The Fellowship of the Church

Relationships between Church members possess great influence when it comes to the overall health of the church.  When a church is known for its loving fellowship, the atmosphere may be characterized as warm, welcoming, non-threatening, and hospitable.  On the other hand, if a church is known for not having a loving fellowship than it may be characterized as cold, non-welcoming, threatening, and uncomfortable.

Without a loving fellowship, a congregation will struggle in everything that it does.  Charles Arn wrote, “One of the most important contributions your church can make to members— and nonmembers— is to teach them how to love” (Arn, 2013, p. 127).  This is the foundational belief of why it is so important to focus on congregational relationships.  This is obedience to Christ’s teaching in John 13:34-35 but it also how we come to know God.  In 1 John 4:7-8 we learn that if we love we know God and if we don’t love then we don’t know God.  What we see is that Christian fellowship not only connects members to each other but also connects them to Christ.

There is an undeniable sense in scripture that believers are to have a deep spiritual connection displayed through their relationships.  Passages like John 13:35 word as though our relationships are markers for the Christian faith.  By having a common faith brings believers to a common ground but there is also the understanding that believers have the Spirit of God binding us together in the most holy faith (Ephesians 4:3).  It would be hard-pressed to say there is any scriptural ground for a Christian not to engage in deeply committed and authentic relationships with other believers.  In fact, part of the sanctification a person goes through is to turn their thoughts and feelings out of themselves and towards other believers. 

We see Jesus immediately begin to gather his disciples after his baptism and temptation in the wilderness.  Fellowship with others was of paramount to Christ.  We see when Jesus was away from the disciples in pray but we also see him keeping them at least a few yards away during His most intense night of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane.  Jesus spent over three years of time with the disciples sharing in everyday life.  Jesus one day would look at the disciples and says, “ I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made it known unto” (Jn 15:15).  In relationships, there has to be a mutual honesty and transparency.  Jesus called the disciples friends because He could freely share what God had been doing.  Congregational relationships mirror this “friendly” relationship with confession, exhortation, rebuke, and encouragement. 

After the Holy Spirit descended and indwelled in the disciples, after the sermon of the Peter, after the three thousand souls were added all on the same day of Pentecost, we see almost immediately a close fellowship mentality.  The people seemed to throng upon the disciples as, “they continued stedfastly in the apostle’s doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42).  It seems the remainder of the New Testament is about the growth of the fellowship of the church and the growing pains it would have to deal with.  In the context of congregational relationships, we read “by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body” (1 Cor. 12:13) and “Endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3).  The congregations were to be “of one accord, of one mind” (Phil. 2:2), and that we are to “consider one another to provoke unto love and to good works” (Heb. 10:25). 

In Paul’s letter to the Philemon, the master of a runaway slave, Onesimus, he focused on the common ground that believers stand on.  According to Paul, fellow believers all share in some in the same grace from God and therefore live in a common mutuality that makes all equal.  The implications this has for churches has been profound.  Coming from this perspective, it would be perfectly acceptable and even beneficial to all, for pastors to approach others as their equals.  This goes for board members and congregational members.  It would also apply to others as they relate to the pastor.  In this view, it would be normal for pastors to have strong relationships with others in their congregations.   

Leading the fellowship.

Paul wrote in Romans 12:3-8 about a diversity of spiritual gifts in the body of Christ.  This diversity ended up causing issues at some point in several of the churches, including those at Rome and Corinth.  With the church at Rome, the tensions between people’s gifting’s were only bolstered by growing racial tensions between Jews and Gentiles.  Such differences are magnified when they are also used to solidify a person’s position and authority over another person.  But these things shouldn’t be in the Christian community.  Paul’s view on this is that the Christian community is a body in which each individual is joined to every other member of the community”.  

Therefore, it seems that both of the scripture describes an approach for all believers to approach relationships with other believers with a high level of openness.  As for pastors, they need to be aware of the dangers of pride from spiritual gifts or different positions in the church bring.  They also need to be aware of the utility of diversity of gifts and backgrounds.  This demands that pastors approach all other believers with a mutual respect, not of a position of hierarchy.  Each believer is valuable to Christ and to other believers.  This usefulness extends past the profitableness for ministry but also for the benefits that relationship brings with other people.   

