Brethren Archive

Church Life and Fellowship.

by J. R. Rollo

NINETEEN centuries ago, there stood on the river Orontes and some fifteen miles from the sea at the Eastern end of the Mediterranean, the city of Antioch.  It was a splendid city, the metropolis of Syria, with a reputation for learning and culture, and a mixed population of Jews, Greeks, Syrians, and Romans totaling some two hundred thousand souls.  There must have been many visitors to the famous city who would note its commercial prosperity, and who, on closer acquaintance, would sense its vice and licentiousness, only to conclude that its practices followed the pattern of any other heathen centre, where ease and sin turn men’s minds from serious thought.
About 42 A.D., an unusual visitor with an unusual quest arrived in Antioch.  His name was Barnabas, and he had been sent by the church in Jerusalem to confirm a report of a new wonder in the Syrian capital. And wonder it was!  What he encountered caused him to rejoice, and what he saw he epitomized in the phrase ‘the grace of God.’  This he saw operative in a group of persons, unrelated by any other tie of kinship.  We are not told they had common race, common social status, common culture or common political creed.  What we do know is that their manner of life marked them out as distinctive in this cosmopolitan centre of conflicting interests.  We learn from a writing to one of themselves (for Titus was of Antioch) the tremulous secret of this new experience.  Paul writes, ‘The grace of God that bringeth salvation hath appeared to all men, teaching us that, denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, we should live soberly, righteously and godly in this present world’ (Titus 2: 11, 12).
That this was a reality is echoed in the fact that the disciples were first called Christians there.  It was a nickname, a term of obloquy, yet soon to become a badge of honour.  They were disciples first and Christians afterwards, and herein lay the strength of their kinship. The New Testament speaks elsewhere of those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus (1 Cor. 1: 2) and called into the fellowship of the Son (v.9). Their fellowship is with the Father (1 John 1: 3) and they enjoy the communion of the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 13: 14).  All this reverses the condition of things brought about by willful disobedience and the choice of self-will in Eden’s garden.  It does more of course.  The prodigal son was not brought back to the garden but to the table, where he was made to sit in suitability to the father, feasting on that which delighted the father.  This is the work of sovereign grace.  If Moses, the representative of the law must take off his shoes in the presence of Jehovah, grace provides shoes for the returning feet of the prodigal.  This triumph of mercy institutes a fellowship which is divine in character and eternal in nature.  As such, therefore, it is inviolable, though the enjoyment of it is dependent upon the condition of the spirit of the believer.
Is it any wonder then that the heathen people of Antioch were made to see something radically different about the disciples of Christ? They themselves were dead to God, unresponsive to His character and claims, while the Christians were alive to God, indwelt by the Holy Spirit and endowed with a new life which separated them from the world, and at the same time drew them irresistibly together into holy fellowship.
When Barnabas had continued here some time, beholding the grace of God, he reported back to the church at Jerusalem, whose leaders quickly realized that here was a spontaneous growth, a miniature of the invisible and indivisible Church of which the risen Christ is the Head.  In the intervening centuries, history is not silent upon the existence of many such companies, whose members have found spiritual unity in acknowledging the lordship of Christ, the presidency of the Holy Spirit, the inerrancy and ultimate authority of the Holy Scriptures.  Such companies are not created by synod or council; still less are they disrupted by encyclical or act of parliament.  Their allegiance is neither to an organization nor an earthly delegate, but to the ascended Lord.
We may pause here to note that the unhindered power of the Holy Spirit guided and controlled those who were saved at Pentecost to be baptized and to continue steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and in holy fellowship, observing the breaking of bread and prayers. They were joined in spirit as they worshipped; they were sensitive in care for each other, especially for those in trying circumstances, and they maintained united witness of the wonderful works of God to those in darkness around them.  The enriching ministry of Paul as he laboured in Antioch would lead them into deeper enjoyment of their partnership with God, and into more fervent love for each other. When they learned of impending famine in Judaea, they were quickly alert to the needs of their brethren in the stricken area and hastened to express their love in a practical way.  The very word ‘fellowship’ is translated ‘contribution’ (Rom. 15: 26; 2 Cor. 9: 13).
Another day in the life of the church at Antioch is pictured for us in the thirteenth chapter of Acts, when the call to special service was heard.  Just as the New Testament knows nothing of spiritual tramps, floating units who own no spiritual home, so there is nothing to endorse the attitude of the free-lance who seeks to carve out for himself a path of service independent of his brethren.  In the case before us, the divine call is echoed in the appreciative fellowship of the saints in the church, who are eager to identify themselves with Barnabas and Paul.  Let there be no misapprehension as to the essential nature of this link with the chosen ones.  It was forged in the fires of prayer and fasting, and as they laid hands on them and sent them away, there was no idea of a partnership made fragile by distance.  That it was not so is proved by the fact that when these same servants had prospered in their mission, they returned again to Antioch, and when they were come and had gathered the church together, they rehearsed all things that God had done with them (Acts 14: 27).
