A first-century believer suddenly dropped into a modern church wouldn’t have a clue what was going on.
That’s my hypothesis anyway, based on 10 years of ministry experience and focused reading of the New Testament.
I believe one of the most evident points of confusion for that first-century Christ-follower would be the contrast between the modern church’s approach to fellowship and what she was accustomed to.
We don’t; they did.
This marginalization of a vital mark of the New Testament church only makes sense, though. In a cultural milieu that places an inordinate amount of emphasis on expressing one’s self, being one’s self, and promoting one’s self it only makes sense that fellowship, dependent as it is on denying one’s self, submitting one’s self, and reforming one’s self, has fallen out of favor.
If we have any hope of regaining fellowship as a celebrated and integral part of church life, we have to figure out how to overcome the overwhelming cultural influences of the day. Though I know that there are more, I would suggest three (helpfully alliterated) components for rebuilding fellowship.
Gaining the right historical perspective
My mom gave my wife and me a cutting from a plant that my grandmother has. She might have gotten hers from a plant that her grandmother had. Now, I can go to Home Depot and buy a new plant anytime. They’re cheap, they’re usually healthy, and when I inevitably kill it, I can go buy another one. But it doesn’t mean anything. A plant with a family heritage behind it is much better, even if it’s visually the same. The history makes it so much better. I look at the plant differently.
Too often, we have too short a history to have true fellowship. We have the wrong perspective. We settle for Home Depot fellowship. Cheap, fast, and disposable. We have fellowship with someone until they make us mad. Then we dump them and move on. It’s a perspective problem. The kind of perspective that fellowship grows best in isn’t what that so and so said last week, what he did last year, what she posted last month. You’ll never have fellowship if your relationships are defined by past offenses, anger, and accusations. That’s too short-sighted.
Instead, we need to recognize that true fellowship is based on the history of Jesus Christ, God’s Son, coming to earth, being a man, walking, talking, eating with us. Dying, bleeding, buried. Raised, exalted, and glorious. Fellowship with other people is grounded in the fact that God sought fellowship with you at the expense of His Son. With the right perspective, fellowship stops being about you and what you want and how you were wronged and becomes a desire for God to be glorified and for there to be unity between brothers and sisters in Christ. For the Christian, joy is not possible if he or she is out of fellowship with God OR with a fellow believer. Jesus really came to earth, and that historical reality changes everything!
Contrary to most people’s expectations, fellowship is not best gained by deemphasizing holiness. Instead, fellowship is not possible without strongly emphasizing it! There has to be a standard, there have to be expectations for fellowship to work. Everyone in church life talks about fellowship, but we have to understand that our words don’t mean a thing if our experience contradicts them.
Fellowship is not based on words; it’s based on lived truth. I’m not saying that salvation is dependent on your works. Scripture’s pretty clear that that’s not the case. But I am saying that salvation is revealed by works, and fellowship is dependent on them. If you are continually walking in darkness and yet still professing faith, you’re a liar and aren’t going to be able to fellowship with God or with anyone else. If you are occasionally falling into sin, repenting, and seeking restoration with God and others, you’re practicing the truth.
Another reason to emphasize holiness is the simple fact that a life that is in fellowship with God will be in fellowship with others. It is natural. If we are in good relational standing with the Creator, we will line up with His creatures, particularly His image-bearers. There is a one to one correlation between your relationship with God and your relationship with others. If you are walking in the light of God’s holiness, you have fellowship with others.
Ultimately, though, all of our efforts at holiness will fall short. And that’s good news! Because self-sufficiency does not lead to fellowship, with God or with our brothers and sisters. Scripture calls us to a godly struggle for holiness while also revealing that we will never be good enough. It’s at that point that we must recognize that Jesus’ blood is the only avenue to fellowship with God and with others. Left to our own devices, we won’t make it. But God makes a way through his grace. That’s hard for us to accept. We all want the boast of self-sufficiency. We all want to be master of our own fate, captain of our own ship. But we can’t. We need Jesus. We need Him for salvation, and we need Him for fellowship. That’s why this last point is so important.
Pride makes us want to pretend we are sinless. Pride kills fellowship. To pretend that we don’t have sin to repent of is effectively declaring that Jesus died for nothing. That’s a lie. God won’t let us get away with it. The antidote for our pride, the potion for restored fellowship, is humility. The recognition that the world is not waiting breathlessly for my next social media update is a good step towards humility. Confessing sin to one another is an excellent step to building in ourselves the mind of Christ.
Fellowship is ultimately just mutually acted out humility. If the modern church is going to demonstrate appealing fellowship to the world, we have to be humble. This means individual humility, where no one believer thinks more highly of himself than he ought, but it also means corporate humility. Whites and blacks, old immigrants and new immigrants, Calvinists and Arminians: none of these are better than any of the others. But until we all recognize it and live it, fellowship will remain marginalized and disposable.
Let’s do it.