Summary: The basis of Christian fellowship and warnings about false attempts.
Fellowship or friendship?
Or when three is not a crowd
There was recently a debate on the name of the Salvation Army on the website armybarmy.com, one contributor, somewhat sarcastically, suggested that the name should be changed to the friendship club. In fact, corps and Churches often advertise their programmes as offering friendship. I am also reminded of a school near me whose Christian Union changed ists name to the happy club. But here John talks about fellowship rather than friendship as being the hallmark of a Christian group.
What is fellowship?
The Greek word which is translated by the English word fellowship is koinonia. It has the sense of their being a strong common bond and a shared experience and identity between people. If you have fellowship with somebody, it is more than simply enjoying their company, clicking with them, sharing with them or even putting yourself out for them. It is sharing an identity with them.
It is not only used in Christian settings, but can be used in other situations where there is a common bond, for example organisations such as Alcoholics Anonymous describe themselves as being fellowships.
It can also apply ot many other organisations and situations, where people in similar situations come together. We have just recalled the 80th anniversary of the start of the first world war, a terrible time of suffering for many people, particularly the troops in the frontline, who quickly developed a deep camaraderie and fellowship, which persisted after the war, as could be seen in the numerous veteran groups that formed, such as the Royal British Legion.
Indeed, common suffering seems to build fellowship and common identity particularly well. If we have been through illness or bereavement, we soon identify with and often seek out others with the same experiences. Sufferers and the families of many diseases form support groups, whenever I attend hospital on one of my epilepsy appointments, I am normally approached by a member of a support group seeing if I need additional information or support about my epilepsy. The bonds and relationships formed with these people can be very deep, sustaining, strengthening and satisfying. This is fellowship. Fellowship is sustaining and supporting.
What’s special about Christian fellowship?
The Christian Church, including the Salvation Army, is always talking about fellowship, but as we have said, there are many other types of fellowship and all sorts of organisations describe themselves as fellowships. So what then is special about Christian fellowship?
It is special and unique because our common identity is forged on our relationship with Jesus Christ and God his father. As John writes in verse 3 of chapter 1:-
and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.
Firstly then, Christian fellowship is about a bond with God. We are bound to him in deep spiritual communion with unbreakable bonds.
Secondly, our relationships with each other stem from this one. In verse 7:-
If we walk in the light as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another
Instead of our relationships with each other and our common identity being based upon having similar past experiences, they are based upon a person. Instead of our relationships being two-way, they are three-way. We have fellowship with each other because we have fellowship with him, who identified himself with us by his death for us. Verse 7 ends with:-
and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin.
We have a deep relationship and identity with him because he died for us, because he died to cleanse us and forgive us our sins. As a result of this fellowship with Christ, we also have fellowship with everyone else who shares this bond with him. Identification with Christ includes identification with his people. Indeed, more than just identification people with his people, it means a deep bond and communion with them. The bible does not allow us the possibility of belonging to Christ but not belonging to his people, that option is not available to us.
Both or neither
Sometimes, of course, other Christians can be a pain, they might irritate us, we might disagree with some of what they say or do, and we might be tempted to try and go it alone in our walk with Jesus. Or we might think that the church is not meeting our needs and that worshipping and praying or meditating and worshipping on our own would be better.
One strand of current mission teaching within the Salvation Army, and also other parts of the evangelical Church is ’belong, believe, behave’, whereby people are encouraged to see themselves as belonging to a fellowship of believers prior to confessing faith in Christ and that this might then lead on to that person surrendering control of their lives to him and accepting his great gospel of forgiveness and restoration. There is truth in this, a Christian community must accept all who come to it to learn, to find out about God or even just to find friendship. From this initial contact growth towards Christ can occur. However John has words to say about claiming to have Christian fellowship without identifying with Christ and submitting to his Lordship:-