The Journey from Pseudo Fellowship to Genuine Koinonia
It is harder than you think but more worth it than you can imagine.
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A System Reboot
Last week we started our summer series with the metaphor of a computer that needs to be shut down in order to be rebooted to its original system settings. Those settings are found in Acts 2:42-47. As we work our way through this passage this summer, we will seek to have these six settings shape our future ministry for optimal health and growth.
42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
The first system setting is a devotion to the sound doctrine found in the apostles’ teaching. In other words, the foundation of the church is its theology. In this post, we move to the second system setting, which is found in verse 42, “They devoted themselves to… the fellowship.”
The Greek word that is translated fellowship is well-known to Creekstone members because we call our home group ministry K-Groups, with the K standing for the Greek word, koinonia. While the term fellowship has been watered down to mean something akin to hanging out after a service to talk about weather, sports, and politics, I want to suggest that it is something much deeper and more meaningful. Not that sports isn’t meaningful. :)
Koinonia is translated from Greek into English using various words, including the word fellowship. However, to reveal deeper layers of meaning, other words are used, such as partnership and participation.
When two people partner, they agree to work toward a common goal. They share an objective, whether it is a business venture or a mountaineering expedition. We use this terminology for marriage, too, where a husband and wife are called partners.
These examples of partnerships help us understand the root meaning of koinonia, which is the concept of sharing something in common. In fact, koinonia is translated as share in several places in the New Testament, one of which is in Philippians 3:10, where the apostle Paul writes,
“I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and share in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.”
The word share in verse 10 is the word koinonia. Notice how this sharing is described as active participation. Just as Jesus suffered, Paul expects, as an ambassador of Christ, that he, too, will suffer. But he also knows that in order to know Jesus deeply, Paul will need to be an active participant as a disciple—even through suffering.
The implication for us as it concerns the meaning of koinonia is that what the early believers were devoted to was not merely attending services now and then. They were devoted to active participation in the actual lives of other believers. What they had in common wasn’t socio-economic sameness or ethnic homogeneity. They didn’t see those sitting to their right and left as attendees but as family members bound together by the blood of Christ. (See Ephesians 2:19-20)
In his first letter, Peter would call the church a people of mercy (1 Peter 2:9-10). I love that because it does not characterize the family of God by our morality or political affiliation, but by our need for grace. In this sense, we become a fellowship of the cross.
You may have noticed that verse 42 does not just say, “They were devoted to fellowship” in general. The original Greek sentence includes an article, “the,” before koinonia. They were devoted to “the fellowship.”
For example, it is not enough for me to tell my biological family that I am committed to family in a general sense. They want to know that I am committed to them as a family in particular. It is the same way with our spiritual family. To participate in fellowship in general is too broad. Believers are called to share life with a particular fellowship—the fellowship.
The Global Fellowship
In conversations about the church, theologians make a distinction between the global church and the local church. For example, while Israel as the people of God in the Old Testament was a geo-political institution with national boundaries, the new Israel, or the church as the people of God in the New Testament, is not a geo-political institution defined with physical borders. The church is the global family of God of those who profess faith in the crucified and risen Christ as Savior and King.
As a global family, we have spiritual relatives in every part of the globe representing all kinds of ethnicities, languages, and cultures. The apostle John writes about this diversity in Revelation 7:9, where he records a vision into heaven, saying,
“There before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and before the Lamb.”
Two chapters earlier, in Revelation 5:9, John had written about this diverse communion of saints as he observed the angels' singing,
“They sang a new song, saying: ‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals, because you were slain, and with your blood you purchased for God persons from every tribe and language and people and nation.’”
What is striking in the heavenly context of worship is the beautiful tapestry of multi-cultural diversity that unites as one to worship and honor the Lamb who was slain.
In my opinion, one of the most beautiful examples of our long-distance family connection with other believers is a scene in the early church is when poverty-stricken believers in Greece who had never met the Christians in Jerusalem sent financial aid to relieve the Jerusalem believers in the midst of a severe famine. The Greek believers knew that, whether as engrafted Gentiles Greeks or converted Jews, they were in the same adoptive family of God and demonstrated that connection with an extraordinary display of generosity.
