Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Grounding our Experience of Fellowship in Objective Reality

I wonder what comes into your mind when you hear the word "fellowship." Some may think of friends. Others think of having interesting and inspiring conversations. Others think of sharing a meal or having a snack. Still others think of the time of a church service or Bible study where the teaching is officially over and everyone gets to just "hang out."

It's funny how certain words -- Biblical words -- come to be co-opted and used by our own circles of the Evangelical subculture. It's also kind of scary. We can be using the exact same language as the Bible, and thus suppose we are being Biblical, and yet mean something entirely different than the Bible means by it. We have refused to read such words in their Biblical contexts, and instead have ripped them from their contexts and then invest and infuse them with our own meanings. (For an example of how we've done that with the word 'love,' click here.)

The Lord Jesus recently blessed me with a wonderful opportunity to regularly teach and shepherd a terrific group of saints in a Bible study setting as a ministry of Grace Church. As I thought and prayed about what I'd wanted to teach on to begin my time with them, my heart was inclined to do something on fellowship. A home Bible study -- whether at a church with 70 members or 7,000 -- is a place where life is lived out together in community, a place where we can spur one another on to love and good deeds (Heb 10:24-25), and to encourage one another as long as it is called "Today," so that none will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Heb 3:12).

And so I looked up the instances of the word koinonia in the New Testament. And I found that in an overwhelming number of instances, koinonia has very little to do with what mainstream American Christians call fellowship. Here's a breakdown of its use in the New Testament:

Fellowship with Each Other
  • Acts 2:42 – They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.
  • 1 John 1:3, 7 – …what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. … but if we walk in the Light as He Himself is in the Light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin.
Contributing Resources
  • Romans 15:26 – For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make a contribution for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem.
  • 2 Corinthians 8:4 – …begging us with much urging for the favor of participation in the support of the saints…
  • 2 Corinthians 9:13 Because of the proof given by this ministry, they will glorify God for your obedience to your confession of the gospel of Christ and for the liberality of your contribution to them and to all…
  • Hebrews 13:16 – And do not neglect doing good and sharing, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.
Fellowship with The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit
  • 1 Corinthians 1:9 – God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.
  • 1 Corinthians 10:16 – Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?
  • 1 John 1:3, 6 – …what we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ. … If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth.
  • 2 Corinthians 13:14 – The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all.
  • Philippians 2:1 – Therefore if there is any encouragement in Christ, if there is any consolation of love, if there is any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion…
Participation and Partnership
  • 2 Corinthians 6:14 Do not be bound together with unbelievers; for what partnership have righteousness and lawlessness, or what fellowship has light with darkness?
  • Galatians 2:9 – …and recognizing the grace that had been given to me, James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, so that we might go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.
  • Philippians 1:5 – in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now.
  • Philemon 1:6 – and I pray that the fellowship of your faith may become effective through the knowledge of every good thing which is in you for Christ’s sake.
  • Philippians 3:10 – that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings, being conformed to His death.

Objective Reality

What I come away with as I read these uses of koinonia is the notion that fellowship is an objective reality. As noted above, it is an objective state of relationship with each of the Members of the Trinity. It is a sharing in the Good News of the Gospel (Phil 1:5), in faith in Christ (Phm 1:6), and even in sufferings (Phil 3:10). One is said to have fellowship in something when one gives his money and resources (Rom 15:24; 2Cor 8:6; 9:13; Heb 13:16). And even the fellowship that we have with each other is spoken of as an objective reality based upon the work of God in Christ, and not merely a subjective enjoyment of one another (1Jn 1:3, 7).

And even where the word koinonia is not used to describe this concept based on the objective work of Christ, the reality of it is apparent elsewhere in the Scriptures. In Romans 6, Paul speaks about our baptism into Christ (i.e., our salvation) in terms of union, or fellowship, with Him.
  • Romans 6:3-7 - Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; for he who has died is freed from sin.
Then in 1 Corinthians 12, he speaks of this same baptism in terms of our union with Christ's body. As we are united to the Head, we are also united to all those who are united to the Head.
  • 1 Corinthians 12:12-14 - For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many.
And so, Biblically speaking, our fellowship is an objective reality that was accomplished by the atoning work of Christ.

