By Israel Steinmetz
The modern Church is in crisis. We do not lack the power, presence or purpose of God. However, we do lack the unified fellowship to fully utilize His power, experience His presence, and accomplish His purpose. The unity of thought, spirit, practice and faith that was so evident in the New Testament Church is severely lacking in the modern Church and the effects are devastating.
In the modern Church there is a crisis regarding our understanding of, and most notably our application of, the doctrine of New Testament fellowship.
THE CHURCH IN CRISIS
This crisis of fellowship is the result of a myriad number of causes, not the least of which are the Western notions of rugged individualism, isolationism and compartmentalization. 1 Although there is a superficial emphasis placed upon fellowship by many in the Church today, for the most part it is simply lip service being paid to an ancient notion of mutuality. To be sure, this crisis has aroused the attention and concern of a number of scholars, pastors, and Church leaders throughout the United States and the world. Let us listen to a few of their voices.
Today, however, the word [fellowship] has lost most of its biblical meaning. ‘Fellowship’ now usually refers to casual conversation, socializing, food, and fun. The question ‘Where do you fellowship?’ means ‘Where do you attend church?’ ‘Stay after for fellowship’ usually means ‘Wait for refreshments’…Authentic fellowship is not superficial, surface-level chit-chat.” 2
For this reason we must quit thinking of Christian fellowship as primarily doing things such as having pot luck dinners or watching football or playing basketball with other believers. These have their place but they are only fellowship to the extent that rest, exercise, and eating are doing the work of the Lord. Fellowship involves actively doing God’s will. The things we usually think of as fellowship are certainly not the primary meaning of the word!” 3
FELLOWSHIP AS A WAY OF LIFE
A crisis indeed! The Church today is in serious need of understanding and discipline regarding the doctrine and understanding of New Testament fellowship.
Perhaps no one states the importance of genuine fellowship more powerfully than Vivian H. Green, 4 who wrote the following closing to his 400 page work, A New History of Christianity. At this point in the book Green has come to the end of some 1,950 years of Church history. He traced Christianity from a small band of disciples in Jerusalem through history as it became the world’s predominant religion. Green closes his book with these statements:
However, perhaps we should now draw breath and remind ourselves that Christianity has survived because first and foremost from the very beginning it has been a society, a brotherhood, a koinonia, sustained by a vision of holiness and love, and by a deep faith in the purpose and providence of God. It was less historically important that Christianity should have been a system of belief than that it was a way of life…Christianity represented both a culture and an existence…Whether Christianity has its roots in a supernatural world or is simply a manifestation of the highest form of the human spirit, it is likely to survive until man destroys creation or the world crumbles into dust.” 5
Green acknowledges what many have found true: Christianity is not just a religion, a set of practices, or an institution. Christianity is a way of life, and what is more, it is a way of shared life.
RECOVERING THE LOST ART OF FELLOWSHIP
The modern American Church is in crisis. She does not suffer from lack of education, or resources, or talent, or time. She lacks a unity of spirit, a unity of doctrine, a unity of faith and a unity of practice. Compared with the New Testament doctrine and model of fellowship the modern Church is little more than a phantom. It makes a show of fellowship without the substance.
Against this bleak, discouraging backdrop the Church is confronted with a solution that is as simple as it is profound. If you want biblical results, you must apply biblical principles.
This series will examine the doctrine of New Testament fellowship and the implications it presents for the Church today. Part two will outline the particulars of fellowship as it was practiced by New Testament believers. Part three will explore the principles that may be derived from the examples of New Testament fellowship. Finally, Part four will propose how these principles can be applied to the modern day Church.
- Brian Anderson, The Traditional Church vs. the NT Church, n.p. 1999. Online: www.solidrock.net/library/anderson/charts/nt.traditional.chart.php. [September, 2003].
- Rick Warren, The Purpose Driven Life (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2002), 138-139.
- Bob Gilliam, The Importance of Fellowship in a New Testament Church, n.p., 1996. Online: www.bible.org/docs/theology/eccles/measure/meas-03.htm. [September, 2003].
- DD FRHistS, former Fellow and Rector of Lincoln College, Oxford
- Vivian Green, A New History of Christianity (Phoenix Mill, UK: Sutton, 1998), 402.