It was the apostle whom Jesus loved, who commenced his first epistle with the majestic words, “that which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life…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 1:1-3).

The fellowship offered by John was fellowship with the Almighty Creator and His Son, and was based upon accepting the message John declared relating to the One he attended upon, whom he heard and saw and handled, and who was the embodiment of the “Word of life”. In these opening words John outines the basis of true fellowship. There can be no doubt about the fellowship enjoyed by the Son with his Father, for he said; “I and my Father are one”, but the question is: how can we enjoy fellowship with them?

Firstly, it should be noted that John keeps using the plural pronoun; “we” and “us”. It’s not that I have fellowship with the Father and the Son, therefore I have fellowship with others that enjoy that same relationship – although that is true. It is more that John enjoys fellowship with his brothers and sisters and that collectively he, together with them, have fellowship with the Father and His Son. It is not a selfish arrangement, “me first” with the Father and the Son, but rather I am part of that multitudinous body of Christ which is conjointly united with the “Head”, our Lord, and axiomatically, with his Father in heaven.

To enjoy this fellowship and association it is critical that we understand the truth as revealed in the life of the Son and equally importantly, that all with whom we have fellowship share this same conviction. The Greek word for fellowship is koinonia signifying “a sharing in common”. It comes from koinonos; a “partner or companion”. In fact, the word sugkoinonos (also found as synkoinonos) indicates “a partner together” (Rom 11:17; 1 Cor 9:23; Phil 1:7, Rev 1:9). It encompasses more than being an acquaintance.

Note Paul’s use of the word in 1 Corinthians 9:20-23. To the Jew he became a Jew; to those under the law, as under the law; to the weak he became weak that he might gain the weak. He was all things to all men that he, for the gospel’s sake, might be a partaker together (sugkoinonos) with them. He became a companion with them through a common bond in the gospel. The basic concept implies a participation with another in a common cause or goal; that is, a “sharing” or “having something in common with another”.

Perhaps the point of being joined together in a common bond is best seen in the use of the word sugkoinonos in Romans 11:17: “If some of the branches be broken off, and thou, being a wild olive tree, wert graffed in among them, and with them partakest (sugkoinonos) of the root and fatness of the olive tree”. The subject of sharing together is very clearly seen here. The very existence of the grafted branch is dependent upon the root and the goodness that comes from the root. Not that each branch is identical in form and appearance but that which sustains the branches comes from a common source, just as the gospel truth courses through our hearts.

Returning to John’s epistle he continues by saying: “If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another” (1:7). But that light must be the “true light” because he adds the warning: “Believe not every spirit, but try the spirits whether they are of God: because many false prophets are gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1).

Consequently, fellowship with the Father and the Son involves walking in the light with a clear understanding of the One who is the Word of Life; an understanding of what he said and did and the purpose of his coming. This partaking and sharing is based on a conviction of the truth of the gospel which we then enjoy in association with those who are of a similar mind, sharing a common purpose and hope and way of life. This is further emphasized by Paul’s insistence that the Philippian ecclesia be “likeminded” (Phil 2:2) with him in spiritual matters. Being of the same mind is a theme which is repeated throughout the epistle (Phil 1:27; 2:2-3,5; 3:15-16; 4:2,7).

This is why he instructed Timothy to “hold fast the form of sound words, which thou hast heard of me” (2 Tim 1:13). And to the Galatians: “But though we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel unto you than that which we have preached unto you, let him be accursed” (Gal 1:8) – a verse which underscores the need for sound doctrine as a basis for an enduring fellowship together. Whether we are male or female, whether we come from different backgrounds or have different stations in life or different nationalities, we have a common conviction, unite around common values and therefore have fellowship one with the other. As Paul says we are Christ’s and heirs together of the promise: the promise that came by faith (Gal 3:29).

But fellowship has another side: one of exclusion. What of those who refuse to “walk in the light?” For example, in John’s second epistle, he wrote these words: “Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds” (v9-11).

Should an individual transgress the commandments by refusing to manifest love and deny the doctrine of Christ, they forfeit that relationship with the Father and the Son. John went on to exhort the elect lady and her children not to receive these people or bid them God speed. To do so would link them with the evil of that wrong doctrine because their support of the evil work makes them a partaker (koinoneo) or sharer in the wrong. The idea of “receiving” is in the sense of welcoming Christ’s ambassadors ( John 13:20). The words “God speed” are a translation of the Greek word “chairo” which means to rejoice, and was the common form of salutation when a person wanted to wish another health, success and prosperity (Acts 15:23, 23:26; James 1:1). In the context of John’s epistle, “to receive” an errorist carries the idea of welcoming into fellowship, and “God speed” conveys the idea of wishing that person every success. John warns them not to embrace any false teacher.

This teaching is consistent with Paul’s admonition: “But I say, that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to devils (ie idols), and not to God: and I would not that ye should have fellowship (koinonos) with devils. Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of devils: ye cannot be partakers of the Lord’s table, and of the table of devils” (1 Cor 10:20-21). The teachings and immorality of paganism was incompatible with the holiness and truth of the gospel.