Before leaving Antioch, we may permit ourselves a glance at another aspect of its fellowship, that is, its relationship with the neighbouring church at Jerusalem.  It is clear from the circumstances of its origin, that the assembly at Antioch was independent, yet the problem of the place of circumcision in the gospel of free grace gave rise to the situation depicted in Galatians 2: 11.  While it is true that the matter was referred to the church leaders in Jerusalem, there is no idea of their legislating and imposing their decisions on the provincial assembly.  The courteous and guarded terms of the letter suggest on the contrary, that their moral influence was relied upon to guide the younger body in a path that would not be too burdensome. That it was received in this spirit may be inferred from the phrase in Acts 15: 31, ‘they rejoiced for the consolation.’  On this point, Hort says: ‘The authority of the apostles was moral rather than formal; a claim to deference rather than a right to be obeyed.’
The principles so delineated in the corporate life of the saints at Antioch are a pattern of a New Testament church, and we depart from their simplicity at our peril. Superficially, conditions have altered, and in the light of the epistolary writings of Paul, more detail has been filled into the skeleton picture; nevertheless broad principles consistent with the whole tenor of the revealed will of God emerge for those who will to know His doctrine.
Enough has been said to emphasize the essential unity of fellowship.  Language is ransacked to provide metaphors to illustrate this vital truth, prophesied by Caiaphas when he said Christ should gather in one, the children of God (John 11: 52), and so deeply desired by our Lord in John 17, when He envisaged the standard of unity (v.11), the achievement of unity (v.2I), and the result of unity (v.23).  We are sons of one family with the same Father, and hence, are knit together in love.  We are members of one body having the same Head, and hence are joined together.  We are priests in one priesthood with the same High Priest, and hence, are gathered together.  We are stones in one temple, indwelt by the same Holy Spirit, and hence, are framed together.  ‘There is one body and one Spirit, even as ye are called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all’ (Eph. 4: 4-6).  Each is the fellow of the other, a companion without whom the other is incomplete. This is beautifully underlined in the fact that the usual Greek word for fellowship is used outside the New Testament of the marriage relationship.
All this is of primary importance.  The concept of fellowship always carries with it the idea of mutuality.  There can be no one-sided fellowship; it pertains to both parties, to the one as truly as to the other.  The Word of God strains at the fetters of language to present graphically the greatness of the truth.  The crowning figure used in Ephesians 5 is pertinent and beautiful.  It has been said that this very passage is enough to stamp the New Testament as an inspired book, because at the time Paul wrote, there was not a woman or man who had ever dreamt of cherishing and nourishing as the proper attitude of husband to wife.
Such is the ideal church fellowship as presented in the Scripture, though Christendom furnishes a picture vastly different.  True believers are found in various associations, and the enquiring soul is met with a babel of conflicting voices. Ecclesiastical Rome loudly asserts her sole supremacy and excommunicates all who reject her authority.  On the other hand, Protestantism has broken up into various denominations, each hedged around by man-made requirements.  The pity of it is that many of these proclaim their loyalty to truth and bolster up their claims by reference to Scripture.  In this, as in other connections, let us remind ourselves of the Word from God: ‘Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall’ (1 Cor. 10: 12).
Much has been written and spoken about the focal point of fellowship as seen in the Lord’s Supper.  ‘The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ?  The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?  For we being many are one bread, and one body; for we are all partakers of that one bread’ (1 Cor. I0: 16-17).  Linked with this, is the ordinance of baptism, which expresses in an unmistakable way the association of the believer with his Lord in His death, burial and resurrection.  The early church knew no other practice than that converts from heathen creeds should bear witness to their faith in Christ by observing this ordinance.  No greater mistake can be made, however, than to regard fellowship in these ordinances as something distinct from its true nature as outlined above.  To recognize this fact would save us from many a misconception and malpractice as to the oft-repeated phrase: ‘receiving into fellowship.’
