Fellowship is life, and lack of fellowship is death;
Fellowship is heaven, and lack of fellowship is hell;
And the deeds that ye do upon the earth
It is for fellowship’s sake that ye do them.
— William Morris
If I’ve read the New Testament right, as followers of Christ, we are members of Christ’s body (1 Cor. 12:14–21), and hence, by definition, we belong to each other. We cannot intentionally follow Christ solo. Interdependence, not independence, is God’s pattern. In other words, there is no such thing as a lone-ranger Christian. When we fail to connect with each other we are failing to connect with Jesus.
But what does it mean to connect with one another? Sadly, superficiality is a disease of our time. Shallow friendships and fragile relationships mark not only our society but also the church. Even our language betrays such superficiality. Consider how we use the word “fellowship” in Christian gatherings. In Acts 2:42 we read that the early Christians “devoted themselves to the fellowship.” They did not occasionally have fellowship (verb). They were the fellowship (noun); marked by a shared life together. They were devoted to each other, and so they were being woven together in mutual care. It involved a common, daily, material life of unity and sharing. The early church experienced daily life together in Christ, and this was how they were constituted as a fellowship.
Biblically speaking, therefore, fellowship is far more than spilling coffee on one another on Sunday morning. It extends far beyond “getting together” and experiencing a rush of relational warm fuzzies during hyped-up religious happenings. Sadly, very few of us experience our life together as did the early Christians. They did not consider what they had as their own. Theirs was a common, daily, material life of unity and sharing. We, however, assemble and associate and meet at regular intervals, but our lives and pocket books are still very much our own. Our lives really don’t intersect. We share commonly very little.
Re-Membering the Body
From what I have read and heard, right after the collapse of the Twin Towers, one might inadvertently come across a human body part, like a finger or a toe. The thought of dismemberment both shocks and repulses us. It not only is incongruous, but a severed body part is not quite human; removed from the body it is horrendously out of place.
Now if we would but step back and actually see how fractured and dismembered our country has become, how severed and alienated, and how conflicted and fearful we are of each other, if we could but see how frightfully alone we have become, we might become more repulsed and begin to see what it is that ails us both individually and socially. We might also discover anew the plan and purpose of God revealed in Christ’s prayer for unity: “That they may be one, Father, as you and I are one . . . ” (John 17:21ff).
Herein lies the gift and witness of Christ’s body: the church on earth. God’s people can, by their manner of life together, be the very thing the world cannot achieve on its own steam. But it is important to grasp that following Jesus is nothing if it is not a way, a life, a living, and a living together. It’s all about togetherness. Consider, for example, the reciprocal pronoun “one another” (allelon) in the New Testament. This one word alone highlights the significance of doing life together:
- Outdo one another in showing honor (Rom. 12:10)
- Live in harmony with one another (Rom. 12:16)
- Admonish one another (Rom. 15:14)
- Greet one another with a holy kiss (Rom. 16:16)
- Wait for one another (1 Cor. 11:33)
- Have the same care for one another (1 Cor. 12:25)
- Be servants of one another (Gal. 5:13)
- Bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2)
- Comfort one another (1 Thess. 5:11)
- Build one another up (1 Thess. 5:11)
- Be at peace with one another (1 Thess. 5:13)
- Do good to one another (1 Thess. 5:15)
- Put up with one another in love (Eph. 4:2)
- Be kind and compassionate to one another (Eph. 4:32)
- Submit to one another (Eph. 5:21)
- Forgive one another (Col. 3:13)
- Confess your sins to one another (James 5:16)
- Pray for one another (James 5:16)
- Love one another from the heart (1 Pet. 1:22)
- Be hospitable to one another (1 Pet. 4:9)
- Meet one another with humility (1 Pet. 5:5)
Now when we reflect on the above list, one thing is clear: Virtually none of the above exhortations make sense without a serious level of commitment to one another. How are we to bear another person’s burden unless the burden is known and unless we are willing to actually carry it? How are we to “put up with each other” unless we relate closely enough to get on each other’s nerves? How are we to forgive one another unless we are in each other’s lives enough to hurt and let down one another? How can we learn to submit to one another unless we struggle with differences? In other words, if we are to connect (or reconnect) our lives with one another, it will demand much more of us than we normally give. To be the church, and not just go to church, demands a great deal more than many of us are willing to give.
