The Fellowship of Saints
Fellowship between Christians is the gift of God. It is a true means of grace. Christians are spiritual people and they feel comparatively isolated in this world. But God gives them this compensation, that the fellowship they enjoy with like-minded brethren and sisters is marvellously therapeutic and sweet. Fellowship exists between all believers because they have the principal things in common: the experience of saving grace, the enmity of the world, the expectation of coming glory, a thirst for God, grateful love to Christ and acceptance of Holy Scripture.
Basic to the New Testament idea of fellowship is this very one of 'having things in common'. The Greek term is koinonia. But to know the New Testament word does not give us the experience. The meaning of New Testament fellowship can only be known by us if we are spiritual and lively Christians. A great deal of what passes for 'fellowship' is often no more than human friendship such as men might have in a club or lodge. It is good and necessary but not equivalent to the precise thought conveyed in God's Word by the term 'fellowship'.
A believer's duty is to promote true fellowship by all the means open to him in this life. He should also regard it as his privilege and duty to improve the quality of his fellowship as far as he can. We probably do not do enough in our day to promote spiritual and edifying fellowship. And yet it is something which is most urgently needed; and that for obvious reasons.
Christians are lonely. They are scattered far from one another and are often kept exceptionally busy at their secular jobs. Consequently, they are spiritually very tired by the time they meet with one another, and are chronically in need of that comfort and nursing which only Christian company is able to give them. Not only so, but believers are today confused in all kinds of ways. They are frequently bewildered by the babel of false teachings, alarmed at the unfaithfulness of church leaders and perplexed by the rapid succession of changes in our modern world. Besides, a time of declension is always a weary time.
Hindrance to Fellowship
Fellowship is understandably a delicate thing. After all, it consists of the interaction of human spirits upon one another in an atmosphere of trust and confidence. All the participants are sinful, even though saved, and all are more or less sensitive. All vary in gifts, education, articulation and sanctification. It is inevitable, therefore, that there must be an awareness among believers that certain things are to be avoided if fellowship is not to be hindered:
Fellowship is not improved by the presence of brethren who never attempt to talk about the truths of religion. There are some professing Christians who can talk about anything and everything except the things of God. Sport, politics, economics and international relations may have a place in good men's conversations occasionally. But they are not the stuff of Christian fellowship. It is not apostolic Christianity to turn the gospel into an unmentionable secret. There is no government statute forbidding us to 'leak' the mysteries of the faith to one another when we gather into groups for mutual edification. Paul refers to brethren who 'in conference added nothing' (Galatians 2:6). There are too many who, in a culpable sense, leave us in that condition.
Then, fellowship is not enhanced by brethren who have only one-stringed fiddles and cannot talk about any subject except their own pet theme. One-track-mindedness is an infirmity which leads other brethren to groan inwardly while they are courteously smiling outwardly. The good man who always leads the conversation to the millennium, or the anti-Christ, or the superior merits of his own church ought to do his brethren the occasional service of 'changing the gramophone record'. Those fellowships which are dominated by small-mindedness will very quickly famish and sicken.
The remedy is to do some fresh reading and to hunt for truths in pastures new. Also, to attend a good Christian conference helps us all to rub off the corners of prejudice.
Fellowship is not promoted when one person commandeers the group in the belief that he is the only one whose voice ought to be listened to. A fellowship is not a monologue or a soliloquy, but an exercise in giving and taking. All should feel there is space enough in the speaking to get a few words in edgeways from time to time. All should be encouraged to feel that they have something worth saying. All should be left with the impression that they contributed their two mites to the general good, even if they were not so advanced or prolific in knowledge as most of their brethren. Christian love honours the lowly and makes the poorly-gifted feel welcome.
Again, we might notice that Christian fellowship is the poorer when we relax so much that our tongue runs away with us. Alas! we have all been guilty and have painful recollection of situations in which we spoke and laughed, jested and gossiped more like fools than wise men. Our conscience faithfully told us so on the way home and no argument of our minds could convince us otherwise in the end.