It is the same way today. If you were to meet a follower of Jesus from Africa, South America, or South Asia, you would be as correct to call him or her brother or sister as you would a biological sibling. I love that!
So, the church is a global fellowship. But it is also a local fellowship. This is the primary application for us as we think through a church reboot.
The Local Fellowship
When I was a university student in the earlier days of the environmental movement, the group Greenpeace was regularly in the news for bringing awareness to the endangerment of animals and damage caused to oceans, waterways, and the atmosphere by ground and air pollution. Greenpeace had a well-known motto: Think Globally, Act Locally. That is a great motto for how to think about the church.
The Scriptures of the New Testament speak about the church in global terms, but often draw attention to the local nature of the church. Just look at the letters written by Paul, which were addressed to specific congregations in places like Ephesus, Corinth, and Rome. Think globally, act locally.
Over time, as the church grew in the larger cities of the Mediterranean world, it would not be enough to refer to one church in the city but to specific churches. In 1 Corinthians 16:19, Paul writes to the believers in Corinth,
“The churches in the province of Asia send you greetings. Aquila and Priscilla greet you warmly in the Lord, and so does the church that meets at their house.”
The point is that when speaking about the church, we either mean the church of which all genuine believers are part globally or churches within a community that are defined as specific congregations who are living in partnership, sharing life in the context of God’s mission on earth—a mission to reach the elect with the saving message of Christ crucified.
We may think of each congregation as a distinctive fold within the broader global church or each as a distinctive cluster of grapes growing on a vine. From that perspective, when we think of being devoted to the local fellowship, there are a number of implications we must consider. Again, when it comes to the church, think globally, act locally. Of course, the global mission mandate calls us to act globally as well. But as far as acting locally is concerned, I want to share three practical implications.
Three Practical Implications
1) Membership in a Local Congregation
One implication of being devoted to the fellowship is the necessity of membership in a local congregation. The metaphor of sheep helps us grasp the significance of why official partnership with other Christians is vital for the good of the sheep and of those commissioned to care for them. For example, when Peter writes to the elders in the local churches, he says in 1 Peter 5:1-3,
“1 To the elders among you, I appeal as a fellow elder and a witness of Christ’s sufferings who also will share in the glory to be revealed: 2 Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them—not because you must, but because you are willing, as God wants you to be; not pursuing dishonest gain, but eager to serve; 3 not lording it over those entrusted to you, but being examples to the flock.”
A key phrase in that passage is in verse 2, “Be shepherds of God’s flock that is under your care, watching over them.” Elders are not tasked with overseeing Christians in general but those in a specific fold. After all, how can an elder effectively shepherd God’s sheep unless he knows which ones are formally in his care?
Just as there are boundaries to sheep pens, so there are boundaries to local churches. Leaders need to know who is in the fold and who isn’t, or who belongs to another fold and who may be a wolf in sheep’s clothing hiding out in the fold for which he and the other elders have been entrusted. The only way to care for, guide, and guard the sheep is with a formal system of membership in a local church.
There are many other examples for and reasons why church membership is a necessity for every believer. I will not elaborate upon them all here. Suffice it to say that if you are following in the way of God’s design for your life as a disciple, you will be devoted to the fellowship by joining with a local church as a formal member.
I would be remiss without acknowledging that not everyone is excited about the local church and reject a commitment to the fellowship due to cases of abuse, racism, and greed. Sadly, sin exists within the body of Christ, and there is never, ever any excuse for abuse, whether physical, emotional, sexual— any abuse in any form. No excuse. The only recourse is formal discipline by elders and public repentance by the offenders.
If you have been hurt by someone posing as a sheep in the church, please know that this message about devotion to the fellowship is not intended to be salt in your wound. I am so very sorry for what you have experienced and don’t blame you for being hesitant or resistant. Take all the time you need as you draw near to Jesus for healing.