Few of us are ready to build up a common, committed life with others on a daily level, especially if it costs us a pay raise or causes us to forgo our personal preferences. If we are honest, we take our primary social cues from the broader culture. We consider our lives as “ours”, independent of or above the church in some way. But experiencing genuine Christian community will never happen if you are hanging on to your own life or if your schedule only allows for a couple of “religious” meetings a week. New lifestyle habits will have to form. Sacrifices of convenience and of giving up private spaces and personal preferences will have to be made. It will involve making concerted choices so that others can more naturally and easily be in, and not just around, your life.
Doing life together demands commitment. But it involves more than this. Without engaging in some very concrete practices, life together, instead of being a joy, may be hell.
Commitment is the basis, but community in Christ is the aim. What might this look like in more concrete terms? What are the marks that signify authentic Christian fellowship beyond going to church on Sundays? What does a shared life really look like in which the Spirit bears its fruit?
Time: Perhaps the first fruit of commitment is time. Those who love one another spend time with each other. When I was in college and seminary I purposely took fewer credits than I could handle, just so I could make more time for others. As the years have gone by, finding time for others has become more difficult. A stark example of this occurred when I was living in an intentional Christian community in downtown Denver. A group of us, mostly in our thirties, lived in four duplexes right next to each other. We wanted to go on a back-packing trip together, but wouldn’t you know, there was not one available weekend in the summer where we could all be together. Though we managed to share “space” together, our time was another matter.
Time is important because without being available to each other, fulfilling the biblical “one anothers” is virtually impossible. Take the construction metaphor of “building one another up.” Building is a process that requires effort and persistence. Leaving a project undone will do damage to the materials. And if it is not done together who knows what will result? Or take the command to “do good to one another.” It takes time to discern what is good for another person. I remember very well when I accidentally put a young college student into an emotional tailspin. I gave her a very strong challenge that completely backfired. I didn’t realize she had been severely abused as a child and constantly struggled with suicidal feelings. If I had taken the time to know her better, I would have handled things very differently.
Time is crucial if we are really to “serve one another.” Interestingly, the New Testament concept of service means performing lowly, thankless deeds — as a slave would do. This is what Jesus modeled when he washed his disciples’ feet. The slave serves the master as he has need. Our gifts are less important than our readiness to serve. This hit home to me while I was in seminary. Jake, a fellow seminarian, and his wife Sharon were struggling to keep their home sane. They had two small boys, and Sharon had several medical needs. Their house, especially their kitchen, was a disaster. I was busy myself, but not at 10:30 PM. That was downtime before bed. I felt a nudge inside me that I should offer to do their dishes at that time. Did I want to? No. But a slave of Christ doesn’t have the luxury of choosing which service to perform and when. They accepted my offer, and for two years this is what I did. Jake has been a life-long friend ever since.
Space: As important as time is, so is sharing space. This may or may not mean living with one another under the same roof. But it will mean finding practical ways of becoming more proximate with each other. The notion of a commuter marriage is an oxymoron. So is a commuter church. Unless we are physically present in each other’s lives, unless our personal spaces are made available to one another, sharing life will only be skin deep.
Throughout history believers have found various ways of sanctifying space together. The earliest Christians formed neighborhoods within cities. The Celtic church created entire villages, sharing everything in common. Then there were various monastic orders, and during the Reformation radical reformers, like the Anabaptists, formed outright communities, some consisting of as many as 2,000 people. Today there are churches that revolve around cluster groups and there are groups like Jesus People USA in Chicago, or Community of Sojourners in San Francisco, or the Community of Jesus on Cape Cod, who have forged their own unique ways of drawing together in close proximity. Whatever its size, shape, or form, a living fellowship will seek very physical ways to share life together.
