The great spiritual Bible truth of fellowship has largely been reduced to the physical. When the average person thinks of fellowship, they think of donuts and coffee. There are basically six Greek words (some of which are cognates) which are translated fellowship or its equivalent in the Greek New Testament. Three are nouns, two are verbs, and one is an adjective (nouns: koinonia, metoche, koinonos; verbs: koinoneo, sunkoinoneo, and one adjective: metochos). Koinonia (one of the three nouns) is found 20 times. It is translated, "fellowship" (Acts 2: 42), "contribution" (Rom. 15: 26), "communion" (I Cor. 10: 16), "distribution" (2 Cor. 9: 13), "communication" (Phile. 6), and "communicate" (Heb. 13: 16). Koinonos (second main noun, used ten times) is translated "fellowship" (I Cor. 10: 20), "partakers" (Matt. 23: 30), "partners" (Lk. 5: 10), and "companions" (Heb. 10: 33, all translations are from the King James).
What exactly is fellowship? "Fellowship" was one of the four descriptive terms Luke used to describe the activities of the Jerusalem Christians (Acts 2: 42). Notice that fellowship was constant ("they continued steadfastly "). I submit that while the early Christians were socially close and often physically together, "fellowship" is never used in the New Testament to denote coffee and donuts, as such.
Fellowship in New Testament concept and terminology, when used in a spiritual climate, is communion or sharing in spiritual matters. For instance, there is fellowship in the gospel (Phili. 1: 5), fellowshipping needy saints (2 Cor. 8: 4), fellowshipping God (I Jn. 1: 3), and fellowshipping Christians (Gal. 2: 9, I Jn. 1: 3, 7).
Fellowship is partnership and approval in spiritual matters. Notice that koinonos (fellowship) is secularly used in Luke 5: 10. Peter, James, and John were partners (koinonos) in a commercial fishing business. They enjoyed joint participation in that undertaking (appreciate the fact that here koinonos is secularly used but there is no admixture or injection of the spiritual). Hence, when fellowship is used in a spiritual setting, mutual efforts and commonality is obviously meant (Gal. 2: 9). Fellowship between Christians, then, implies approval and endorsement (Phili. 4: 15). The converse of 2 John 10, 11 is assistance ("receive him into your house") and approval ("bid him God speed"). Assistance and approval are the components, if you will, of fellowship.
We read of fellowship between Christians and God and Christians between Christians. We often encounter the concept of fellowship between God and his people. There is the consistent residual meaning of approval and mutual work. The apostle John wrote, " and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ" (I Jn. 1: 3). Another truth regarding fellowship is that when it is used in the positive sense, it is always active (never passive). The apostles, in other words, could not have enjoyed fellowship with God and have been idle or inactive in their work (more later).
In verse seven of I John, John appears to address fellowship between Christians, " But if we walk in the light," John states, " we have fellowship one with another ." In verse three he wrote of this mutual fellowship between Christians (Christian and the apostles) when he penned, " that ye also may have fellowship with us ."
Fellowship with God and between Christians is conditional. Fellowship with God is conditioned on "walking in the light, as he is in the light" (I Jn. 1: 7, 3, 2 Cor. 6: 14-17). This is in harmony with Johns later statements, "He that saith, I know him, and keepeth not his commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him. But whoso keepeth his word, in him verily is the love of God perfected: hereby know we that we are in him" (I Jn. 2: 4, 5).
Fellowship between Christians, in like manner, is conditional. Many scholars believe the expression "one with another" (met allelon) refers not to Christians and God (vs. 3), but to Christians with Christians (I Jn. 1: 7). Fellowship (joint participation in spiritual matters and approval one of another) is obviously meant in the command, " withdraw yourselves from every brother that walketh disorderly (2 Thes. 3: 6, such an one is not "walking in the light," I Jn. 1: 7). Some brethren argue the local church cannot withdraw from one who has already removed himself from them. Of course, these brethren are not realizing the component of approval and endorsement (more later). Even if one has physically removed oneself from the local church, there should be some open and public indication that the local church does not approve of this persons conduct.
