What is True Fellowship?
What’s the first thing that comes to your mind when you read or hear the word fellowship? Within a Christian context the word usually calls to mind something to do with companionship and community. For some people fellowship is just another religious thing they have to do or (so they believe) God won’t be happy with them. In many cases, fellowship means going to places to spend time with others who are also members of their church.
Fellowship has also come to signify a spiritual atmosphere that will soothe and secure a person from the life they live. Given this meaning, fellowship can become something like “hot-tub religion”—a place where people go to feel good and escape their problems. Some people think of fellowship as one of those archaic “church” words. And in some respects it does seem tailor-made for earlier generations, fitting the culture and times of 1611 King James English far more than our 21st century English culture and society.
Is Christian fellowship an activity restricted to a building that is designated as a church building—a building whose architectural style and features identify it as a church building? Is “fellowship” something that can only happen just before or just after a sermon has been preached? Can we “fellowship” without drinking coffee? Can we “fellowship” with someone who is thousands of miles away from us?
According to 1 John 1:1-8 true fellowship is a relationship we have with God. True fellowship comes because the peace and presence of God dwells within us, by God’s grace. True fellowship happens when Jesus takes up residence in our hearts and minds.
True fellowship begins with our relationship with God. If we are, as Christians, to have true fellowship with other human beings, we must first have an authentic relationship with God. True fellowship is not primarily dependent on any human being. True fellowship is not determined by any specific geographical setting or location.
• Can true fellowship take place in a building that calls itself a church? Of course it can.
• Are all of the conversations taking place inside of a brick-and-mortar church building, or in its parking lot, automatically defined as true fellowship? Of course not.
• Is it possible to fellowship with someone in a building that is not designated as a church building—like someone’s home, or a grocery store—or even outside a building? Of course it is.
• Can you fellowship while you’re waiting for or riding on a bus? Of course you can.
• Can you fellowship while you’re talking to a person on the phone? Well, yes, proximity is not the primary ingredient in fellowship.
• Can you fellowship with another person on the Internet (or by writing them a letter ) when you don’t make face- to-face, eye-to-eye contact? Of course—and if you both know Jesus you can have true fellowship.
• The common denominator in true fellowship is Jesus.
Let’s take a closer look at 1 John 1:1-8, consider what it is teaching us about fellowship:
In verse 1 John tells us that Jesus Christ, God the Son, is from the beginning. He is the second divine Person of the Godhead. He is eternal, without beginning or without end. Jesus is the Alpha and the Omega. John also wants us to know here in verse 1, that he and the original disciples saw Jesus—they looked at him, listened to him, touched him, lived with him and experienced life with him. They were eyewitnesses. John is saying, “Trust me—I know what I’m talking about when we talk about Jesus.”
John is setting up the focus of the passage that follows, discussing fellowship. In verse 3 John says that he is talking about what he has seen and heard so that his readers might have fellowship with him and, he quickly adds, this fellowship he is talking about is not just any relationship—this fellowship is based on the fellowship we have with the Father and his Son, Jesus Christ.
John is saying that the fellowship he is part of is first and foremost the universal body of Christ. First and foremost he has a direct, personal relationship with God. John insists that we can have true, authentic, Christian fellowship with each other only if we have this direct, personal fellowship and relationship with God.
There are people who talk about being a part of “a” fellowship—they use the term as synonymous as being a part of a local church or congregation. They believe that by coming to a church building and by attending the activities of that particular organized group of people, they then may consider themselves members of that fellowship.
That’s all well and good, but the rub comes when individuals assume that membership in a specific, earthly, incorporated entity automatically confers membership in the body of Christ. That’s where the train of logic and thought leaves the tracks. We must be careful not to equate being in a “holy” place with others as “fellowship.” If we do, then we are prone, among other spiritual failings and flaws, to assume that we are pleasing God by racking up “fellowship” points by virtue of our actions in time and space.
Institutionalized religion often presents itself as the gateway to heaven—fire insurance from hell—an eternal life insurance policy that will mature upon our death, honored at the gates of heaven by St. Peter. Churches often compete with each other by inference, if not direct and overt assertions, that a person has the best chance of getting into heaven by being one of their members.
Such claims all boil down to religion. Institutionalized religion insists that our conduct, our morals, our character, our deeds—the rituals we perform, the religious prohibitions we obey, the ceremonies and procedures we “religiously” follow and enact and the services we faithfully attend will result in God’s favor. Christ-less religion says that if we perform up to an acceptable level then we will enjoy eternal fellowship with him in the air conditioned comfort of heaven as opposed to the seven-times-hotter-torture-of-hell that will be our final destination if we don’t measure up.
Christ-less religion effectively places itself in the business of rewarding us with fellowship with God. But the message of the gospel of Jesus Christ says that God alone gives us his grace, God alone determines how and when he bestows his favor and that he doesn’t need to consult with any religious organization here on earth before doing so.
• We fellowship with God by his grace
• We fellowship with God through his grace and
• We fellowship with God in his grace.
He freely gives us his grace—he offers us a relationship that is based on his grace, not on our continuing efforts to keep us in his good favor. We eternally fellowship with God, empowered and propelled by his grace.
Our fellowship with God is not based on:
• An earthly organization
• Physical ceremonies or rituals
• Any human religious authority
• Any accumulation of good deeds/behaviors on our part
• Our faithful, continuous physical presence in any so-called holy or sacred place
• Our obedience to any set of laws—obedience which some say earns us fellowship with God
Our fellowship with God is based on his grace alone.
In verses 5-7 John says if we walk in darkness then we don’t have fellowship with God. What is he saying? Is he saying that if we avoid darkness then we will have fellowship with God? No. He is not saying that our morality gains us fellowship with God. John is saying that those who walk with God and are in close relationship with him, do not, by definition, walk habitually—as a way of life—in darkness. God is Light. He doesn’t dwell in the darkness. So living in nothing but darkness is antithetical to being in the Light.
In verse 8 John says that fellowship with God does not mean we will never sin. Beyond that, he says if we say that we can become perfect, humanly, and if we think we can perfect ourselves in the flesh, we are deceiving ourselves. True fellowship with God takes place by his grace—it is founded on, empowered and enabled by his grace. Our conduct and our behavior is not the common denominator of our relationship with God.
God’s grace means that he has determined that he will fellowship with us in spite of our humanity— in spite of our imperfection. God’s grace means that the cross of Christ makes a way for our sins always to be forgiven, so that we might have true fellowship with God. God’s grace also means that anyone who pretends that they may live a life of debauchery and immorality while claiming that God’s grace covers them is living a lie. God’s grace is given to those who accept Jesus without condition, who surrender to him so that Jesus might live in our lives. Total, unconditional surrender to God means that we will not walk in darkness, perpetually and habitually.
So what is true fellowship? True fellowship means we won’t think that the only place we can “fellowship” is in or near a church building, as a part of formal services. In fact, a good deal of the conversation taking place in and around buildings that are designated as churches is better characterized as vindictive, bitter gossip sessions. God’s true fellowship is not filled with condemnation of others.
God’s true fellowship is not filled with backstabbing and sniping, with vicious rumors and false reports. People may engage in that kind of discussion, outside of a church building or inside of a church building, and people may call such behavior “fellowship.” You can call yourself a chicken from now until the cows come home, but it doesn’t make you a chicken. True fellowship with God is grounded in and founded on his grace—it is characterized by his love, which will be produced in our lives by what he does.