Of course, community demands more than sharing time and space. A fellowship of Christians is not the same things as a Christian fellowship. Doing life together must be done in Christ — in other words, in a way where Christ’s authority holds sway. For this to happen, we must learn to listen to the Word — both in the Bible and as the Spirit speaks through others — and obey it together. Personal study of the Scriptures is vital, but God’s Word has always been primarily addressed to his people — as a people! Interestingly, almost all the New Testament Epistles are written to churches! And when we think about the various “one another” commands, they can be fulfilled only if they are accomplished with others. Being under the Word is not just a matter of listening to a sermon together, but seeking with each other, by way of dialogue and prayer, what it means to obey Christ together. In my own church community, for instance, we regularly read the Scriptures together and then ask: “What must we do?” Recently, we felt convicted by how much unnecessary “stuff” we all had. So on a Saturday we all went through our houses, and with feedback from each other, got rid of piles of things that we really didn’t need. We brought everything to one place to be either hauled away or sold. We did this all together in order to show God that we were serious about doing his Word. And by doing it together, we dealt a deathblow to the spirit of Mammon that wreaks so much havoc in our world. This was obviously not easy to do, but discipleship certainly isn’t easy, and it definitely involves discipline (1 Cor. 9:24–27).
Resources: Another mark of life together is being open-handed with the excess that we have. “Koinonia” is not solely translated as “fellowship.” In fact, its predominate use denotes the sharing of resources. The Macedonian and Achaian churches, for example, set up a common fund (koinonian) for the impoverished church in Jerusalem. Since the Gentiles shared (ekoinonesan) in the Jew’s spiritual blessing, they in turn served their material need (Rom. 15:26,27; also 12:13). Out of their extreme poverty, they urgently pleaded with the apostles for the privilege of taking part (koinonian) in this service to the saints (2 Cor. 8:4). Such generosity marked a liberality of fellowship (aploteti tes koinonias — 2 Cor. 9:13). It demonstrated the effectual working of God’s grace (2 Cor. 8:1). On this basis and for this reason, Paul commands those of material means to generously extend their fellowship (einai koinonikous) by sharing with those in need (1 Tim. 6:17–19). 1
For Paul, the right hand of fellowship (koinonias) authenticated his apostolic mission: he was committed to taking the gospel to the Gentiles and to obtaining funds for the needy in Jerusalem (Gal. 2:9,10). This sacrifice of sharing (koinonias), according to Paul, is what pleases God (Heb. 13:16). 2 Similarly, those receiving instruction in the gospel were to share (koinoneito) the good things of this life with their instructor (Gal. 6:6). For this reason Paul praises the Philippian church as ones who partook (sugkoinonous) in God’s grace, who shared (koinonia) in the work of the gospel, and who were partners (sugkononesantes) in his troubles, for only they shared (ekoinonesen eis logon — lit. “opened an account”) in giving to him and his companions the aid they needed (Phil. 1:5,7;4:14–16). This was indeed a “fragrant offering, an acceptable sacrifice, pleasing to God” (4:18).
The fellowship of the early church, therefore, was marked by how it shared material life together. It was this very practical expression of love that so impressed pagan society. Their love for one another was not in words, but in deeds — demanding real, physical sacrifices. It was assumed that those who belonged to Christ would have their material needs met (Acts 4:34; 2 Cor. 8:13–15). What a contrast to how we practice church today, where money matters are almost entirely private and personal.
This “none of your business” attitude can work both ways: for those who give and those who receive. Many years ago Cheryl, a good friend of mine who was a part of our local fellowship, lost her job. When she came to tell my wife and I about it, she was literally shaking, in tears, gripped with fear. After sharing with us it dawned on me: Cheryl feels alone because, in terms of money, she was. It would be up to her to fend for herself. She lost her job, and she would have to find another. We as a fellowship hadn’t lost a source of income; she had, and it was her welfare, not ours, that was on the line. She was no more willing to ask the church for help, than the church was willing to supply it. We were far from being a New Testament community.
