Biblical Discipleship – Fellowship
(March/April 2014 – Volume 20, Issue 2)
As we continue to pursue the specific means found in Scripture that the Lord has given us to aid in spiritual growth, we now turn to the subject of fellowship. We are reminded at this point that some within the Spiritual Formation Movement claim that virtually anything can become a means of spiritual formation. But without specific biblical support it is presumptuous on our part to infuse some activity, no matter how spiritual or pious it may seem, with qualities which aid our progressive sanctification. If we are to be true to the inspired text of Scripture we must search for instruments which the Holy Spirit has explicitly proclaimed to be means of promoting discipleship. So far we have found that both biblical prayer and the Scriptures are two such activities. Now we will examine another, that of fellowship with other believers, and the body of Christ.
Fellowship – What Is It?
One of the Greek words that the average Christian is likely to know is koinonia. The word is found 19 times in the New Testament and means fellowship, communion, participation, or sharing. William Mounce writes, “This mutual sharing is seen in the description of the newly founded church in Acts 2:42, in which one of the four patterns of discipleship is the early Christians’ continuing together in koinonia.”  Fellowship of believers has been an important means of making disciples since the establishment of the church.
Perhaps the central passage on this subject is Hebrews 10:24-25. The epistle to the Hebrews was written to an unknown group of mostly Jewish believers who seemed to be retreating in their spiritual walk. Most believe that this was a second or third generation of Christians that had perhaps lost the wonder of their salvation and the joys of what they possessed in Christ, and were being enticed back to Old Testament Jewish rituals and, to some degree, doctrines. They did not seem to realize that many of these Old Covenant structures, such as the priesthood, and many practices, such as the sacrifices, were mere shadows of better things to come (see 10:1). Having lost their interest in the realities found in Christ and the superior ways of worshiping the Lord on this side of the cross, the Hebrew believers were not only drifting back toward Judaism but had seemingly lost their enthusiasm for fellowship with one another. The inspired author of Hebrews was concerned for both their doctrine and practices when he wrote,
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful; and let us consider how to stimulate one another to love and good deeds, not forsaking our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more as you see the day drawing near (10:23-25).
Rather than forsaking the assembly and living out their individual lives, they were to consider how they could stimulate fellow believers to love one another and to do good things for Christ. In addition they should be an encouragement to one another as they met together for worship, study of the Word and fellowship. Rather than being individualistic and self-focused, they were to be Christ-centered and concerned for the well-being and needs of others in the church and unbelievers on the outside.
We have all, on occasion, dialogued with people who declare themselves to be Christians but are not involved in a local church. For one reason or another they will claim they have no need for the body of Christ, as they are perfectly content to live out their Christian experience apart from other believers. When I run into such people I challenge them to consider not just themselves but others as well. Even if a true believer could live flawlessly without other Christians, something I would deny is possible based upon the New Testament, such a mature believer should consider how valuable they would be in helping weaker saints in their spiritual journeys. It is interesting that the author of Hebrews does not attempt to motivate his audience to assemble because it was good for them personally but in order to find ways of helping others. If anyone could be a spiritual island unto himself, it would surely have been an apostle, and yet the driving passion of all the apostles was to make disciples as Jesus had commanded (Matt 28:19-20). When Paul penned his last inspired epistle to his child in the faith Timothy, he simply re-worded Jesus’ Great Commission:
The things which you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses, entrust these to faithful men who will be able to teach others also (2 Tim 2:2).
It is impossible to entrust faithful people with the Word of God, i.e. make disciples, and not meet with them on a regular basis. If the primary task of disciples is to make disciples, as Jesus mandated, then personal involvement of believers with one another is absolutely necessary.
