What is 'fellowship'? (3)
In previous posts I looked at some of the things that 'fellowship' is not. When we look at how the Bible speaks of fellowship we'll see that some of the common ideas about fellowship are not grounded in the Scriptures.
The Greek word which is sometimes translated 'fellowship' is koinonia. This word is also translated "communion", "communicate", "share" and "participate" in English translations. Koinonia occurs 20 times in the New Testament, and is translated 'fellowship' 12 times in the KJV. In only one of those places is the word used in connection with what we would commonly call "Communion" or "Breaking of Bread" i.e. the religious rite which re-enacts the Last Supper. In most places the key concept behind the word is "sharing", whether it's a meal, money, experiences, or ideas.
One of the key texts which helps us to understand koinonia is 1 John 1:3 - "We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ."
One thing we see immediately from this passage is that John is not using koinonia to refer to Breaking Bread in the sense of a Communion service or a 'Memorial Meeting'. "Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son" is a reference to the intimate relationship which a believer has with God and Jesus. We don't "break bread" with God, but there is a sharing on a very deep and personal level. John says that this personal relationship with God and Jesus is the model and basis for the relationships we have with each other. The fact that as believers we are all individually united to God and His Son is the basis, the only basis, for being united with each other. Our "basis of fellowship" is the union we have as individuals with God and Jesus.
There are two implications of this.
- If as individual believers we don't have a relationship with God and Jesus, then we have no hope of achieving any kind of meaningful fellowship with each other. Too often the driving force in ecclesial 'unity' discussions has been to find a way of defining doctrine on which everyone will agree, when the real focus should always be on doing whatever we need to do to ensure that everyone is experiencing intimacy with God. If we are in fellowship with God and with Jesus then it will automatically follow that we will be in fellowship with each other.
- Any other way of trying to achieve unity between believers is 'carnal' or fleshly. It may produce something which is a form of fellowship and has the appearance of Christian unity, but if it is the result of negotiations, compromises, powerplay, politics or intimidation then it is only a counterfeit fellowship and not the real thing.
Let's use that same example and imagine another scenario. We've looked at the hypothetical situation of someone who took the Bread and Wine but didn't experience any meaningful fellowship. Imagine that on the same Sunday a couple turn up at the meeting who are just visiting - they're actually on holidays (or "on vacation" as our American friends would say) and aren't aware of the local 'fellowship' situation. They arrive early and are greeted at the door by the Recorder who asks what ecclesia they are from. He hasn't heard of this ecclesia, so he enquires about which fellowship it's part of. The visiting couple aren't sure - there is only one ecclesia in their home town and they tend not to get involved in the 'issues' which go on in the big cities. The Recorder tries to make it easy for them, so he hands them a card with a number of doctrinal statements on it and asks them if they agree with it. As they read it they come across some terminology they aren't familiar with, but overall it looks ok. They say they think they agree with it. "You think you agree with it!?" the Recorder says. He decides that to be on the safe side it would be best if they didn't take the bread and wine, but they'd be welcome to stay for the meeting.
Well, it turns out to be a very pleasant meeting for them. They get chatting with some people before the meeting who apparently know some friends of theirs, and they are made to feel very welcome (apart from the little incident at the door). They join in with the worship wholeheartedly and enthusiastically (and after the meeting a couple of people thank them for singing so well and so loudly). They enjoy the exhortation and jot down some notes of things they find helpful. After the meeting they are told that because it's the first Sunday in the month that most people will be staying at the hall for lunch and they'd be welcome to join in. They stay for lunch and participate in the discussions about the exhortation, they chat about their home ecclesia and how they are preaching the Gospel locally, and pick up some ideas as well. It turns out that there are a few connections and some of the brothers and sisters have met some of their friends from back home while travelling or through ecclesial activities of some type. They feel very much part of a worldwide community and have a wonderful time.
After lunch they are invited home to have tea with one family, and another family offers to take them sight-seeing during the week. They decide they'll also come to the Bible Class on Wednesday night.
Did they have fellowship? They couldn't take the bread and wine for whatever reason, but they shared a great deal in common with the believers, participated in their worship, shared a meal or two together, and celebrated their common faith. Remember that you arrived late, left early, and didn't speak to anyone, although you took the bread and wine. So which of you had 'fellowship'?