What does Christian "fellow ship" mean? Is it church members chatting outside after the church service? Is it young people hiking with one another in nature? Is it having that special sense of togetherness that comes during worship, or church friends getting together Saturday night at someone's home?
The point is that we tend to equate fellowship with what we do, and such a tendency can trick us into thinking that we are thriving on fellowship, while all the time our souls are still starving for it.
Fellowship is a great New Testament concept. It denotes something vital to Christian spiritual health, and central to the church's true life. We ministers need to have a clear sense of what Christian fellowship actually is, then we can help to bring it about in our churches.
The New Testament describes a fellowship that was central to the life of the young, first century Christian church. "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. ... All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people" (Acts 2:42-47).*
We must admit that this picture is one that is vibrant with a depth and breadth of fellow ship that goes well beyond what we often think of as fellowship in today's church. These days we tend to reduce the concept and practice of fellowship to terms and activities that diminish and even cheapen its true meaning, so that it involves only the matter of getting together in spiritual and social interaction, while it largely leaves out, for example, the pooling of our possessions in the way first-century Christians did.
What is fellowship?
The Greek word for fellowship expresses the idea of sharing, of having something in common with somebody else. Common participation takes on a double form: giving and receiving. Christian fellowship seriously involves both aspects.
Moreover, Christian fellowship is vertical as well as horizontal. The horizontal plane presupposes the vertical for its very existence. John described the vertical dimension this way: "Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ" (1 John 1:3). This fellowship is what makes a Christian, Christian. Indeed, John's words provide a definition of what it is to be Christian. Those not in fellowship with the Father and the Son, however upright they may be, are not actually Christian in this Johanine sense.
The horizontal dimension of fellowship is the habitual sharing, the constant giving to and receiving from each other, which is the true, authentic pattern of life for God's people. Fellowship with God, then, is the source from which fellowship among Christians springs; and again, fellowship with God is the end to which Christian fellowship leads.
Christian fellowship, then, is neither a luxury nor a devotional option, but a spiritual necessity. God intends that we have fellow ship with Him and with each other. The former feeds the latter, and the latter requires constant feeding for its own deepening and enrichment. Fellowship between Christians cements our fellowship with God.
Our fellowship with God covers all our giving to Him, all our taking from Him, and expresses our faith in and love for Him. God gives Himself to us as our Father on the basis of redemption wrought for us by the gift of His Son. We receive "childship" from God, and a title to all the blessings that childship entails.
"He who receives you receives me," said Jesus, "and he who receives me receives the one who sent me" (Matt. 10:40). And John adds: "To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God" (John 1:12).
This adoption (yet so much more than the concept of human adoption entails) is the foundation on which all our subsequent fellowship with God, and thus with one another, rests. Day by day, as God's children, we thank fully take the gifts that our heavenly Father presents to us. Daily He for gives our sins and reveals Himself to us through His written Word, and through nature and through one another. Such is the taking and giving, the sharing with God that constitutes this deeper fellowship.
Our fellowship on the human level is seeking to share what God has made known of Himself with others, as a means of finding strength, refreshment, and instruction for spiritual growth. In fellowship, one seeks to receive as well as to give. The apostle illustrates this when he tells the Romans, "I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong—that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other's faith" (Rom. 1:11, 12). Paul's understanding of fellowship is clear: it is a two-way channel where by both he and the believers may find mutual encouragement in the bond of Christian fellowship.
In summary so far: First, fellowship comes from God's grace. Through fellowship, one's soul is refreshed, fed, and strengthened. Second, fellowship is a test of active spiritual life. It means opening one's heart to fellow believers. Fellowship cannot exist where there is pretense or concealment. We can be free from pretension and concealment in our relation with others only as we are open and honest in our dealings with God and with others.
If we prevent or obstruct God's light from shining fully on ourselves, we cannot have free fellowship with other believers; we will shrink from fellowship, and our reticence will not go undetected. "If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin" (1 John 1:4).
Third, fellowship is God's chosen plane for spiritual life. It is where the spirit of God is found, where we find spiritual life, and where we grow in grace and are ready to help others to do the same. When we fellowship together, we should do so in prayerful dependence on the Holy Spirit; other wise, our "fellowship" will be partial and even empty, profiting little.
True and false fellowship
Fellowship can be true or counterfeit, full or incomplete. Paul warns us of the perils of imitating Christian love (Rom. 12:9). False or limited fellowship springs only from within us and only goes so far as to depend upon our natural human affinities, affections, and associations. Such fellowship remains superficial, and may differ very little from that which exists in a common social club. We must admit that this deficient or incomplete fellowship is all too common in contemporary Christian churches.
On the other hand, authentic Christian fellowship is alive and always growing in quality and depth. Increasingly it affects the deeper parts of our personalities and calls for continual self-sacrifice; it is always humble.
In false fellowship, members are often afraid of one another, which makes them secretive and suspicious. True fellowship has no fear or flattery, and it speaks with grace, seasoned with love.
The enemies of fellowship
Genuine fellowship has two enemies: the merely human self and the sophism of Satan. James asks: "What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don't they come from your desires that battle within you?" (James 4:1). Overcoming self and its desires and temptations is our greatest battle.
We are like people who live in the world that has no mirrors. We are able to see other people's faults but not our own. We do not realize that the self we see in other people exists in us also. If I say that my brother is stubborn and only wants his own way, that is exactly how Brother John sees me.
"You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning your self, because you who pass judgment do the same things" (Rom. 2:1).
The few years I have served as a Seventh-day Adventist Church pastor, I have discovered that of all the sins that destroy fellowship, the most common and the hardest to recognize is jealousy. It separates husband and wife, mother-in-law and daughter-in-law, pastor and parish, and Christian partners and leaders on all levels of God's work.
Self, the enemy within us, is but the instrument of Satan. He is the accuser of the brethren (Rev. 12:10), who not only accuses us day and night before God, but also accuses us through one another . . . one to one another. The example of how he accused Job, using Job's "friends" should raise our awareness that when we have misunderstandings among us, it is the devil who is at the root of it all.
When there is a breakdown in personal relationships, reconciliation is important and urgently needed. In fact, as Jesus said, reconciliation precedes worship: "If you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, leave your gift there in front of the altar. First go and be reconciled to your brother; then come and offer your gift" (Matt. 5:23, 24). Paul counseled his people that they should not let the sun go down on their wrath (Eph. 4:26). The sun should also not go down on our jealousy, or anything else that negatively affects our relationships and our fellowship.
In a world torn apart by so many differences, we need nothing more than fellowship and reconciliation—the kind brought about by God, "Who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation" (2 Cor. 5:18, 19).
* All Scripture passages quoted in this article are from the New International Version.