(2) Fellowship

In our last article we asked and sought to answer a number of questions onthe subject of baptism. We want to follow a similar pattern with respect to the subjects of fellowship and reception. We may hear believers speak of ‘reception into the local assembly’, or of being ‘received into fellowship’. It is important that we understand what this means before we look at the basis of how this is done. The questions we want to address are:

  • What is fellowship?
  • What is the basis of fellowship?
  • What does it mean to be in fellowship?
  • How should people be received into the fellowship of the local assembly?
  • On what basis are people received?

What is fellowship?

In Luke chapter 5 verse 10 we read that, ‘the sons of Zebedee … were partners with Simon’. The word ‘partners’ is the word having the same root as the word ‘fellowship’. It is otherwise translated ‘partakers’, describing those who work or toil together, sharing in the benefits of a business or enterprise, as well as sharing in its trials and tribulations. There is a picture or illustration that we can use here. Fellowship, as the word suggests, describes fellows in the same ship. For James, John and Simon and their fellow workers it was important that they all pulled together and in the same direction. If the catch was to be landed and the business prospered there must be genuine fellowship.They must work together for the common good. If the work of the Lord is to be prospered and the assembly testimony maintained, it is important that we work together for that common aim. Using this picture, there is no place in the vessel for passengers. We would not expect to share in the profits of a business if we had contributed nothing to their achievement. Are there those who contribute nothing to the assembly and yet expect to enjoy its privileges and blessings? This is not genuine fellowship! The scriptures will show us the need for involvement in every facet of the work of the Assembly.

What is the basis of fellowship?

In the first epistle of John chapter 1, the characteristics of fellowship are given us:

  • Primarily, new birth – ‘our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ’, v. 3.
  • As the basis of our fellowship is that we are saved so we should seek only the fellowship of those who are believers in Christ. Paul wrote to the Corinthians, ‘God is faithful, by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of His Son Jesus Christ our Lord’, 1 Cor. 1. 9.
  • A common interest in the Word of God and its teaching – ‘That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us’, v. 3. The enjoyment of fellowship is found in that which reveals tous more of the person of Christ. How precious to sit under the sound of the Word of God and learn more of the Saviour!
  • A desire for moral and spiritual purity – ‘If we walk in the light, as He is in the light, we have fellowship one with another’, v. 7.

To have fellowship with Divine persons we must manifest the same character in our daily lives.

What does it mean to be in fellowship in a practical sense?

The epistle to the Philippians is the epistle of fellowship and it is in this epistle that we shall find some of the different ways in which fellowship is expressed. In chapter 1 we find:

‘fellowship in the gospel’, v. 5.

It may be working alongside the preacher, in distributing literature or in visitation. It may be offering hospitality to the preacher. It may be inviting friends and neighbours to the gospel. It may be attending all the meetings that we are able to attend, work and household duties permitting. It may be praying for all the meetings and those that are not saved who attend. This is fellowship in the gospel. In chapter 2 we find:

‘fellowship of the Spirit’,v. 1.

What does this mean? The context explains: ‘that ye be like minded’, v. 2, ‘being of one accord, one mind’, v. 2, ‘let each esteem other better than themselves’, v. 3. The fellowship of the Spirit is that unity, and harmony that the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit generates within the assembly. It is putting aside my own desires for the good of the company. This is particularly challenging to all of us when we live in a world that encourages us to please ourselves and‘do our own thing’. There may be times when we need to put aside our own desires and ideas and bow to the desires of others as guided by the word of God. Those that are truly spiritual have in mind the unity of the saints.

‘fellow soldier’, v. 25.

