True Christian fellowship

We’ve all attended a Christian fellowship meeting where boredom drives us to count the cracks in the tiles and we end up feeling feel guilty for wondering whether this was a waste of precious time.  At other times we walk away from lively discussion with laughter or tears, yet feeling empty, wondering if Jesus was at this meeting.  But we go back because we know it’s right, and because we remember and yearn for those powerful life-changing encounters with God in a loving community.  How do we prepare for those meetings?  What did the Christian fellowships look like to result in such life-giving communities?

The word “fellowship” is used very loosely in Christian circles these days for anything from formal Sunday worship services to conversation over coffee to prayer meetings at work.  Interestingly enough, none of these references are improper when compared to the New Testament use.  Hampton Keathley did a very helpful study of fellowship in the New Testament, showing how it the concepts of “having together” or “sharing” is used in reference to our relationship with God and one another, the various ways in which companionship takes place, or for the sharing of resources to meet one another’s needs, as well as partnership in ministry.  Christian fellowship is a wide study, and perhaps that is one reason why at times “fellowship groups” fail in being productive and life-giving.

levels-of-communication3
Conversation in Christian fellowship should should grow towards being loving, genuine and truthful.

Before we get handles on what to focus on in Christian fellowship groups, let’s first consider our communication within the fellowship.  It is widely considered (and helpful) to look at five levels in communication:  Hallway Talk is that shallow conversations we do in showing courtesy – the “hello!” and “lovely day, isn’t it?”  exchanges as we pass by.  Then we have Reporter Talk where we relay facts or experiences; in a Christian group this is typically a teaching or an update.  Next we move to Intellectual Talk as we add personal depth by sharing our thoughts, understanding or opinions on the subject at hand.  Many Christian groups only progress to here, limiting the fellowship to intellectual debate or lecture – the reason for the lifeless feeling in fellowship.  From here the talk should move to making it even more personal – Emotional Talk – where one’s feelings towards the subject is discussed: “How do you feel when you read ‘God so loved the world…’?” or “How does the statement ‘God will judge every work…’ move you?” But Christian fellowship should not climax with emotive response alone – the aim to evaluate yourself soberly in light of the Word and then present your shortcomings vulnerable for the Lord in the ministry of the fellowship (1 John 1: 7-9; James 5:16).  Communication in Christian fellowship should be Loving, Genuine Truthful Talk.  This level of communication is very honest and transparent and requires an environment of patient love and safe trust.  But this is the environment where the Spirit of God works with great power and delicate precision.  Here there is LIFE that shows in healthy growth and miraculous transformation.

The elements of true Christian fellowship

Now that we know the conversational environment wherein Christian fellowship should take place, what are the necessary elements for healthy Christian fellowship?   With fellowship meaning “sharing” – what do we “share” when we come together?

Christian fellowship should first of all be communion with God.
Christian fellowship should first of all be communion with God.

Firstly, as Christians we come together to fellowship with God in Christ (1 John 1:3, Colossians 1:27). We share in God as we share in Christ – this is firstly an objective reality, since God lives in and we live in God through Christ.  In a literal sense we “share” or “hold onto” God himself – this is true regardless of share activities.  God has us together and we have God together.

But fellowship with God is also subjective experience and deliberate activity as we commune with him about anything and everything in prayer.  We come together to meet with God and converse with God.  This includes the giving of thanks for his goodness in our lives, praising him for who he is and surrendering ourselves to him in worship. Fellowship with God must always be the central focus of Christian fellowship, otherwise it becomes a human social interest club.  We meet with God as God’s family around Our Father’s table.

Christian fellowship involves encouraging, supporting, caring and also correcting one another.
Christian fellowship involves encouraging, supporting, caring and also correcting one another.