I am currently a member of a community movement that consists of several intentional communities throughout the world. One thing we’ve vowed together is that amongst ourselves we will never charge each other money. Our services to each other are free. Why? Because we don’t want money issues to divide or distract us. Nor do we want to be caught up in the snares of the world, which can so easily choke the inner life. Jesus said that we cannot serve both God and Mammon, and that if we seek first the kingdom of God and his justice, all our needs will be provided for (Matt. 6:33). We know which god the world worships; the church, by contrast, must do everything it can to show that it worships a very different God. What better way is there then to be free of the love of money? 3
What so many Christians seem to miss is how it is possible to shape everyday life itself — including one’s work — on the basis of faith. In Christ, all things can be made new, including those areas that tend to have a momentum all their own, as they especially do when it comes to career or business. If God’s people would join together and redeem the workplace itself, both in terms of what is done and how, then a corporate work — a “Kingdom work” — of transformation can be achieved. A different social-spiritual-material reality would emerge, one woven together by the diverse strands of everyday life where Jesus is proclaimed Lord, not just in word, but in deed.
Money and business matters are one thing, our homes are another. We mustn’t forget how significant the injunction to “show hospitality to one another” is. It’s a resource we often fail to use. It demands a different kind of personal investment — one that is often more telling. Showing hospitality is more than entertaining one another at our convenience. It means providing for each other’s needs by offering what is most intimately “yours.” Writing a check is easy compared to providing a night’s lodging for someone who needs it. Eating at a restaurant with friends may be “fun”, but what about taking the time and effort to prepare an equally nice meal? Giving hospitality communicates that you are giving your life, not just your possessions.
Accountability: Now all of this — be it our time, our space, our resources — demands a great deal of trust. Invariably, life together means not only building each other up, but letting each other down. For the struggle against sin, both within ourselves and how we are with each other, is an on-going one. Life together requires that we be our brother’s and sister’s keeper.
At the very minimum, holding each other accountable demands that we speak the truth in love. Jesus instructed us clearly on this matter: if a brother is in sin, go to him. If he doesn’t listen, get help. If he still doesn’t listen, then bring the matter to the whole church (Matt. 18:15–20). His point? Don’t let sin destroy your brother or sister, nor let it mar my Body.
We have a “rule” in our community. It is paramount for experiencing real joy together. It goes as follows:
There is no law but that of love (1 John 4:7–8). Love means having joy in others. Then what does being annoyed with them mean? It is thus out of the question to speak about another person in a spirit of irritation or vexation (Eph. 4:29–32). There must never be talk, either in open remarks or by insinuation, against another, against their individual characteristics — under no circumstances behind the person’s back. Talking in one’s own family is no exception.
Without this rule of silence there can be no loyalty, no community. Direct address is the only way possible; it is the spontaneous service of love we owe anyone whose weaknesses cause a negative reaction in us (Eph. 4:2–3). An open word spoken directly to the other person deepens friendship and is not resented.
A truthful word spoken in love can be extremely powerful. A few years ago I met two fellow members of my community in a rather heated argument — right in the middle of work. Keith, one of our shop foremen, had made a bad machining mistake and had gotten overly defensive (and excited) about it. A few minutes later a couple of co-workers came over to try and sort things out. Then, all of a sudden, they all walked out of the factory. Later I learned that the whole scene was a result of something deeper, unrelated to work. Keith and his wife had been struggling in their marriage and it was starting to take its toll on Keith’s general attitude on the floor. Fortunately, with the help of different ones in the community, they were able to find each other’s hearts again.
To cite another example, some members of our community once spent a fair amount of money on hotel accommodations while on a mission trip. My wife and I got upset. Why hadn’t that money, which we helped to earn, been put to better use? But in the course of our confrontation, and after several others had spoken honestly to us, we realized that our so-called concern was a cover up for cold-heartedness and self-righteousness. We weren’t really interested in understanding their situation or their needs. We were more concerned with principles than with warm-blooded, everyday people. I’m glad we were called up short.
Having open, free and honest relationships demands work. And speaking the truth in love doesn’t always work out. When Jim fell in love with Karen, who was married to Sean in our community in Denver, it was a burden to bear. But when they began to spend time together alone, and when Karen began to have feelings toward Jim, then something needed to be done. Neither, however, wanted Sean or others to know what was happening. And neither was willing to humble themselves to get help or to ask forgiveness. Sadly, two years later Karen and Sean divorced.