The essence and importance of Christian fellowship is nowhere more clearly emphasized than in the repetition of the term “one another” as found in the New Testament. Below are 59 references in which the disciple of Christ is told to do something for “one another.” It is both instructive and impressive to see these listed:
1. “Be at peace with one another” (Mark 9:50)
2. “Wash one another’s feet” (John 13:14)
3. “Love one another” (John 13:34)
4. “Love one another” (John 13:34)
5. “Love one another” (John 13:35)
6. “Love one another” (John 15:12)
7. “Love one another” (John 15:17)
8. “Be devoted to one another in brotherly love” (Romans 12:10)
9. “Honor one another above yourselves” (Romans 12:10)
10. “Live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:16)
11. “Love one another” (Romans 13:8)
12. “Stop passing judgment on one another” (Romans 14:13)
13. “Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you” (Romans 15:7)
14. “Instruct one another” (Romans 15:14)
15. “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (Romans 16:16)
16. “When you come together to eat, wait for one another” (1 Cor. 11:33)
17. “Have equal concern for each other” (1 Corinthians 12:25)
18. “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (1 Corinthians 16:20)
19. “Greet one another with a holy kiss” (2 Corinthians 13:12)
20. “Serve one another in love” (Galatians 5:13)
21. “If you keep on biting and devouring each other…you will be destroyed by
one another” (Galatians 5:15)
22. “Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying one another”
23. “Carry one another’s burdens” (Galatians 6:2)
24. “Be patient, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2)
25. “Be kind and compassionate to one another” (Ephesians 4:32)
26. “Forgiving each other” (Ephesians 4:32)
27. “Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs” (Ephesians
28. “Submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21)
29. “In humility consider others better than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3)
30. “Do not lie to each other” (Colossians 3:9)
31. “Bear with each other” (Colossians 3:13)
32. “Forgive whatever grievances you may have against one another”
33. “Teach [one another]” (Colossians 3:16)
34. “Admonish one another (Colossians 3:16)
35. “Make your love increase and overflow for each other” (1 Thessalonians
36. “Love each other” (1 Thessalonians 4:9)
37. “Comfort one another” (1 Thessalonians 4:18)
38. “Encourage each other” (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
39. “Build each other up” (1 Thessalonians 5:11)
40. “Encourage one another daily” Hebrews 3:13)
41. “Spur one another on toward love and good deeds” (Hebrews 10:24)
42. “Encourage one another” (Hebrews 10:25)
43. “Do not slander one another” (James 4:11)
44. “Don’t grumble against one another” (James 5:9)
45. “Confess your sins to one another” (James 5:16)
46. “Pray for one another” (James 5:16)
47. “Love one another deeply, from the heart” (1 Peter 3:8)
48. “Live in harmony with one another” (1 Peter 3:8)
49. “Love each other deeply” (1 Peter 4:8)
50. “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Peter 4:9)
51. “Each one should use whatever gift he has received to serve others” (1 Peter
52. “Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another” (1 Peter 5:5)
53. “Greet one another with a kiss of love” (1 Peter 5:14)
54. “Love one another” (1 John 3:11)
55. “Love one another” (1 John 3:23)
56. “Love one another” (1 John 4:7)
57. “Love one another” (1 John 4:11)
58. “Love one another” (1 John 4:12)
59. “Love one another” (2 John 5) 
As with most lists, simply reading this can almost lull one to sleep and if so we miss the importance of what is being said. Each of these commands should be read in context for its full impact. But even a quick glance at this extensive list reveals that some themes are repeated often, such as greeting one another, serving one another, forgiving one another and encouraging one another. But let us not miss that 21 times we are told to love one another. In one form or other almost all of these “one another” commands are linked to love. And it is virtually impossible to demonstrate love to people with whom you have no involvement.
Of course the word love is often overused and abused in our society. We declare love for everything from chocolate to scenery to our spouse and children. To complicate matters our culture has a hard time defining love. If you were to ask the average person on the street how they knew that their spouse or family member loved them, they most likely would not give a biblical description. Fortunately when the Lord wanted to give us a look at real love He did two things. First, He showed us the example of Himself, especially through Christ. Jesus’ life was a living illustration of what love looked like in human flesh. As He said in Mark 10:45, “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” And of course the cross is the ultimate example of self-sacrificing love. It was for this reason, when Paul is demanding that husbands love their wives, he said to do so “just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her” (Eph 5:25).
In addition to the example of perfect love, most fully demonstrated and realized in Christ, the Lord gave us not a mere definition but a full-orbed description of love. In 1 Corinthians 13 we are given 15 descriptions of what love is.
Love is patient, love is kind and is not jealous; love does not brag and is not arrogant, does not act unbecomingly; it does not seek its own, is not provoked, does not take into account a wrong suffered, does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth; bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never fails.