Secondly, we fellowship is with one another (Acts 2:42; Hebrews 10:25; 1 John 1:3,7-9).  It sounds silly to say it, but the second focus of coming together is to be with one another and “stir one another to love and good works” (Hebrews 10:24-25).  The focus of gathering is the well-being and growth of the others, placing the needs of others above their own (Philippians 2:3-4).  An enlightening study is to search through the New Testament and take note of the many instructions to “one another” and “each other” as it gives a healthy perspective of the practice of early Christian fellowship that characterized by love for one another.  The complete list of “one another” –instructions is long, but the essentials in my view for every meeting is to “encourage each other” one another (1 Thessalonians 4:18, 5:11) and “build each other up” (Hebrews 3:13) in our walk with Christ, to support and care for each other (Galatians 6:2; 2 Corinthians 13:11; 1 Corinthians 12:25-26) through struggles and hardships, to correct and warn one another of harmful attitudes and sinful behaviour (Romans 15:14; Colossians 3:16) as we hold one another accountable before Christ.

Christian fellowship should be centered in the Word.
Christian fellowship should be centered in the Word.

Thirdly, we fellowship in Word the Scriptures are the basis of our conversation and reflection whether in instruction (Romans 15:14; 2 Timothy 2:2) or edification and correction (Ephesians 5:19; Colossians 3:16) the Biblical Text is the basis of our communion.  Too often our conversation centers on our opinions, resulting in worldly advice or cheap Hall-Mark card encouragement.  In Christian fellowship the Bible is central.  We gather around the word of God as we seek God and his will for our lives, remembering the words of Peter to our Lord: “Lord, you alone have the words of life” (John 6:68).

Christian fellowship should be Spirit-directed. "The wind blows where it pleases... so is everyone who is born of the Spirit." (John 3:8)
Christian fellowship should be Spirit-directed. “The wind blows where it pleases… so is everyone who is born of the Spirit.” (John 3:8)

Fourthly, we fellowship in Spirit (Philippians 2:1).  As mentioned above our fellowship is not mere intellectual engagement or emotional interchange, but spirit-to-spirit ministry.  We already “share in the Spirit” since we all immersed in the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:12), and therefore our interaction should be spiritual.  This includes prayerful waiting on the direction of the Spirit for empowered ministry as we “serve one another with the gifts each one has received” (1 Peter 4:10; 1 Corinthians 12:6-11). We must remind ourselves to stop and listen to the promptings of the Spirit, and in faith obey.  Our fellowship is in the Holy Spirit.

"Fellows in a ship" working together for a common goal - a good image of Fellowship in the Gospel'
“Fellows in a ship” working together for a common goal – a good image of Fellowship in the Gospel’

Lastly, we fellowship in Gospel (Philippians 1:5, 7 27).  Objectively this means we have become “partakers of the gospel” (Ephesians 3:6) – those who have received and hold on to the promise of redemption in Christ’s substation and grace.  When we come together this is evident as we testify of our experience of Christ’s continual saving work in us.  But to “fellowship in the gospel” (Philippians 1:5) also means to partner with one another in the work of the gospel – the spreading of the good news of God’s reign and Christ’s saving work.  We fellowship as we take hands, or “yoke together”, to work diligently and strategically in sharing the gospel and showing God’s love with those close and those far away.

Thus Christian fellowship is centered in our worship of God and overflows to our communion with one another.  This fellowship is centered in the Word and directed by the Spirit and results in partnership in spreading the gospel of Christ.  Christian fellowship fails when its aim is mere intellectual enlightenment or emotional support; the goal of Christian fellowship is the discovery of God and his truth followed by a conviction and transparent confession of who I am, so that God through his grace may do his transforming work in me, within and through this loving community.

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God at (your) work

David Pawson tells of a man in the Hebrideans who was treated for a double rapture due to physical labour.  When the physician asked how it happened, the man explained that he injured himself when he loaded a heavy load of wood on his wife’s back.  Some people are more industrious than others!

