Have you ever been to a “fellowship lunch”?
Have you been invited “into fellowship” at a church?
Have you prayed or heard someone else pray and thank God for “the opportunity to fellowship with other believers”?
Fellowship is a pretty common word to hear from church-going believers—both as a noun and a verb. But this isn’t just an empty buzzword. The idea of fellowship appears throughout the New Testament:
- “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” (Acts 2:42, NIV)
- “God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.” (1 Corinthians 1:9, NIV)
- “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ.” (1 John 1:3, NIV)
But as often as we use this word, how often do we think about what it really means? Both the English word fellowship and the Greek root word from which it’s translated in the New Testament carry the meaning of “having something in common.” Here are the top two Merriam-Webster definitions: 1. “companionship, company” 2. “community of interest, activity, feeling, or experience.” So, fellowship describes a community that forms around people who are alike or united in some way.
Does that mean that a Biblical fellowship of believers will be a boring, homogeneous mass of people who are all alike in every way? Clearly not. One description of Biblical fellowship that I like comes from an associate of Martin Luther named Philip Melanchthon. He proposed these three aspects of Christian fellowship: “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
Part 1: Unity in Essentials
For a fellowship to be a fellowship, the people in it must have something in common. For Christians, that thing is our faith in Jesus Christ and our agreement in the essential tenets of our faith. Many churches will set out their essential doctrines very clearly, such things as that God exists, that the Bible is true, that Jesus is the Son of God, etc. Without these things, believers cannot have meaningful fellowship.
Parts 2 & 3: Liberty in Non-Essentials and Charity in All Things
However, there are many other matters of conscience, conviction, and preference that Christians disagree on. Disagreement between believers on these points should not prevent fellowship because we should be charitable toward each other and our differences.
So, Christian fellowship is less like a hive mind that always thinks the same, and more like a fellowship in the tradition of the Lord of the Rings. In The Fellowship of the Ring¸ nine very different people (a wizard, four hobbits, a dwarf, an elf, and two men) unite around a common purpose. They squabble at times and have different personalities and motivations. However, none of that prevents them from working together and supporting each other. It should be the same for us, because we’re united by our faith in Jesus Christ. It is precisely because of both our unity and our differences that our fellowship is such a beautiful thing.