Today, “fellowship” is a weird word. If you’ve been paying attention, you might’ve heard it in Hollywood: the Fellowship of the Ring. More often though, it’s a church word, even if it just Christian-speak for something else.
You might hear it in reference to some time at church, maybe between meetings, or perhaps on a Saturday evening, when Christians get together over snacks, coffee, a meal, a game, or a movie. Sometimes you hear some folk talking about their time hanging out with Christian friends at the golf course, saying “We had some good fellowship yesterday.” Once, a guy described to me his date from the previous night as “fellowship”. Scare quotes not intended.
It seems Christians call hanging out with unbelievers “being with friends”; if only Christians are involved it’s “fellowship”.
Some Christians, feeling that something is off, try to patch it up. Instead of a hangout time, they’ll set aside a special time. Since, they figure, koinonia (fellowship in Greek, if you care about original languages) means holding things in common with a spirit of unity then we need to grow to love each other—and that means liking one another. These special meetings will allow people to grow in knowledge and spiritual support of one another. See my rant about small groups.
The main mistakes in all of these ideas are that (A) they’re hopelessly bent inward and (B) they ignore the Biblical focus of fellowship.
The Fellowship of Tolkien
Here’s a question: why did Tolkien call the first volume of his “trilogy” The Fellowship of the Ring? After all, when the council of the Wise chooses the 9 members of the Fellowship, it’s not for knowing each other or supporting one another. They’re chosen as representatives of their race joined with the common goal: the foolish task of trying to destroy the One Ring of Power. Their personalities, unity of thought, and respect for one another had little to nothing to do with it. The Fellowship (according to the book) didn’t end with the death of Boromir—that happened in the Two Towers. Aragorn actually asks if the fellowship will break based on the splitting of goals: some want to go to Mordor and some to Minas Tirith.
My geekiness aside, the ancient world saw fellowship as a business or legal endeavor. It has an object. You could be in fellowship with a business partner without being friends and without having to get to know one another. You were in it together for the purpose of Something.
Joined in Business
This legal idea is primarily the Scriptural use too. Take for example Luke 5:10 where you have a legal partnership in the fishing industry or Jesus partaking of tasting death to enter into full legal partnership with mortals (Hebrews 2:14). Or remember the Macedonian believers who have entered into fellowship with the Jerusalem believers by sending money (Rom 15:26). Each of these groups is legally sharing in Something.
Now, that doesn’t mean that there’s no emotional aspect involved (even if the latter doesn’t require much more than concern for a fellow human). It means that whatever the emotional aspect, it’s not the main thrust of the sharing in common.
John, therefore, uses fellowship as the participation of Man and God with Christ (1 John 1:3). It’s not only a meal (mind you that in 1 Cor 10 and 11 it is at least a meal) but it’s a focus on who the group is feasting on.
Joined In Suffering
So in those similar veins, it is used of the participation in the Christian benefits with the package of things that we would think of as negatives.
Paul, for example, uses the term as participation of the believer in the Son (1 Cor 1:9). He later expands on it being the participation of the believers with the entirety of the Gospel (Phil 1:5): the sufferings, death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. So when he talks about his goal, he says it is that he may know Jesus, the power Christ’s resurrection, and the fellowship—the sharing or partnership—in his sufferings (Phil 3:10) being conformed to Christ’s death. Then, pointing out that this isn’t some pithy life-goal, he turns to believers and says “Everyone who is mature is to think like this, and the ones who aren’t: ask the Lord to help you grow up.” (Phil 3:15). Its why, in that same book, Paul can thank God for the Philippians by going back to the Gospel: God who began the work will complete it because they are all partakers in God’s grace with Paul (Phil 1:7). What we would think as negative is actually exceedingly positive: the pain of suffering means that we, as the community of Christ, are really being conformed into the image of the Son who suffered (Romans 12:1,2; Rom 8:29; Phil 2:5-11)!
Moving Forward With Real Fellowship
Our inward gaze—be it for small groups, or coffee breaks, or getting-to-know-each-other socials, or watching movies, or a time of families sharing plans and prayer requests—are nice for what they are, but they are not fellowship. Sure, they’re great as team building and bonding, but they have very little to do with historic Christianity.
Let me be clear: our modern ideas of fellowship is not only shallow; it is empty of the cross pushing the Gospel to the sidelines. This is why Biblical fellowship is infinitely deeper and can actually address real issues within the corporate life telling some believers “you are wrong” and others “join me in suffering” and yet others “keep suffering on”. It’s seriously corrective, Christ-centered, love-motivated, gospel-shaped and hungrily committed to God’s proclamations.
It’s more like the family wrestling with what makes them family instead of strangers figuring out what can make them friendly.
So, dig deep into the Word of God, unveil the incomparable worth of Christ in the good news, compare that cost to the emptiness of the world and all of its vapid offers, and have the community joining in on that shared and uplifted vision. In so doing, the church will thus find the true rewards of actual fellowship.