In the Greek these are all verbs describing what love does. So the Lord is describing not so much feelings or abstracts but actions. This does not mean that love is devoid of emotion and affection (it certainly is not), but love is not to be reduced to sentimentalism. Looking closer we find the first two descriptions are positive, telling us what love is, while the next eight are negative, telling us what love is not. Then the last five move back to the positive. It is not my intention at this point to analyze these descriptions of love. But what I would have the reader note, both concerning the list of “one anothers” and this description of love, is that they are both completely focused on others. While this is obvious on the surface, it is not apparently so obvious to many Christians in everyday life. For example, ask most believers why they attend a certain church and the answer you will probably receive will have to do with the benefits they are receiving: the teaching is good, the music excels, the church has a good children and youth ministry, and so forth. You are less likely to hear that someone is involved in a local church because he or she can best serve the Lord there, yet serving others is the focus of love.
Conversely, ask a maverick believer why he does not attend church and you will likely hear that he gets nothing out of it or doesn’t need to attend church to worship God, or the church is full of hypocrites and the like. Yet the emphasis in the New Testament is for the children of God to be part of the local church in order to give rather than receive. This is not to ignore texts such as Acts 2:42 in which the members of the first New Testament church came together to devote “themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.” Foremost in the reasons given for gathering together was to receive the apostles’ teaching, which is the body of New Testament truth as eventually written in the epistles. It is vital that we become part of a local assembly that clearly and systematically teaches sound doctrine and glorifies Christ. A gathering of Christians that does not devote themselves to the careful study of God’s Word is not a biblical church by the standards of Scripture. But having found such a church, the followers of Christ should make it their passion to become the best lovers and servers of those around them that they can possibly be.
The tendency of our flesh is to be self-centered, to be concerned for our own welfare instead of others, and to elevate self. The apostles exhibited these traits at numerous junctures right in the presence of their Lord. As a matter of fact, on four occasions, as revealed in the Gospels at the very points in which Jesus had just informed them of His impending redemptive work, we find that they either ignored or misunderstood Jesus’ message. Each time Jesus not only rebuked them but also took the opportunity to teach them valuable lessons concerning discipleship, greatness and leadership:
True discipleship : In Mark 8:31, for the first time Jesus clearly stated to His disciples that He would suffer, be rejected, be killed and would then return from the dead. The response by Peter, who seemed to represent the others, was a stern rebuke, after all, Peter reasoned, Jesus was headed to the seat of David, not a tomb (v. 32). Jesus cuts Peter short and rebukes him saying, “Get behind Me, Satan; for you are not setting your mind on God’s interests, but man’s” (v. 33). At this point Jesus launches into one of the most powerful and clear descriptions of what it means to be a true follower of His: “If anyone wishes to come after Me, he must deny himself, and take up his cross and follow Me. For whoever wishes to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake and the gospel’s will save it” (vv. 34-35). Jesus has certainly set the bar high for the apostles and for all of us who claim to be His disciples. Our natural tendency is to be wrapped up in that little bundle called “us.” The apostles certainly exhibit this trait and most of us fare no better. Yet Jesus calls us to deny ourselves – to remove our “selfs” from the center of our lives. We are to then take up His cross. The cross symbolized death. Someone carrying a cross would have no need for personal agendas or ambitions. So too, the disciples of Christ should focus on doing the Master’s will. And that would include following Him. True discipleship would depict a life lived for the will of the Savior, doing His work His way rather than living self-centeredly as is our natural bent.
True Greatness : The next time Jesus approached the subject of His death (Mark 9:31), the disciples did not understand what He was talking about and were afraid to ask (v. 32). In the meanwhile, as they walked from city to city eventually ending up in Capernaum, Jesus questioned their conversation along the way (v. 33), knowing that they had been discussing which one of them was the greatest (v. 34). Jesus pointedly said to them, “If anyone wants to be first, he shall be last of all and servant of all.” He followed this statement with the objective lesson of taking a child in His arms and stating, “Whoever receives one child like this in My name receives Me…” (vv. 35-37). True greatness is not marked by being recognized as the best or the most powerful, but by humbly ministering to even the lowliest, most needy and helpless of people. The great in the world’s eyes deal with dignitaries and make decisions that affect large numbers of people. Those who are great in God’s eyes serve others in a spirit of meekness.
True Leadership : Not long afterward Jesus, for a third time, gave details to the apostles concerning His pending death and resurrection (Mark 10:33-34). Shortly thereafter James and John, who seemed to have dismissed Jesus’ message without much consideration, asked if they could, in the kingdom, be given the prominent positions of power and authority (vv. 35-37). Jesus took the opportunity to define for them what true leadership looks like from God’s perspective:
You know that those who are recognized as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them; and their great men exercise authority over them. But it is not this way among you, but whoever wishes to become great among you shall be your servant; and whoever wishes to be the first among you shall be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many (vv. 42-45).