My prayer is that Creekstone would be an oasis of rest and hope for your soul. Make no mistake, we are a fellowship of sinners who are members of the church because of our need for grace. But where there are abuses and sins of all kinds, the call of the gospel is not to cover them up but to bring them into the light, for God promises that if we cover our sins, they will be exposed and judged, but if we uncover them with confession, they will be freely and fully forgiven. (1 John 1:8-9)
2) Diversity in a Local Congregation
The second implication of devotion to the fellowship is the expectation of diversity. Ideally, in principle at least, a local church will resemble the community’s socio-economic and ethnic context. This may be easier in more cosmopolitan locations than rural ones. I get that.
For example, it would be an impossible burden for me to demand that Creekstone be represented by members of twenty nationalities. But my son’s college roommate is a member of a church in Philadelphia that has members from over 40 different countries! That diversity of membership reflects the church’s unique cultural context.
So, membership and diversity are the first two implications.
3) The Effort Required
A third implication of being devoted to the fellowship is the effort it takes to experience true community in a local congregation. Remember, koinonia is distinctively participatory. It is not passive but active, and demands that we be intentional about investing our lives in the lives of other believers.
To be devoted to the fellowship is to be a participant in the community. It is to be devoted to attending the Sunday gathering unless providentially hindered. It is to be devoted to connecting with a K-Group or a similar kind of small group within the church so that you know the practical needs of others and so that they know your practical needs. Of course, when we begin sharing needs, we move to a deeper level of fellowship that requires an increasing degree of vulnerability. It is at this point that we may begin to back away from what God intends to be an opportunity for spiritual growth and health for us individually and as a community of believers.
Let me explain.
I wonder if too often we settle for surface, pseudo fellowship instead of deep, genuine koinonia fellowship. Talking about the weather is fine, but when do we get to share about our fears? To whom do we confide with our struggles? Or are we content to smile and hide the anxieties and battles we have with the flesh?
When considering the effort it takes to be vulnerable, I will have to figure out whether I believe the gospel enough to be real with these people? Is Jesus’ imputed righteousness enough for me or do I need to protect my image with shallow conversations and fill in the blank answers?
What if, as we get below the surface, something unpleasant is exposed about ourselves? Or what if we see something ugly and sinful in someone else? What if the ugliness creates conflict?
There are a couple of options at this point.
One is to bail. Just walk away from the fellowship and find another church where relationships feel easier. Instead of making the effort to work through conflict, we opt for an easier path. Instead of digging through the hard layer of community under the surface, we stay on the topsoil, doing pseudo fellowship from one church to the next.
Hard but Worth It
But what if fellowship gold was right under the layer of conflict, just underneath the painful strata where we must do the hard work of listening, confessing, repenting, and forgiving.
And let’s be honest. Nobody likes conflict, which to me feels like emotional chaos. Most of us would prefer to avoid it. And so we do. Rather than doing the hard gospel work, we just walk away. We give up the dig.
But what a tragedy to give up the dig when so close to the motherload?
Yes, working through the strata of conflict is really hard. Whether between believers in a local congregation, or with a co-worker, a roommate, or a spouse, the process is hard. But it is worth it.
As the chart shows, we can remain on the surface and experience bland community.
Or we can work through the painful process of conflict, which is able to result in genuine, glorious community. As my gym teacher at my all-boys middle school told us, “No pain, no gain, gentlemen.” Digging for deep fellowship is hard. But it is worth it.
Just like the cross, which for Jesus was more than hard but also more than worth it. The author of Hebrews tells us, “For the joy set before him, [Jesus] endured the cross...” (Hebrews 12:2b) It was hard. But it was worth it.
Jesus is the one who experienced the hard of judgment to reconcile sinners with the Father, not that we would experience surface, bland fellowship with the Father but intimate, genuine, deep, glorious fellowship with the Father and with each other.
To that end, Jesus is the shepherd who not only cares for the sheep, but laid down his life for the sheep. He is the groom who gives up his life for the sake of his bride. He is the friend in John 15:13, who said, “There is no greater love than this, than a man lay down life for his friends.”
This is exactly what Jesus has done for us, and is what we are now called to do for one another as we devote ourselves to the fellowship that has been purchased with his blood.
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