On the other hand, we must not be glum, sombre or depressing. We should be generous to lonely Christians when they seem to 'let go' a little in good company. Christians must be able to find relief in fellowship. The human spirit will snap if it does not unbend at times. David danced before the ark. We must not, like Michal (2 Samuel 6:20), be sour or disapproving of what may be the spiritual ecstasy of the brethren when they meet one another.
To be circumspect is always our duty. But it is a blot on our fellowship when we become so morose or monkish that we leave no place for innocent and well-meant elation. The Harris blacksmith danced round his anvil when he heard that the 'apostle of the north' (Dr John Macdonald of Ferintosh) was coming. To act the part of a 'wet blanket' may feel pious but it will be certain to quench that delight which is an essential ingredient of real fellowship.
These are some of the negatives. But what, we may ask on the positive side, are the best ways to promote and enrich our Christian fellowships so that they may be occasions of real blessing among one another? The following measures, it seems to us, deserve serious consideration:
It will help our fellowship meetings when we come together with some well-prepared spiritual thoughts to share with one another. Let each of the group keep a little manna by him in his pot which he can share with his fellows in company. This is to be the fruit of his own study, reading, meditation and recollection. And let us talk of the sermon! If those in the pews of evangelical churches talked more about the contents of their ministers' preaching, they would get better sermons from their ministers.
Fellowship is the place where the religion of the heart is much promoted. Here we draw forth from one another those deep counsels which lie hidden in the soul. Experiences of God in providence, enjoyment of God in secret, the answers to prayer, the hand of God in guidance — these are the matters which true fellowship feeds on. Because there is love and mutual confidence, we take one another's experiences on trust and we neither despise the elementary nor adulate the impressive. But we lay all to our heart in one way or another. Some men's experiences we covet and seek for ourselves. Others' we prefer not to have. But we do not treat dismissively what God does with our brethren and sisters as though our own experiences were the rule or measure of all the church.
Above all, let us seek to have the felt sense of Christ's presence with us when we gather together in fellowship. There is nothing more healthful to Christian hearts than the realisation that there is a divine 'presence' with them. Those who dismiss such a thought as sentimental piety have a lot to learn about the meaning of Christ's promises: 'Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them' (Matthew 18:20) and 'I will manifest myself unto him (i.e., the believer)' (John 14:21).
It sometimes happens that the Lord gives a great sense of his presence to his people in their gatherings for fellowship. Believers' hearts 'burn within' them (Luke 24:32) on such occasions, their souls are chastened and their spirits feel the weight of earthly things lifted away for a time. No doubt if we were holier and more prayerful we should enjoy more frequent visitations of Christ in this felt manner, as he 'standeth behind our wall' and 'looketh forth at the windows, showing himself through the lattice' (Song of Songs 2:9).
There is an aspect of our theme, however, which defies analysis and must be referred to the sovereign wisdom of God as he oversees the lives of his own people. It is this mysterious fact that God gives special friendship in grace to his people on earth. Such a friendship was that of David and Jonathan. It was beautifully put by David in the words: 'thy love to me was wonderful, passing the love of women' (2 Samuel 1:26). This text proves that the attachment was the spiritual bond of regenerate love, for it is the nature of spiritual love to be stronger than the attachment of graceless affection. Both David and Jonathan loved the Lord very greatly and the Lord gave them a holy friendship in grace which was especially precious.
It is a thing much to be desired that God would give us in this world such friendships among those who fear his Name. They are a source of great strength to believers and they go a long way to counterbalancing the loneliness of the pilgrim way.
Perhaps we do not always remember as we should what is said of Mordecai, that he was 'accepted of the multitude of his brethren, seeking the wealth of his people, and speaking peace to all his seed' (Esther 10:3). Such an example is the ideal, if we are desirous of promoting true Christian fellowship in all our churches.