In this article we will be considering the second of the four ongoing features that marked the lives of early believers, and ought also to be seen in our lives today. We have already noted that they gladly received Gods word and were baptised, and joined themselves to the local assembly of Christians. The Scripture than adds that "they continued steadfastly in the apostles doctrine" - that is, they lived their lives according to what the apostles were teaching. In practical terms, this meant three things: they continued in the fellowship, they made a habit of breaking bread, and they were marked by prayer. Let us turn our attention to the first of these three things.
The word used in the New Testament for "fellowship" (koinonia, Strong 2842) has the idea of people having things in common, or sharing things. This means that they have the same aim in view, and work together for a common goal. It carries the thought of being in harmony with others, of being in agreement, of having common interests and activities. There are a number of things that all Christians share. For example, we all have the same heavenly Father (Eph 4.6), the same Saviour (1 Cor 1.9), and the same Holy Spirit (Phil 2.1). We share the same body of doctrine (Acts 2.42). In the context of the local assembly, we share a belief in the same principles of gathering, and we work together to see that those principles are put into practice.
Fellowship is not restricted to the local assembly, however. Notice that in 1 John 1.3 our fellowship is with God. This is because we share with Him a love of the Lord Jesus, and have a desire to work together so that His interests are advanced. What a wonder that the Almighty God of heaven condescends to have fellowship with His creatures! Also, in Mark 16.20 the disciples are given the unspeakable privilege of having the Lord Jesus work with them. This is perhaps the greatest example of fellowship in the New Testament - the Lord and His followers sharing a desire for God to be glorified and men to be blessed, and working together to bring this about. May we all experience this in our own lives!
Furthermore, it is possible for churches to have fellowship with one another - in Romans 15.26 and 2 Corinthians 8.18-19 we read of occasions when one local assembly, seeing a need in another assembly, wished to express their support for their fellow-believers in a practical way. Note that no earthly organisation is necessary for this. It is the natural expression of Christian love and a common interest in the people of God. Note also that this is not a case of one assembly meddling in the affairs of another. It is simply a matter of sharing material possessions so that the people of God can be enabled to go on in service for Him.
Perhaps the commonest use of the word "fellowship", however, is in the context of an individual believer being linked with a local assembly.1 In 1 John 1 we are told that not only do we have fellowship with God (v.3), but that also our fellowship is with each other (v.7). Also, in Acts 2.42 we see that those who had been added to the local assembly continued in fellowship with them. Being part of a local assembly is one of the greatest privileges on earth, and is not something to be taken lightly. Like every Scriptural privilege, it carries a number of responsibilities. It is far more than simply being a member of a religious club. In 1 Corinthians 12.12-31 the Apostle uses the figure of a body. Each member must fulfil its function if the health of the body is to be maintained.2 If I am a member of a local assembly, I have declared that I am in fellowship with the other believers who meet there, and therefore must share in the other aspects of this great privilege.
Duties and responsibilities of fellowship
I must fulfil the duties and responsibilities that come with such a position. Among other things, I must:
1. Attend all the meetings (Acts 2.44-46; Heb 10.25). Obviously there may be certain circumstances (such as illness, shift work, or the requirements of childcare) that will prevent my attendance at a particular gathering, but apart from this it ought to be the unwavering habit of every believer to attend every possible gathering of their local assembly. I cannot claim to be in fellowship with a company of Christians if I am not in the habit of attending the gatherings of the assembly.
2. Care for the believers (1 Cor 12.25-26; 1 Thess 4.9). My fellow believers are my brethren and sisters in Christ. If I do not have (and demonstrate!) an affectionate care for them, there is something deeply wrong. The details of how that care is expressed may vary, but in some way that care must be shown.
3. Contribute to the work of the church. God expects me to contribute financially to the assembly (1 Cor 16.1-2; 2 Cor 9.7); note also that in Haggai 1.4,9 the people of God were criticised for putting the care of their own homes before the welfare of the house of God. He also expects me to contribute spiritually (1 Cor 3.10-13). Every believer has been given a spiritual gift, and we must all use what God has given us for the upbuilding of the assembly where He has placed us (Rom 12.4-8; 1 Cor 12.1-3; 1 Tim 4.14-16; 2 Tim 1.6). Also, I must contribute in terms of taking my share of responsibility (Gal 6.5; 1 Tim 2.8; 5.16; Titus 2.3-4). There are practical things that must be done in any assembly - cleaning the hall, providing hospitality, organising the childrens meeting, brethren participating audibly at the Breaking of Bread etc. It is hypocritical for me to claim to be in harmony with the Christians if I take no part in bearing any of the burdens of these aspects of assembly testimony. This does not mean that everyone must help with everything. It is my responsibility to find out what God would have me do, and then do it to the utmost of my ability.
4. Live a godly life (1 Cor 11.30; 2 Cor 7.1; Gal 5.15). Notice how in Ephesians 4-6 every area of my life is to be God-pleasing; my speech, my marriage, my work life etc. Holiness is one of the becoming features of the house of God (Ps 93.5), and it ought to be seen in the life of each member of a local assembly. Note that in 1 John 1.7 I learn that before I can enjoy true fellowship with other believers I must be walking in the light. Unconfessed sin in my life will hinder my fellowship.
5. Ensure that I maintain a good testimony in the world (2 Cor 6.3; 1 Thess 4.12; 1 Tim 6.1; Titus 2.5-8). Note also the failure of this (2 Sam 12.14; Rom 2.24; 1 Cor 5.1). We are the representatives of God upon earth (2 Cor 5.20), as well as being representatives of the local assembly before men - let us see to it that our behaviour in the world does not bring shame upon the companies with which we are associated.
6. Submit to the rule of godly overseers (1 Thess 5.12; 1 Tim 5.17; Heb 13.7,17; 1 Pet 5.5). God has ordained that assemblies are to be shepherded by mature Christian men of godly character who are answerable to God alone3 for their behaviour - it is a rejection of Holy Scripture to rebel against such men.
This is by no means an exhaustive list of the responsibilities of assembly fellowship, but it does perhaps outline some of the features that ought to be seen in the lives of those who have not only "gladly received his word", but who also enjoy the immense privilege of continuing in the fellowship of such a company.
To be continued.
1It would perhaps be a useful thing if we were to abolish the expression "in fellowship in such and such an assembly" and replace it with "in fellowship with the assembly". The first of these expressions equates fellowship simply with membership; the second is much closer to the Scriptural idea of being in harmony or agreement with someone, and working together with them to achieve a common goal.
2The primary reference in this chapter is to the church which is His body, but the principle can be applied to the local church as well.
3Note that the New Testament never teaches that overseers are answerable to the assembly!