What does “Christian fellowship” mean?

Bible study that hits the spot
Bible study that hits the spot

Philippians is my favorite book of the Bible. When I study Philippians 1, I use D. A. Carson’s “Basics for Believers” commentary.

Here is the part I want to talk about today:

Philippians 1:1-11:

Paul and Timothy, bond-servants of Christ Jesus, To all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, including the overseers and deacons:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

I thank my God in all my remembrance of you,

always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all,

in view of your participation in the gospel from the first day until now.

For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus.

For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers of grace with me.

For God is my witness, how I long for you all with the affection of Christ Jesus.

And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in real knowledge and all discernment,

10 so that you may approve the things that are excellent, in order to be sincere and blameless until the day of Christ;

11 having been filled with the fruit of righteousness which comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.

Now just read that and reflect on how passionate, and even unstable and emotional Paul sounds about this love he has for this church. Ask yourself this: what is the basis for these feelings? Read it again, and write your answer down. I’ll tell you mine in a minute.

Now here is D. A. Carson.

He writes:

As often in his letters, Paul begins with a warm expression of thanks to God for something in the lives of his readers. Here the grounds of his thanksgiving to God are three in number, though all three are tied to the same theme.

The first is their faithful memory of him. The NIV reads, “I thank my God every time I remember you” (1: 3). But others suggest “I thank my God every time you remember me,” or something similar. The original is ambiguous. For reasons I shall not go into, I think Paul is referring to their remembrance of him. Later on he will thank the Philippians for remembering him so warmly that they sent funds to support him in his ministry. But here the vision is broader: he perceives that their interest in him is a reflection of their continued commitment to the gospel, and that is why he thanks God for them.

The point becomes explicit in the second cause of his thanksgiving: “In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now . . .” (1: 4– 5). Their “partnership in the gospel” injects joy into Paul’s prayers of thanksgiving: “I always pray with joy,” he writes. The word rendered “partnership” is more commonly translated “fellowship” in the New Testament. What precisely does the word mean? In common use “fellowship” has become somewhat debased. If you invite a pagan neighbor to your home for a cup of tea, it is friendship; if you invite a Christian neighbor, it is fellowship. If you attend a meeting at church and leave as soon as it is over, you have participated in a service; if you stay for coffee afterward, you have enjoyed some fellowship. In modern use, then, fellowship has come to mean something like warm friendship with believers.

In the first century, however, the word commonly had commercial overtones. If John and Harry buy a boat and start a fishing business, they have entered into a fellowship, a partnership. Intriguingly, even in the New Testament the word is often tied to financial matters. Thus, when the Macedonian Christians send money to help the poor Christians in Jerusalem, they are entering into fellowship with them (Rom. 15: 26).

The heart of true fellowship is self-sacrificing conformity to a shared vision. Both John and Harry put their savings into the fishing boat. Now they share the vision that will put the fledgling company on its feet. Christian fellowship, then, is self-sacrificing conformity to the gospel. There may be overtones of warmth and intimacy, but the heart of the matter is this shared vision of what is of transcendent importance, a vision that calls forth our commitment. So when Paul gives thanks, with joy, because of the Philippians’ “partnership in the gospel” or “fellowship in the gospel,” he is thanking God that these brothers and sisters in Christ— from the moment of their conversion (“ from the first day until now,” Paul writes)— rolled up their sleeves and got involved in the advance of the gospel. They continued their witness in Philippi, they persevered in their prayers for Paul, they sent money to support him in his ministry— all testifying to their shared vision of the importance and priority of the gospel. That is more than enough reason for thanking God.

[..]Implicitly, such an apostolic stance asks us what gives us our greatest joy. Is it personal success? Some victory for our children? Acquisition of material things? “I have no greater joy,” John writes, “than to hear that my children are walking in the truth.” Paul reflects exactly the same attitude. Paul adds, “It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart . . .” (Phil. 1: 7). Probably this was written against the background of Stoic influence that was cautious about whole-life commitments, especially if they involved the “passions.” Be cool; do not be vulnerable; do not get hurt. But that was not Paul’s way. “It is right for me to feel this way about all of you,” Paul insists, regardless of what the contemporary culture says. “I have you in my heart”: my whole life and thought are bound up with you.

More:

So strongly does he want the Philippians to recognize his devotion to them that Paul puts himself under an oath: “God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus” (1: 8). The significance of the oath is not that without it he might lie. Rather, he puts himself under an oath so that the Philippians might feel the passion of his truthfulness, in exactly the same way that God puts himself under an oath in the Epistle to the Hebrews. There the point is not that otherwise God might lie, but that God wants to be believed (Heb. 7: 20– 25). So Paul: God is my witness “how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.”

Here is no mere professionalism. Nor is this an act, a bit of showmanship to “turn them on” to the apostle. Rather, it is something that repeatedly bubbles through Paul’s arguments. It recurs, for example, in chapter 4: “Therefore, my brothers, you whom I love and long for, my joy and crown, that is how you should stand firm in the Lord, dear friends!” (4: 1).

