Fellowship - 1

by Maurice Barnett

July 18, 2000
Fellowship - 2
Fellowship - 3

     It's indeed strange that there's so much disharmony, even division, among brethren over just the subject of fellowship, a term that, of itself, indicates unity and harmony. Many errors have been, and continue to be, cloaked with the mantle of "fellowship." This is clearly seen in the institutional controversy over the past half-century when "fellowship" became a synonym for feasting and recreation. Forty years ago, one preacher said that every time he heard the word "fellowship" he smelled coffee. Eventually, the common denominational error that "it doesn't matter what one believes as long as he is honest and sincere," was accepted and put into practice. After one believes the "basics," he can believe anything he wants to and God will accept him, is the idea. That was also the primary "slogan" of the Ketcherside movement not many years back. Passages have been so interpreted that they would require Christians to accept false doctrines and their teachers. Such positions are not Biblical and soon lead one into reliance on human wants, wishes and wisdom and away from God. With this in mind, let's look at the subject from the scriptures.

     Fellowship is active, not passive. There is no mystical condition wherein I am "in fellowship" with some Christian somewhere in the world about whom I know nothing at all and probably will never know exists. We may both be in fellowship with God, we may have a "common" (koinos) salvation, Titus 1:4, and a "common" (koinos) faith, Jude 3, but we can only be in "fellowship" (koinonia) with one another if we are doing something actively and jointly together in the work, worship or service to God. We will see this in numerous passages but it's probably most easily seen in I John 1:7 that speaks of our fellowship with God - "if we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship..." Our fellowship with Him depends on our walking with Him in the light.

     The word "fellowship," by itself, does not indicate something righteous and good is involved. We can participate in evil and be companions, have fellowship, with others in wickedness. Thus, II Corinthians 6:14, "Be not unequally yoked with unbelievers: for what fellowship (metoche) have righteousness and iniquity? or what communion (koinonia) hath light with darkness?" He follows these words in verse 17, saying, "Wherefore, come ye out from among them and be ye separate, saith the Lord." Jesus rebukes the Jews for hypocrisy when he charges them with saying, "If we had been in the days of our fathers, we should not have been partakers (koinonos) with them in the blood of the prophets," Matthew 23:30. Paul said, I Corinthians 10:20 that he "would not that ye should have communion (koinonos) with demons." II John 11 warns that to receive one who brings error and greets them favorably "partaketh (koinoneo) in his evil works." Adding a preposition to koinoneo, we have Paul's warning in Ephesians 5:11 to "have no fellowship (sunkoinoneo) with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather even reprove them."

Thus, to have joint participation with someone, of itself, does not prove anything as to the rightness of that joint participation, endorsement or the like. Two men may be at opposite ends of an issue and "jointly participate" in debating their differences. It does not mean they are "in fellowship" with one another for there is certainly no joint approval nor acceptance of each other. The fellowship we are most interested in looking at is a working together, mutual acceptance and approval, a harmony and unity as we serve God. And, there are rules about how this fellowship is established, how it is maintained and under what conditions we may accept disagreement without its affecting fellowship between brethren.

     Fellowship with God: Before there can be fellowship between us as brethren, there must be fellowship between each individual and God. I John 1:3 says, "... that which we have seen and heard declare we unto you also, that ye also may have fellowship with us: yea, and our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ ..." Some action had to be initiated in order for the fellowship to exist. And, on what basis did the fellowship with God and the Lord Jesus exist? Well, I John 1:5-7 tells us: "And this message which we have heard from him and announce unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship with him and walk in the darkness, we lie, and do not the truth; but if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanseth us from all sin." One cannot walk in darkness, Ephesians 5:3-13, and have fellowship with God. One must walk with God in light in order to have fellowship with Him. Each individual, as an individual, must establish and maintain fellowship with God. This is what makes up the "church universal," i.e., all individuals everywhere who have obeyed the gospel and thus have established fellowship with God.

     As the universal church, individual Christians may take up fellowship with one another as individuals on a short or long term basis. In Galatians 2:9, James, Cephas and John, having concluded the acceptability of Paul and Barnabas, gave to them "the right hands of fellowship." Each of these individuals had fellowship with God before the "right hands" were extended but fellowship between these individuals did not exist until offered and activated. In II Corinthians 8:23, Paul says that Titus "is my partner (koinonos) and fellow-worker to you-ward." Paul had several companions who traveled with him in the work, fellow workers. To a lesser extent, Philemon is referred to as Paul's partner as well, Philemon 17. The stay of Paul and other evangelists with local brethren and churches also established fellowship in the work for a while. If those brethren continued to support these evangelists elsewhere, then fellowship continued, Philippians 1:5, 4:15, II Corinthians 11:8.