Work impacts deeply on our identity[i]: when meeting someone we are prone to ask what they do. This is understandable since nothing (apart from sleep) takes up more hours in one’s life than work – accumulating to about 60% of one’s waking life.   Work literally consumes our lives: typically, the average person would work close to 100’000 hours in their lifetime – that is nearly eleven and a half years of one’s life!  It is therefore both strange and sad that only 80% of people are dissatisfied with their jobs.  Work is seen as merely a means of living, or as a necessary evil to endure on the way to a fun-filled weekend or peaceful retirement.

This aversion to work has big socio-economic implications so that the rich and powerful oppress the poor through slavery or low wages to ensure more leisure time for them.  This is not a new phenomenon: most ancient civilizations employed the use of slaves so that the rich could continue in pointless pursuits and parties.  Today also, as in the past, workers withhold labour demanding higher wages for less working hours, and workers see no calling in work itself so that everyone change jobs at the flip of a hat for higher pay or more comfort and flexibility.  Quick riches, ease and pleasure are the highest virtues in our labour-avoiding work force.

In light of these contemporary views of work, how should Christians respond?  What does the Bible say about work?

Biblical theology of work – in brief

We are created to work.  Even before sin entered the world, Adam was created to rule and work (Genesis 2:15).  God is introduced as a ruler and worker, and man was made in his image as ruler and worker (Genesis 1:1,26-29).  Work is not the result of sin, but rather the ideal design of God.  Therefore work is good.  Work was and remains God’s “Plan A” for man – both in the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:15) and in the New Creation (Revelations 5:10) we see God’s intention for man as ruler and worker.

Throughout the Scriptures, blessings are the reward for those who work, including social stature (Proverbs 22:29), wealth (Proverbs 12:27), success (Proverbs 16:3; Genesis 39:2), and increased authority (Proverbs 12:24; Luke 19:17).  In contrast, curses are reserved for those who are slothful and refuse to work, including hunger (Proverbs 19:15; 2 Thessalonians 3:10), forced labour (Proverbs 12:24), ruin (Ecclesiastes 10:18) and destruction (Proverbs 18:9).

Biblically, the purpose of work is to make a living (2 Thessalonians 3:12), to provide for your household (1Timothy 5:8; Proverbs 31:27), to bless others (Ephesians 4:28) and to increase in wealth (Proverbs 13:11).   The attitude of the believer towards work should be willingness (Titus 3:1) and to work as unto the Lord (Colossians 3:23).  That’s why Paul instructs the believers to work well (1Timothy 5:8), including the women under sixty should work to earn their own keep (1 Timothy 5:9-13), and believers who refuse to work should be admonished (1 Thessalonians 5:14), warned and kept away from so that they receive no material support from the church (2 Thessalonians 3:6-14). [ii]

There is no distinction in God’s view between “spiritual” and “secular” work; he created everything (John 1:3; Colossians 1:15-16) and nothing is “secular” to him apart from sin itself.  Not only “religious” offices are spiritual in nature; all work is spiritual since it emanates from our created purpose and impact on our identity.  It is noteworthy to remember that the first instance mentioned in the Bible where God “called”, “appointed” and “filled [someone] with the Spirit of God” to perform a function was not for spiritual ministry, but for “all manner of workmanship” – an artistic craftsman! (see Exodus 31:1-11)  God calls, appoints and empowers all workers in his created world.  That’s why Paul had no problem to work with his own hands, or to receive material support while being in ministry (2 Thessalonians 3:7-9).  He honoured God in making tents for the Roman army as well as preaching.

The fall did however impact the working environment, as we read in Adam’s curse about “thorns and thistles… sweat of your face…” (Genesis 3:17-19).  It should surprise no-one that the work-place is filled with conflict, disappointments, stress, failure, retrenchments and injustice.  Our work is of God, but it has become corrupted after the fall.  Therefore our work needs to be redeemed.

