Constituents Of True Fellowship
"So many false ideas of fellowship are quickly eliminated when we keep these constituents of true fellowship before our minds."
A scriptural subject may be judged as to its relative importance in a variety of ways: (1) If an accurate understanding of the subject is clearly a condition of becoming a Christian and of going to heaven, its importance is very great; (2) If the subject has become highly controversial, so that it is an issue among the people of God, it takes on great significance; (3) If much space is devoted to the subject in the New Testament, it is obvious that the Holy Spirit considers it of great urgency. On the basis of these criteria, fellowship must be a very important subject indeed.
Judging solely by the amount of consideration given to fellowship in the New Testament, it is evident that we need to study this theme a lot more than most Christians do. The English word fellowship occurs 18 times in the New Testament (using the American Standard Version). Except for one instance in which the word fellowship is from the Greek word metoche, it is always translated from various stems of koinos, meaning common. Fellowship is twelve times rendered from koinonia; one time from koinonos; one time from the verb koinoneo; and three times from the prefixed verb sunkoinoneo.
These Greek terms, with the addition of koinonikos are also translated by a number of other English words: communion; communicate; sharer; partaker; contribution; partner; and companion. These are ordinary words which we frequently use in conversation, thus can be readily understood. Their shades of meaning are, however, best seen by noticing what the lexicons have to say.
Thayer gives these uses of koinonia: 1. the share which one has in anything, participation; 2. intercourse, fellowship, intimacy; 3. a benefaction jointly contributed, a collection, a contribution.
Arndt and Gingrich enlarge on the word slightly: 1. Association, communion, fellowship, close relationship; 2. Generosity, fellow-feeling, altruism; 3. Sign of fellowship, proof of brotherly unity, even gift, contribution; 4. Participation, sharing in something.
Moulton and Milligan cite these uses of koinonia in the papyri: "It is worth noting that the substantive, like the verb. . . is used specially of the closest of all human relationships, e.g., . . . marriage contract of time of Augustus... 'belonging in common to' ... 'partnership.' "
J. C. Lambert, in Hasting's Dictionary of the Bible, one volume edition, writes in part: "3. From the first, however, 'communion' undoubtedly had a larger and deeper sense than those technical ones on which we have been dwelling. It was out of that consciousness of a common participation in certain great spiritual blessings that Christians were impelled to manifest their partnership in these specific ways."
Wick Broomall, in Baker's Dictionary of Theology, also furnishes some interesting information: "Both in classical and Biblical usage these terms express joint participation in a person or project and secondarily association or mutuality of spirit." Again, "Fellowship posits as its prerequisite a likeness of nature that transcends external and temporary differences. True fellowship can exist only among true believers." Broomall gives as the signs of fellowship: (1) Mutual love; (2) Bearing another's burdens; (3) Unity of faith. Later on, these expressions of Christian fellowship are named: (1) A student shares in the material needs of his teacher; (2) A church supports its minister; (3) Ministers recognize the cooperation of others in the work of God's kingdom; (4) Churches unitedly help a needy church; (5) Christians spontaneously share their wealth with other Christians; (6) Christians assemble regularly for worship and edification; (7) They pray for one another.
So much, then, for the meaning of the word fellowship. We now should be ready to draw some conclusions.
First, the word is always used in the New Testament to refer to spiritual activities or attitudes. The one exception to this is in Luke 5:10, where koinonos is used of partners in a fishing-boat business. Still there is no real exception, for whenever fellowship is predicated to or of Christians it refers to the spiritual. Absolutely never does fellowship have reference to purely social or recreational activities. When a church, or a group of Christians, gets together for games, coffee, and sandwiches, whatever they may be doing, and whether it is right or wrong for them to do it - it is not fellowship in the New Testament sense of the word.
Second, fellowship always implies mutuality. That is, it is two-sided. I cannot fellowship you if you do not fellowship me. Even in regard to our fellowship with God this is true. He gives us His truth, and we obey it. We render Him service, and He blesses us. So, we have fellowship with Him only when it is His truth that we obey, not when we work our own righteousness. Without this principle of mutuality there is no real fellowship.
Third, fellowship involves equality of moral responsibility. Where there is a partnership, the actions of one partner are binding on the other partner. There is an implied complicity or approval. I am held responsible for what I fellowship, even if I do not personally engage in it. This is why Ephesians 5:11 admonishes us to have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness: if I am connected with a cult practicing secret rites of immorality, I am equally guilty of their practices even if I refuse to engage in them. Or, to look at the other side of the coin, if I enter into fellowship with a local church, I am morally obligated to every phase of the work and worship of that local church — equally obligated with every other member to support and engage in its scriptural programs to the extent of my ability. The very fact of the fellowship necessitates the equal responsibility even if I did not personally advise and consent to that program.
Fourth, fellowship always has a sympathetic object. That is, fellowship is "with" something or somebody; it does not exist as an abstract quality. In this it is like faith: one cannot believe without believing in something or somebody. So one cannot have fellowship as a solo act. In the New Testament our fellowship is said to be with God; with Christ; with the Holy Spirit; with the apostles; with evangelists; with one another as Christians; with the poor among the saints; with the blood and body of Christ; with or in the gospel; with the sufferings of Christ; with the altar of the new covenant; with the glory that shall be revealed; and with the divine nature. Disapproval is given to fellowship with sin; with evil works; with darkness; and with demons.
Fifth, fellowship is usually judged by its results. The word fellowship is quite generally employed to mean what is done as opposed to merely what exists. Fellowship is not so much a condition as it is an action. In this, also, it is like faith. Faith is a noun, hut it is something that is practiced. So the most common word for fellowship is a noun, koinonia, hut it is something that is practiced. When we put our money together for a common work, that is fellowship. When we send to the needs of an evangelist, that is fellowship (both between us and the evangelist, and between us as we collect our funds.) When we provide for the poor, that is fellowship. When we walk in the light, that is fellowship with God and if more than one of us is doing it, it is also fellowship with one another.
So many false ideas of fellowship are quickly eliminated when we keep these constituents of the fellowship before our minds.