they began to grow in their newfound faith. However, it is only as we trace out the way this theme is developed elsewhere in the New Testament that we begin to see there is far more to it than we might at first imagine.
Peter gives a breath-taking glimpse of its dimensions in his second letter when he asserts that God’s great purpose in salvation is that we might ultimately ‘participate in the divine nature’ (2Pe 1.4). The word translated ‘participate’ shares the same root as ‘fellowship’. John echoes this aspect of fellowship in his first letter and links it directly to how fellowship with God defines and controls how Christians relate to one another. Explaining his reason for writing, he says that it is ‘so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ’ (1Jn 1.3). In other words, the interpersonal fellowship between John and his fellow-believers flowed directly out of their shared relationship with God. When we begin to grasp fellowship in this way, it takes our understanding of fellowship to a whole new level.
There is, of course, nothing novel about seeing fellowship in this way. Those who crafted the wording of the Apostles’ Creed expressed it in its description of the church as ‘the communion of saints’. The Westminster Confession of Faith also captures it helpfully in its chapter on the ‘Communion of Saints’ where it says,
All saints that are united to Jesus Christ their head by his Spirit, and by faith, have fellowship with him in his graces, sufferings, death, resurrection and glory. And being united to one another in love, they have communion in each other’s gifts and graces; and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, as are conducive to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man. (Westminster Confession of Faith 26.1)
Salvation does not merely bring us into union and communion with God through our relationship with Christ, it brings us into a living and vital relationship – union and communion – with our fellow-Christians as well.
The implications of this are far-reaching. At the most basic level it makes us realise that fellowship is not something optional. It is a fundamental reality of the Christian life that we should value and safeguard. Paul alludes to this in a number of places, emphasising the premium God places on it. He tells the Christians in Rome that, as members of the church as the body of Christ, ‘each member belongs to all the others’ (Ro 12.5). So too he tells the believers in Ephesus to ‘make every effort to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’ (Eph 4.3). In other words, fellowship is not something Christians manufacture, but something they have by virtue of being joined to Jesus in salvation and are called to preserve with the Holy Spirit’s help.
Seen in this light, the highest expression of fellowship is not what takes place over coffee after the morning service, but rather what takes place during public worship as God’s people gather to commune with him in song, prayer, through his word and in the sacraments. In fellowship with him their otherwise ordinary relationships are literally lifts us up into our fellowship with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. When that happens, we discover that the joy of fellowship is infinitely richer and deeper than whatever blend of coffee your church uses during ‘the fellowship hour’.