“That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that ye also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his son Jesus Christ.” (1 John 1:3)
Nowadays fellowship is defined as “the condition of being together or of sharing similar interests or experience, as do members of a profession, religion, or nationality; the companionship of individuals in a congenial atmosphere and on equal terms; a union of friends or equals sharing similar interest” (American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College Edition). Originally, however, the word was a bit more limited in its meaning.
The word “fellow” comes to English from an Old Norse word meaning “business partner.” In Old English the word meant “one who lays down [invests] money in a joint undertaking with others,” and the first Modern English definition given for “fellow” by the Oxford English Dictionary is “co-worker.” This is precisely how the Bible defines “fellow” the second time it uses the word:
“And when he went out the second day, behold, two men of the Hebrews strove together: and he said to him that did the wrong, wherefore smitest thou thy fellow?” (Exodus 2:13).
The original meaning of “fellow” as a co-worker is also evident in the compound nouns that the Bible forms by attaching “fellow” to words associated with work: yokefellow, workfellow, fellowworker, fellowlabourer, fellowservant, fellowhelper, fellowdisciple, and fellowsoldier[i] (John 11:16; Romans 16:21; 2 Corinthians 8:23; Philppians 2:25 and 4:3; Colossians 4:7,11; 1 Thessalonians 3:2; Philemon 1-2, 24; and 3 John 8).[ii]
Although churches and professing believers often refer to “food, fun, and fellowship,” the Bible offers a much different picture of fellowship.[iii] In its first appearance in the Bible, the word “fellowship” clearly refers to a type of “business” (that is, a working) partnership:
“If a soul sin, and commit a trespass against the LORD, and lie unto his neighbor in that which was delivered him to keep, or in fellowship, or in a thing taken away by violence, or hath deceived his neighbor;” (Leviticus 6:2, in context of verses 1-7).
Even improper fellowship is a working partnership, and fellowship with darkness involves unfruitful works of darkness (Ephesians 5:11).
As a working partnership (something in which two or more people take part), “fellowship” is an equal yoking, a communion (having things in common), a concord, and an agreement:
“Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness. And what concord hath Christ with Belial? Or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? …” (2 Corinthians 6:14-46).
God saves people so that they can work (Ephesians 2:10). Specifically, He saves them so that they can work for Him and in fellowship with Him. For that reason, the Lord’s invitation to salvation in Matthew 11:28-30 is an invitation to work with Him and learn more about Him: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn of me.”[iv] A yoke couples animals so that they work as a team (Luke 14:19),[v] and when believers labor in fellowship with the Lord, their “burden” is light because they do the Lord’s work (1 Corinthians 16:10).
“God is faithful by whom ye were called unto the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Corinthians 1:9).
“That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death;” (Philippians 3:10).
The preaching and ministry of the early church was actually “the Lord working with them, confirming the word” (Mark 16:20).
Furthermore, God calls believers to assemble together so that they can work in partnership with Him. Believers who are in fellowship with Christ will also be in fellowship with fellow believers.
“And they continued stedfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers” (Acts 2:42).
The “fellowship of believers” is a busy-ness in which believers work together as partners “in the gospel,” doing so for (and with) their Savior (Philippians 1:3-7).[vi] God does not call believers to compete against each other over numbers, personal gains, and individual accomplishments (1 Corinthians 1:12-13 and 3:3-9). Such divisive competition characterizes a world obsesses with sports and vain awards, and it'’ wrong. After all, if persecuting the church is persecuting the Lord (1 Corinthians 15:9 and Acts 9:4), if doing something for “the least” of the brethren is doing something for the Lord (Matthew 25:40, 45), if sinning against the brethren is sinning against Christ (1 Corinthians 8:12) then competing against other believers is competing against the Lord Jesus Christ Himself. It is impossible to compete against a “partner and fellowhelper” in the ministry of the gospel (2 Corinthians 8:23).
Consider the example of the apostle Paul (Philippians 3:17). Did he regard the Philippian believers as competitors? No, they were his partners (“partakers of my grace,” Philippians 1:7)[vii] who gave themselves to God and to each other in a fellowship of ministering to the saints (2 Corinthians 8:1-5).
Nor did Paul regard other ministers as competitors.
“And when James, Cephas, and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given unto me, they gave to me and Barnabas the right hands of fellowship; that we should go unto the heathen, and they unto the circumcision” (Galatians 2:9).
The ‘right hands of fellowship” are more than friendly handshakes; they seal a covenant working agreement between partners. Paul and Barnabas were called to minister to Gentiles; Peter and John initially were called to minister to Jews. Rather than competing against each other, they worked together to minister the gospel to all men, Jews and Gentiles – and God worked with them (Acts 2:47 and 15:4).
A busy-ness/working partnership is possible only among like-minded people who agree on what needs to be done (and why):
“Can two walk together, except they be agreed?” (Amos 3:3).
In the case of believers, true fellowship is possible only among like-minded “children of light” who love God (and each other), declaring the truth of God’s word (1 John 1:3) and walking “in the light” that God gives through His holy words to those who follow the Lord Jesus Christ (John 8:12; Ephesians 5:8, 14; Psalm 119:105,130).
“be likeminded, having the same love, being of one accord, off one mind” (Philippians 2:2, in context of verses 1-11).
“But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin” (1 John 1:7).