The disciples saw leadership defined by control and influence. Jesus agreed that this is how the world views leadership, “But it is not this way among you.” We do not shape our lives by the worldview(s) that govern our culture, but by the worldview of God. Our Lord sees true leadership in terms of servanthood not dominance.
Sadly, following the initial partaking of what we now call the Lord’s Supper, on the very night Jesus was betrayed, we find the apostles in a repeat performance of their earlier visions of grandeur. Apparently while still at the table in the upper room, a dispute broke out concerning “which one of them was regarded to be the greatest” (Luke 22:24). Since they had learned nothing from Jesus’ earlier instructions on this subject He repeats almost verbatim what He had told them as recorded in Mark 10:42-45 (Luke 22:25-26).
It seems to me that a careful study and application of what Jesus said to His self-centered apostles on these occasions would revolutionize our lives and our churches. At the very least we would begin to understand how it is that the Lord wants His people to serve one another. Individualistic Christianity, in which everybody becomes a world unto himself, is never on Jesus’ radar. Nor do those who are jockeying for positions of prominence and authority please Him. The disciple of Christ is called to be one who has laid aside his own ambitions, who is following his Lord’s commands, who is searching for ways to serve and who does so with a humble heart. Such people will not normally be recognized as great in the eyes of the unregenerate and often not in the eyes of Christians either. But to God, the only One who counts, they will be pleasing. As Paul said later, “Therefore we also have as our ambition, whether at home or absent, to be pleasing to Him” (2 Cor 5:9).
The Body of Christ
In attempting to describe what the church is and how it is to function, the New Testament uses a number of metaphors. For example, the church is called a flock, a house, and a bride. But the most often used metaphor, and surely the most descriptive, is that of a body of which Christ is the head. First Corinthians 12 contains the most extensive use of this picture, building upon it an excellent understanding of how the church operates.
Much that is found in the first epistle to the Corinthians is in the form of a corrective. This first century church was perhaps the most flawed of any church found in Scripture, although most of its theological understandings were accurate. Only their confusion in regard to the bodily resurrection was suspect and Paul addresses that issue in chapter 15. The Corinthians’ problems were not doctrinal; they were applicational and personal. They had not allowed the truths of the Scriptures to change their behavior and in so many ways they still operated as if they were unregenerate. There was unchecked immorality in the church (chapter 5), lawsuits against fellow believers (chapter 6), misuse of the spiritual gifts (chapters 12-14), and much more. In chapter 12 a tangled mess of pride, selfishness, and dysfunctional behavior presents itself. Paul identifies the problem and exposes a wide spread misunderstanding and misappropriation of how God has set up the church. He does this through the metaphor of how the human body functions.
Members of the church at Corinth were apparently being arrogant and divisive concerning spiritual gifts. In regard to these sins Paul had much to say:
· All spiritual gifts are given to be used for the common good of the church (v. 7).
· All spiritual gifts are given according to the sovereign will of the Holy Spirit (vv. 11, 18, 27).
· All believers are members of the body and live to serve that body (v. 12).
· The Lord has sovereignly placed members in the body to serve as He has desired (vv. 14-16).
· Without such variety the body could not operate (v. 17).
· Each member of the body of Christ is dependent upon the other members (vv. 18-25).
· The body is designed so that its members are interconnected (v. 26).
· Specific gifts are given to the body so that it can properly serve the Lord, and each gift plays a unique part (vv. 27-31).
When we put all of this together we see clearly that God has designed and gifted His local assemblies so that we need one another, and the church cannot function as intended if we each do not live out the giftedness and divine placement in the body, according to His sovereign will and plan.
Having pastored at the same church for nearly four decades I have had ample opportunity to observe God’s design for the local church in action. On the ugly side, I have seen people not gifted in administration frustrate themselves and their fellow believers when they take on, or are forced into, organizational roles they are not equipped to fulfill. I have seen people who lack the gift of teaching faithfully attempting to help others through providing formal instruction from the Word which they cannot articulate to anyone’s satisfaction. I have seen men asked to take the position of elder, for which they were not qualified, only to watch them, and sometimes others, be harmed in the process. The list could go on. But happily, I have watched as numerous people over the years find the perfect spot for themselves in the body. I can tell when this has happened not only because the body is being edified, but because they joyfully serve. One of our church’s missionaries, on home assignment and spending most of the year ministering among us, recently said they have never seen so many different people serve in a church and to do so happily. This comment was a source of great encouragement to me who, as a pastor, am often too close to the forest to see the trees. We recently had a banquet at our church and a couple of our young people volunteered to wash dishes. They washed from 5 to 9:30 pm. I came by and thanked them for their service to the Lord and one of the young men said, “Thank you for the privilege.” The other one told me the next day that it was fun. These are choice high schoolers and I see them in much different roles in the years to come, partly due to the servant attitude that they exhibited that night.
