What is Biblical Fellowship?

Former theology of mission professor, Howard Snyder, discusses fellowship as it was meant to look.

This question was posted in Christianity Today:

How do we learn the deep “one another” community of Scripture without being in close proximity? —Karen Shepard, Wheaton Illinois

Here is my response: 

Community in the New Testament sense of koinonia assumes and requires face-to-face communication, whether in a horse-and-buggy age or an Internet age. Three things marked New Testament Christian community: (1) It was centered in Jesus Christ—believers met together as Jesus followers, constituting his body; (2) this fellowship was a gift of the Holy Spirit; and (3) the community was missional. That is, the New Testament community was directed toward a purpose outside itself—actually being a living witness to Christ and gospel power in the world.

Many churches have a superficial idea (and experience) of community. Christian community is easily mistaken for mere cordiality, courtesy or sociability. It easily becomes least-common-denominator “fellowship,” not much different from the Kiwanis or a neighborhood potluck. Often so-called Christian community is marked by nothing that is specifically Christian and nothing that challenges the values of surrounding pagan society.

The question as posed, however, hints at the answer: The “one another” passages in the New Testament. Several things stand out when we look at the many “one anothers,” such as “be devoted to one another” (Rom. 12:10), “serve one another” (Gal. 5:13), “carry one another’s burdens” (Gal. 6:2).

First, most of these passages imply behaviors, not just attitudes. The New Testament writers are less concerned with how believers feel about each other than they are about their actions—their living together as community, and publicly as disciples. Sometimes we reverse this, focusing on attitudes but forgetting action.

Second, all the “one another” passages imply a social context—appropriate structures in which these behaviors can be lived out. In the New Testament, of course, the early church was essentially a network of home fellowships, and this happened more naturally.

Today, in congregations of hundreds and thousands, most of the “one anothers” happen through home groups or other small-group structures—Bible studies, choirs and so on. But not all of these structures are as intentional or as deep as the New Testament sense of community.

Third, nearly all the “one another” passages are imperatives—instructions about actual behaviors, not reminders of abstract spiritual truths we can enjoy meditating upon. The New Testament is full of these “one another” injunctions precisely because early Christians needed to be reminded of them.

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Howard Snyder
Formerly professor of the history and theology of mission, Asbury Theological Seminary (1996-2006); now engaged in research and writing in Wilmore, Kentucky. Professor of Wesley Studies, Tyndale Seminary, Toronto, 2007-2012. Formerly taught and pastored in São Paulo, Brazil; Detroit, Michigan; and Chicago, Illinois. Howard Snyder’s main interest is in the power and relevance of Jesus Christ and his Kingdom for the world today and tomorrow. He has written on a range of topics including church history, cultural trends, globalization, worldviews, evangelism, and various cultural issues.