Karen and Jim were not solely to blame. If our community had been more committed to them, and had brought them up short and battled for their relationship openly, then the alluring power of sin might have been nipped in the bud. Recently, when some friends of mine inadvertently discovered a six-pack of beer in Greg’s room, they right away talked to him about it. When it happened again, our whole fellowship confronted Greg. In so doing, we came to realize that it wasn’t just drinking Greg struggled with, but a whole host of other things: vanity, sexual impurity, and loneliness. Fortunately, Greg wanted things to be different, and so he unburdened his conscience and heart with one of our pastors. He’s been a new person ever since!
Forging life together in Christ with others is never easy. We fail each other — and God — all the time. This is why speaking truth in love must always be accompanied by forgiving one another. The Christian fellowship, the community, the church, or whatever one may call life together in Christ is ultimately the place of forgiveness. It is here that the cross comes alive. As Jean Vanier of the L’Arche Community, writes: “In spite of all the trust we may have in each other, there are always words that wound, self-promoting attitudes, situations where susceptibilities clash. That is why living together implies a certain cross, a constant effort, and an acceptance which is daily and mutual forgiveness.” 4
There’s a reason why Jesus told his disciples to forgive seventy times seven times. Forgiveness is perhaps the most essential quality necessary for an on-going and vibrant life with others. Without it our worship is not only false (Matt. 5:23-26), but we violate the very Body of Christ (1 Cor. 11:17ff). We actually make a mockery of the cross. For in the cross, Jesus came to mend what is broken, and reconcile estranged relationships (Eph. 2:11ff). Harboring judgment, grudges, mistrust, and fear of each other denies the mystery of why Jesus came.
There are many other attributes one could list that mark being church together. But to reiterate the following point again, because disciples of Jesus follow a different road map than that of the world, the way in which we live and relate to each other will be markedly different. The path we are on is meant to be traveled together, for our destination is towards a kingdom the first fruits of which can already be felt and seen. Coming together in Christ, if it is real, can show the world that Jesus is Lord both in heaven and on earth.
Becoming an Apologetic
It is a misnomer to think that a highly committed fellowship is an “exclusive” or a “reclusive” one. In fact, there is no greater witness to the reality of God’s coming kingdom than a biblically formed life together. A fully functioning fellowship of love demonstrates the truth of the gospel far better than apologetic arguments over abstract ideas. As Stanley Hauerwas argues, “What is crucial is not that Christians know the truth, but that they be the truth.” The strongest argument for Christianity’s truthfulness consists of the lives it produces. Jesus was quite clear about this when he said, “All people will know that you are my disciples if you love one another” (John 13:35). What the world needs most is not words, but living testaments who embody the power of his love. Only our unity will convince the world of Christ’s reality (John 17:22–23). For Jesus, the medium and the message are one.
As scientific theories are judged by the fruitfulness of the activities they generate, so is the Christian story. Christian truth is ultimately to be judged by the richness of moral character and the authenticity of relationship it generates. How else can the power of the gospel be known (1 Cor. 4:20)?
Therefore, it is how we are together, not just how smart or intellectually astute we are, that vindicates Christ. This is what characterized the witness of the early Christians and permeated the writing of all the early apologists. Athenagoras, for example, wrote:
Among us you will find uneducated persons, and artisans, and old women, who, though in words are unable to prove the benefit of our doctrine, by their deeds exhibit the benefit arising from their persuasion of its truth. They do not rehearse speeches, but exhibit good works. When struck, they do not strike again; when robbed, they do not go to law. They give to those that ask of them, and love their neighbors as themselves. 5
Athenagoras’ words are not exaggerated. For example, the type of care the early Christians had for one another, revolutionary in comparison with pagan society, extended to all its members: to widows, orphans, the elderly and sick, those incapable of working and the unemployed, prisoners and exiles, Christians on a journey and all other members of the church who had fallen into special need. Care was also taken that the poor received a decent burial. Those no longer able to work received the support of the community.
