Sunday, 4 July 2010

What is fellowship anyway?

All Christians enjoy having fellowship together, they would claim. I'm not so sure that most of us are very clear on what this fellowship malarky is all about though. In general it would seem fair to say that 'fellowship' has become a Christianized term for 'socialising' and not much more. Is that really all it is?

The Greek word used in the NT is koinonia which is related to the word koinos, which means 'common'. So this suggests that fellowship is about having certain central things in common that have the effect of binding us together. To keep the verbal link that highlights this facet of fellowship, perhaps we should consider replacing 'fellowship' with the word 'community'. The idea of community is much stronger than mere socialising. When we socialise we meet up, have a good time together and then go home. Community, however, speaks of a network of lives that are interwoven in all kinds of ways. So fellowship is about living life together rather than going it alone.

Looking at the uses of koinonia in the NT (when it is used of our fellowship with one another rather than with God) three facets stand out:

1. Fellowship is based on truth. 1 John 1:3 - '...that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us...' John is writing to explain all that Jesus said and did in order that his readers may be able to have fellowship with him. So John clearly believes that is necessary to have common belief in the truth for fellowship to be possible. We are not one in Christ because we want to be, but because the truth has changed us and made us one. Anything else will be superficial and wishful thinking. Truth brings unity, not vice versa - whatever the Archbishop of Canterbury believes! Ultimately this is not about mental assent to a system of doctrine - truth is a person. We know the One who claimed, 'I am the truth' (John 14:6). The sense of fellowship that we experience, even with believers we've only just met flows from our shared knowledge of the Truth - Jesus Christ.

2. Fellowship is about supporting one another in common gospel aims. Philippians 1:3-5 - 'I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always in every prayer of mine for you all making my prayer with joy, because of your partnership (koinonia) in the gospel from the first day until now.' The Christians at Philippi had supported the apostle Paul in his ministry, and even while he was in prison because of the gospel. They were able to provide for certain of his needs that made his minsitry possible, becoming his partners in ministry to enable to spread of the gospel. It seems that this primarily meant financial support (4:15-16), but other means of support would fit well under this heading in other situations: prayer, co-workers, counsel, working together as different local churches etc. Do we support one another as churches like this? Do we support one another individually in gospel aims, as we seek to be salt and light in our daily lives?

3. Fellowship is about providing for the needs of others. 2 Corinthians 8:3-4 - Speaking of the Christians in Macedonia Paul writes, 'For they gave according to their means, as I can testify, and beyond their means, of their own accord, begging us earnestly for the favour of taking part (koinonia) in the relief of the saints'. These poor Christians considered themselves to be of one community with the famine-stricken Christians in Jerusalem to such an extent that they considered it a joy and privilege to sacrificially contribute to the relief of their needs. What could motivate such sacrificial giving to people they'd never met, nor were they ever likely to meet? We are told that in this situation 'they gave themselves first to the Lord' (v5) - it was because of the God that they had, taking us back to the first point. Do we take such an interest in the lives of others who belong to our God that we would both find out when they were in need and be willing to sacrificially do something about it? Or does conversation over the cup of tea after church never get that deep?

So there's a bare outline of what real fellowship looks like. How important is it? It's not like it's vital like evangelism or expository preaching, is it? Hebrews 13:16 - 'Do not neglect to do good and to share what you have (koinonia), for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.'