We redeem our work to glorify God in it (1 Corinthians 10:31) and do our daily jobs for him (Romans 11:36; Colossians 3:23).  Everything in life is to display the glory and supremacy of Christ; our work is for that purpose.  It is not enough to use our work environments to make money for God’s mission, or to see it as a “harvest field” where people can get saved, or to show people how Christians live and work.  All these things are important and worthy, but it has the same problem: it uses work as an unpleasant means for something good, but not seeing it as something good in itself.  The work itself should be redeemed to glorify God.  Bill Thune mentions a few ways in which our work can be redeemed to glorify God: [iii]

  • God is glorified when we give our best to him in our work (Colossians 3:23-24);
  • God is glorified when we are honest even to our hurt (Psalm 15, Genesis 39);
  • God is glorified when we honour superiors and submit even in hardships (1 Timothy 6:1; Romans 13:7);
  • God is glorified when we treat associates with kindness and respect (Luke 6:31; Romans 12:18);
  • God is glorified when we expose fraud and dishonesty (Ephesians 5:11-13);
  • God is glorified when we avoid complaining and grumbling (Philippians 2:14-15);
  • God is glorified when we rest from work and trust him (Deuteronomy 5:13-15).

These are some examples in which we can redeem our work so that it glorifies God.

How do we respond to this?

How do I work in such a way to glorify God within a corrupted environment?  I suggest four practical, memorable pointers for your daily work.

  1. Work as though Jesus is your boss. Paul instructs us to work hard as if we work for the Lord (Colossians 3:23), to obey employers even as we obey Christ and honour them (Ephesians 6:5; 1 Timothy 6:1).  That means we passionately and cheerfully work even when no-one else is around, since God sees all things and will judge all things, even our secret thoughts and motives (Ecclesiastes 12:14).
  2. Work as if your actions today have eternal consequences – because it has! And we work confidently for a reward, since our actions at work is noted and rewarded with greater responsibility (Matthew 25:21).  Since we know that our lives and future are in God’s hands (not our employer’s – see John 19:10-11), we work and hope in God for rewards here on earth (such as promotion, see Psalm 75:6-7), as well as rewards in the New Creation (Colossians 3:23-24; Luke 19:17; Revelations 5:10; 22:12).
  3. Worship at work. Let work be your worship to God: “whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Corinthians 10:31; compare with Colossians 3:17). Find pleasure in God in “whatever your hand finds to do, [and] do it with all your might” (Ecclesiastes 9:10). View and give your daily work to God as a gift to him, and let it be your best. In the words of Paul “present your body as a living sacrifice to God…” (Romans 12:1). Glorify God with your daily work tasks, not just in singing time.
  4. Witness at work. Paul repeatedly says believers should “walk worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing him”, and Peter cautions about “good conduct in Christ” (1 Peter 3:16) amidst trying conditions.  The obedient, submissive, humble, self-controlled, patient, kind-loving nature of Christ should testify of God’s saving work in the believer (Galatians 5:22-23; Colossians 3:12-14), revealing the presence of Christ in us.  We must witness of Christ with words, but without the testimony of a transformed life our words are weightless and bring shame to the name of Christ our Saviour.

In summary, how do I approach my work in a God-honouring way?  Let these four simple pointers redeem your work tasks today to glorify God.  Ask yourself:

  • For whom do I work? I work for the Lord Jesus.
  • Why do I work? I work to receive a reward from my Lord.
  • What is the essence of my work? My work is worship to God.
  • And what should my work do? The way I work and behave should represent Jesus and testify of his saving work in me.

Now focus your attention on your job again – after all, you were created for it.  Find meaning and delight in your work – it is holy to God.

[i] Stanley A., When work and family collide (Multnomah Books, 2011), p20

[ii] SomervilleT., The Christian View of Work, available at http://www.totalchange.org/work.htm

[iii] Thune B., A Theology of Work, for Campus Crusade for Christ 2006, available at http://www.cdomaha.com/files/Theology%20of%20Work%20-%20Cru%20Press.pdf