Greg Strand is EFCA executive director of theology and credentialing, and he serves on the Board of Ministerial Standing as well as the Spiritual Heritage Committee. He and his family are members of Northfield (Minnesota) EFC.
One of the joys and privileges I have in my role in the EFCA is that I am asked questions. I find delight in attempting to give biblically faithful, theologically accurate and pastorally sensitive responses to these important questions. I certainly do not conclude my responses as THE answer, but I do pray they are an answer that is faithful to the Scriptures.
Below are a series of questions I received about “biblical fellowship.” I have highlighted the questions. My responses follow. Although the person remains unnamed, I have, nonetheless, received permission to include the questions and my responses. It remains mostly unedited.
I am hopeful reading through this will help you to understand the importance of fellowship in the context of the local church, and that it will increase your love for and commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ and his Bride, the new community, the redeemed people of God, the church – a community with real names, with real faces, with real joys and with real sorrows. And that through this life together, you become a visible manifestation of the gospel you proclaim.
By the way, I would be interested to learn how you would have responded to these questions. And if you do not include those thoughts in the comments, I would at least encourage you to think through the questions so that if/when you are asked, you, too, would have answers that would be biblically faithfully, theologically accurate and pastorally sensitive.
Here, then, are the questions and responses.
How does the Bible define Christian fellowship? Fellowship originates in and by the Holy Spirit (2 Cor. 13:14). This results in a relationship with God, the Trinity (1 Jn. 1:3-6) and with one another. It really means living and sharing life together. Here is a good article on fellowship.
Can relationships within the immediate/extended family qualify as fellowship, or is fellowship something that only occurs within the local church? Fellowship used as a technical term is used for those relationships in the family of God, not a biological family. The exception would be if the biological family is all believers. But even then, that biological family is trumped by the spiritual family in that it is not exclusive. Generally we say that “blood is thicker than water,” to mean that when push comes to shove, biological family stays with one another. I like to turn that around to reflect what biblical fellowship means: water is thicker than blood. I wrote about that, turning around that common phrase: “Water is Thicker Than Blood” – Reflections on The Implications of the Christian Family (It may imply that baptism is what is important, but that is not my point. I use “water” to refer to the family of God, those who have truly been born again by faith through faith in Christ.)
What is to be done when the “ideal” church cannot be found? In brief, first, it does not exist. That does not mean we do not strive for the biblical model, the “ideal,” but we do so knowing that we will always, until the return of Christ, live with the church of the real. And if we do not acknowledge this, and we attempt to live by and find the church of the “ideal,” we will critically destroy the church of the real. Second, it already exists. The church of the real does not catch God by surprise. Jesus has been and remains the Head of this church. And this is the church that is divinely ordained by God, in His good and wise sovereign providence, to bring Him glory and will be for our good. It will be a place where the gospel is manifested in real time in real relationships.
As life goes on, time seems to become a more precious commodity. How does one balance a desire for efficiency with a desire to honor mechanisms set in place by church leadership to “create fellowship”? This is a real challenge as a young family grows. I was convinced that live together in the body of Christ needed to occur as part of my biological family. They are not one and the same, but there is significant overlap between the two. I am not sure efficiency is the right way to look at this. I would rather see this as an attempt to live life wisely as a steward under the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Regarding the structures in place, it is necessary to attempt to provide structure for this to happen, especially in a church setting since it becomes more challenging the larger the group becomes. The manner in which one engages in these structured events of fellowship is important. Of course, it is vital that one understands both the biblical nature of the church and the biblical nature of and purpose for fellowship in the local church if one is to discern how this ought to occur. It is also important to note that in God’s divine design, under the Lordship and Headship of Jesus Christ there are leaders who are gifted (by God) and affirmed (by the congregation) to serve the local church. It is for God’s glory and our good that we submit to their leadership, as long as it is biblical (Heb. 13:17).
Should fellowship always incorporate the entire family or should each member of the family be seeking out fellowship on a more individual basis? I think this is not an either/or but a both/and. I also think it will likely shift and change through seasons of life. Although I served as the pastor, much of our serving was done as a family. It became part of our lives. There were also times that each of us had a time of fellowship with others, e.g. my wife’s women’s Bible study, my leadership training, the children with friends at AWANA, etc.
How much of fellowship should be formal and how much should be “organic”? Without quantifying a percentage, this is another both/and, not an either/or. Often I find that because many do not understand biblical fellowship (koinonia) it does not happen organically. It is not just talking about the weather or the football game. It is living life together with a common ground and goal of living all of life by God’s grace and for God’s glory. And this is not and cannot be done alone. Spiritual growth, sanctification, is a community reality (Heb. 3:12-13; also consider the other “let us” commands in Hebrews, and the rest of the “one another” commands in the rest of the New Testament). If it is only organic, it will often mean I do things with those I like and with whom I resonate. Some of the structured will force one to be with those who are less like me and those with whom I will not necessarily gravitate toward, but who are still nonetheless my brothers and sisters who I need (and they need me).
Regarding the true and local church, those who are a part of the true church by virtue of the fact they have been born again, will be a part of a local church. The notion of a churchless Christian is a misnomer. The gospel that saves and makes one a member in the true church will find expression and be manifested in the local church, with real people in real time. Often people move and then attempt to find a church home. I am convinced the better route would be to find a church home and then find a place to live. The notion of being a part of a church in the community in which one lives speaks volumes. The fact that many can drive by some good Evangelical churches on their way to their preferred church often reflects our consumerism. It is difficult to live life together from a distance. It can be done, but it is challenging. We attempted to do that when we moved here and we were no longer in pastoral ministry. We drove for about eight months and realized it was not wise. We then became a member of the local EFC church where we live.
By the way, Gordon MacDonald has written a two-part article on the importance of community I just read, so I forward them on to you: True Community: What 'we' learn that 'I' will never know; and Building One Another: What's involved in Christian community: part 2
Similar topics will be discussed at our upcoming Theology Conference as we focus on The Doctrine of the Church. You can register here. Come as a leadership team/staff. This will be an excellent Conference to learn together and then to discuss together.