What do we mean by Fellowship?

  • What do we mean by ‘fellowship’?
  • How many fellowships are there?
  • What are the moral aspects to fellowship?
  • Where does the breaking of bread fit in?
  • How does fellowship relate to ‘withdrawing from iniquity’
  • What does it mean to be ‘in fellowship’ or ‘out of fellowship’?

These are questions which concern many Christians and have been the cause of much controversy.  This short note makes some fundamental observations backed by scripture.  It leaves other questions unanswered and I invite the reader to give me any thoughts he or she has on this important subject.

 

What do we mean by ‘fellowship’

The dictionary gives the word as meaning

  1. friendly association, especially with people who share one’s interests:
  2. a group of people meeting to pursue a shared interest or aim.
  3. a guild or corporation
  4. the status of a fellow of a college or society

None of these definitions relate to what we mean by ‘fellowship’ in a Christian sense.

 

The Greek Words

Two words are used – one normally a noun and the other a verb.  See below[i] for the references to ‘fellowship’ in scripture.

So the only reference to fellowship with persons is in 1 John 1.   Two references to God are as having fellowship with the Holy Spirit and one to the fellowship of God’s Son.  These have been highlighted in yellow.  All of the other references to κοινωνίᾳ (koinōnia)/Strong (2842),  highlighted in green, have a moral base – we have fellowship with a thing rather than a person

 

The Fellowship of God’s Son

It is very clear from scripture that the only true fellowship to which the Christian belongs is the fellowship of God’s Son ‘God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Cor 1:9)’.   Being a member of this fellowship should preclude the believer being in any other formal fellowship.  As we saw above ‘Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?’ (2 Cor 6:14).

I am linked in a wonderful fellowship with every believer in the Lord Jesus who is indwelt by the Holy Spirit.  It is a partnership: we share things in common.  ‘Our commonwealth has its existence in [the] heavens, from which also we await the Lord Jesus Christ [as] Saviour’ (Phil 3:20 Darby).  This affects all our relationships here.

As we are in that fellowship we have fellowship with one another – but that must be as walking in the light.  The light must be the light of the revelation of God in Christ[ii]:  it is certainly not a humanly written creed.

Of course, there are limitations to enjoying fellowship.  None of us has contact with more than a tiny percentage of the Lord’s people on earth.  We are scattered geographically, and alas, we are scattered ecclesiastically.

 

Other Christian Fellowships

Individual churches and whole denominations often describe themselves as fellowships, e.g. Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches.  On the internet, somebody had listed 150 churches in his (US) city.  Most of them had them had the word ‘church’ in their name, eight had the word ‘fellowship’ in it e.g. Christ Centered Fellowship or Covenant Fellowship.

Whilst people forming these assemblies or groups of assemblies are very sincere, I would suggest that they have something less than that which our Lord has in mind for us.  It is sectarian.  Frederick Raven used to speak of a ‘little pattern church’ – persons there would talk about ‘our fellowship’ as if that was a better fellowship than another Christian fellowship.  He had a real problem with that[iii]!

 

What are the moral aspects to fellowship?

We have fellowship with His sufferings, with light, or exercising it in giving or in ministry.  We do not have fellowship with evil deeds or darkness.  We may break bread together, but if you see that I am going on with evil, you cannot have fellowship with me.  Of course, if I continue with that, there will come a time when those Christians I meet with will deem that I cannot have fellowship with them, and that would mean that they judge me to be unfit for Christian fellowship anywhere, not just that there is a difference of opinion or discouragement.  Paul writes ‘But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.’ (1 Cor 5:11).

 

Where does the breaking of bread fit in?

The highest point in a Christian church’s calendar is the breaking of bread.  In some churches this might be called ‘holy communion’; in the Catholic and Anglo-Catholic churches, it is called the ‘mass’.  Others might refer to it as the ‘worship service’.  There is a lot of unscriptural dogma attached to this (e.g. transubstantiation), but the basic point is that participation is limited to members of the church.  Sometimes visitors will be invited to share in it.

The Lord asked us to do something simple.  ‘This do in rememberance of me’ (Luke 22:19).  Paul gave it a public view:  ‘For as often as ye eat this bread, and drink this cup, ye do shew the Lord’s death till he come’ (1 Cor 11:26).  Whatever it is, it is responding to the Lord’s request to remember Him in the world in which He was rejected.