Consider what James Montgomery Boice says about contemporary vs. Biblical concepts of fellowship (from his commentary on Philippians, p. 31):

“The word fellowship has been so watered down in contemporary speech that it conveys only a faint suggestion of what it meant in earlier times. When we speak of fellowship today, we generally mean no more than comradeship, the sharing of good times. But fellowship originally meant much more than a sharing of something, like the fellowship of bank robbers dividing their loot. It meant a sharing in something, participating in something greater than the people involved and more lasting than the activity of any given moment. When the Bible uses the word, it means being caught up into a communion created by God. […]

“This is the way the Bible regards fellowship, and it was this for which Paul was so thankful in the case of the young church at
Philippi [1:5]. They may have had things in common. But Paul is not speaking of these. He is thankful for their share in the gospel of God. They had been taken up into a divine fellowship. They were united, not upon a social level, but by their commitment to the truths of the gospel.”

So this idea we have of fellowship as being the time in the worship service or Bible study where we all talk and have food is a misunderstanding of what the Bible says fellowship is. Of course it involves our interaction, conversation, and enjoyment of one another. But all of that – let's call it – subjective stuff is rooted in something objective: the fellowship we have with the Father and with each other by virtue of the saving work of Christ on the cross (Rom 6:3-7; 1Cor

And one thing that can make our subjective experience of fellowship with each other seem awkward, or forced, is forgetting that our fellowship is grounded in this objective reality. We base our conversations and interactions with each other more on superficial things than on the fellowship we have as beneficiaries of the Gospel and as children of God. We base our "fellowship" with each other on shared interests, mutual hobbies, common experiences, being in similar "life stages," and so on, and so we exclude those who don't fit that mold – even though we may not intend to or even know that we're doing it.

Improving our Fellowship by Improving our Conversation

So what can we do to remedy this problem? How can we better ground our subjective fellowship in the reality of our objective fellowship?

Well, the primary way I believe we fail in this is in our conversation – the things we talk to each other about. And so I think that's the place to start improving. The big take-away application point from all of this talk about subjective and objective fellowship is that we must improve our everyday, relaxed, natural conversation, especially with other believers. We devote so much time to talking to each other about our families, our jobs, sports events, movies we’ve seen, TV shows we watch, aspirations we have and so on. And these are good things. But the things of Christ, spiritual things, the things of the Scriptures are so much more worthy of our attention and conversation than those other things. And comparatively, they often don't occupy enough of our interaction with each other.

In Deuteronomy 6, just after God gives
Israel the Greatest Commandment to love Him with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength, the very next thing He says is, “These words, which I am commanding you today, shall be on your heart. You shall teach them diligently to your sons and shall talk of them when you sit in your house and when you walk by the way and when you lie down and when you rise up. You shall bind them as a sign on your hand and they shall be as frontals on your forehead. You shall write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates” (Dt 6:6-9).

He commands them to be talking about His Word all the time. I think that it's significant that this command comes directly after the Greatest Commandment in all the Law (Mt 22:36-38). I take that to mean that there is no surer way to love God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength, than to be constantly meditating and musing over and speaking about His truth. And you’ll remember that keeping the first commandment is how you will keep the second greatest commandment (cf. 1Jn 5:2), which is: to love your neighbor as yourself.

Love for each other – the cornerstone of our fellowship – is based on our love for God. And our love for God is greatly affected by how great a place His Word and His truth occupies in our hearts and in our mouths.

So, after a sermon in church or a Bible lesson at a mid-week Bible study,
don’t just immediately start talking about the weather. Talk with each other about the sermon or the lesson. Talk about the main Scripture text in the message, about significant things that stood out to you. Talk about how you were affected by God's Word.

Let the subjective experience of your fellowship with each other be rooted in the real, objective basis for that fellowship: the fellowship that we have as fellow-partakers of the grace of Christ.

Therefore, laying aside falsehood,
speak truth each one of you with his neighbor,
for we are members of one another.

- Ephesians 4:25 -

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