The means of fellowship. Since fellowship is conditional, it is axiomatic there is a standard or means through which the conditions of fellowship are expressed. Beloved, that means is the gospel of Christ, the word of truth (Gal. 2: 14, 2 Jn. 9-11, I Jn. 1: 3, 7). The gospel or "doctrine of Christ" is how we know to accept and assist a teacher or reject him (2 Jn. 9-11).
Fellowship is divinely limited and restricted. This Bible truth has been largely forgotten in "Protestantism" and in many "churches of Christ." Notwithstanding, limited fellowship is irrefutably taught (2 Cor. 6: 14, 17, Rev. 18: 4). Paul enjoined, "Proving what is acceptable unto the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them" (Eph. 5: 10, 11). Notice that the passage requires three things: (1) prove what is right, (2) have no fellowship (do not participate and approve), (3) reprove them. It is not enough to just not join in, but the Christian must reprove or show where such is wrong. The word translated "reprove" can also be rendered "expose." Of course, when one reproves one is exposing.
We would be remiss if we did not acknowledge that fellowship can be withheld when it should be extended (applied to a local church scenario). Diotrephes was guilty of sinfully withholding fellowship from John (3 Jn. 9 ff.).
The teaching regarding fellowship when applied, is quite challenging. Many churches and individuals are manifestly guilty of failing to practice New Testament fellowship. Some local churches have not withdrawn from a member in years and it is not because they have had no circumstances to occasion the action enjoined in such verses as 2 Thessalonians 3: 6!
Let us now make application of some of the essential principles relative to fellowship as set forth in the New Testament. One may avoid direct participation in but approve of and be guilty of fellowshipping sin (2 Jn. 9-11). Moreover, one may not join in, not express approval and still be wrong one must reprove and expose. Many of my brethren (as well as your writer on occasion) fall short in this last scenario. Many preachers also err in this last consideration. In this vein, let us notice two examples.
The church in Pergamos had much with which the Lord was pleased (Rev. 2: 12, 13). However, Jesus said, "But I have a few things against thee " (vs. 14). What was the problem? " Because thou hast there them that hold the doctrine of Balaam " (vs. 14). There is a distinction made between those of verse thirteen and the false teachers of verse fourteen. "Repent," Jesus warns, "or else I will come unto thee quickly, and I will fight against them with the sword of my mouth" (vs. 16). Yes, the false teachers would be recipients of Jesus wrath, but so will the non-participants ("repent them "). There was a similar situation in the church at Thyatira (Rev. 2: 18-29). They also had many commendable traits (vs. 19). "Notwithstanding I have a few things against thee, because thou sufferest that woman Jezebel " (vs. 20). This person (probably a faction) was told to repent by the Lord (vs. 21). However, the non-participants were also wrong they allowed such teaching and practice in the local church (cf. I Cor. 5).
It has been well remarked that scriptural fellowship separates the men from the boys. It is high time that many churches return to practicing scriptural fellowship and more preachers taught the whole counsel of God on this vital subject (Acts 20: 27). It has been my observation (thirty-five years of preaching) that many churches are being corrupted simply because they are not practicing limited fellowship. They accept without question and investigation any and all who desire to place membership (Acts 9: 26, 27). Little or no regard is given to the condition of these prospective members as to walking in the light (I Jn. 1: 7). Some people are without question accepted who have been scripturally withdrawn from by another local church (such happens repeatedly in the area where I preach, Denver, Co.). In practice and reality, fellowship, even among churches of Christ, has too often become an act which only remotely resembles the fellowship which is taught and required in the New Testament. On the other hand, fellowship, when correctly practiced, is a beautiful and great Bible truth! (Click on, "Fellowship Matters and Questions" to learn more and for practical questions for both the individual seeking to find a church and the receiving church to ask, the link is to a sermon outline in the "Sermon Outlines" section of Bible Truths.) (For further study regarding fellowship, click on, "An Exchange on the Consistency of Fellowship Issue" and "Unconditional Fellowship in Churches of Christ").