What is important is that nowhere in scripture is the breaking of bread used to define the membership of a Christian group.  We break bread in the light of the one body.  A brother wrote to me recently saying ‘the breaking of bread becomes the badge of fellowship, and everything flows from that, whereas, in truth, it is the other way round – I break bread with brethren with whom I am happy to be in fellowship as the highest expression of fellowship, and as an exclusive commitment to those with whom I am in fellowship.’  I couldn’t have put it better.

 

How does Fellowship relate to ‘Withdrawing from Iniquity’ (2 Tim 2:19)

In days of brokenness in Christendom, any individual seeking to be faithful to the Lord is called upon to depart from iniquity.  The word ἀδικία (adikia) Strong 93 is generally translated ‘unrighteousness’.  But the positive side of this is seen in the way in which the believer is able to find those he or she can walk with.  Charles Coates said that if Christian fellowship is to be taken up in a divine way in the present condition of things it can only be as we ‘pursue righteousness, faith, love, peace, with those that call upon the Lord out of a pure heart’ (2 Tim 2:22)[iv].

How we define iniquity is the subject for another paper.

When it comes to ‘withdrawing from’ persons, it relates to behaviour.  ‘Now we enjoin you, brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye withdraw from every brother walking disorderly and not according to the instruction which he received from us’ (2 Thess 3:6 Darby).  That goes on to ‘do not keep company with him, that he may be ashamed of himself; and do not esteem him as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother (v.14-15).  This is how we treat a person with whom we are walking.  A distance comes in so that the person can reflect on his behaviour and repent.

 

What does it mean to be ‘in fellowship’ or ‘out of fellowship’?

These expressions are used freely and this is where I think we need to look into what is meant.  I have been looking at the websites of several evangelical Christian churches and the word is used freely.  What strikes me is that my perceptions have been tainted with exposure to the line of thinking on these sites.  Having been delivered nearly 50 years ago from the sect which has now become known as the PBCC, looking at their site I can see this very clearly.  But they are by no means unique – in fact the norm.  Sectarian thought pervades.  Shortly before my 101-year-old mother was taken, she was put beside another Christian lady in the home.  When I spoke to the latter I said ‘I hear you are a lover of the Lord Jesus’.  Her reply ‘I’m a Methodist’ – end of conversation.  Sad.

But then we have to be selective.  Somebody comes to our gathering (I wish it was more frequent!).  As a fellow believer, immediately there is fellowship.  Indeed one could say they were ‘in fellowship’.  Now that person says, ‘I would like to break bread with you’.  We then have to ask questions as to his or her beliefs, conduct and associations – have they ‘washed their robes’.  Are they linking us in partnership with something which is incompatible with Christian fellowship?

Similarly, if a person espouses heretical doctrine (See Titus 3:10) or becomes morally unfit (see 1 Cor 5:11), then the company has to exercise discipline.  That person, if unrepentant, must be excluded from fellowship.  He is then unfit for Christian fellowship anywhere – ‘out of fellowship’.   If that person then went to the Baptists for example, and they were to ask our company as to why we parted company with him, then they ought not to receive him based on what we said.  Fellowship, therefore, transcends sectarian boundaries.

A serious question is the extent to which, being ‘in’ or ‘out of’ fellowship becomes sectarian.  For example, if a young person becomes discouraged, and links on with a charismatic gathering where things are more exciting, we may no longer be able to break bread with that person.  However, he is not a heretic or a morally corrupt person.  He remains a believer, but we are unable to support his associations.  If we were to deem him ‘out of Christian fellowship’, would we be going beyond what the Lord would support?   Would we be on sectarian ground?  Would we be losing sight of the ‘one body’?

 

Conclusion

These thoughts have been presented after both prayer and study of the scriptures and helpful ministry.  I am not presenting them as statements of dogma – more to stimulate exercise in others and to have a dialogue on this important subject.

A brother wrote to me recently in which he lamented the way we go to extremes one way or the other. One was to ritualism; the other to rationalism.  Formality and legalism are Pharisaical, and we knew what the Lord said about that. On the other hand, rationalism is allowing my own carnal thoughts to come to conclusions about spiritual things. This could be worse.

The Holy Spirit is the One who guides us into all the truth.