Paul also warned the Corinthians to disassociate themselves from brethren who were immoral lest their corrupting behaviour influence others (1 Cor 10:2-7,11,13). He counselled withdrawal of fellowship from those who were destroying ecclesial unity by promoting party spirits (Rom 16:17-18; Titus 3:10). He directed Timothy to withdraw himself from those who were teaching error (1 Tim 6:3-5) and pressed the Thessalonians to withdraw themselves from those that walked disorderly (1Thess 5:6,11,14).

There is a trend to “dumb down” the importance of doctrine in the practice of fellowship suggesting that the emphasis placed on doctrine introduces barriers to our association and ought to be de-emphasized. In addition to this it is argued that more importance should be given to our walk in Christ instead, so that more emphasis can be given to love and compassion. While these moral matters are vital, they should not override the doctrine which sanctifies these characteristics in the believer. As we have seen previously, the apostles promote both doctrine and morality as tests of true fellowship.

The other challenge we face is the toleration of error relating to vital doctrines and the subsequent impact this has on fellowship practice. Australian ecclesias have given assent to the Australian Unity Agreement as a basis for inter-ecclesial fellowship. This Agreement also contains a number of fellowship clauses, the intent of which has been adopted by a number of unity agreements throughout the world. All these matters shall be dealt with in more detail in the next articles. Brother Harry Tennant provided the following sound words of advice: “fellowship is not what man decides it shall be: it’s what God determines it to be. 1 Cor 1:9” (The Christadelphian, vol 125 pg 44).

This brings us to the moving words Paul wrote to the Ephesian ecclesia. Paul exhorted them to “make every effort”or “give due diligence to” “keeping the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”. Why is this so important? Because unity is a first principle reflecting the status held by the Father and the Son – a unity that we must pursue if we desire to be involved in that divine family. The apostle continues: “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 4:3-6). He then likens the body to a cohesive whole united by faith and knowledge (v11-14).

From these quotes it can be clearly seen that to reflect the unity experienced between the Father and His Son we must lay hold of the one spirit, sharing the same hope as clearly set forth by the apostles and teachers of His Word. And within this framework we are equipped to denounce error and expose the deception of false teachers that arise from time to time, particularly those who would “lie in wait to deceive” (Eph 4:11-16).

How then do we determine if we share the same doctrine? Is it sufficient to just limit our test of fellowship by simply asking,“Do you believe in the Bible?”or “Do you believe that there is one God?”. To this James said, “the devils also believe and tremble” (2:19). There has to be more to our test of fellowship than simple questions like these. Such would result in the acceptance of all of Christendom into our fellowship.

This brings us to our Statement of Faith, which encapsulates the essential teachings of the Scriptures in 6 pages. It does not supersede Scripture, but it does conveniently and clearly summarise the teaching of Scripture on matters concerning the things of the Kingdom of God and the name of Jesus Christ. Brother Carter wrote this: “A Statement of Faith is essential for any community of believers to define their beliefs to ensure harmonious working together and consistent testimony to those without. To decry a Statement as man-made and to speak of the Bible as alone sufficient reveals a marked failure to perceive the problems of ecclesial life and its duties. All the sects of Christendom claim to base their beliefs on the Bible, a fact which in itself demonstrates the need for a Statement of what we understand to be the teaching of the Word of God” (Unity Book, page 9).

And yet it does not end there. If a person was to say, “I believe the truth set out in the Statement of Faith” but only give lip-service to these beliefs and privately hold on to other beliefs, how could they claim fellowship with the Father and the Son? Furthermore, if there was a profession of belief but no corresponding attempt to walk in the ways of God, how can they claim fellowship as well? As John said, “If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth” (1 John 1:6). Fellowship may be claimed – but would not exist before the Father and His Son.

Therefore, belief alone is not enough to establish fellowship. The test of fellowship is not only what a person believes, but how they reflect the truth in their lives. They must not only believe the truth, they must “walk in the light”. Although the Statement of Faith primarily addresses doctrine, the doctrine does embrace morality. Clause XVI of the Statement requires one following baptism “to continue patiently in the observance of all things he (Christ) has commanded, none being recognised as his friends except those who do what he has commanded”.

An article on fellowship is incomplete without reference to Acts 2:41-42. Following Peter’s address on the Day of Pentecost, Luke records: “Then they that gladly received his word were baptized…and they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers”. Doctrine was the prerequisite to fellowship, but not just any doctrine; it was the “apostles’ doctrine”, a summary of which is outlined in the Statement of Faith. Not only so, but they also “continued” in that doctrine. How? Obviously by keeping his commandments. So, the “apostles’…fellowship” was the outcome of “doctrine” and “walk”. This resulted in the practice of fellowship; in the “breaking of bread” each first day of the week. All of this, a common understanding of the Word of life, walking in the light, and breaking bread together, resulted in a community so united as to form the body of Christ and able to offer a common prayer ascending to the Father through the Son “being perfectly joined together in the same mind and judgment”(1 Cor 1:10).

What a wonderful experience this would have been to that fledgling ecclesia who, having the Apostle John in their midst, was thus able to offer the invitation about which he later wrote in his first epistle, “may you also have fellowship with us, for truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ”(1:3). These thoughts bring us full circle. We commenced with the Apostle John’s words in his epistle on fellowship and conclude with what no doubt was his fellowship experience as a member of that ecclesia that grew out of Peter’s speech on the Day of Pentecost.

“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).