Fellowship: Physical or Spiritual?

By Daniel H. King

What comes to mind when someone uses the word “fellowship”? Do you get the impression of something physical or spiritual when the term is used? The answers to these questions, as you would give them, have largely to do with how you have been taught on the subject. If the teaching you have received has been from the Scriptures directly, without the dilution of false notions about it, then your answers would reflect that. But if your background is such that it takes its cue from the current religious scene rather than from the Bible, then your replies would just as surely reflect that. The same would be true of the words “baptism,” “church,” “faith,” or any other which appears both in the Word of God and in present day language.

Assuring ourselves that we are meaning by our use of terms what the Bible means is at times a difficult thing to do. It is hard to step back from ourselves and our present moment in time and fathom what may be a very different way of thinking from our own. But it is important that we try. The reason for this is that our spiritual vocabulary is to remain static from one generation to the next. Paul put it this way: “Hold fast the form of sound words, which thou has heard of me, in faith and love which is in Christ Jesus” (2 Tim. 1:13). The implication of this is obvious: sound words impart sound ideas and truths; unsound words, on the other hand, impart wrong concepts and so communicate error. The best way to retain the proper ideas is to keep the proper terms, at least terms which are definitionally the same. In spite of the fact that languages do change with time, ideas expressed therein may remain the same by accurate translation. Thus, it is possible to communicate in any language the truths taught in the Bible, just so they are precisely rendered from the Greek and Hebrew of Scripture into words and phrases which, in essence, “say the same thing.”

We have to be especially wary of our own use of biblical words which have been changed in the common vocabulary by undisciplined usage. It is our responsibility to know and express their originally intended meanings. The word “baptism” is a perfect example. When you say the word, a hearer who was brought up in the Catholic church will conjure up in his or her mind a picture of a priest pouring a cupful of water over the head of an infant. The word communicates to them exactly what they have witnessed in the ritual of their own experience. They will likely never pause to reflect upon whether this was the idea communicated in the usage of the biblical term. They may not even care. Yet most of us will realize that what they think of when the word is used is a mile wide of the mark of what was meant by the apostles of Christ when they first used baptizein.

Could we, in the churches of Christ, be guilty of the same sort of thing? In spite of our frequent vocal expression of respect for the authority of Scripture, the truth is that we are just plain “folks” like everyone else, and so stand just as perilously close to damnable error as others. A few steps taken, and we are over the cliff with the sectarian world. In recent years many of us have come to be just as diffident and incautious about what we believe and say as those in many of the denominations. Some of us are headed straight back into denominationalism on account of the attitude which has made such headway among us in recent years the attitude which ignores the biblical injunction to be ever vigilant lest we miss the mark of truth: “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves” (2 Cor. 13:5).

The Word “Fellowship”

We could spend space on any of a number of important Bible words in a discussion like this. Many are misapplied in the language of modern religion. But one which deserves some special notice is the term “fellowship.” Over the last several decades the misuse of this word has carried the church into all sorts of unscriptural activities. With the redefinition of this term has come an attendant redefinition of the work of the church. It has turned many churches, even churches of Christ, into virtual social clubs. This is not to suggest that the word was first redefined and then things were changed to fit this new meaning. Rather, “times were a-changing” in our society and within the religious world (and with it the Lord’s church). The result was that the old words needed new definitions to fit those practices which were coming to be accepted as “church activities.” The term fellowship came to be the catch-all to cover many of these things, both in sectarianism and in digressive churches of Christ.

The fundamental connotation of the root koin (“common”), from which we derive our word for fellowship in the Greek New Testament, is that of sharing something with someone. Words belonging to the koin family refer primarily though not invariably to participation in something rather than association with someone. There is often a genitive to indicate that in which one participates or shares. The major idea in the koin words is that of sharing. The sharing involves participation and association, but primarily participation.

In the New Testament usage, three ideas are expressed. They are: (1) having a share, as at Hebrews 2:14; 10:33; 2 Corinthians 8:23; Romans 11:17; 1 Peter 5:1; and Philippians 1:5; (2) giving a share, as in 2 Corinthians 19:13, where it is a “contribution” (in this instance in the form of money donated); and (3) sharing with someone else, as in 1 John 1:3: “that you also may have fellowship with us,” i.e., “share what we are sharing:” “and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.”

As one scholar has cogently put it: “Both in classical and Biblical usage these terms express joint participation in a person or project and secondarily association or mutuality of spirit. Fellowship posits as its prerequisite a likeness of nature that transcends external and temporary difference. True fellowship can exist only among true believers” (Baker’s Dictionary of Theology). This definition clues us in as to two important facts about fellowship: (1) fellowship is based upon a commonality of spiritual nature; (2) fellowship moves out of this commonality of spiritual interest into shared actions like worship and praise, prayer and service, etc.

What Fellowship Is

Fellowship exists among true believers because each shares in the nature of God. We are His children, His sons and daughters, and so are in a very real sense like Him. We are also somewhat unlike Him (whenever sin infects us). But we are said to be partakers of His spiritual being, or nature, and so we take on His likeness: “Seeing that his divine power hath granted unto us all things that pertain unto life and godliness, through the knowledge of him that called us by his own glory and virtue; whereby he hath granted unto us his precious and exceeding great promises; that through these ye may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world through lust” (2 Pet. 1:34).