     Local church: A local congregation is a fellowship of Christians, having a distinct boundary. The people who make up that congregation have responsibilities to one another that they sustain to no other group of Christians. The agreement made by individuals to work with one another makes up the boundary of that group, also known as a "flock." An individual may have a temporary contact and fellowship with another congregation but it does not alter their special fellowship with the congregation where they are members. This is seen in Phoebe, a servant of the church at Cenchrae, even while she was at Rome, Romans 16:1. Or, Epaphroditus, who was still designated a messenger from the church at Philippi to Paul in Rome though temporarily a fellow-worker with Paul while he was there, Philippians 2:25.

     In I Corinthians 12, Paul argues the nature of the body of Christ and makes application to a local congregation. The body is made up of many members, likened to a human body. There is a difference in the utility of each part. The head and the feet are members of the same body but have different functions. One cannot say that the other is unneeded. Here, the "head" is a Christian and is just another part of the body. In other passages about the universal body of Christ, Jesus is the head of the body, the church, and there is no organization of it other than just a "head" and a "body," Colossians 1:18. God tempered the local body together and each member has his part to play. Ephesians 4:15-16 says, "...but speaking the truth in love, may grow up in all things into him, who is the head, even Christ; from whom all the body fitly framed and knit together through that which every joint supplieth, according to the working in due measure of each several part, maketh the increase of the body unto the building up of itself in love." Every member, using his unique talent and working together with the other members, makes the body function as it should. A similar passage is Romans 12:9ff.

     I Corinthians 11:29-31 also reveals something about the local body. Verse 30 is a parenthesis, a comment added. Let's read it as verses 29 and 31 - "For he that eateth and drinketh, eateth and drinketh judgment unto himself, if he discern not the body ... But if we discerned ourselves, we should not be judged." These are parallel with a slight difference. "Discernment" in both passages is the same as is the word "judgment." But, "body" in verse 29, becomes "ourselves" in verse 31. This means that the word "body" in verse 29 refers to the local body the church at Corinth.

     This gives meaning to the statements in I Corinthians 11 that "when ye come together in the church," or "when ye assemble yourselves together," or "when ye come together to eat," or, as in Acts 20:7, "came together to break bread," all referring to the manner of their eating the Lord's supper. We find it again, with the word "body," in I Corinthians 10:17 "... seeing that we, who are many, are one bread, one body: for we all partake of the one bread."

     These are important matters of local fellowship. Christians in a given locality band together, work and worship together as a distinct group. It has identity as a particular group. But there are other things to be included in the fellowship of this local body.

     Money Contributed: Acts 2:42 says, "And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, and in the breaking of bread and in the prayers." These are things brethren do when they come together on the first day of the week. We ask, did they not have fellowship in breaking bread and prayers? Certainly. Fellowship is listed separately to indicate the monetary contributions made by the Christians. The contribution of I Corinthians 16:1-3 was a collection of money from all the members of the congregation as they had prospered. This is described by Paul as "your bounty." Each had a part and the money collected belonged to the church at Corinth. Paul could order all of the churches to make up such a contribution, but he could not take complete control. The Corinthian church had to approve who was to carry their bounty to Jerusalem. Indeed, the contribution for the poor at Jerusalem was, in Romans 15:26 as a "contribution (koinonia)." Verse 27 says that "if the Gentiles have been made partakers (koinoneo) of their spiritual things, they owe it to them also to minister unto them in carnal things." The progress of the gospel, brought to the Gentiles by Jewish evangelists, is the partaking that was done. This "fellowship" is mentioned again in II Corinthians 8:4 and 9:13 from the word koinonia.

     The support of evangelists, coming from money collected by local church members, was likewise referred to as fellowship. Paul was grateful to the Philippian church for "your fellowship (koinonia) in furtherance of the gospel from the first day until now," Philippians 1:5. He describes what they did as having "fellowship (sunkoinoneo) with my affliction," 4:14. He then adds in verses 15-16, "And ye yourselves also know, ye Philippians, that in the beginning of the gospel, when I departed from Macedonia, no church had fellowship with me in the matter of giving and receiving but ye only; for even in Thessalonica ye sent once and again unto my need."

     There are terms other than what we have seen here that also indicate that fellowship exists. We will notice these in due course. Regardless of the terms used, fellowship is active. We must understand it as a joint participation, acting together in some way in the work, worship and service of God. We will explore the significance of this in coming articles.

by Maurice Barnett

Fellowship - 2 | Fellowship - 3
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