Before Paul departed from Ephesus, he called the elders of Ephesus to come to him and gave one of the most heart-filled farewell speeches found in the scriptures. In particular, Paul exhorted the elders to consider the seriousness of their calling:
Therefore, I testify to you this day that I am innocent of the blood of all of you, for I did not shrink from declaring to you the whole counsel of God. Pay careful attention to yourselves and to all the flock, in which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers, to care for the church of God, which He obtained with His own blood. Acts 20:26-28
Although this passage is written specifically towards elders, I’ve often looked at this passage as a strong warning for all Christians. This passage shows the high honor and responsibility given to elders who are overseers for the Church, but it also demonstrates the honor and responsibility of being part of the Church. Being an elder of a church is more than simply being a manager over Christians and it has been my observation that many Christians understand this. However, I’ve met fewer Christians who understand the high calling of being in the church of God. According to Paul, the church of God is the inheritance that Christ received, which He obtained with His own blood. This should cause us to pause and consider whether or not our view of the church of God is too casual.
In practice, our flippant view of the church reveals itself in our casual view of fellowship. This is rather unfortunate because fellowship is given to us as a means of grace. Those who have committed to the church know firsthand the grace that is communicated through active participation and fellowship within a local body. Again, this is the description of the first Christians who were converted
And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers. Acts 2:42
The early Christians are described here as being devoted to fellowship, not simply going to church and checking the box. They understood (since it was taught by the apostles) that they were united with Christ not simply for their own individual benefit, but they were added to the Church to glorify God and to build each other up.
No Longer as Children
There are many exhortations through the New Testament scriptures of the importance of fellowship, but I will mention the two which have had the strongest influence on my life. Paul describes the function of the Church in Ephesians 4:11-16
“… And He gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness, and deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into Him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, making the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.”
As a young Christian, I believed that Christian growth and maturity was a largely done individually, but it was this passage that served to correct me. According to this passage, God intends that His people become conformed into the image of Christ through the Church, not apart from it. It is through the Church that we grow in love and attain “mature manhood”. It is through the Church and through fellowship with its members that we grow in the knowledge of God. It is through the Church that we progress towards maturity. In a practical sense, it is through fellowship that we understand what patience, humility, and love truly means.
One of the implications of this passage (which convicted me more than anything else) is that if we neglect fellowship and the Church, we remain as children. It doesn’t matter how spiritual we think we are or how much we think we have grown – if we neglect fellowship, we remain as children. One of the major identifying marks of a child is their naiveté; generally speaking, children are very gullible and will believe whatever is told them. Because we know this about children, we protect them, but what happens when believers remain in the same state of spiritual infancy? According to the above passage, they are “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness, and deceitful schemes”. Those who neglect fellowship also neglect the discernment and stability that the Church provides. It is through the Church that we judge New Testament prophecy and all other spiritual gifts (cf. 1 Cor. 14:26-33); false teachers and/or faulty doctrine (cf. 1 John 4:1; Rev. 2:2); and ultimately whether someone is proclaiming a false gospel.
I don’t believe that it is a coincidence that in a day where false teachers and false doctrines abound, there is also a general devaluing of fellowship. We live in a day where fellowship is seen as an accessory to the Christian life rather than the means by which we grow. This attitude is contrary to the scriptures, particularly the passage above. Christians were not meant to be wandering stars accountable to no one, but we were saved by His grace to be “joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, making the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.” It is through fellowship that we see this worked out practically.
A Remedy for Apostasy
The next influential passage is probably the most familiar.
Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near. Hebrews 10:23-25
Unfortunately, our most familiar passages tend to be the passages that we understand the least. This passage is usually quoted by itself, but it is sandwiched between two other passages. Hebrews 10:19-22 gives the conclusion to the author’s argument of the completeness and sufficiency of Christ’s sacrifice. Because of His work, we can enter God’s presence with confidence and draw near to Him “with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience” (cf. Hebrews 10:22). This states that true fellowship with Christ begins with a proper understanding of the work of Christ. Stirring up each other for good works through fellowship is simply moralism unless it’s anchored to the foundation of Christ’s all-sufficient work. Our fellowship is not simply encouraging each other to “be better”, but rather, it’s exhorting each other to look to Christ as our hope and our motivation. If our good works are done simply for ourselves to appease our conscience and not to the glory of God from faith in Christ, it is meaningless (cf. Rom. 14:23). Therefore, through active participation with the Church and fellowship, we learn how to “stir up one another to love”.
As is the case with many passages, an encouragement is followed with a warning. In this case, Hebrews 10:26-31 is probably one of the most frightening warning passages of the New Testament. For the original audience, the temptation was to return back to the Law as their means of justification and to return back to the temple worship. The warning is clear: those who turn back only have a “fearful expectation of judgment” since apostasy is the same as spurning the Son of God, profaning the blood of the new covenant, and enraging the Spirit of grace (cf. Hebrews 10:29). Those who turn back to the Law with the temple sacrifices and walk away from the only source of salvation have sealed their fate.
Most of us do not share the temptation of returning back to the Mosaic Law, but all of us are tempted to turn away from Christ and go back to our old ways. We are all tempted to fall away and return back to our enslavement to the “elementary principles of the world” (cf. Gal. 4:3). We are tempted to turn away from the sufficiency of Christ and His salvation because it will make our earthly lives easier. Perhaps it means that we will not have to endure hardship for the sake of the gospel or it may mean that we would get along better with our family and coworkers. This is where fellowship is vitally important and why it is sinful to neglect fellowship. When we incubate ourselves from the Church, we are neglecting an effectual remedy for this temptation. It is through fellowship that brothers and sisters preach the gospel and its grace to us each day and we ultimately learn that we are not running this race alone. It is through the fellowship of the local church (and by extension the global Church) that “we realize that the same kinds of suffering are being experienced by your brothers around the world.” (cf. 1 Peter 5:9). In many ways, the grace communicated through fellowship guards us against the temptation of apostasy.
This portion is written to those who neglect fellowship because they are afraid of getting hurt by the Church. Many would attempt to empathize with these experiences, but I feel that it’s better to be honest. Pain (or the threat of pain) is never an excuse for disobedience to the scripture. The Church wasn’t purchased by Christ to cater to our convenience. He has gifted us with His precious gifts primarily for the purpose of the Church, not for our personal benefit. For the Christian growing in grace, there is no separation between active participation/fellowship and Christian growth.
There are some difficult questions that must be asked: If you are not actively involved in the fellowship within a local church, then who is inspecting the fruit of your sanctification? Is it a group of your close friends who you select who happens to agree with all of your convictions? Is that a legitimate test? This is similar to performing a laboratory experiment without any control variables. Without control variables, you can interpret the results in whatever way you desire. Similarly, without fellowship with other believers in a local body that God appoints, you can interpret your Christian walk in whatever way you desire. If the only proof you have for your fruit is that “the Holy Spirit told me that I’m growing” or my good friends are confirming my walk, then strictly speaking that is not a valid test. The above passages have demonstrated clearly that the Church plays a role in confirming the testimony and growth of all believers. Even the apostle Paul had to confirm his testimony to the rest of the apostles before his testimony was considered true (cf. Gal 2:1-2). An even bolder question to ask is this: if you are persistently neglecting fellowship with the Church, then how do objectively know that you are converted? Who has confirmed the testimony of Christ within you?
Let us not refuse fellowship because of the baggage of previous churches. As mentioned above, it is through the testing of love by fellowship that we discover whether or not the love of Christ is within us. It is through the irritation of fellow believers that we discover whether or not we have the patience of Christ. It is easy to love believers in word only and to love believers who don’t irritate us. However, the true test of our love for the saints is to see whether we can endure the immaturity, the shortcomings, flaws, and sin that is associated with active participation in the Church. Yet, it is the grace of God that he exposes our true condition through fellowship so that we may grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord.