Christians are repeatedly encouraged to fellowship with one another. The call to fellowship is the most common admonitions that we hear regarding church life and function, but it is rarely defined. We are left to assume that fellowship means to merely spend time with other Christians. This means going out to lunch after a Sunday service or watching movies together. However, I want to challenge that loosely defined premonition and set out to define what fellowship actually means.
At its root, fellowship means to build relationship, to spend time with those in common belief systems. I submit, however, that for the term Christian Fellowship, God has far more in mind than a Sunday brunch or a super bowl party (both of which are usually called fellowship). The Bible does not have any specific verses about fellowship as regarding the definition, but the practice is widely observed in the pages of the New Testament. I believe, however, that the initial concepts have their root in the Old Testament and the foundation of Israel as a nation. In Deuteronomy 16, we read about several feasts that were all instituted as days of fellowship and of worship. God was the central focus and these feasts all had sacrificial elements to them. Passover was even to be shared with others if a family was too small to consume the meal alone. The festivals and days off were staggering and people no doubt socialized, but God was clearly the main focus on these various feasts.
Fellowship then appears about a dozen times in the New Testament, a third of the statements being made by the apostle John. John says 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 (1 John 1:3). So we know that fellowship is with God and His son before it is with other people. Ultimate fellowship and growth in Christ is a personal walk, your own private time. Beyond that, a few verses later we hear that fellowship can define our Christian walk: If we say that we have fellowship with Him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth; 7 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 (1 John 1:6-7). So John also defines in part of fellowship a walking with the light of God, the encouragement to live righteously. This is not too surprising since Jesus also says that love for one another is the mark of the believer to the outside observer (John 13:34-35).
Paul includes fellowship in a list of traits defining the imitation of Christ:
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, make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; 4 do not merely look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Philippians 2:1-4).
Paul describes one mind, one body, one spirit and that of Christ and what He did for us. The fellowship he references is fellowship of the spirit, which is also the context in most instances of the word found in the New Testament. Rarely, however, is fellowship defined in our relationship with God. In the modern church fellowship clearly means spending time with one another. The key verse given to Christians as a call to fellowship is found in Acts 2:42 – They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Taken into account from above that we are in fellowship first with God and His son, our fellowship in Christ is a fellowship that transcends this world into a much more heavenly realm. We are called and admonished many times in Scripture to seek righteousness and obedience. The true purpose of our fellowship should be to encourage one another in that righteousness and obedience. Paul addresses the importance of righteousness in Romans 12:
Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality (Romans 12:9-13).
We need to be seeking God, but the author of Hebrews even places it as a responsibility to others to encourage us (Hebrews 3:12-13). Later in the book we are challenged to consider how to stimulate each other to love for God and to do good deeds in His name (Hebrews 10:23-25).
So in summary, fellowship is not merely gathering with believers after church or over fast food to discuss life. That can and does have merit, but our Christian culture has slipped so far that I have attended several ‘fellowship’ meals, studies, gatherings and not heard one bit of Christian encouragement, have not had one discussion about the Word, nor have I left with anything more than a night out on the town eating more and spending more than I should have. Fellowship is far more than that. It is spending time with believers discussing life as it pertains to our walk with God. We can certainly include visiting in fellowship, but make sure that all fellowship does have a strong component of challenging one another in our Christian walk.
In order to consider how we may fellowship with each other, I wrote down these thoughts to consider:
Fellowship cannot be forced or prescribed.
This is one of the more common issues in the church as we try to force people into groups to ‘do life together’. We will get along with some people in our life better than others and we need our relationships build out of natural events. The more planning we do, I believe that the more we will fail. Proverbs 19:21 says many plans are in a man’s heart, but the counsel of the Lord will stand. Faith is walking by faith, not by sight, so seek out to have fellowship, but do not force producing it.
Be careful with whom you choose to fellowship.
The last thing you ever want to do is tell your challenges to a person that will broadcast those issues to others or look down on you. We all struggle with problems, and we need Christian accountability. Seek it, but be cautious when you do. If a person has a reputation as a busybody, they will not keep your secrets.
Test new relationships before going in too deep.
It is very good to have a variety of friends, even those of different faiths or viewpoints. Ultimately, the deepest relationships we should have are with Christians, and those should fall under a few possible categories: a Paul, a Timothy, or a Barnabas. A Paul is a person that you can directly learn from, who is more advanced in their faith. A Timothy is someone that you are helping in their faith, and a Barnabas is like Paul’s companion, a person that we are doing ministry with. Sometimes the Barnabas role gets blended with one of the other two and that is normal. A trial period may give you a great friend, a new mentor, a person that you can teach, or just a good and solid Christian friend to talk to.
Call it how it is or change it.
It drives me crazy when I go to a Bible study to find that it is really a book study. I will gladly do both and they each have their place in our learning about God. Fellowship is the same way. It is just fine to have a social hour, but make sure you are not calling it fellowship if there is not a degree of faith challenging with one another. If the gathering merely intends to discus sports, television, a movie, or just life in general, please stop calling it fellowship. If you are in regular attendance at such a group, it may be up to you to drive the fellowship and introduce conversations about God, the Bible, or how each person’s Christian walk is doing.
I hope this helps, and my idea here is to challenge the church into a deeper walk with God. So many people are focused so much on the rest of their life to the exclusion of God. That is a trend that we need to fix.