The biblical foundation begins to point out the importance of fellowship in the congregation.  Loving fellowships, mutual understanding, and ministry partnership are all important components of a healthy congregation.  Without strong relationships in the congregation, the likelihood of a church accomplishing the great commission will be minimal.  To flourish a congregation must have fellowship and it is up to the leaders to promote and cultivate the leaders.  Peter Scazzero writes in his book, The Emotionally Healthy Church (2010), “As go the Leaders, so goes the Church” (p. 20).  A proverb from my dad says, “a fish always rots from the head down.”  The leadership of the church can point the direction of a church’s fellowship by what it teaches and by what it models.  Mostly by what it models how to fellowship in front of the members of the congregation and community. 

If the leaders of the church are together in one mind and one accord they will produce an atmosphere of unity in the church.  When they work together through conflicts and problems they will model to the church how they can do the same with their own personal conflicts.  When the leadership of the church partners together to do ministry it encourages and models how others in the congregation can also work together.  On the opposite side if there is division in the leadership, jealousy, and a whole number of other relational pitfalls then the potential for harm in the congregation is great and the possibility of schism looms.   Since the ramifications of unhealthy congregational relationships are serious, it is important that the leadership of the church keep their ears open to what is taking place in the relationships of the people. 

Fellowshipping better.

This means that leaders have to constantly gauge themselves and the relationships of those in the congregation.  The first part is probably a little harder to do since it might mean adjusting the way we relate to people.  Mel Silberman put it in his book, People Smart (2000), “Think of getting interpersonally fit just as you would think of getting physically fit” (p. 9).  He suggested that we have to do some work to make improvements in our areas of strength and our areas of weakness.  

While individuals can work on their relationship skills it is still the responsibility of the church to foster those relationships by creating atmospheres for relationship building.  The joke is that many churches think of fellowship as the two minutes of handshaking during the worship service or involving the green bean casserole after the service.  While those do play in a part in fellowship but only a part.  They only add to a much larger possibility of a loving fellowship atmosphere in the church.

Russell and Russel (2010) wrote that there are several ways to create this type of atmosphere through the work of the church.  The first is the use of the “large atrium” in which “You can hear the buzz of the crowd long before you arrive in the atrium” (p. 212).  It’s been said that you can see how much people enjoy each others company by how long they stay before and after service.  He offers two more suggestions for creating an atmosphere, recreational opportunities, and meaningful activities like service projects and mission trips. 

The methods are many and very personal to each church’s particular culture.  What may work best at one church may not work at another.   Ultimately, each church need to rely on the biblical foundation for having a loving fellowship and the basic need of people to belong.  Having a loving fellowship can be one of the strongest assets a church has in regards to discipleship and evangelism.  It’s too important to not understand and study.  It’s too important to not intentionally promote and protect our Christian fellowship. 

References

McIntosh, Gary L.; Arn, Charles (2013). What Every Pastor Should Know: 101 Indispensable Rules of Thumb for Leading Your Church. Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

Russell, Bob; Russell, Rusty (2010). When God Builds a Church. Howard Books. Kindle Edition.

Scazzero, Peter, (2010). The Emotionally Healthy Church. Zondervan. Grand Rapids, MI.

Siberman, Mel; Hansburg, Freda (2000). People Smart. Berret-Keohler Publishers, Inc. San Francisco, CA.

Scripture Reading Challenge (#39)

For many people, Ahab’s reign may have seemed like the end of any hope of a return to the worship of the true God.  Scripture pointed out that Ahab did more evil in the sight of God than any other king before him (1 Kings 16:30).  In fact, to some, the famine might have signaled God complete withdrawal. However, we see in this passage that God will not leave or forsake His people.  This is a great and precious promise.

Read 1 Kings 16:29-19:18

God brought an end to the famine and even brought refreshment to Elijah in the worst of places.  We see the Lord’s provision when Elijah is alone.  Still, it seems that for every time God provides for Elijah when he is alone, there are more times that Elijah is reminded of God’s provision through Godly followers.  The Christian community that we have surrounded ourselves with is a blessing from God.

God sustained Elijah through the widow and her son.  They were a reciprocal blessing to each other.  Obadiah also reminded Elijah how God was protecting him from Ahab.  Finally, when Elijah was at his lowest and had always told himself that he was the last follower of God, the Lord spoke to him and said: “Yet I have left me seven thousand in Israel, all the knees which have not bowed unto Baal, and every mouth which hath not kissed him” (1 King 19:18).  

