Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
August 6, 1970
NUMBER 12, PAGE 15a-18a

Fellowship Defined And Applied

Franklin T. Puckett

"There may be many things in which people can commonly share while at the same time they may be unable to jointly participate in other things."

Fellowship is often a misunderstood and misused term. Meanings may be attributed to it which it does not have, or it may be denied meanings it legitimately possesses. It is sometimes used to include extensions and applications which are not inherent in it or to limit and exclude uses which it naturally has. Such results in confusion and frequent strife. A study of fellowship with its connotations and concomitant ideas is in order and this paper is to be commended for conducting such a study in this special issue. If the following article will in any sense contribute toward a better understanding of the subject, then I am happy to have fellowship in this discussion.

Definition And Use Of The Term

An understanding of fellowship requires an understanding of the term fellow, the meaning of the New Testament words it is used to translate, and the various significations given to it in the Scriptures. As a noun it may have a variety of meanings depending upon the way it is used. Relating to our study it is defined as "1. comrade, associate; 2. an equal in rank, power, or .character; 3. a member of a group having common characteristics." As an adjective it means "being a companion, mate, or associate." (WEBSTER, Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, p. 307.)

The term fellow is used to translate the Greek words: (1) aner, "a man, male;" (2) hetairos, "a companion, comrade, friend;" and (3) metochos, "sharer, partaker, partner." (VINE, An Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, Vol. II, p. 89.)

It is frequently combined with other words such as: citizen, soldier, disciple, elder, heir, helper, labourer, member, partner, prisoner, servant, worker, (Ibid., p. 89). A fellow-citizen is one who shares with others the state and benefits of being a citizen. A fellow-labourer is a companion with and a sharer in labour with others. Being a companion, comrade, or partner of others in sharing with or participating in something which is common to all is the basic idea of being a fellow.

Fellowship is a combination of the term fellow with the suffix -ship, which means "state, condition, or quality; something showing, exhibiting, or embodying a quality or state." (WEBSTER, Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, p. 801.) Fellowship (fellow+ship) is "1: Companionship, company; 2a: community of interest, activity, feeling, or experience b: the state of being a fellow or associate; 3: a company of equals or friends; association; 4: intimate personal intercourse; 5: friendliness, comradeship" (Ibid. p. 307). In commenting on the meaning of fellowship, Macknight says: "In Scripture, koinonia signifies both the communication of something to others, and the participation of something with others: a joint participation." (MACKNIGHT, On The Epistles, I John 1:3.) W. E. Vine defines koinonia (fellowship) as follows: "a. Communion, fellowship, sharing in common (I Cor. 1:9). b. That which is the outcome of fellowship, a contribution (Rom. 15:26; 2 Cor. 8:4)." (VINE, An Expository Dictionary Of New Testament Words, Vol. II, p. 90.) It "generally denotes the fellowship of persons with persons in one and the same object, always common to all and sometimes whole to each." (EVANS, Speaker's Commentary, on I Cor. 10:16). Koinonia "is almost always used of fellowship with persons (I Cor. 1:9; Gal. 2:9; Phil. 2:1) or with things personified (2 Cor. 6:14)." (PLUMMER, Cambridge Greek Testament, on I John 1:3.)

Fellowship, then, is the state, condition, or quality of persons (or things personified) being companions, partners, or sharers together in some action, benefit, or relation which is common to all the participants. The term is not limited in its use to some single relation, arrangement, or function. It may be used to describe many relations of both individuals and groups of individuals in different arrangements and functions. However, notwithstanding its variety of uses, it always retains the basic meaning of a common sharing together, a joint-participation as partners in whatever is being considered.

Realms Of Fellowship

Right conclusions concerning fellowship, non-fellowship, and disfellowship necessarily involve proper definition of the areas and relations to which these terms are being applied. There may be many things in which people can commonly share while at the same time they may be unable to jointly participate in other things. A denial of fellowship in one realm does not always exclude a sharing together in other realms. On the other hand a granting of fellowship in one thing, or in some things, does not require or justify an extension of fellowship in everything. The kind of relation involved, the nature of the function performed, and the consequent results of the action taken must all be considered in order to determine whether fellowship is to be extended or denied.

Citizens of a state may combine their resources and powers in some cause common to all and thus have political fellowship. Friends may share with one another in social and recreational activities and in this way have social fellowship. Members of the same spiritual order may share as partners in some spiritual relation, function, or benefit and have spiritual fellowship. As political and social fellowship are conditioned upon people sharing together in these realms, even so spiritual fellowship is conditioned upon people sharing together in the spiritual realm.