Both from Paul’s example and from that of the Philippians, then, we must learn this first point: the fellowship of the gospel, the partnership of the gospel, must be put at the center of our relationships with other believers. That is the burden of these opening verses. Paul does not commend them for the fine times they had shared watching games in the arena. He doesn’t mention their literature discussion groups or the excellent meals they had, although undoubtedly they had enjoyed some fine times together. What lies at the center of all his ties with them, doubtless including meals and discussion, is this passion for the gospel, this partnership in the gospel.

What ties us together? What do we talk about when we meet, even after a church service? Mere civilities? The weather? Sports? Our careers and our children? Our aches and pains? None of these topics should be excluded from the conversation of Christians, of course. In sharing all of life, these things will inevitably come up. But what must tie us together as Christians is this passion for the gospel, this fellowship in the gospel. On the face of it, nothing else is strong enough to hold together the extraordinary diversity of people who constitute many churches: men and women, young and old, blue collar and white, healthy and ill, fit and flabby, different races, different incomes, different levels of education, different personalities. What holds us together? It is the gospel, the good news that in Jesus, God himself has reconciled us to himself. This brings about a precious God-centeredness that we share with other believers.

Does what Carson writes make you think of the Lord of the Rings book 1? (“The Fellowship of the Ring”) It sounds like Christians are supposed to band together in common purpose in order to complete a quest. They are not supposed to just be hanging out to pass the time. There is planning. There is cooperation. There is danger. There is achievement. There is adventure. I think that he loves the church in Philippi because they have entered into this fellowship of the gospel with him.

More:

Already in verse 4 Paul has insisted that whenever he prays for the Philippians, he does so with joy and thanksgiving. Now he gives us the content of his prayers for them: “And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless until the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ— to the glory and praise of God” (1: 9– 11).

[…]Second, what Paul has in mind is not mere sentimentalism or the rush of pleasure spawned, for example, by a large conference. “I pray,” Paul writes, “that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight.” The kind of love that Paul has in mind is the love that becomes more knowledgeable. Of course, Paul is not thinking of just any kind of knowledge. He is not hoping they will learn more and more about nuclear physics or sea turtles. He has in mind the knowledge of God; he wants them to enjoy insight into God’s words and ways, and thus to know how to live in light of them.

So here is my main point: I think that we need to stop looking at other people on the surface level – age, skin color, wealth, clothes, etc. – and start to dig deeper underneath to find out where each person stands with respect to the gospel of Jesus Christ. Our criteria should not be present ability. We should choose those with desire, intensity, and willingness to learn hard things. If a person can demonstrate their desire to do grow in knowledge and depth of insight, you should be spending your time, money and effort with that person first. Don’t pick the people who you like for surface reasons, pick the people who you can engage in fellowship with.

5 thoughts on “What does “Christian fellowship” mean?”

  1. Amen, brother.. Amen! I have sought this exact fellowship for a long while. I know that God is faithful when we pray for truth and His wisdom; when we ask for fellowship to delight in Him. Unfortunately, this is not the desire of many church members or churches but! I know the body is alive and I am blessed by your assuring post and confirmation of that truth.

    Like

  2. Hello WK,
    This Canadian has been frequenting your blog for 2+ years now. Thank you for the work you do! Two questions for you, one longer, one short:

    Longer question:
    I can be quite forward about the atrocity that is abortion. A fellow Christian friend of mine (an civil engineer) who leans left, recently emailed me, saying,

    “I found an article that seems to have numbers that agree with my suspicions: abortions decrease more when Democrats are in power than when Republicans are in power. This is because abortions are a symptom of the wider problem of poverty, and are not an isolated thing that can be legislated out of existence. This is an argument for single-issue (abortion) voters to vote democrat and not republican. I thought you would find it interesting:

    http://religionnews.com/2017/01/12/why-abortion-may-increase-during-a-donald-trump-presidency/

    -end quote

    Everything about this seems like wishful thinking, at best. I could criticize a graph like that till the cows come home: for starters, are abortions being reported with equal vigilance across the years? Up here in Canada, reporting the number of abortions is voluntary for the clinic/medical facility. But I think that for the sake of my exchange with my friend, attacking the graph could be a bit of a red herring. And I have my doubts about a clear positive correlation between poverty and abortion, but that’s hard to nail down definitively. In your experience and study, what do you think might be the heart of the assumptions at play here, and how might I respond using verifiable facts and figures?

    Short question:
    What are some of your quick go-to sites for news? I always appreciate that you point out the political leanings of the news sites you reference. I tend to frequent the Hill, the Federalist, and the Intercept (knowing their leanings: left, right, and independent/left). I also enjoy Chris Hedges at Truth Dig (Independent – Green Party) as well as Dan Carlin’s podcast Common Sense (independent).

    Many thanks, WK!

    -Chris from Canada

    Like

    1. Here is how I would reply to your left leaning friend:

      We ought not trivialize the fact that each time an abortion is performed, a human life is snuffed out. That sad fact may be distasteful to many folks, but it is the reality.

      As well, when government officials, be they jurists or legislators, act to strip legal protection and legal status from a whole class of human beings, that ought to be a wake up call to the rest of us. Already, in many western countries, newborns with severe handicaps are being denied hydration and food. This is wrong.

      Like

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s