Paul and Timothy, bondservants of Jesus Christ, to all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons: grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ’ (Philippians 1:1-2).
You won’t find the word ‘togetherness’ in your English Bible. The term you will find is ‘fellowship’ but this word has lost much of its meaning today. Perhaps this is because we tend to think of fellowship in concrete terms, as a noun rather than a verb – as something that is ‘there’ rather than something we engage in.
Thus we think in terms of organisations – the Youth Fellowship, a Missionary Fellowship, or ‘The Fellowship of’ this or that. Again, we might describe as ‘fellowship’ a gathering with a social emphasis as distinct from, say, a time of prayer or worship.
There is nothing wrong with using the word in these ways but it does tend to drown out the basic biblical significance of fellowship (Greek koinonia, meaning fellowship, association, community, communion, joint participation or intercourse).
The New Testament sees koinonia as the exercise and enjoyment of a spiritual relationship between believers – those who are united to one another as ‘saints in Jesus Christ’ (v.1). That is why, in this and subsequent articles, I shall try to refresh the whole idea of fellowship by referring to it as ‘togetherness’ – a somewhat inelegant modern word that does, however, express quite well what the Bible means by ‘fellowship’ among Christians.
Although many Scriptures address this important subject, I shall use Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi as a kind of template to shape our thoughts. This epistle is outstanding in its expression of koinonia as the living experience of togetherness in Christ.
It was written from a prison cell in Rome to a church that Paul had planted years earlier in the Roman colony of Philippi in Macedonia (read the full story in Acts 16). What seems to have specially motivated Paul to write to the Philippians was their concern over his own incarceration and potential martyrdom.
Memorably, Paul reassures them that the things that had happened to him were not misfortunes at all but had ‘actually turned out for the furtherance of the gospel’ (Philippians 1:12). This sublime faith in the sovereignty of God, together with the apostle’s concern for others, runs like a golden thread through the whole epistle.
Where do we find togetherness?
Although the word ‘fellowship’ does not appear until 1:5, the idea of togetherness is present from the very beginning of the letter, where Paul and Timothy greet ‘all the saints in Christ Jesus who are in Philippi, with the bishops and deacons’ (v.1).
Clearly, the church had grown and matured greatly since its early beginnings. It now had organisational structure, including the offices of bishops (literally ‘overseers’; these men would have been the church’s pastors, leaders and elders) and deacons (literally ‘servants’ of the church who looked after its practical affairs).
Paul could well have presented the church at Philippi as a well-oiled, seeker-friendly establishment within which believers might discover their identity and experience the comforts of togetherness.
But he didn’t. Instead, he viewed the church, not as an organisation but as a company of people who had in common not only their geographical location (they were ‘in Philippi’) but above all their spiritual location (they were ‘in Christ Jesus’); that is, the church is defined not just in terms of physical locality or community but primarily in terms of spiritual proximity.
Locality and community are not without significance because they underline the importance of the local church. But spiritual proximity tells us what that local church should be in terms of its essential nature.
This spiritual dimension of togetherness is fundamental to the character of a true church. Believers, says verse 1, are together ‘in Christ Jesus’. This is the great reality of our common Christian faith – our relationship with one another derives from our personal relationship to Jesus Christ.
If our fellowship has any other basis it is spurious – even if that basis is a common Christian culture, a common Christian upbringing, a common adherence to a certain brand of theology, or a common preference for a given mode of worship.
Humanly speaking, those who came together to form the infant church in Philippi had very little in common. One was a wealthy businesswoman from Asia Minor, another was a slave girl delivered from spirit-possession, and a third was the local jail-keeper (perhaps a retired Roman soldier). What could possibly unite such a disparate group of people? Only a radically new relationship to Jesus Christ.
The apostle John underlines this reality as he seeks to embrace his readers in koinonia. He writes, ‘That which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ’ (1 John 1:3).
If you are going to have fellowship with me, says John, you must realise that it will involve having fellowship with God himself, both the Father and the Son. Without this divine dimension there can be no true togetherness.
Perfect in one
Jesus himself emphasised this basic truth when he prayed that his disciples might be united: ‘As you, Father, are in me, and I in you; that they also may be one in us, that the world may believe that you sent me. 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’ (John 17:21-23).
These words have so often been misused to promote a spurious ecumenical unity that Evangelicals tend to ignore them, but this is a great mistake. For here Jesus both defines and expounds the only true basis of togetherness – that believers are ‘in’ Christ and he is ‘in’ them – exactly as the Father is ‘in’ Christ and Christ is ‘in’ the Father.
In all these cases the word ‘in’ signifies what we might call a systemic relationship. This concept is well illustrated by the parable of the vine and the branches in John 16. The branches are ‘in’ the vine. They are joined to it systemically, being an integral part of the one plant, while the life of the vine itself courses through the branches, causing them to bear fruit.
That is why Paul can characterise the Christian life in the words of Galatians 2:20, ‘I have been crucified with Christ; it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me’.
Just as the Father shares the life of the Godhead with the Son and the Holy Spirit, so believers share the eternal life of God by the indwelling of Christ by the Spirit. It is a staggering concept, but it is the only sufficient basis for Christian togetherness.