Political fellowship is determined by civic relations and regulations; social fellowship by social relations and regulations; and spiritual fellowship by spiritual relations and regulations. There is nothing wrong in citizens sharing together in civic affairs as long as that in which they share is legitimate. It is perfectly all right for people, whether Christians or non-Christians, to enjoy social fellowship with one another if the functions and relations in which they share are morally right. But spiritual fellowship can only be had by those who are spiritually related in the same spiritual body and who commonly share in the same spiritual functions and benefits. As a political or social fellowship may be right or wrong depending upon the standard by which it is formed, so a spiritual fellowship may be right or wrong depending upon the standard by which it is formed. All divinely approved fellowship is determined by the word of God. An unscriptural spiritual fellowship is no more pleasing to God than an immoral social fellowship or an unjust political fellowship.

Kinds Of Fellowship

Fellowship may describe the joint-participation or common sharing of individuals, organizations, or societies in social, religious, or business enterprises. Such fellowships may be of general or limited extension. The things in which those participating jointly share may be religious or secular, spiritual or worldly, organized or unorganized, scriptural or unscriptural. All men are granted the right to commonly share or have fellowship in the temporal benefits which God provides (Mt. 5:43-45); saints and faithful ones in the spiritual blessings He bestows (Eph. 3:1-9); individuals and congregations in the service He requires (Tit. 2:11-14; 3:1; 2 Thess. 1:11, 12; Rom. 15: 25-27; 2 Cor. 8:1-15; 11:8). Whether a Christian may participate with others in a particular kind of fellowship is determined by the nature and realm of the action involved, the extent to which such action is authorized or limited by the word of God, and the respect shown toward that authorization or limitation by those with whom the fellowship is to be shared. Differences in kinds and circumstances of fellowship must be carefully discerned and properly judged. Unscriptural, worldly fellowships must be avoided (Eph. 5:11).

The Basis Of Spiritual Fellowship

According to Chandler, in his note on Ephesians 5:11, the Greeks used koinonia (fellowship) to denote a participation in their religious rites and mysteries, and in the benefits supposed to be procured by them. It also signified a company of men joined together by some common bond, for the purpose of obtaining certain advantages by means of their union. Many of these fellowships were formed for the purpose of celebrating the mysteries, or secret worship of the gods. The particular god in whom the fellowship was formed was considered the head of it and the author of the benefits to be derived in it. (See Macknight on I John 1:3.) Understanding the way the Greeks commonly used the term should enable us to comprehend more clearly the significance it has when Paul uses it with reference to our fellowship in Christ.

The gospel system of faith and practice is the revealed mystery of God (Col. 1:25-27; 2:1-3; Rom. 16:25, 26). Through the preaching of the gospel, it was Paul's mission to make all men see what is the fellowship of the mystery (Eph. 3:7-9). Christ is declared to be the head of this fellowship (Eph. 1:23; 4:15, 16), and in Him are stored up all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge (Col. 2:3). There are no spiritual treasures apart from Him. The benefits are obtained through union with Christ (Col. 1:27), in which relation both Jews and Gentiles become fellow-heirs of God, fellow-members of the same body, and fellow-partakers of God's promise in Christ by the gospel Eph. 3:6). This is the fellowship (oikonornia — arranged plan) which Paul brought to light through the preaching of the unsearchable riches of Christ (Eph. 3:9), and into which men are called by the gospel (1 Cor. 1:9; 2 Thess. 2:13, 14). The fellowship of Christ, therefore, involves a spiritual union with Christ, with spiritual services jointly rendered according to His revealed authority, and spiritual benefits commonly shared in fulfillment of God's promise in Him. If any man preaches any other fellowship in Christ, he preaches a different gospel to that which Paul preached and will receive the consequences of his error (Gal. 1:6-9).

Fellowship with the Father, fellowship with Jesus Christ, and fellowship with the Holy Spirit is enjoyed when we share with them that spiritual affinity and related oneness required by the divine will. We have fellowship with one another as brethren when we jointly share in the blessings and responsibilities resulting from our fellowship with God. Fellowship in the gospel is dependent upon fellowship with God, which in turn is dependent upon being united with and walking in Him according to His foreordained plan. Only "if we walk in the light, as he is in the light," do we have fellowship with Him, and "if we say we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not the truth" (I John 1:6, 7). He who walks in darkness has no fellowship with God, and he who has no fellowship with God can have no spiritual partnership with the children of God.

Christians as children of light are required to come out of and be separate from unrighteousness, darkness, infidelity, and idolatrous worship (2 Cor. 6:14-18). They are to "walk as children of light: (For the fruit of the Spirit is in all goodness and righteousness and truth;) proving what is acceptable unto the Lord. And have no fellowship with the unfruitful works of darkness, but rather reprove them" (Eph. 5:8-11). God's children cannot jointly participate in man-made worship or commonly share in idolatrous practices. "But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons, and not to God: and I would not that ye should have communion (koinonous — be fellow-sharers) with demons. Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of demons: ye cannot partake (metechein-share in) of the table of the Lord, and the table of demons" (I Cor. 10:20, 21). They could choose Christ or demons, but they could not be in fellowship with both at the same time.

