Pure fellowship (1)
The apostle Paul was ever building fellowship in the churches and showing Christians how best to maintain unity.
And why was he so set on united churches? I think he had the prayer of his Lord in mind: ‘And the glory which you gave me, I have given them, that they may be one, just as we are one.
‘ I in them, and you in me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that you have sent me, and have loved them as you have loved me’ (John 17:22-23).
Here Jesus was saying an amazing thing. If the church is one as God is one, then the world will know that the Father sent the Son and the devil will lose his hold on people!
Honest and pure fellowship is essential for a church’s spiritual progress. Consider, for example, Paul’s teaching in 2 Corinthians 6:11 – 7:4. His example and desire for honesty there are apparent: ‘O Corinthians! We have spoken openly to you, our heart is wide open.
‘You are not restricted by us, but you are restricted by your own affections. Now in return for the same (I speak as to children), you also be open’ (6:11-13).
He’s saying, ‘Listen Corinthians, honesty is a key to unity and our fellowship in Jesus’. He has been honest with them about his struggles and now he’s asking for the same honesty back.
There are two types of honesty, but one of them is needed far more than the other! ‘Brutal honesty’ is where you always make known your frustrations to the person sitting next to you; or, where you share the other’s intimate sins with brutal negativity — accompanied of course by a ‘We must pray for them’!
Or, where you litmus-test people to decide if they are suitable for ‘fellowship’ with you. You may hint at a doctrinal emphasis or two and, if their response doesn’t match up to your tradition (Bible version, hymn book, etc.), you don’t speak to them too much again.
Paul is certainly not calling churches to those sorts of ‘honesty’. But there’s a good and healthy honesty, necessary for pure fellowship and for a church to impact its district.
This type of honesty keeps in mind the cross of Christ. If some in the congregation are spiritually stuck or bogged down, then it gets alongside them and says, ‘Brother, we must press on and I don’t think that particular thing is helping you’.
Isn’t this what Galatians 6:1 teaches? ‘Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted’.
Pure fellowship does not turn a blind eye to poor behaviour; it doesn’t sweep things under the rug. We are to pick people up on necessary matters, but in a spirit of gentleness. This is vital for fellowship.
Then there is the question of relating to those who are unconverted. How should a church relate to people who are not members of the kingdom of God?
The situation in Corinth helps us understand the issues. The believers there had not guarded with holiness their social lives, sexual activities and marriages. As a result, the fellowship of the church was suffering. So Paul had to write to them about true unity.
He said, ‘Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion has light with darkness? And what accord has Christ with Belial?
‘Or what part has a believer with an unbeliever? And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God’ (2 Corinthians 6:14-16).
A church cannot have Jesus-centred, pure fellowship with non-believers. Unconverted people who come to church services must be shown love, but not fellowship.
Every single person is one of two different characters — ‘light’ or ‘darkness’. Everyone has one of two entirely different masters — ‘Christ’ or ‘Belial’ (Satan).
Even though all may come to a Sunday service well dressed, sing the hymns and close their eyes for prayer, and say ‘hello’ to the pastor at the door, all serve either Belial or Christ. There is no grey, in-between area.
Even non-Christians who seem nicer than real Christians are of Belial, darkness and unrighteousness. So Paul urges Christians in their relationships with non-Christians, ‘Don’t be unequally yoked’.
That phrase is based on Deuteronomy 22:9-11: ‘You shall not sow your vineyard with different kinds of seed, lest the yield of the seed which you have sown and the fruit of your vineyard be defiled. You shall not plough with an ox and a donkey together. You shall not wear a garment of different sorts, such as wool and linen mixed together’.
A massive ox cannot yoke with a little donkey. That’s a mismatch! Each animal pulls in a different way; both may end up injured. You cannot mix crops; each needs separate agricultural treatment. With fabrics, you cannot put an old patch on a new garment, or vice-versa; you need pure material.
If you want to get close to God, bonding very closely with non-believers is not the way to do it. Whether the non-believers who attract you are real or fictional (such as TV characters), they will not strengthen you spiritually.
Of course, maintaining the right kind of relationships is not easy. We live in complex relational situations. Some may find themselves close to, or even married to, non-believers or lukewarm believers. Each relationship needs special individual care.
Nor does becoming a Christian mean you turn your back on your family. Paul is not calling Christians to abandon non-believers. He is rather calling us to be so close to Christ that when struggling Christians or non-believers are looking to you for light and help, you can really be of help.
I’ve seen Christians fall in love with non-Christians. It’s the hardest trial of their life when they come to make decisions together, since they have entirely different masters.
God knows best and we should all take to heart his injunction, ‘Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers’.
Seek for your closest friendships and fellowship with those who love Jesus. It’s your Christian brothers and Christian friends who can really help you spiritually.
To be concluded