By this phrase, we can only mean the outward acknowledgment of something which is spiritual and already existing between an individual and God.  A ‘letter of commendation’ is not creative of this but is merely an endorsement from those who have intimate acquaintance of the person concerned.  Probably the chief value of such a document is the guidance it furnishes to those who are stewards of the Lord’s Table.  They exercise a double function: first, of welcoming the true child of God; but second, of seeing to it that such a one is free from fundamental doctrinal error or moral inconsistency.  When anything else is Iauded as a test of ‘receiving,’ there lies the blight of sectarianism and ecclesiastical arrogance.  It is no exaggeration to say that loyal adherence to the simplicity here portrayed is that which will save from degenerating into a sect.  The character of the feast determines the spirit in which it must be kept, and the twin evils of unwarranted exclusion and internal cliquism are to be scrupulously guarded against.
It is the firm belief of the writer that many of the troublesome questions relevant to this topic would solve themselves if the assembly concerned were in a healthy condition before God.  To adorn the doctrine of Christ, which includes His heart’s desire for the unity of those who profess His Name, is to hold by the power of attraction.  The thing called ‘occasional fellowship’ will readily blossom into something richer and deeper where the tone and atmosphere of the company are genuinely indicative of the Divine presence.  When Solomon was engaged in building the temple of the Lord, he took into association with him in this great work, Hiram, King of Tyre, who was a Gentile but ever a lover of David.  He was enlisted to do the artistic work, providing cedar trees from Lebanon from which was made ornament of design and strength.  A greater than Solomon has taken into partnership in the upbuilding of His Church, those whose love has been won.  They cannot save, but just as the cedar’s smell was easily recognized, they may exude the fragrance of holy endeavour, and, as the king of trees was cut down to be of use, so they may know surrender and the spirit of sacrifice.  In this way they will attract to the Saviour.  Further, it will be noised abroad that Christ is in the house, and the local church will exhibit the features of a home, as distinct from a stopping place for a passing visit.
This leads us to an examination of the realistic conditions which obtain in the normal congregation, where there must inevitably be the interplay of differing personalities, each emerging with varied gift, training, and temperament.  We have only to think of those chosen by the Lord to be His disciples to learn that God is not a God of mass production or of drab uniformity.  What astounding contrasts, how different they were from each other, Peter from John, Philip from Thomas, Matthew from Simon; no two of them alike.  But Christ took them all and incorporated them into one holy fellowship, welded together in a common faith, in a common love, under a common leadership.
Again, Christ never interfered with their individuality.  So to-day, He takes these things that men bring Him and multiplies them.  James and John were enriched with conspicuous gifts, and were raised to conspicuous positions, but of some of the twelve, we hardly hear again.  Their service was a hidden work, unapplauded; they went on living righteous, holy lives in obscurity, answering to the Divine will for them.  But it is equally instructive to note that those of the twelve who were closest in intimacy with Christ were subsequently most prominent in service.  This was no arbitrary choice.
So in the church of to-day.  We are members of one another, ‘fitly framed and knit together through that which every joint supplieth, according to the working in due measure of each several part, making the increase of the body unto the building up of itself in love’ (Eph. 4: 16, R.V.).  There is a richness in variety, the contributory elements yielding a product of singular strength.  But the governing condition of all this is fellowship.  The man in the street has oriented his mind in recent years to the idea of one-man leadership.  Business combines, political trends, military strategy, all echo the same lesson.  Wherever this spirit enters into the church, and one who loves pre-eminence lords it over God’s heritage, the real spirit of fellowship is nullified and development in the highest sense ceases.  Leadership is needed to-day more than ever, yet such leadership must be based upon the willing and loyal co-operation of all.
Fellowship, then, is a glorious privilege but also a challenging responsibility.  Each member of the assembly has a part to play in the activities of the church, even though it may only be obedience to those who exercise the stewardship of rule.  This last named grace of obedience may play a greater part in the harmony of the community than the exercise of a teaching ministry.  Thus far it is to the glory of God.  A sense of responsibility ought to permeate all fellowship.  There should be no sleeping partners.  To show passive unconcern is to ignore the claims of God, and yet is it not true that in every church there are the strenuous and the spectators, the labourers and the lookers-on?  It is pertinent to remember that lukewarmness is nauseous to God.
Having received the weak according to the injunction of Romans 14, we are not without guidance as to how we should treat such in the everyday life of the assembly. The church is a nursery for young babes, and the greatness of Paul is seen equally in his wisdom as a father in exhortation and comfort, and in his gentleness as a nurse in cherishing.  It is a matter of experience that some Christians will fall behind in their assimilation of doctrine, unable to pass from first principles.  Some will find it difficult to withstand the wiles of Satan.  Yet the Scripture teaches, we are to bear the infirmities of the weak (Rom. 15: 1).
