Open Letter to the Congregation: The Fellowship of the Saints

by Aaron Dunlop

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Dear Congregation,

Recently I have been doing some reading on the Canadian Expeditionary Force during WWI. I was struck by the fact that even in North America during the war there was espionage and the very real threat of attack. Because of this, cruise ships traveling to and from Britain did so in convoy with battleships. The logic was simple—lone ships are an easy target. That logic was understood in the seventeenth century as well, and the Puritan writer George Swinnock applied it to the Christian life when he said, “Satan watches for those vessels that sail without a convoy.”

As Christians, the Bible warns us to be “sober” and “vigilant” because of the continual threat of the one who has evil intent against us. But the safety of the Christian is bound up in another important New Testament word—koinonia, translated by the English word “fellowship.” This was one of the key features associated with the strength and growth of the early church. Luke tells us that the saints continued in “the apostle’s doctrine and fellowship…and the Lord added to the Church…” (Acts 2:42-47).

It is important to distinguish between fellowship and unity; fellowship is more specific. There may be unity—i.e., the absence of division—without the enjoyment of real and vital fellowship. We are thankful to God for unity in our congregation, but we must not be satisfied to leave it there. We must work at encouraging one another, building one another up, and strengthening the body of Christ. It is here, not in unity alone, that the well being of the congregation consists. The word koinonia is used in the New Testament to press home the need for mutual interaction as a means of grace. Like other prescribed means of grace, fellowship flows directly from Christ and finds its fulfillment in the development of His kingdom and the glory of His name.

Fellowship is first of all, with “the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.” In his first epistle, John uses the word fellowship four times in the first chapter (1 John 1:3, 6, 7). There it is used exclusively in the context of salvation. In other words, to have fellowship with God is to have eternal life, to be saved. It is from this that all fellowship flows and apart from this there can be no true fellowship with those around us.

Fellowship with Christ also implies fellowship with the faithful. Union with God through Christ brings us into a relationship with all the saints of all time in all places—it is the church universal. Paul uses this word to distinguish between light and darkness, the Christian and the ungodly (2 Corinthians 6:14).

But there is a third use of the word fellowship in the New Testament that brings us immediately into a local context. This fellowship can happen only where there is Christ-like activity and interaction in the local church. God has intended this social interaction as a means for our growth in grace. Our lives are changed through fellowship in a way that they cannot be otherwise. Through fellowship we learn to be patient, merciful, gracious, giving, and forgiving. The phrase that Paul uses to teach us this is found in Philemon 1:6: “the communication of thy faith.” Other translations read the “fellowship” or “participation” or—more commonly—the “sharing” of your faith. It is the word koinonia.

This “communication of faith” necessitates two things—give and take. The word koinonia is used more often in the context of giving. Paul says we are to be “liberal [in our] distribution” to the poor saints (2 Corinthians 9:13). The same word is translated “contribution” in Romans 15:26. But communicating our faith also demands receiving. Philemon was commended for giving (verse 5), but Paul writes specifically to exhort him to “receive” (verse 12). For the church to be “successful” in fellowship we must share the grace given to us and also receive of the grace given to others—or given to us through others. We must not rob others from our company, and we must not think ourselves above the grace and gifts given to others. Every Christian should add to the church and every Christian should receive from the church.

As you read through the New Testament for clues and pointers how best to fulfill your role in this means of grace you find that very little advice is given. The reason for this is that fellowship is to be natural, not staged or forced. Fellowship flows out of a love for the Saviour and results in a love for the Saviour’s people. The simple sine qua non of fellowship then, is togetherness. We are “quickened together” (Colossians 2:13), to be “followers together” (Philippians 3:17), and “workers together” (2 Corinthians 6:1), “striving together” (Philippians 1:27), and “helping together by prayer” (2 Corinthians 1:11) with the anticipation that we will one day be “caught up together with them [all the saints] … to meet the Lord in the air” (1 Thessalonians 4:17) when we will “live together with Him” (1 Thessalonians 5:10).

For this ministry of togetherness Paul assumes that we will want to “come together” (1 Corinthians 14:23). It is the natural desire of the Christian. But, there are times when we need to be reminded of these things and encouraged in them, and so the writer to the Hebrews exhorts his readers not to forsake “the assembling of yourselves together” (Hebrews 10:25).

Remember, Christian, lone ships are an easy target. Let me encourage you, in Christ’s name, to seek the safety of the convoy, for our mutual benefit. Let me also remind you that this mutual dependence transcends the offices of the church. Paul asked the people in Thessalonica to pray for him and the other ministers of the church (1 Thessalonians 5:25; 2 Thessalonians 3:1), that by working together—people and pastor—the “word of God may have free course, and be glorified.” Christian, when your place is empty at the gathering of the saints you are missed.

We are all called to initiate involvement in each other’s lives…. We covenant together to work and pray for unity, to walk together in love, to exercise care and watchfulness over each other, to faithfully admonish and entreat one another as occasion may require, to assemble together, to pray for each other, to rejoice and to bear with each other, and to pray for God’s help in all this.”Mark Dever (Nine Marks of a Healthy Church, Crossway, 2000, p. 221)

Yours for Christ’s sake,

Aaron Dunlop

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