Sunday, October 28, 2007

50 years of the Australian Unity Agreement (15)

What is "fellowship"? (7)

What is it that "just happens" when believers gather together?

So far in this series I think we've seen that the word 'fellowship' is used in the Bible with reference to the way the earliest Christians shared everything: their possessions, homes and food as well as their faith. They lived in community and consequently developed close personal relationships. They genuinely cared for each other and demonstrated their mutual commitment by providing for each others needs. In fact, the word 'fellowship' is a translation of koinonia which literally means "to share". Sharing a meal together, as a kind of re-enactment of the last supper, came to symbolise the community life of the early church, and was at the very heart of their communal life.

These days, however, the word 'fellowship' has taken on a kind of technical meaning in the Christadelphian community to refer to cliques of believers - sub-groups within the Body of Christ which refuse to recognise the legitimacy of others. These divisions are usually the result of differences of opinions on doctrinal or theological matters. So we have the Dawn fellowship, the Old Paths fellowship, the Unamended fellowship, the Amended fellowship, the Central fellowship, the Antipas fellowship, etc, etc. What these 'fellowships' share within their groups is a narrow, restricted and exclusive interpretation of "the one true faith". The differences between the various groups are often so technical that an observer would be pressed to find any differences at all. Even 'insiders' sometimes wonder what it is that makes the other 'fellowships' so different to them and what it is that puts them 'out-of-fellowship'. Despite the enormous common ground between the groups they have separated over differences which seem trifling to others.

I've said a few times that when believers come together fellowship simply happens, and have looked at how this happened in the New Testament churches. The shared meal was called "the Lord's supper" or "the Lord's table", "breaking bread" and the "love feast". It was a central part of first-century Christianity. It was also a meal, not simply the partaking of token or symbolic "emblems", and would have been open to whole families and probably friends and relatives. It reflected Jesus' pattern of using meal tables to welcome people who had previously been excluded from normal communal life because of physical deformities, diseases, their sins, careers or beliefs.

Early on in this series I referred to another way the word 'fellowship' is typically used by Christadelphians. If someone says they had "wonderful fellowship" at a Bible school they would be referring to the quality of friendships which were shared, the conversations and discussions, the happy times spent over meals, and the sense of warmth, acceptance and belonging which made it such a wonderful experience. This is the right way to use the word 'fellowship' and not in the narrow technical sense referring to affiliation with a sub-group, or in the sacramental or eucharistic way with reference to the partaking of bread and wine during a religious service.

So what is it that "just happens" when believers gather together that we call 'fellowship'? When people come together frequently and regularly for meals they share more than food. As they talk together over the meals about their lives, their families, their work, their hobbies and interests, they get to know each other. They discover what is really going on in each others lives. They get to know when life is going well or when they are struggling. They become open, honest and transparent with each other. They reveal their true selves to each other, admitting to their weaknesses so they can find help and encouragement in overcoming them. They share their joys and triumphs, and help and encourage others. They progressively become involved in each others lives, not only for the time they come together for the meal.

A meal is the ideal way to facilitate this relationship-building. On the other hand, structured, formalised religious services provide little opportunity for sharing in this way, if at all.

We should carefully note that it was during a meal with His disciples that our Lord said "do this in remembrance of me".
In my next post I want to look at a question I raised previously:
how can we make fellowship "just happen", or what can we do to facilitate it?

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