Author: Ron Graham

Challenge and Change

Christian Fellowship
—Its basis, its breadth, and the barriers

You may recall a lovely statement by Paul about his fellowship with other Christians and their acceptance of him: "James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, when they recognized the grace which had been given to me, extended to Barnabas and me the right hand of fellowship..." (Galatians 2:9).

We too, as Christians, should follow this apostolic example. We should recognize the grace that God has given to others, and extend to them the "right hand of fellowship".

1 The Basis of Fellowship

Every congregation of Christians ought to pattern itself according to the express will of Christ which he showed when he established the first congregations in his name.

Fellowship’s one criterion. Congregations (and indeed individual Christians) should recognize each other by that one criterion: the doctrine of Jesus Christ. This is the way Paul felt about fellowship. He says to the Philippians, "I thank my God in view of your fellowship in the gospel... In the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you are all fellowshippers of grace with me" (Philippians 1:5-7). Paul and the Philippians recognized in each other a common devotion in "the greater progress of the gospel... conduct worthy of the gospel... striving together for the faith of the gospel" (Philippians 1:12,27).

There is a certain special character and definite identity which comes from the merit of Christ and not from the institutions of men. Christ alone priveleges us to gather in his name as his body which he purchased with his own blood (Acts 20:28). His Spirit alone guides us through his gospel.

If you find someone who loves the gospel and lives the gospel, then you have found someone with whom you have fellowship in Christ. By the gospel standard alone we recognize whom we recognize, and reject whom we reject. That is the only proper basis of fellowship.

2 The Breadth of Fellowship

Like most good things, fellowship is balanced between two extremes...

An obvious question about fellowship is how broad should it be? Should we be so broad as to recognize and fellowship every church that's listed in the telephone directory? Or should we be so narrow as to fellowship only those who are in all points as we are. It is clear that there has to be a balance, and perhaps we could have headed this section of our lesson “The Balance of Fellowship” instead of “The Breadth...”

Fellowship is as broad as the brotherhood. Every Christian is in fellowship "with all who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ —their Lord and ours" (1Corinthians 1:2). If we are not in fellowship with someone who is in fellowship with God and Christ, then something is very wrong.

Fellowship is sharing. Perhaps it will help if we understand that the Greek word koinonia, which is translated “fellowship” may also be translated “sharing”. This takes some of the mystery out of the question of fellowship. We have fellowship with people in whatever we share with them. This helps us to see ourselves as in fellowship with people up to a point and in certain points, whilst at the same time being out of fellowship with them in other points which need to be addressed. A partial fellowship is certainly better than none at all, and is more likely to lead to a fuller fellowship.

Paul also uses other words to express fellowship. One of these is , sumphoneesis (2Corinthians 6:14-16). Fellowship is a “symphony”. When a musical symphony is performed, nobody in the orchestra can play what they please. If every player did that there would be a cacophony, not a symphony. On the other hand, even the best musicians can make mistakes. The conductor will frown upon any mistake, and he will encourage excellence. However, he will not cast out of the orchestra everyone who makes a mistake, otherwise he would soon not have an orchestra.

Fellowship can be strained yet not broken. The story of Apollos is a good example of balance in fellowship. His teaching about baptism was wrong, but rather than having no fellowship with him, Priscilla and Aquila taught him "the way of the Lord more perfectly" which he accepted, and so a fuller fellowship ensued (Acts 18:24-28).

When we read Paul’s letters to the churches, we find him pointing out error and unfaithfulness. He writes to the Galatians, "I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting... Christ for a different gospel... O foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you" (Galatians 1:6, 3:1). Jesus, likewise, in his messages to the seven churches of Asia says to the Ephesians, "You have left your first love. Therefore remember from where you have fallen, and repent" (Revelation 2:4-5). Yet neither Paul nor Jesus were “out of fellowship” with these churches. Although fellowship was under strain, it was not yet broken off. Neither Jesus nor Paul saw their fellowship with these churches as condoning or participating in the errors these churches were committing.

3 The Barriers to Fellowship

I suppose we could list several things that hinder fellowship. Some of them are obvious, such as “all those little rabbits in the fields of corn”, namely envy, jealousy, malice, and pride. Rather than talk about those, there are two barriers of a different kind that I will mention.

The first barrier is issue mongering. Paul mentions "questions that cause strife" at least four times (1Timothy 1:4, 1Timothy 6:4, 2Timothy 2:23, Titus 3:9-10). Paul is not talking here about reasonable discussion and debate. It is good that people get together to apply their minds to the scriptures in order to reach agreement. That is a form of fellowship in itself, and promotes fuller fellowship. Paul tells Christians to "all agree and have no divisions among you, but be made complete in the same mind and in the same judgment" (1Corinthians 1:10). To achieve that, we are certainly going to need to talk to each other about our differences and try to resolve them. Issue mongering works in the opposite direction. It breaks up fellowship, and causes schisms.

The second barrier is tradition mongering. Jesus condemned the religious traditions of his time which contradicted the word of God. He was opposed to those who were "teaching as their doctrines the precepts of men" (Matthew 15:1-9). When we look at what is hindering fellowship in a certain instance, we often find it to be simply an unwillingness to give up teachings and practices that have little or no support in the scripture but are human additions and traditions.