As I have been reading through Philippians, my idea of what it means to have “fellowship” or “community” with other believers has deepened. Paul writes:
I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus. It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me (Philippians 1:3-7).
In this passage, “partnership” and “share” is the word koinonia, which is often translated as “fellowship.” Today, we sometimes equate fellowship with the idea of enjoying coffee or a meal with fellow believers. It is warm friendship.
However, koinonia is much more than that. D.A. Carson writes that “the heart of true fellowship is self-sacrificing conformity to a shared vision. There may be overtones of warmth and intimacy, but the heart of the matter is this shared vision of what is of transcendent importance, a vision that calls forth our commitment.”
Christian fellowship therefore, is “self-sacrificing commitment” to the gospel. The reason Paul was thankful for the church in Philippi was because they, like him, had a deep commitment to the gospel and as a result, longed to see it spread. This is why they supported Paul financially and gave sacrificially to him along with the believers in Jerusalem (see 2 Corinthians 8:1-5).
For both Paul and the Philippians, the “fellowship” they experienced was due to their commitment to the spread of the gospel. They shared in the grace of God together and such grace pushed them outside of themselves to the mission of God in which they experienced true fellowship. And I might add they experienced true joy as well.
So the question we must ask ourselves is: Can true fellowship or community exist outside of mission? Kent Hughes does not think so. He writes:
But if you are looking for true fellowship, give yourself to the gospel at home and around the world. Serve together with others in women’s Bible studies, children’s ministries, youth ministries. Do short-term missions. Join mercy work to alleviate suffering in places like the vast area devastated by Katrina. Take the good news to the poor. Join a band of brothers and sisters to pray for the world. This is how you will experience genuine Christian fellowship.
I hear many Christians today longing for community and I wonder if we might be pushing them in the wrong direction? We make sure everyone is in a small group hoping that fellowship will emerge when maybe we should be helping people understand how they can work with others in carrying out the Great Commission.
I am not against small groups as I think they can serve as a catalyst for true fellowship in the gospel. Jesus led a small group and it ended up changing the world.
Bottom line: I think we need to examine what it means to have true community. If we have divorced it from the mission of the gospel, I think we are missing out on the vibrant fellowship that Paul experienced with “all the saints in Christ Jesus at Philippi.”