I remember once when an elderly couple was having a difficult time while out traveling with a group from our congregation.  It was camp time, and the husband had some chest pain and was taken to the hospital.  They would bring him back to the home hospital two hours away, and the wife would have to drive home the next morning.  After I had helped her to get to the hospital and then back to her hotel where she was met by another couple from the church that brought her a dinner, she was overwhelmed with emotion.  She exclaimed when she saw them, “This is why you belong to a church.”  God used His community of believers to sustain and support one of His hurting children.  He will do the same for you.

Scripture Reading Challenge (#31)

The story of Samuel is one of my favorites.  Here is a man who both began and finished well.  That is a rare feat among today’s leaders and even many of the leaders in the Bible (of course not all the leaders in the Bible are trying to be good).  However, Samuel is one whose life is thoroughly committed to God and even more, during a time when it seems God was no longer working with Israel.

Read 1 Samuel 1:1-3:21

It is no wonder that Samuel turned out to be such a great follower of God.  Look at the example that was given to him as a child.  Hannah’s approach to prayer and praise before God is worth noting and modeling.  Fervent in prayer and quick to praise.  Many times we are apathetic in prayer and slow to worship.  Probably, much faster to complain.  We should learn more from Hannah.

Hannah had a severe burden on her heart.  In ancient times, being childless was considered a curse, and today it is no less heartbreaking.  The Scripture does not hide this reality.  In fact, through the many inclusions of this issue, it may be one of the most noted effects of the fall of man.  But notice, the Scripture changes tune after Jesus.  The last barren woman mentioned is Elisabeth (Luke 1:7 & 36).  There was another miracle birth from a couple in their old age.  Then, through Mary we see Jesus, and that was a miraculous conception all by itself.  But, the picture is painted all through Scripture, that God is greater than any barrenness.  I know there are not many words of comfort for someone having difficulty to have children, but remember this, God is on your side.  The Lord was able to create a man without anyone else, and he created a woman using only a man.  Jesus was born of just a woman.  God gave children to couples beyond their childbearing years.  I believe God’s message to women is the same thing He told Mary, “For with God nothing shall be impossible” (Luke 1:37).  Keep your faith in God, and He will make something beautiful happen.

Samuel received his calling from God amazingly and audibly.  The calling is not the only thing I notice.  It’s the age of Samuel.  He was most likely around the age of twelve.  God can and will work with young people.  It is also great to see Eli recognize and respect this about Samuel (even when Samuel told Eli that he and his sons would no longer be priests).  As a pastor and professor, I am always reminded of the openness youth have in following God’s leading into new methods and areas of ministry.  We could shut them down for fear of them getting hurt or messing things up.  Or, we can bless and empower them to get things done.  I choose to bless and empower.

The last thing that jumps off of the page is that there was no open vision in the land (1 Samuel 3:1).  Meaning, there were no prophets with a fresh word from heaven.  First, it was as though God was silent.  But, we see God is moving and working in the life of Hannah and Samuel.  So, we learn that when it seems God is silent, he is still working.  Secondly, it could also mean that the teaching of God’s Word was not up to standard.  Proverbs 29:18 says, “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he.”  These verses imply there was no available teaching or preaching.  We know for sure that Eli’s children were not doing the right thing as priests.  However, Eli seemed to be complacent and by his silence and inaction, permitted this dearth of God’s Word.  Oh God, do not let us be silent in our words or actions but let us declare you faithfully through our words and deeds!

Scripture Reading Challenge (#30)

This short book in the Old Testament is the first of two books named after women in the entire Bible.  One may wonder why she is included in the Scripture.  After all, she is not of Hebrew descent but was brought in through marriage.  However, through her story, we see the faithfulness to God and God’s grace.  We also learn that everyone is welcome to be part of God’s story.  Finally, we know how God works through families and salvation history.  Ruth would become the great-grandmother of Israel’s greatest king, David.