All efforts to promote fellowship among differing religious groups by minimizing the need for strict adherence to New Testament teaching will of necessity fail. Such ignores a basic fundamental on which true Biblical fellowship rests. Unless it can be established that all who seek fellowship with one another are first of all in fellowship with God, it can never be established that they have a common spiritual relation enabling them to share in the spiritual values belonging to such a fellowship. Furthermore, it can never be shown that one is ;II fellowship with God unless it can be shown that he is walking in the light with God (I John 1:7). Only those who walk according to the gospel walk in the light (2 Cor. 4:3, 4). If, therefore, one is not united with Christ and walking orderly in Him according to the gospel, he is not in fellowship with God and has no right to fellowship with the brethren (2 Thess. 3:6, 14, 15).

Walking in the light is not some single act of obedience whereby one becomes a Christian, but is a continuative process of having one's course of conduct governed by the gospel as a Christian. The action of I John 1:6, 7 is durative — not point or perfect. Brother Carl Ketcherside says he will fellowship "every person who has been immersed upon the basis of his sincere faith in Jesus as God's Son and his Lord." (Defender, Vol. II, No. 11, January 26, 1969.) By this he would justify the extension of fellowship to all immersed believers whether Methodist, Baptists, Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, et cetera, et cetera. Even if one should admit that all of these had been Scripturally immersed upon the basis of a sincere faith (a proposition which I will in no wise admit), such would not prove them to be in fellowship with God now. Are all these denominationalists and digressives walking in the light as He is in the light? Or are they walking in the darkness of sin and ignorance? If as they practice their denominationalism they are walking in darkness, then they have no fellowship with God and should not be accorded the spiritual fellowship of God's children. But if it be argued that they are walking in the light, then a continued, persistent course of unscriptural teaching and practice is light in the Lord! Who can believe it?

The Extension And Enjoyment Of Fellowship

Spiritual principles take precedence over physical, civil, and social considerations in determining to whom and how far fellowship is to be extended. If our fellowship with others will in any way violate the spiritual standards by which we are governed, be injurious to the welfare of others, or involve us in any kind of wrongdoing, such fellowship must be refused (Rom. 14:16-21; I Cor. 8:5-13; Eph. 5:11; 2 John 9-11). Fellowship in social affairs may be perfectly all right under one set of circumstances and wholly wrong under another (I Cor. 10: 27-29). The conditions existing at the time and in the place where the fellowship is shared will have a bearing on whether or not a Christian can participate in it. Even associations that would be permissible with men of the world must be denied to brethren who have been disfellowshipped for persistent ungodliness II Cor. 519-11). Because of the variability involved in social fellowship, each case must be judged on the basis of its own merit according to the principles and within the limits of the Scriptures given above. Within the scope of these principles social fellowship can be extended to anyone.

Spiritual fellowship can only exist between those who are in fellowship with God and Christ. Such fellowship consists of jointly sharing with one another the spiritual realities revealed in the teaching of Christ (2 John 9-11). Those who go beyond that teaching have neither the Father nor the Son. To the extent that people are not in fellowship with the Father and the Son, faithful ones cannot be in fellowship with them. How far an individual or a congregation may go in error before fellowship with God is broken may sometimes be difficult to determine. Sometimes it is clearly discernible. Sinless perfection is not a requisite of fellowship with God (1 John 1:8-10; Rev. 2:1-7), but faithfulness is (1 Tim. 1:19, 20). Both individuals and congregations can so far depart from the faith that they will be severed from God and forfeit their right to fellowship with the brethren (Heb. 6:4-6; I John 5:16; Rev. 3:14-16). When saints within the fellowship of God's people become involved in error, that fellowship should not be broken over some slight misstep or inconsequential difference (Rom. 14:1-5). Oneness must be maintained as long as possible (Eph. 4:1-3). We should continue to have fellowship with those who are going astray as long as there is hope of restoring them unless such championship puts us in the position of sharing with them in their error. But when hope of restoration is gone and their errors have become sufficiently numerous and obnoxious to sever them from the Lord or to involve others in their sin, then all fellowship with them must cease. Any error that will vitiate the doctrine of Christ or destroy the work of God must be rejected and exposed (Rom. 16:17; 1 Cor. 5:1-5; 2 Thess. 3:6, 11-14).


Right answers to the following questions may help us determine when fellowship is to be extended and when it is to be denied. Will it involve one in a transgression of the revealed will of God? Will it cause one to violate his own conscience? Will it give endorsement and approval to false teaching and practice? Will it be a stumbling block to others who may be weak? Will it edify men and glorify God? Will it result in good or evil? The answer to some of these questions may require a judgment call. Each one must render that judgment in the light of existing circumstances and the illumination of revealed truth. May God give us an understanding heart to make the right call, a determined will to stand for truth, and a charitable disposition to show compassion.

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