Here is a summary in tabular form:

 

Outlook towards:  Legality * Ritualism * Sectarianism

In Fellowship

  • Those who are ‘in fellowship’ are limited to those who are voluntary members of the Christian group
  • The tendency is towards ‘exclusivism’ – having a group ‘in fellowship’ however small (two or three – (Matt 18:20)
  • Those persons may be morally unfit, but if they have not been excommunicated they are fully ‘in fellowship’
  • They break bread and mix only with those who are in that group
  • They do not attend any service or meeting with other Christian groups
  • Breaking bread and being in fellowship are the same
  • They have little or nothing to do with those who have left it, voluntarily or involuntarily, justly or unjustly, even if naturally related.
  • Whilst they acknowledge that all believers are in the fellowship of God’s Son, the only practical Christian fellowship is with those of the particular company
  • Fellowship is positional – not moral

Out of Fellowship

  • Any person, who is not a member of the Christian group is ‘out of fellowship’
  • Any person who has been excommunicated (or ‘withdrawn from’) is ‘out of fellowship’ and ‘under assembly discipline’, irrespective of the circumstances
  • Withdrawing from iniquity is collective, and as persons are ‘withdrawn from’ they are deemed to be ‘out of fellowship;
  • Such persons are treated as ‘as one of the nations and a tax-gatherer’ (Matt 18:17 Darby).  Social relationships are frowned on or even forbidden.
  • One individual may regard another as ‘out of fellowship’, based on associations, even if not formally excommunicated.

Outlook towards: Liberalism * Rationalism * Independence

In Fellowship

  • All members of the body of Christ, except for those morally unfit (1 Cor 5:11) and heretics (Titus 3:10) are ‘in fellowship’
  • The tendency is towards ‘inclusivism’ – that as many can enjoy Christian fellowship and be together as possible
  • The enjoyment of fellowship may be constrained by moral considerations
  • Breaking bread and fellowship are not the same.  Normally they go together, breaking bread being an expression of fellowship.
  • Fellowship can be enjoyed in measure with all believers, particularly those who love the truth and are doctrinally sound.  One cannot break bread with all though. 
  • Some might break bread with a stranger who confessed the Lord without further enquiry (The ‘open table’).
  • Many will attend meetings of other Christian groups
  • There is no real collective position due to the public breakdown and ruin of the church.
  • Withdrawal from iniquity is individual; in departing from it, persons are able to enjoy fellowship with others who have done the same and call on the Lord out of a pure heart (2 Tim 2:22)
  • Fellowship is moral, not positional

Out of Fellowship

  • The only Christians who are truly ‘out of fellowship are those morally unfit (1 Cor 5:11) and heretics (Titus 3:10)
  • A company may have to acknowledge that a person is not walking with them, having linked on with a sect, or caught in a fault (see Gal 6:1), but these are not to be regarded as ‘out of fellowship’ or ‘under assembly discipline’

 

My position is with neither of the extremes above.  For example, I feel I need to be selective as to breaking bread.   If the Lord has given me two or three to break bread with, then I can be thankful.  In the early church they broke bread in houses (see Acts 2:46).   Big communion services were not envisaged.

I welcome your prayerful thoughts.

 

 

With greetings in our Lord

Daniel Roberts (aka Sosthenes)

http://www.adayofsmallthings.com/

 

 

Appendix – A few more Notes from Ministry

 

Below are a few helpful quotations from ministry relating to the above.  Our brother ‘Agabus’ put together a far better series of quotations in a booklet entitled ‘Universal Fellowship and the Local Assembly’.  Please e-mail me sosthenes@adayofsmallthings.com for a copy.

 

We recognise the authority of our Lord — and, further, any meeting is justified in protecting itself by declining to receive into its fellowship a person coming from a meeting lying under strong suspicion of sheltering evil — but one meeting has no sort of authority to pronounce an authoritative judgment on another meeting — and call on others to obey — for the Lord is equally in both meetings, and it is an invasion of His rights (F E Raven letters vol 20 p 293)

 

The fellowship of the Lord’s table, that side of it, is the fellowship of His death. What binds Christians together in fellowship is the common confession as Lord of “his Son Jesus Christ”. It is not fellowship with Him, but of Him. That bond subsists down here, and we are all equally responsible to maintain it according to God. In John’s epistle we have, in chapter 1: 3, “Truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ”; but the “our” there no doubt refers to the apostles. Further on, when it says, “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another”, we have Christian fellowship in the sphere where all Christians walk.

Ques. Were not the saints at Corinth all wrong as to fellowship?

