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Thursday, 3 November 2011

Fellowship: Real vs. Nominal



Words derive their meaning, not from a static, wooden definition, but from the ways they are used. Sometimes a word takes on a misleading connotation. Take the word ‘church’ for example. As used in the New Testament, the word ‘church’ (ekklesia in Greek) refers to the community of believers; but often people take the word to refer to a physical building or an institution. Because of this misleading connotation, the Christadelphian community generally refrains from using the word ‘church.’

Within the Christadelphian community, however, the word ‘fellowship’ has become loaded with unscriptural baggage. Phrases like “The Central Fellowship” or “Is he in fellowship?” suggest that fellowship is a word describing a nominal status of belonging, like membership in an organization. In most human organizations, you have ‘membership’ if you pay the fees, and perhaps meet certain requirements (such as engineering qualifications, if you want to join the Society of Professional Engineers). For people who see Christian fellowship this way, you ‘belong’ to the fellowship if you adhere to a particular set of propositional beliefs (a Statement of Faith).

Christians put their faith in a living person (Christ), not in a set of propositions. In the same way, fellowship (Greek: koinonia) is a relational term, like grace and love (2 Corinthians 13:14). God has called us into “the fellowship of his Son” (1 Corinthians 1:9). Those who put their faith in Christ do not obtain membership in an organization; they become part of a family. Fellowship fundamentally is a state of close relationship, measured in terms of sharing and participation. Shared beliefs and values are an important aspect of fellowship, but they are not the basis of fellowship. Christ is (1 Corinthians 3:9-11).

One person can be a ‘member’ of a certain church, meeting the criteria for joining the church (such as baptism, or agreeing to a certain statement of faith) but have no spiritual relationship with the other people. At the same time, a second person can fail to meet the criteria for nominal ‘membership’ but play an active role in the life of the church and build close relationships with the members. Custom dictates that the first person be addressed as ‘Brother’ or ‘Sister’ while the second person not be.

People in Jesus’ day thought of a ‘neighbour’ as someone of common ethnicity or geographical proximity; but in Jesus’ famous parable of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25-37) he blew up such nominal notions of fellowship and showed that being a neighbour is about acts of kindness and love. Once again it comes down to relationship.

What about families? Family terms like father, mother, sister, brother, uncle, and aunt nominally express a biological link. However, in many families, these terms are applied to people who are not biological relatives. An adopted child may not know his biological parents, and he may call his adoptive parents ‘Mom and Dad.’ In such cases the loving bond and shared experiences are more real and important than any nominal ‘blood relative’ status. On one occasion Jesus masterfully illustrated that this is also true in the family of God. Reading from Mark 3:31-35:

“31 And [Jesus’] mother and his brothers came, and standing outside they sent to him and called him. 32 And a crowd was sitting around him, and they said to him, "Your mother and your brothers are outside, seeking you." 33 And he answered them, "Who are my mother and my brothers?" 34 And looking about at those who sat around him, he said, "Here are my mother and my brothers! 35 For whoever does the will of God, he is my brother and sister and mother."”
Next time you use the word ‘fellowship,’ stop and ask yourself if you’re using it to refer to real sharing and participation within the family of God (as God intended), or to nominal membership within an organization.

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