Such care extended beyond the community’s own ranks to include those abandoned and rejected by the unbelieving. For this reason, Christian compassion often received high praise, even from enemies of the faith. The Roman Emperor Julian writes:
Why don’t we notice that it is their [the Christians’] benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done the most to increase atheism [i.e. Christianity]? . . . When these impious Galileans support not only their own poor but ours as well, everyone sees that our people lack aid from us. 6
This failure, combined with the church’s deeds, is what convinced the ancient world of Christianity’s truth. The church’s life together was its logic. Hence, Origen did not hesitate to say, “The evidences of Jesus’ divinity are the Churches of people who have been helped.” 7 It was not the rationality of its beliefs per se, but the lives the early church produced that persuaded the world. It was the church’s ethical transformation that silenced her critics and their desperate accusations. This is how it always is. Christ’s truth is both validated and vindicated when it is being lived out. A moral revolution, set in motion, not argument set in propositions, is what convinces.
Consider again the early church and the extraordinary role healing miracles played. For example, the apologist Origen takes for granted the healing power of Christ as he regularly saw with his own eyes those who were miraculously cured. And Cyprian, in his letter to Demetrianus, describes how the Spirit whips demons and drives them away from the believing. He thus challenges Demetrianus: “Come yourself and see how true it is what we say. You will see how we are entreated by those (i.e. the demons) whom you entreat and feared by those whom you fear and worship.” In this vein, the church fathers repeatedly pointed out that the most profound miracles did not consist in people being healed of their infirmities but in their ability — against all human striving and expectation — to break with their pagan past and to embark on a new life.
In other words, the early Christians did not just believe in the power of Christ’s resurrection, they lived in and by this power. C.S. Lewis writes, concerning the New Testament’s resurrection narratives, that they “are not a picture of survival after death; they record how a totally new mode of being has arisen in the Universe. Something new had appeared in the Universe: as new as the first coming of organic life.” A new mode of being has arisen, the first fruits of which were given to the Church to partake. For this reason, Clarence Jordan declares: “The crowning evidence that Jesus was alive was not a vacant grave, but a spirit-filled fellowship. Not a rolled-away stone, but a carried-away church.” Such people were the direct evidence of the kingdom — the God movement.
While there is a place for demonstrating Christianity’s truthfulness and historicity on certain documentary and experiential “facts,” believers ultimately need to become the evidence — a living epistle — necessary to support its claims. Are the scriptures reliable? How can this ever be answered unless there exists a people who consistently live by them and bear good fruit? Are miracles possible? Jesus’ reply to John the Baptist was: “Look and see! . . . ” Do we live in such a way that the only satisfactory explanation for its existence is the power of God in its midst? Was Christ raised from the dead? Did he actually die for the world’s sin? Well, are there or are there not communities of faith marked by the new life of the Spirit who reconciles all things?
In his book, Life Together, Deitrich Bonhoeffer writes: “It is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brothers and sisters.” This but echoes the words of the Psalmist who wrote: “How good and pleasant it is when brothers live together in unity!” (Psalm 133:1). This gift of life together opens up the way to God and to our brother and sister.
This gift of community is not simply Christians who are really nice to their friends and the people they go to church with. In the end, Christian community is not even living together and sharing cars, money, and bagels. Genuine community is more like a movement where groups of people have been set free by Christ to pursue radically different agendas with their life and lifestyles.
The Apostle Paul reminds us that love is the greatest gift. This is precisely why Jesus gave up his body on the Cross and gave it back again in the Church. Doing life together in a way where we really need each other brings Christ and his kingdom very close to this earth. For Jesus once dwelt among us as a humble servant; and he continues to dwell among us in this same way. As Paul writes in Philippians, Jesus takes up residence in brothers and sisters, his corporate body, who, “being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose,” consider others better than themselves and look to the interests of others above their own. It is they who “shine like stars in the universe” and hold out the word of life.
Copyright © 2007 Reproduction rights granted by Charles Moore.