It is pitifully easy to be intolerant of another’s infirmity, but nowhere in divine teaching is such an attitude condoned.  After an eventful life not free from failure, David, in his hymn of testimony sang, ‘Thy gentleness hath made me great’ (2 Sam. 22: 36), and this has been echoed in the hearts of thousands since his day. Gentleness flows from long-suffering.  This latter means having just cause for anger, yet not being angry, and is a state of the heart, whereas gentleness seems chiefly to be a fruit of the lips, ever checking the hasty word and substituting a soft one.  No wonder it acts as one of the mightiest powers in the life of the Church.
Infirmity, of course, is not sin, though the two are often confused.  If we are to be tolerant towards infirmity, we are likewise charged with maintaining the honour of God’s house, and notice must be taken of any flagrant departure from righteousness. Fellowship is disrupted in such circumstances and is not restored until the offence is brought to light and dealt with in a Scriptural manner.  It is not a kindness to turn a blind eye to evil with a mistaken idea that unity is thereby preserved.  Instead, irreparable harm may result if the conscience of the assembly be sinned against.  The fellowship of the believers can easily be strained at such a crisis, particularly when natural ties of family or friendship are allowed to distort or destroy spiritual good sense in the matter of discipline.  The value of a united front among those who rule cannot be over-estimated.
Sometimes the smooth flow and usefulness of the life of the church are disturbed by friction and quarrels.  Jealousy rears its ugly head, envy and malice echo in evil speaking, and grief and barrenness are the terrible results.  To sow discord among brethren is to do the Devil’s work.  Paul wrote to Euodias and Syntyche at Philippi, beseeching them to be in harmony, and in this connection, he stated a general principle: ‘Let your moderation be known to all men.  The Lord is at hand’ (chapter 4: 5).  This word moderation has given the translators much trouble, a fact which is reflected in the variety of words used to express the original.  Trench gives it ‘yieldingness’; Alford translates ‘reasonableness of dealing’; Way says, ‘unselfishness as your distinguishing character’.  A multitude of situations arise in church life which call aloud for this very virtue, which is verily twice blest.  ‘It blesses him that gives and him that takes.’ Moderation is that capacity of spirit which considers the rights of others, and while being conscious of one’s own rights, waives them, thus rectifying the injustice of justice.  We may not, like Shylock, take a rigid stand upon the bond, but hearken to the plea of Portia that ‘earthly power doth then show likest God’s when mercy seasons justice.’  If we find it difficult, let us ever remember that God has not rewarded us according to our iniquities.  As the heaven is high above the earth, so great is His mercy towards them that fear Him.  The man of the world is careful to defend his dignity and his rights; the Lord’s man is careful to guard the honour of his Master of Whom it is written, ‘even Christ pleased not Himself’ (Rom. 15: 3).
The church is a school for character and the emergence of testing situations is a means of grace.  It has always been a hard thing to recognize one’s own limitations and not beat against them, and there is a glory attached to the man of the two talents and to the man of the one talent, which is absent from the man with five talents.  It may be easy to go on when a man is always first in prominence, but in a church, the majority must take second place, and do it graciously.  Aaron, Barnabas, and Silas were all men who were overshadowed by a contemporary, yet each discharged a valuable work.  The reward is to faithfulness and not brilliance.  The second place in the service of God is a greater honour than the first in the service of the world, and the first place by the Saviour’s side in glory will be the portion of the second place man who has been faithful down here.
But the life of the church must not be a pool whose waters revolve in eddies of self-complacency or of tranquil, passive unconcern.  It is recorded in Mark 3: 14 that our Lord ordained twelve for a twofold purpose.  First, that they should be with Him; but second, that He should send them forth.  He admitted them to a sacred fellowship and intimacy in order to equip them to be His representatives.  ‘Christ has no body now on earth, but ours are the eyes, the hands, the feet with which He is still to go about doing good’ (Teresa).  The result of our fellowship is that we are empowered to touch poor, leprous souls with healing power, and to speak the word of life in living echoes of His tones.  There is a vital relationship between experiences of fellowship and service which cannot be violated without incalculable loss.  The church has forfeited its throbbing power when it is content to luxuriate in its privileges and position of favour, regardless of the implicates of such fellowship in the face of the clamant needs of a bankrupt civilization and a bruised and bleeding world at her gates.  Communion which does not lead to service is mere selfishness, and service which is not inspired by constant fellowship is nothing but the whirr of religious machinery.
‘Now unto Him that is able to guard you from stumbling, and to set you before the presence of His glory without blemish in exceeding joy, to the only God our Saviour, through Jesus Christ our Lord, be glory, majesty, dominion and power, before all time, and now, and for evermore. Amen’ (Jude 24, 25, R.V.).
"The Church, A Symposium" J. B. Watson.

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