The Theological and Practical Reality of Christian Fellowship
I have been doing some reflection about the nature of Christian fellowship and implications regarding occasions when brethren do not get along, act in an immature way, offend each other, or are self-centered.
The theological reality, according to Ephesians 2, is that God has formed the church with each of us as an integral part. Each of us are an important part of the body. Each of us are living stones in God's house. Ephesians 4 stresses that we are "one" body and therefore need to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. Thus, our relationship to God is tied to our relationship with each other. That is why Paul makes the point in 1 Corinthians 12 that no parts of the body can say to other parts, "I have no need of you (1 Cor 12:21)," or "Since I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body (1 Cor 12:15)." Regardless of how anyone sees themselves, by God's design, they are a part of the body. Therefore, when we feed, clothe, visit in prison, and care for the "least of these brothers of mine (Matt 25:40)," we are doing it for Christ because they are a part of the body of Christ. This is why Jesus instructs us to go and be right with our brother before coming to worship God (Mt 5:23-24).
Based on this theological truth, Jesus instructs us to reconcile with our brother if he sins against us (Mt 18:15). If he doesn't listen, you involve a brother or two, and eventually the whole church. If there is no change, then fellowship is to be withdrawn. What this demonstrates is that fellowship between brethren is tied to fellowship with God. Fellowship severed from your faithful brother is severed fellowship from God and vice versa. You cannot be right with God and wrong with your brother, and you cannot be wrong with God and right with your brother.
What then, are the practical implications of all of this when brethren are angry with each other, when they distance themselves, when they back bite, offend, or leave the family in a huff? It is tempting to sometimes say "good riddance," especially when the one who leaves is a factious brother. In that case, there should have been discipline exercised in order to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. That is why Paul urged the Roman Christians to reject a factious man after a first and second warning.
As I reflect on this, I remember brethren in the congregation where I grew up quoting passages of scripture in support of getting rid of people they didn't like (such as 1 Cor 11:19 stating that there MUST be divisions in the church), to passages to bash the church for not doing more to keep the sheep from being scattered (such as Mt 5:23-24 - saying this was only a one way responsibility, a brother goes to another if that brother has something against him, but when it is the other way around, going to the brother is not required). As I look back, I realize they were proof-texting and disregarding the overall theological picture of what fellowship was about in the interest of their own agenda. I too, have been tempted to do the same thing. It is too easy to ignore problems in fellowship because it is not always a pleasant thing to deal with.
The fact that fellowship between God, my brother, and myself are intertwined means that there is a mutual responsibility. God gave of himself sacrificially to provide the means for fellowship, but he does not force us to come to him. Coming to him is our responsibility. In the same manner, there is a mutual responsibility we have toward one another. We should give of ourselves to each other sacrificially in the interest of preserving the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. But like God, we cannot force our brother to do so. That is our own personal responsibility. In other words, there is a mutuality of responsibility in maintaining, strengthening, and preserving Christian fellowship. The numerous "one-another" passages demonstrate this mutual responsibility. It is not a one-way street.
Our practice should reflect our theology. Our connection to each other is based on the redeeming work of God and his acceptance of us into his kingdom. It is not based on whether we "like" what is going on the church. Nor is it based on 100% agreement on every detail of doctrine, but on God's acceptance (Rom 14:1-6). If God accepts someone, then naturally we are to accept them as well (Rom 15:7), or we will find ourselves putting a filter in place God has not.
We should never be so quick to write brethren off, even if they are hard to get along with or we disagree with them on something. If someone is upset, there is a mandate for both of us to work through it. If someone is being hurtful, mean, or ungodly, it jeopardizes the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is a mandate to work through it. Preserving fellowship is so important, that in the case of someone who continues to be factious, fellowship is to be withdrawn. If someone is distant, there needs to at least be some sort of effort to mutually confront this problem and remedy it. If someone leaves in a huff, there is still a mandate to at least attempt to work through it. This is preserving the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. However, we cannot force them to stay or to reconcile. They will give an account of themselves to God (Rom 15:12), not of us. This is why Jesus did not spend an inordinate amount of time with the uncommitted. When people who had been following him no longer followed him, they were free to go (Jn 6:66). He asked his disciples if they were going away too. They had a choice, go or stay. This was not a time to straddle the fence.
Keeping all of this in mind, it would seem that the following considerations would help to put "feet" in the theology of fellowship:
This helps to get out in front of fellowship challenges and to be proactive in promoting fellowship. It is a mutual practice. It will not suffice to point a finger at other brethren and blame them for the lack of your own fellowship if you have made no effort to strengthen the bonds with your brethren. At the same time, it does not suffice to be distant simply because you may not feel an overwhelming need to have a connection with the brethren. Fellowship is not optional.
- Each member is to take the initiative to be connected to the body
- There should be teaching of the theological basis of fellowship and the inherent responsibility each person has in it. It is not optional.
- A self assessment tool should be used to assess understandings, attitudes, and practices regarding fellowship
- Leaders and members should work to strengthen the weak links in the body
- Leaders and members need to recognize that expressions of fellowship have a functional aspect. We are incorporated by God in the body as a body part with a function. Expressing Christian fellowship is fulfilling the function, not individually, but as a part of the body in order to carry out God's mission.
- Leaders and members should candidly work through various scenarios involving challenges to fellowship and apply the theology of fellowship in working through solutions.
- When one becomes a member of the congregation, an introduction to the responsibilities involved with fellowship should be part of the incorporation process. It is not optional.
Fellowship is an integral piece in the missional purposes of God. With a healthy and vibrant fellowship, the energies of the church can be focused on mission rather than refereeing. It would be difficult if not impossible to carry out God's missional purposes with an ailing fellowship.
1 Some manuscripts add "against you" in this verse, making it more personal.