Read Ruth 1:1-4:22

Isn’t it amazing that such a sad beginning to this tale ends up with a beautiful love story?  And, all the way through it, we see God’s hand orchestrating events.  The Lord is present in the painful situations and the pleasant ones.  I am reminded of Romans 8:28, “And we know that all things work together for good to them that love God, to them who are the called according to his purpose.”  You may have heard the cliche phrase, “Everything happens for a reason.”  People may even reference this verse.  I think that is a  wrong interpretation of Romans 8:28.  Instead, it seems to say that things can happen without reason, at least for those not seeking to live in the Lord.  Instead, we should say, “everything can have a holy purpose or else it happens in vain.”  Ruth demonstrated that even the death of her husband, brother-in-law, and father-in-law, could lead to God’s glory through faithfulness.  May we be found faithful and find handfuls of purpose along the way (Ruth 2:16).

Scripture Reading Challenge (#29)

The story of Samson is one of the incredible feats he performed by God’s Spirit.  However, at times, it is difficult to understand what we can gain from these passages in Scripture that apply to us today.  After reading about Samson’s life, we will be able to take away a better understanding of God’s work in time, and the frailty of even the best leaders.

Read Judges 13:1-16:31

The Lord is a mighty Deliverer.  However, He does it in His way and according to His schedule.  Throughout Scripture, we are reminded of that truth.  He also has much more patience than we do.  God took 400 years before delivering Israel out of Egypt.  God waited 40 years in our current passage before bringing Samson in the picture and then worked through Samson’s entire life from birth to death, to deliver Israel from the Philistine rule.  Furthermore, God worked through eternity past to the fall of man, through several millennia to the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ to bring us salvation.  Now, we have gone through almost 2,000 years of waiting for the second coming of Christ.  God works at His own pace, but we can be sure he is not slack concerning His promises (2 Peter 3:9).  God may take a decade or a millennia or two, but He will keep His word.  He makes things happen according to His divine plan.  We must remain faithful during the in-between times.

The second thing we learn from Samson’s story, and many others in the Bible, is that even good leaders fail.  There are undoubtedly toxic leaders who never seem to do good, but there those like Samson, Moses, David, and Peter, who are God’s people but still make mistakes or even fall into grave sin.  Moses worked with anger issues.  David was a man after God’s heart but yet was caught up in the act of adultery.   Peter liked to stick his foot in his mouth or could be hypocritical depending on who he was around.  When we do things on our own, we can be tempted and will fall.  Judges 16:20, noted that Samson did not even know the Lord had departed from him.  He had allowed the temptation to overtake him.  We need to pray for our leaders and ourselves to be vigilant in God’s Spirit.  Even the mighty can fall, and it only through the Lord’s grace we can keep standing tall against the tactics of Satan (Eph. 6:10-12).

Scripture Reading Challenge (#27)

Living in the war-torn ancient near eastern lands was brutal.  The daily life of an individual was undoubtedly harder than we have it today.  Uprisings and skirmishes between kingdoms and tribes were common.  God allowed these opponents of Israel to come against them when they failed to follow Him.  It was a way of disciplining them and centering their focus on God.  God would not leave them in oppression, as He would raise up a judge to deliver Israel and to lead them back to Him.  Deborah, a prophetess, was one of these judges.

Read Judges 4:1-5:31

Surprisingly, in the ancient near eastern cultures, women were valued in society.  In fact, a majority of cultures did not respect a woman at all.  However, this is one of the significant changes that God would work through Israel and the Church.  Men and women are both created in the image of God and are of the highest value (Galatians 3:26-29).  This passage highlights two powerful women, Deborah and Jael.  Later in the Old Testament, we will find two books named after women and regarded as Holy Scripture.  Israel’s treatment of women was counter-cultural for its day, and the Church’s inclusion of women caused greater changes within Roman culture.

Deborah’s song is recorded in Scripture, giving God thanks and praise.  It also serves to teach the people of Israel to continue their obedience to God.  Music is incredibly important in the Church?  Why?  For those two reason mentioned.  First, music is a fantastic expression of our heartfelt worship before God.  When we have trouble speaking our thoughts toward God, many times we are able to sing them.  Singing and music-making before God is a thread throughout Scripture.  The second reason is we can teach through song.  This is perhaps one of the greatest strengths of hymns, as they provide a structure that works with teaching doctrine.  I can’t remember who said it, but it is good to share, “every good theology needs to be accompanied with good hymnology.”