F.E.R. No doubt things were in many ways in a bad state. But there could be no other bond of fellowship down here. It has a voice to all the world; because there is not a single person on all the earth but ought to confess Christ as Lord — for “he is Lord of all”.

Ques. Are all Christians in this fellowship?

F.E.R. They are all called to it. There is not and could not be any other bond of fellowship but that of Christ as Lord, and His death.

In stating it here the apostle appeals to “all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord”. It is the broad ground of Christian fellowship.  (F E Raven Vol 7 p 402 – Christian Fellowship)

 

The Spirit of God would teach us in 1 Corinthians 10 that the communion or fellowship which is involved in breaking bread is universal in character. To break bread locally without regard to the universal fellowship would be like eating the hallowed things in our own gates instead of in the place where Jehovah’s Name is set. We must come spiritually to a “place” which speaks of the unity of all Israel in fellowship and in approach to God. As to the actual coming together to eat the Lord’s supper it is in “every place” where His Name is called upon, but fellowship and approach to God are universal in character. While our assembly relations are taken up locally, it is important to see that they are taken up in the light of what is universal, so that in taking them up we embrace, in mind and affection, all saints. Viewing the saints according to what is of God would lead to our being exclusive of every principle or practice that is contrary to the universal truth of God’s assembly. We should neither tolerate sectarianism nor independency. We are reconciled to God “in one body”; therefore assembly approach to God must be in the recognition of this. There could be no stronger expression of unity than “one body” formed by “one Spirit”, and that the Holy Spirit of God. (C A Coates vol 5 p 147 – An Outline of Deuteronomy)

 

The seriousness of one local company interfering with another local company came up at this point, and we were impressed with the Lord’s jealousy of His rights in each locality, noting the Lord’s separate word to each of the seven assemblies in Revelation 2 and 3, and also, “For where two or three are gathered together unto my name, there am I in the midst of them”, (Matthew 18:20). Flowing out of this we were helped to see that in 1 Corinthians 5 it is not a question of repentance, but of the offender “being such” and “him that has so wrought this”. It was a matter of public wickedness. Here a helpful suggestion was made that, while many matters such as “some fault” (Galatians 6:1) can be ‘mended’ privately, others involve the one, two, three of Matthew 18, while certain cases in which the Lord’s name has been dishonoured must come under assembly discipline . In 1 Corinthians 5, nothing is said about repentance but “Remove the wicked person from amongst yourselves” 1 Corinthians 5:13. – (J Taylor Vol 76 p 469 – Meetigs on Letters to Timothy This reading 1 Tim 2 & 3)

 

 

[i] Most often it is the noun – κοινωνίᾳ (koinōnia) – Strong (2842) defines it as

(a) contributory help, participation,

(b) sharing in, communion,

(c) spiritual fellowship, a fellowship in the spirit.

koinōnía (a feminine noun) – properly, what is shared in common as the basis of fellowship (partnership, community).

Darby notes to Heb 2:14 – Applying to the children – The common equal sharing of the nature.  It is a joint participation in that which belongs to me, or to a known fellowship.

 

I have coloured the quotations as follows

Ref to person – physical

Ref to thing/state – moral

 

Nominative (subject) – κοινωνίᾳ (koinōnia)

Acts 2:42 the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship

1 Corinthians 10:16 not the communion of the blood … not the communion of the body
2 Corinthians 6:14  and what communion hath light with darkness
2 Corinthians 13:14 and the communion of the Holy Ghost
Philippians 1:5  For your fellowship in the gospel
Philippians 2:1  if any fellowship of the Spirit,
Philemon:6 That the communication of thy faith so that the fellowship of the faith

1 John 1:3  truly our fellowship [is] with the Father and the Son
Accusative (object) κοινωνίαν (koinōnian)

Romans 15:26  a certain contribution for the poor saints which are at Jerusalem.
1 Corinthians 1:9  unto the fellowship of his Son
2 Corinthians 8:4 and [take upon us] the fellowship of the ministering to the saints.
Philippians 3:10  and the fellowship of his sufferings
1 John 1:3 also may have fellowship with us:
1 John 1:6  that we have fellowship with him,
1 John 1:7  we have fellowship one with another,
Genitive (possessive) κοινωνίας (koinōnias)

2 Corinthians 9:13  for [your] liberal distribution unto
Galatians 2:9 the right hands of fellowship; that
Hebrews 13:16  and to communicate forget
As a verb we have  συγκοινωνέω sugkoinóneó Strong 4790

 

Note that this is the same above with  συγ/sug – ie ‘with’ 4790 sygkoinōnéō (from 4862 /sýn, “identified with” and 2841 /koinōnéō, “share in”) – properly, sharewith by jointly partaking; to participate with because closely identified with someone (i.e. “deeply sharing with,” note the syn).

