"They Continued in... Fellowship"

“They Continued in… Fellowship”

By Paul R. Blake

            Fellowship is a word that has been often ill-used by brethren over the years, especially of late. It is often given either too broad or too narrow a definition, or it is occasionally used to improperly communicate a different word altogether. For example, advocates of the social gospel use the term fellowship to describe social occasions like potlucks and ballgames. We know that they mean socializing, not scriptural fellowship. In like manner, brethren will occasionally use the word fellowship in place of brotherhood, company, association, friendship, relationship, et cetera. These usages do not always reflect the Bible use of the word fellowship. Scriptural fellowship describes the state or condition of being a fellow, having salvation and spiritual service in common with one another before God.

            What does fellowship mean? It is used 17 times in the Bible, 15 times in the New Testament alone. Its first New Testament usage is in Acts 2:42 - “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers.” It is defined as “the condition or relationship of being a fellow, communion of interest” (Webster’s Dictionary). It comes from the word “koinonia,” meaning “fellowship, association, community, joint participation, sharing in common;  a benefaction jointly contributed, communion, communication, contribution” (Strongs). It is translated 12 times as fellowship meaning the same as communion; the other 3 as: 1) “partnership” (2Cor. 6:14) 2) “to be a joint partaker” (Eph. 5:11), and 3) “to become a partaker with” (1Cor. 10:20). Practically speaking, it is giving a share, receiving a share, or sharing.

            Our understanding of fellowship must be determined by the use of the phrase: “apostle's teaching.” The apostle's doctrine is of a spiritual nature; therefore, our fellowship in it must be of a spiritual nature as well. We are not talking about food; that would be the realm of benevolence. We are not talking about social events; that would be the realm of hospitality (1Cor. 11:22).

            In what and with whom can Christians have fellowship? 1) With God (1John 1:3); our bond of sharing is in His offer of salvation and our response of obedience; we share this in common with Him. 2) With Christ (Rom. 8:16-18); we share in His sufferings and will share in His inheritance. 3) With the Holy Spirit (Phil. 2:1); we share what the Spirit revealed when we partake of the word, and the Spirit shares in our petitions to God (Rom. 8:26-27). 4) With fellow Christians who are faithful (1John 1:6-7). 5) With needy saints (2Cor. 8:4). 6) With Gospel preachers (Phil. 1:5). 7) With all human beings; we share the human predicament which means we all have sinned, and we all will die. All Christians were sinners at one time (1Cor. 6:11), but someone shared the gospel with us; in turn we should share the gospel with others.

            What Christians cannot have fellowship with: 1) with unrighteousness nor participate in the sins of others (2Cor. 6:14; Rom. 1:32; 1Cor. 5:1-2, 7-9), 2) with devils (1Cor. 10:20), 3) with the unfruitful works of darkness (Eph. 5:11). We cannot participate in doctrinal error. The innovations to the church over the years are not just new ideas, they're Satan's ideas. Something new is something that is not a part of the doctrine Christ gave His apostles to teach (2John 9-11).

            It is clear that fellowship: 1) has truth as its foundation; it is based on a common understanding and practice of what is written (1Cor. 1:10; Eph. 3:2-4). And 2), is centered around things that are scriptural and spiritual in nature. Biblical fellowship is not social associations or physical relationships, which, while they can impact ones salvation, are still distinct from spiritual relationships (2Cor. 6:14-17; 1Cor. 5:9-11).

            However, we must be clear about the fact that while fellowship is built on our common salvation, it is also regulated by other factors:

            1) Love. Peter instructed disciples to “love the brotherhood” (1Peter 2:17). We are part of the brotherhood of Christ by virtue of the fact that we have obeyed the gospel and walk in truth. But our relationship with one another in this brotherhood is guided by the principles of brotherly love.

            2) Righteous Judgment. Christians must exercise their judgment in matters that impact fellowship with others (John 7:24). For example: Love will motivate one to restore the erring (Gal. 6:1; James 5:19-20), and to “warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all” (1Thes. 5:14). One must take these instructions very seriously, including Paul’s inspired exhortation to be patient with all. He will have to exercise righteous judgment in order to properly govern these processes.

            How one practices love and righteous judgment in the matter of determining the boundaries of fellowship with erring brethren will be between himself and God. It is silly to suggest that all differences between will be disposed in the same way and time. Restoring erring brethren is a work that involves variables. Though the standard is objective (the faith) and the criteria of judgment are objective (the words and actions of the hearer), the teachers have different levels of knowledge and ability, and the hearers have different rates of absorption and growth. As brother Waldron has written:

            “What will work is to study together what the scriptures teach, to be patient and forbearing, and to continue association where circumstances will at all permit. Sometimes people appear to be anxious to go ahead and get a division underway. People who love God and who love the truth are also supposed to love the brethren (1John 4:20-21). Let us love one another, study together to come to a genuine understanding of God’s will and let us be honest with ourselves and others…” (Bob Waldron, “Marriage, Divorce, and Fellowship,” Is It Lawful, p 441).

            “…Two diverging mindsets were illustrated by the writings of Mike Willis in Guardian of Truth and Ed Harrell in Christianity Magazine. For Willis, fellowship involved a simple principle: ‘In matters of sin, fellowship must not be extended… in matters of authorized liberties, we must receive one another.’ … Ed Harrell’s view of the restoration was more historical and less tidy. …acknowledged that the movement had always tolerated a degree of diversity among those who judged one another honorable seekers of truth. Ed Harrell … sought rational limits to that diversity, arguing that the bounds of fellowship were limited by a number of factors, including factiousness, clear and open immorality, a good conscience, and judgments about the clarity of New Testament instruction… Fellowship decisions were sometimes informed by my estimation of the honesty and sincerity of a brother.” (Ed Harrell, The Churches of Christ in the 20th Century, pages 361-363)

            Fellowship decisions will be made by the individual Christian and by local congregations based on the clear distinction in the scriptures between matters of doctrine and matters of liberty, based on the individual or local congregation’s understanding and ability to teach, and based on their individual judgments about a brother or local church’s evident love for truth, honesty, sincerity, and willingness to learn and eagerness to repent.

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