The meaning of Fellowship
The word ‘fellowship’ is one of the most misinterpreted and misunderstood words, but at the same time it is one of the most common words used by Christians. Now just to highlight a few things that the Lord has laid upon my heart, let me say that in the Old Testament we do not read much about fellowship. In fact, we do not see such a thing as true fellowship except in shadows and types. Some take David and Jonathan as examples of those who had a close, enduring and strong fellowship. But this doesn’t give depth to the true meaning to the New Testament fellowship. In the Old Testament (Psalms 133) we see that the word ‘unity’ is used as a synonym for fellowship. There could be some measure of fellowship in the unity of brethren, but it would be more of an outward unity. True fellowship, however, is essentially inward. It is related to life within. It is possible to have a certain kind of unity without life. For example, in the world we have many kinds of unions where they maintain a kind of unity. Union comes out of some measure of unity. So we find a kind of unity which is based on an outward agreement of certain principles. But such groups and unions are devoid of inward life. True fellowship requires life and without life there cannot be fellowship. Fellowship which is an inward matter basically and can best be described as the inter-communication of life. And the word used in the New Testament for that kind of fellowship is the word ‘koinonia’. It means communion, communication and participation.
We need to understand that there is a great difference between friendship and fellowship. Friendship is a human trait or attribute. People of the world can have strong and lasting friendship, and believers can also have fellowship with people of the world. A good friend may even be willing to die for another friend. That’s what the Bible says in Rom 5:7, “For scarcely for a righteous man may one die, yet peradventure for a good man ….”. Yes, it is possible in the world for a true friend to die for another friend. There is ample evidence that natural friendship can even be stretched to such an extreme end. Friendship between people can be pure, loyal and very intimate, but it cannot be called fellowship.
In Christianity, fellowship is a term (translated from the Greek koinonia). The word ‘koinonia’ means communion, participation and communication. It refers to those who are joined in communion, participation and communication because of a life. Thus, fellowship is more than a matter of loyalty; it is more than being true to one another. We need to understand by the Holy Spirit that Christian fellowship is a matter of a life in the Spirit. Human friends can come together and talk about a lot of worldly things; they can even talk of unrighteous things; they can also talk ill of others. Worldly friends can talk about a wide variety of subjects, be it sports, education, politics or art. They can sit and talk for hours, and even continue through the night; they can even scheme to harm others, murder someone or plan evil things. So there can be a kind of unity even in friendship! Many things can be done under the banner of friendship. But, fellowship is based upon an inward life.
One of the prevalent deceptions of Satan is to call the ‘friendship’ that believers often have as ‘fellowship’. Common friendship between believers is often mistaken for fellowship. There can be a lot of friendship between brothers but it cannot be called fellowship! So we have to be very careful. Many mistake friendship for fellowship today. And it is the truth that will keep us from falling into the enemy’s trap. Christian friends may come together and engage in a lot of “spiritual activities”, such as singing, sharing and eating, but that does not amount to fellowship. It is a cheap counterfeit of true fellowship! That is where we need to have discernment or a discerning spirit. Many gatherings and times of interaction for spiritual activities do not touch upon true life. If such gatherings and assemblies fail to promote life then they cannot be termed as fellowship meetings. Fellowship is not the ultimate objective of coming together; the ultimate goal is to have life in Christ Jesus, but fellowship is the instrument to obtain the life of the Son.
Fellowships and gatherings
Fellowship is not abstract; it is something visible and something positive that takes place in a geographical sphere. Thus, fellowship is spiritual, but at the same time, it is also real. Some believers may limit themselves to an abstract ‘form’ of fellowship, as though it is something automatic that will bind the saints together. But such abstract fellowship is hollow if it is without the actual assembling together of believers at a particular point in time and space. We cannot overlook this principle that is spelt out very clearly in God’s word.
The Lord Jesus Christ Himself very clearly laid down this principle, “Where two or three are gathered together in my name there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:20). Saints, we can have fellowship with God alone, but we cannot have fellowship with one another who are not present! Koinonia requires being together in one place at one time under the direction of the Holy Spirit. Many can talk about fellowship ignoring this truth, but that is meaningless. It will, at best, be a poor substitute that does not result in the progression of life. For true fellowship physical proximity is an absolute necessity.
Saints should meet together regularly in an atmosphere conducive to the working of the Holy Spirit because our participation in fellowship with others impacts our lives as well as that of others. Close, intimate fellowship is important; it affects our daily lives wherever we may be. Where the commitments are so real through the working of the cross, there can be a participation in fellowship with brethren though we may not be together geographically always. There is a participation that brings about spiritual reality in fellowship even though we may be physically apart for a season and time where commitments are not abstract but real and tangible through the working of the cross among such saints. Fellowship in the light of the word is inevitable for the growth of the saints and the body of Christ.
A Scripture portion that gives more light on this is 1 Cor 1:9. Paul says here that we have been called to have the fellowship of the Son.
(9) God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord.
(10) Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no divisions among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment.
(11) For it hath been declared unto me of you, my brethren, by them which are of the house of Chloe, that there are contentions among you.
The word fellowship means participation. In other words Paul says that we are called to participate in the life of the Son. Immediately after that he says that let “there be no divisions among you”. Divisions are contrary to true fellowship! There are people with different minds and opinions. There are people of a different mind-set. There can be differences amongst us, but not divisions. The Apostle Paul would like us to have the same mind and the same judgment. So we see how fellowship in the Son can be affected by our minds, our opinions and our reasoning. In other words Paul says that we are divided because of our choices and preferences; we forget that we are called into one fellowship, one choice, and one preference. He implies that, unfortunately, we have different choices, selective approaches and likes and dislikes. Saints, Paul reminds all of us that we are called into one fellowship, into one participation and into one appreciation, one preference, one choice and into one enjoyment!