Fellowship in the work and fellowship in the warfare! Fellowship in the work– ‘he that ministered to my wants’. He had an interest in the needs of the Lord’s servants. ‘He longed after you all’, v. 26. He had a deep interest in the spiritual welfare of the saints. Notice, too, ‘for the work of the Lord he was nigh unto death, not regarding his life’, v. 30. This is the extent of the fellowship that Epaphroditus was prepared to give for the furtherance of the work. True fellowship is a costly business!These should be the hallmarks of fellowship. This is commitment, even when it costs. But, if these are the principles, how do they work out in practice?We read in Acts 2 of those principles being worked out in the life of the early church. For example, we read:

  • ‘they that gladly received his word were baptized’, v. 41. The first company of Christians was composed of saved and baptized believers;
  • ‘they continued steadfastly in the apostle’s doctrine’, v. 42. They had an interest in spiritual teaching and spiritual food;
  • ‘all that believed were together, and had all things common’, v. 44. These were people who had a heart for the Lord’s people and a genuine desire for their blessing. This was expressed in the harmony and unity that characterized these early believers.

What, then, should be the basis upon which we receive people into the fellowship of the local assembly?

In the verses in Acts chapter 2 we seethe necessity of spiritual life and the need for spiritual light – an appreciation of the privileges and responsibilities of fellowship. But these would apply to those who are relatively new converts who, as they grow in spiritual things, desire the fellowship of the Lord’s people. What of other circumstances? In Acts chapter 9 verses 26-28 we find the situation of a relatively new convert unknown to the saints at Jerusalem. They know him as Saul of Tarsus, a vicious opponent of the truth. They did not know of his conversion. Yet, Saul desired to be received into the fellowship of the saints. It is clear from the words of verse 26 that Saul was not received, ‘they were all afraid of him, and believed not that he was a disciple’. Being unable to vouch for the man, Saul, they would not receive him. This was the exercise of godly care in respect to the assembly for Saul was known for the havoc that he had wrought amongst the early believers. But then we read, ‘Barnabus took him,and brought him to the apostles, and declared unto them how he had seen the Lord in the way’, v. 27. Here, Saul is brought before the elders of the assembly, is interviewed and, later, is received and brought into the fellowship of the company as a consequence of the work of Barnabus. It is important to appreciate some essential aspects of the practice taught here. We would emphasize that:

  • Barnabus brought Saul to a meeting with the apostles. This is not a meeting in the porch at the back of the hall a few minutes before the breaking of bread! This meeting would take time to rehearse the detail of Saul’s conversion and to allay the fears of these elders.
  • Barnabus was well known to these men and highly respected amongst them, as chapter 4 verses 36 and 37 show. Any recommendation he would make would be one in which they could have confidence. It is important not to put elders in a difficult position because we fail to appreciate the responsibility of care that they have. Barnabus understood this.
  • Reception to the fellowship of the assembly can be on the basis of personal introduction, provided time is given to elders to establish the facts. In Romans chapter 16 verse1-2, and 2 Corinthians chapter 3 verse 1, the apostle teaches us the need for a letter of commendation in the introduction of someone unknown to the assembly. The letter is written:
  • to the whole assembly – though Paul’s letter, and these verses, may have been read to the assembly by an elder it was essentially a letter to the whole assembly.
  • as an Introduction – that the person’s spiritual credentials might be made known and their suitability for reception to the assembly established.
  • to enable gift to be exercised – ‘a servant of the church’, Rom. 16. 1. She was an active member of the assembly and her particular gift might be a blessing to others – ‘a succourer of many’, v. 2.
  • to further other aspects of Phoebe’s business – ‘that ye assist her’, v. 2. Phoebe had business to do and the saints could assist her in that work and, in so doing, express their fellowship with Phoebe.

Reception can be on the basis of letters of commendation from one assembly to another.

Why is the issue of reception so important to the spiritual well being of the assembly? In Acts chapter 20verses 28-29 Paul speaks of ‘grievous wolves’ entering into the assembly. Similarly, in Jude verses 3-4, we read of ‘certain men crept in unawares … ungodly men’. These were men who had gained access to the assembly, who had been received. In the latter case, certainly, they were men who were not saved and who were intent on the destruction of the assembly and the scattering of the saints. The issue of assembly reception is a difficult one, particularly when it affects us personally. May we appreciate the responsibility of care that is in the hands of godly elders and, for the preservation of the saints and the unity of the assembly, bow to their judgement and support them in what can be a most difficult and