What a joy it is to minister with people who serve with gladness of heart because they love the Lord, love people and are involved in the area of their giftedness and interests. But the body of Christ also provides accountability, protection and, when needed, correction. According to 1 Timothy 3:1-7 and Titus 1:5-9 churches are to be led by spiritually qualified and doctrinally sound elders. These men guard the flock from spiritual predators who would devastate God’s people. Paul told the elders at Ephesus, “Be on your guard for yourselves and for all the flock, among which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to shepherd the church of God which He purchased with His own blood” (Acts 20:28). The elders guard the flock primarily by teaching sound doctrine and being willing and able to challenge those who teach error. As Paul wrote to Titus, “[Elders are] holding fast the faithful word which is in accordance with the teaching, so that [they] will be able both to exhort in sound doctrine and to refute those who contradict.” Those not part of a biblically grounded fellowship are afforded no such protection. And those who are members of a church not led by such elders are far more susceptible to spiritual wolves. Churches with elders willing to fulfill their role as protectors are not always easy to find in an age when toleration of all things, even heresy, is viewed as a virtue. No one wants to be “negative” but the words found in Jude need to be given full weight,
Beloved, while I was making every effort to write to you about our common salvation, I felt the necessity to write to you appealing that you contend earnestly for the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints. For certain persons have crept in unnoticed, those who were long beforehand marked out for this condemnation, ungodly persons who turn the grace of our God into licentiousness and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ (Jude 3-4).
In the process of bringing people into membership in our church, we ask if they are willing to place themselves under the authority of the elders of our congregation. We see this as important because God does. The inspired Scriptures command, “Obey your leaders and submit to them, for they keep watch over your souls as those who give an account” (Heb 13:17). This is not a power-play on the part of our leadership, for we take seriously the exhortation found in 1 Peter 5:1-3:
I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed, shepherd the flock of God among you, exercising oversight not under compulsion, but voluntarily, according to the will of God; and not for sordid gain, but with eagerness; nor yet as lording it over those allotted to your charge, but proving to be examples to the flock.
This interaction within the body of Christ is important and necessary on many levels, not the least of which is restoring those ensnared by sin. Paul writes, “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness…” (Gal 6:1). This can be one of the most difficult, painful and messy things the church of Christ attempts to do. Only love for Christ and people and the desire to glorify the Lord will enable us to persevere at times in such a task. But what a glorious task it is when a lost sheep has been restored to Christ and the church has been able to play a part in that restoration. For those outside the fellowship, who have no one to care for their souls, the road to renewal will be much more difficult. It is for reasons such as these that every believer needs to be under the care not only of Christ but of His church as well.
When it comes to fellowship within the body of Christ I consider myself to be among the most blessed people on earth. Through the entirety of my life I have had an almost uninterrupted experience of joy and encouragement with God’s people. I grew up in an old fashioned fundamentalist church, the kind that has become the brunt of virtually everyone’s jokes and anger today. Yet I have never known a people more kind, loving, sincere and genuine than that congregation. Today I might not agree with all their convictions and ways but they infected me with a love for Christ, Scripture and the church that has never left me. As a pastor, I have experienced the normal ups and downs of anyone in such a position. There have been deep valleys and occasional heartbreaks and sleepless nights. Yet, looking back, there is no other way that I would have chosen to live my life than by serving the body of Christ. Left to myself I am certain that my spiritual life would have become mutilated and distorted. I have needed God’s people, their love, their rebukes, their encouragement, their short-comings, their ministry, their communion, to shape and direct me under the leadership of the Word and the Spirit. Spiritual growth and discipleship were intended by God to be forged in the crucible of the local church and its fellowship.
 William D. Mounce, Gen Ed, Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, (Grand Rapids: Zondervan: 2006), p. 247.
 Carl F. George, Prepare Your Church for the Future (Tarrytown: Revell, 1991), 129-131. http://app.razorplanet.com/acct/40309-3627/resources/59one_another_scriptures.pdf