There are two topics under consideration in this subject. First, we need to establish who the ‘people’ are. Then, we must seek to understand what is meant by and involved in ‘fellowship’.
According to the latest statistics provided by Wikipedia, approximately one third of the world’s population would identify as ‘Christian’. A further 25%, and rising, are adherents to Islam, followed by those who claim ‘no religion’ 16%, Hinduism, also 16%, and Buddhism 7%. The balance is made up of traditional and ethnic religions in varying lesser numbers.
The term ‘Christian’ is a very broad expression. Those who profess allegiance to Christianity include Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox churches, together with a variety of persuasions loosely based on some form of biblical interpretation. All would claim the Bible, to some degree, as their foundational guide and handbook, finding in its pages some means of justifying their beliefs and practices, even though other scriptures would clearly contradict their theology.
Although the Bible, preserved through the centuries to our present day, is the book of Christianity, the word ‘Christian’ only occurs three times and each of those in the context of possible ridicule and opposition.1 In those first-century days, the message of the gospel was being preached – a message of personal salvation through faith in the Lord Jesus. The megalithic structure of Christendom which developed over the centuries, with its vast, ornate buildings, iconic statues, sacerdotal liturgy and ceremonials was never envisaged in those early days.
When the Lord Jesus said, in Matthew chapter 16 verse 18, ‘I will build my church’, His reference was not to a solid structure of stone, neither did it anticipate any organization controlled by a hierarchy of ecclesiastical appointees. The church to which the Lord Jesus referred is composed of people, those who have heeded the gospel message, repented of their sin and trusted the One who died and rose again for their salvation. The doctrine concerning the church is explained and developed through the writings of the apostles. In picture language, the church in its entirety is variously spoken of: in its composition, as a body, of which Christ in heaven is the head, Col. 1. 18; in its construction, as a building, of ‘living stones’, not bricks and mortar, 1 Pet. 2. 5; and in its consummation, as a bride, Eph. 5. 25-27.
The New Testament uses a number of expressions to indicate those, and only those, who are part of, and belong to, the church which the Lord Jesus undertook to build. They are called disciples, saints, brethren and sisters, believers, and Christians. Again, the scripture uses appropriate words to identify those who can claim to be part of or members of the church. They are saved, converted, born again. From the day of Pentecost, Acts chapter 2, to this present moment, irrespective of age, social standing or ethnicity, all, both male and female, saved by the grace of God, cleansed by the precious blood of Christ, have a place in that great company, the church, and the assurance of a home in heaven for eternity.
The book of Acts describes the progress and development of the work of the apostles and early believers in spreading the gospel through preaching and teaching. From Jerusalem the message was carried by those saved at Pentecost to the far reaches around the Mediterranean and North Africa. This was followed by the missionary exploits of Paul, his companions and other of the apostles. The result was that companies of Christians were brought together in many geographical locations, identifiable by their faith in the Lord Jesus. A number of these received letters from the apostle Paul and others, teaching and encouraging them; letters which the Spirit of God has preserved to form the larger part of our New Testament.
Over the years there has, sadly, been a fragmentation of Christian witness which has resulted in denominational titles based on national identity, the life and teaching of a particular individual, or association with a specific doctrine or practice. Yet, from those early days, the gospel has continued to spread and, today, worldwide, groups of Christians are found meeting together, rejecting titles which would identify them as a denomination, seeking only to maintain the doctrines and practices as given through the apostles. These autonomous companies are portrayed in scripture as ‘local churches’, each being a microcosm of that great company of believers who make up the church of which the Lord Jesus spoke.
One fundamental feature which marked the early disciples is found in Acts chapter 2 verse 42, which tells us ‘they continued steadfastly in … fellowship’; so, what does this mean?
Fellowship is a word we often use with a measure of understanding, but seldom appreciate as we should. We speak of being ‘in fellowship’ in a certain place; also of ‘having fellowship’ with other people. Some speak of ‘belonging to the fellowship’, and we may refer to the matter of ‘receiving into fellowship’. We need to understand, however, that true fellowship in the context of a New Testament church or assembly is not formed by association, or by identification, or even by participation. The reality of being ‘in fellowship’ essentially involves my whole manner of life. It includes what I am, what I do, what I say, what I think and what I give. Fellowship is not a position I seek to attain, but a spiritual condition that I should enjoy. We have seen that fellowship for those early Christians was not something haphazard, temporary or casual; but they ‘continued steadfastly’. There was earnest perseverance and diligence; it was an integral part of their life.
The word most often translated ‘fellowship’ in our New Testament has to do with partnership or sharing in common with others. On other occasions it is translated ‘communion’, 1 Cor. 10. 16; 2 Cor. 6. 14, or ‘contribution’, Rom. 15. 26. The essential foundation for fellowship is new birth. Without the salvation taught and explained in the scriptures there can be no basis or indeed desire for fellowship. The apostle Paul makes it clear, in his second letter to the Christians at Corinth, that, in the purposes of God, there cannot be any fellowship, communion, concord, part or agreement of believers with unbelievers, 2 Cor. 6. 14-17. This does not mean that the Christian is to take a monastic approach and avoid contact with those of the world; on the contrary, there should be a genuine concern and care which reaches out with the gospel to those not saved. However, fellowship implies single-mindedness, a desire to move in the same direction with similar aspirations, ambitions and hopes; all of which would be diametrically opposed to the wants and ways of the world.
The apostle Paul reminds the Corinthians of the great dignity associated with salvation. Writing to those whom he says are ‘sanctified in Christ Jesus’, he assures them that, because ‘God is faithful’, they have been ‘called unto the fellowship of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord’, 1 Cor. 1. 2, 9. The apostle John later expressed a desire that believers should enjoy fellowship one with another, in the knowledge that ‘our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ’, 1 John 1. 3.
The heading of this article speaks of ‘enjoying’ fellowship and that should be the experience of all the people of God. It is unfortunate, however, that it is not always possible to fulfil that desire even with true, born again believers, in view of the position they adopt regarding certain doctrines or the practices they allow within their own circles. It can, nevertheless, be a worthwhile occupation to engage with them to discuss and enjoy ‘common ground’, while also applying the scriptures to determine the mind of the Lord where opinions differ.
Most New Testament assemblies are made up of individuals from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. There are differences of age, education, culture and spiritual development. On a basic human level, any friendship between many of these individuals would be unlikely, even impossible, let alone the close ties of fellowship. However, that is exactly what the new birth achieves, ‘old things are passed away … all things are become new’, 2 Cor. 5. 17. By salvation we are brought into a family relationship with all the potential to enjoy ‘the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him’, 1 Cor. 2. 9.
The enjoyment of fellowship is within the reach of all who are privileged to be associated with like-minded believers. The starting point is acceptance of the word of God and obedience to it. Regular attendance at all the arranged meetings and a prayerful involvement in all the activities of the local church will go with this.
It is the responsibility of all those associated with the assembly, to ‘keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace’, Eph. 4. 3. For those who have a duty to watch over and ‘feed the flock of God’ there is the day-to- day care and general ordering of the assembly. Furthermore, there is a need for a ministry of encouragement. There should be concern that no member should feel marginalized or undervalued. In order that all might enjoy fellowship, there is a need to nurture every spark of spiritual progress, to encourage every evidence of initiative and well-directed ambition, and to be constantly building for the future wellbeing of the people of God.