Being of a common family, the family of God, Christians are said also to share many other things. For example, they share a common faith (Tit. 1:4). They have the shared benefit of the Lord’s promises (Eph. 3:5). And such blessings lead to the sharing of common responsibilities. This commonality is obvious in a text in 3 John (vv. 5-8). It is penned to Gaius, a faithful believer: “Beloved, thou doest a faithful work in whatsoever thou doest toward them that are brethren and strangers withal; who bare witness to thy love before the church: whom thou will do well to set forward on their journey worthily of God: because that for the sake of the Name they went forth taking nothing of the Gentiles. We therefore ought to welcome such, that we may be fellow-workers for the truth.” Common being and interest thus leads to fellowship in spiritual obligation. The concept of fellowship then, when rightly and consistently applied, will lead us all to realize that each of us has responsibilities in the service of God. It will not do for the church to put them off on the preachers or the elders and deacons, for these obligations are meant to be shared by all. That is what fellowship implies to each of us individually.

On a positive note, it may be said that Christians are to share in agreement on important matters of faith and practice in Christ (Gal. 2:9; Phil. 1:5-7; 3 Jn. 5-8). Negatively speaking, they must guard carefully that they do not share in error or its spread (3 Jn. 8,11; 2 Jn. 10-11; 1 Cor. 10:20-21; Eph. 5:11).

Christians also share in communion with Christ (1 Cor. 10:16-17), notably in the Lord’s Supper.- It is marvelous to think that when we are gathered around the table of the Lord to partake of the Lord’s memorial Supper, we somehow have a part with Him and with each other-not only in the Supper itself and its elements-but in our common life. Through it we declare our oneness with Him and with each other: “The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a participation in (ASV footnote) the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” Such a sacred “communion,” as it is called, is not to be likened to an ordinary meal. Although Christians may eat together in one another’s homes and so “share” with each other life’s good things, still there is a difference between that and this. Early Christians participated in both (Acts 2:42,46). They even, in one instance at least, failed to recognize the distinction between the two (1 Cor. 11:34).

The word “fellowship” is never used of such purely social events. Even the people of the world jointly participate in such affairs. What is there about a common meal that would relegate it to the realm of the spiritual? On the other hand, it is only the disciple of Christ who can hold in proper reverence the transcending privilege of observing the Lord’s Supper. This should be one of the greatest moments of genuine fellowship to be had in the experience of the Christian. Placing it on a par with everyday meals and social occasions by describing them all alike as “fellowship,” while it may raise the status of such primarily social affairs, is demeaning to that which is sacred by biblical standards.

There may be some prudence in reflecting here upon the Old Testament injunction, so important to Leviticus and Ezekiel, which states that man ought not to “make that which is holy into that which is common or unclean” (Lev. 10:8-11). Ezekiel rebuked the priests of his day for not drawing the line sharply enough. The result was sin on the part of both people and priest: “Her priests have done violence to my law, and have profaned my holy things: they have made no distinction between the holy and the common, neither have they caused men to discern between the unclean and the clean, and have hid their eyes from by sabbaths, and I am profaned among them” (22:26). When he prophesied concerning future priests, he said of them, “And they shall teach my people the difference between the holy and the common, and cause them to discern between the unclean and the clean” (44:23). There has ever been a difference between the two in the Word of God, and man is never permitted to dissolve or ignore the distinction between them. Many Old Testament stories have as their lessons this very point. This is true with Cain and Abel, Nadab and Abihu, Uzzah, etc.

What is it then that makes one thing sacred and another common? The answer to that is very simple. God has chosen one, and by His choice He has made special. The Bible word for that specialness is “holy.” The Temple, its candlestick, bowls and utensils, were all holy because God made them so. They were different from other articles and utensils in this one point only. This well illustrates our thought here. The term “fellowship” describes something which has a special place in the common life of disciples of Christ. They may share many things in life which are quite ordinary, but what they have in common because of their spiritual kinship to Christ and each other is that which, in the lexicon of biblical terminology, may be rightly called “fellowship.”

What Bible Fellowship Is Not

If we take the word “fellowship” to mean simply “sharing” in something or other (as do many of our brethren), then of course we could refer it to anything and everything. A game of cards, baseball, football, etc., all would qualify as “fellowship.” Enjoying a common recreation, eating a meal, etc., would be fellowship. Many Christians think nothing of calling such things “fellowship.” But is this what the Bible means by the term? Is there anyone who can produce scriptural proof that the apostles and prophets used it so?

The fact that Christians do the thing in question together does not make it fit the category of “fellowship.” Like anything else, it must be defined as such by the Bible to fit the category we want to place it in. For example, a swimming party does not qualify as “baptism” in Bible terms, even though there is water present and people are immersed in it; neither does a common meal including grape juice and crackers suit the Bible definition of “the Lord’s Supper.” Not just any religious gathering fills the scriptural definition of “church,” nor an aerobic exercise class the “building up of the body of Christ” (Eph. 4:13-15). And although I am ashamed to admit it, I have known brethren who would be willing to make every one of the preceding identifications.

Admittedly, Bible fellowship is a spiritual relation that leads at times to physical “sharing” of goods-in times of need and with specific spiritual goals in mind, i.e., the furtherance of the gospel, their financial resources as they, in turn, mete out spiritual food (Gal. 6:6; Phil. 4:14-16). This does not make th church “communistic” nor does it change the truth about fellowship being, in the main, spiritual in nature. In both instances it is the spiritual kinship of the disciples of Christ which is the cause of the physical sharing. It does, though, call into question the validity of the title of our article. The truth is that fellowship is both physical and spiritual, with the accent resting squarely on the spiritual.

The problems which we have encountered over recent years have mostly resulted from the tendency of some brethren to place the emphasis on the physical in the first place, and the broadening of the term fellowship to include more than what the Bible does in the second. Behind it all however is the Social Gospel philosophy and its desire to remake the church in the image of its vision of what it should be-never mind the teaching of the Bible!

Guardian of Truth XXIX: 19, pp. 590-591, 595
October 3, 1985