Sin therefore hinders any type of fellowship with other believers. Sometimes a believer’s sin causes him to separate himself from others, as when Peter separated himself from the believers at Antioch.
“he withdrew himself, and separated himself,” (Galatians 2:12, in context of verses 11-15).
Other times, however, a believer’s sin forces others to separate from him.
“And if any man obey not our word by this epistle, note that man, and have no company with him, that he may be ashamed” (2 Thessalonians 3:14).[viii]
“But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat” (1 Corinthians 5:11).
“Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned: and avoid them” (Romans 16:17).
Sin also severs a believer’s fellowship with God.
“Shall the throne of iniquity have fellowship with thee?” (Psalm 94:20).
“If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth” (1 John 1:6).
“Ye adulterers and adulteresses, know ye not that the friendship of the world is enmity with God? whosoever therefore will be a friend of the world is the enemy of God” (James 4:4, compare 1 John 2:15).
Over and over, the Bible illustrates this sad truth. Adam and Eve once enjoyed daily communion with God as they worked for Him in the garden (Genesis 2), but they later hid themselves from their Creator after sin severed their fellowship with him (Genesis 3). Young David joyfully served God and killed giants and wild beasts (1 Samuel 17), but King David lost his joy and murdered an innocent man after his shameful sin severed his fellowship with God (2 Samuel 11; Psalm 51:12). At one time Jonah faithfully served the Lord his God (2 Kings 14:25), yet he later hid himself in a ship and attempted to flee to Tarshish because his sinful disobedience severed his fellowship with the Lord, (Jonah 1). Peter once boasted that he would follow the Lord to prison and even death (Luke 22:33), but he later tried to return to his life as a commercial fisherman after his sinful denial of the Lord severed his fellowship with Him (John 21).
In addition to severing a believer’s fellowship with God, sin starts a working partnership with unrighteousness and devils:
“I would not that ye should have fellowship with devils” (1 Corinthians 10:20).
“And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them.” (Ephesians 5:11).
Sadly, fellowship with devils precludes partaking in the Lord’s business, and spiritual adulterers who love the world more than they love their Savior (thus working in fellowship with the Lord’s enemies) provoke God to jealousy (1 Corinthians 10:21-22; James 4:4; 1 John 2:15).
Only repentance and confession of sin can restore a broken fellowship (1 John 1:9). David’s fellowship with God was restored when he confessed his sin (2 Samuel 12:13; Psalm 51), and with a restored working relationship with God, he ruled mightily over Israel, and towards the end of his life could truthfully say, “I have kept the ways of the LORD, and have not wickedly departed from my God” (2 Samuel 22). Jonah’s fellowship with God was restored after he confessed his sin and prayed (Jonah 2), and with a restore working relationship with the Lord, Jonah preached mightily and God used his message to bring the entire city of Nineveh to repentance (Jonah 3). Peter’s fellowship with God was restored after he bared his heart and confessed the Lord three times (John 21), and with a restored working relationship with the Lord, Peter preached mightily on the day of Pentecost and worked faithfully throughout Acts 1-15.
A working relationship with the Lord Jesus Christ is absolutely essential. Without Him we can do nothing of value, but through Him we can do anything God asks of us.
“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine: no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing” (John 15:4-5).
“I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Philippians 4:13).
Because fellowship with Christ hinges on fellowship with fellow believers, and because fellowship with other believers hinges on obeying the scriptures and living a Christ-honoring life (1John 1:7), God’s people need to work in a Bible-believing partnership with the Lord and with each other, ministering all the true words of God to other people for the glory of God.
[i] Long before American politicians popularized phrases such as “brother in arms” and “brothers in combat” soldiers and sailors called each other “fellows”
[ii] In contemporary English, a “fellow” is a comrade of associate of the same kind, group occupation, society, or locality; having in common certain characteristics or interest” (American Heritage Dictionary, 2nd College Edition). This meaning is evident in some of the Bible’s uses of the word (for example, judges 11:37, Isaiah 34:14 and Matthew 11;16. Notice, by the way, that according to Judges 11:37-40, the word “fellow” can refer to a woman as well as to a man). Because of the implied insult in verses such as 1 Samuel 21:15 and 29:4, the word “fellow” could also serve as a derogatory word (Matthew 12:24 and 26:61, 71; Luke 22:59 and 23:2; John 9:29; and Acts 17:5, 18:13, 22:22, and 24:5).
[iii] For example, Acts 2:42 distinguishes fellowship from eating (“breaking of bread”) and connects it instead with doctrine.
[iv] Believers learn about their Savior by studying the Bible – and Bible study in turn produces unashamed “workmen” who labor under God’s approval (2 Timothy 2:15).
[v] The Lord does not invite believers to work in fellowship with Him because He actually needs the help of “unprofitable servants” who do only what they’re commanded to do (Luke 17:10). He invites them to join with Him because He genuinely desires and enjoys their company.
[vi] According to Luke 24:15, when believers commune together, the Lord Himself draws near and goes with them.
[vii] A “partnership” is any endeavor (spiritual or carnal) in which each person involved takes part (Luke 5:7-10; Philemon 7). A person who takes part in something is a part-taker, or “partaker” of it (1 Corinthians 8:23; Ephesians 5:7; 2 John 11).
[viii] Even the world recognizes that he word “company” refers to a business (or working) partnership, as in “Sears, Roebuck, and Company.”