 

Philippians 4:14  done, that ye did communicate with my afflication

Revelation 18:4  ye be not partakers of her sins,

Ephesians 5:11  no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness

 

And  κοινωνέωkoinóneó Strong 2841

 

Romans 15:27  the Gentiles have been made partakers of their spiritual things

Philippians 4:15  no church communicated with me as concerning giving and receiving, but ye only.

Hebrews 2:14  as the children are partakers of flesh

1 Timothy 5:22 neither be partaker of other of other men’s sins

2 John 1:11  he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds

1 Peter 4:13  inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings

Galatians 6:6 in the word communicate unto him that teacheth in all good things.

Romans 12:13  Distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality.
[ii] See CA Coates vol 33 p 360

[iii] See F E Raven – meetings in USA – vol 17 p 41

[iv] See CA Coates Vol 4 An Outline of Numbers p320

 

[1] Most often it is the noun – κοινωνίᾳ (koinōnia) – Strong (2842) defines it as

(a) contributory help, participation,

(b) sharing in, communion,

(c) spiritual fellowship, a fellowship in the spirit.

koinōnía (a feminine noun) – properly, what is shared in common as the basis of fellowship (partnership, community).

Darby notes to Heb 2:14 – Applying to the children – The common equal sharing of the nature.  It is a joint participation in that which belongs to me, or to a known fellowship.

 

I have coloured the quotations as follows

Ref to person – physical

Ref to thing/state – moral

 

Nominative (subject) – κοινωνίᾳ (koinōnia)

Acts 2:42 the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship

1 Corinthians 10:16 not the communion of the blood … not the communion of the body
2 Corinthians 6:14  and what communion hath light with darkness
2 Corinthians 13:14 and the communion of the Holy Ghost
Philippians 1:5  For your fellowship in the gospel
Philippians 2:1  if any fellowship of the Spirit,
Philemon:6 That the communication of thy faith so that the fellowship of the faith

1 John 1:3  truly our fellowship [is] with the Father and the Son
Accusative (object) κοινωνίαν (koinōnian)

Romans 15:26  a certain contribution for the poor saints which are at Jerusalem.
1 Corinthians 1:9  unto the fellowship of his Son
2 Corinthians 8:4 and [take upon us] the fellowship of the ministering to the saints.
Philippians 3:10  and the fellowship of his sufferings
1 John 1:3 also may have fellowship with us:
1 John 1:6  that we have fellowship with him,
1 John 1:7  we have fellowship one with another,
Genitive (possessive) κοινωνίας (koinōnias)

2 Corinthians 9:13  for [your] liberal distribution unto
Galatians 2:9 the right hands of fellowship; that
Hebrews 13:16  and to communicate forget
As a verb we have  συγκοινωνέω sugkoinóneó Strong 4790

 

Note that this is the same above with  συγ/sug – ie ‘with’ 4790 sygkoinōnéō (from 4862 /sýn, “identified with” and 2841 /koinōnéō, “share in”) – properly, sharewith by jointly partaking; to participate with because closely identified with someone (i.e. “deeply sharing with,” note the syn).

 

Philippians 4:14  done, that ye did communicate with my afflication

Revelation 18:4  ye be not partakers of her sins,

Ephesians 5:11  no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness

 

And  κοινωνέωkoinóneó Strong 2841

 

Romans 15:27  the Gentiles have been made partakers of their spiritual things

Philippians 4:15  no church communicated with me as concerning giving and receiving, but ye only.

Hebrews 2:14  as the children are partakers of flesh

1 Timothy 5:22 neither be partaker of other of other men’s sins

2 John 1:11  he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds

1 Peter 4:13  inasmuch as ye are partakers of Christ’s sufferings

Galatians 6:6 in the word communicate unto him that teacheth in all good things.

Romans 12:13  Distributing to the necessity of saints; given to hospitality.
[1] See CA Coates vol 33 p 360

[1] See F E Raven – meetings in USA – vol 17 p 41

[1] See CA Coates Vol 4 An Outline of Numbers p320

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