Friday, December 10, 2021

Too Hot to Handle: Fellows in the Same Ship

In which our regular writers toss around subjects a little more volatile than usual.

Scott Mannion believes in the value of fellowship: the communal spirit; taking ownership of problem-solving at the local level, rather than looking to government for answers; “distributing the burden of cognition”, as he puts it. He’s promoting fellowship vigorously, because he believes top-down solutions to our problems are simply not working.

Tom: Mannion’s YouTube video is the first time in a very long while that I’ve heard the word “fellowship” used outside a purely religious context. He certainly gets the concept right. IC, this one was your baby: what was it about the video that grabbed you?

A Forgotten Concept

Immanuel Can: Well, basically that. The term “fellowship” is surely one of the most forgotten ones among us … at least in practice, though we continue to use it for all sorts of things.

Tom: It’s like the word “worship”. It gets used to describe things that ... simply aren’t it. And here we have a secular Brit talking about English history and recognizing that fellowship was essentially the key to building England’s empire. That’s an interesting concept, but it reminds us that fellowship is a powerful thing. We often list fellowship as among the four critical activities to which the early church gave itself, but from the priority we give fellowship, my guess would be most of us view it as the “weak sister” in that group.

IC: It’s certainly the most left-to-chance. We do practice it to some degree, because we can’t avoid doing so; but when we do, we aren’t even quite aware of what it is we are doing. So maybe we should make it conscious. Can you give us a concise definition of “fellowship”, Tom?

Tom: A fellowship is a company or community whose basis for gathering is a common cause. So Christian fellowship is a gathering based on Christ.

Fellowship, Friendship, Socializing

IC: Good. That’s a starting point, for sure. But somebody might say, “Well, that’s a club: there are sewing clubs, and fishing clubs … so Christian fellowship is a kind of ‘Christ club’.”

But I think of verses like 1 John 1:3 — “Our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.” So it’s not merely a bunch of people getting together to be enthusiastic about something, is it?

Tom: Oh, not at all. But I want to distinguish fellowship from friendship or socializing. A friendship may start over a common interest — say, two people who meet at a book club — but it’s basically about the two people involved and their connection with each other. That’s what it becomes over time, regardless how it begins. You may not even remember it was books that originally brought you together, because you have other reasons to see each other now. And socializing is just fulfilling the human need for contact, and may be quite trivial.

But fellowship requires a common cause. When you’re not consumed with that cause, you’re not really enjoying fellowship. You might be socializing. You might be friends. But it’s not Christian fellowship if it’s not about Christ. A conversation about last night’s hockey game with a Christian isn’t fellowship — unless for some reason the Lord’s agenda comes into it. Because, as you pointed out, the Lord and the Father are an integral part of the fellowship.

Mannion refers to “fellows in the same ship”. They are all going to the same place together.

The Charter Members

IC: Right. That’s what I wanted to point out: the Charter Members. Ours is not just a “club about” something; it’s an active, dynamic fellowship with Jesus Christ and the Father, by the Spirit of God. It’s a circle of relationship within the Divine. We are “in” Christ, and Christ is in fellowship with the Father. And because of that, we have an infinite stake in the welfare of each other, as well. So it is far, far closer, more intense, more profound, far more real than any sort of “clubbing” activity. This isn’t fandom: it’s sharing in the life of God, participation in the love that exists between the Father and the Son. We need to understand that.

Tom: Well, we see that principle taught in the old favorite “Where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them.” I understand in the context that the Lord was specifically talking about gathering to pass judgment on the actions of an erring brother, but most of us believe the principle applies more broadly to any time Christians come together with the Lord’s concerns, his agenda, and his glory in mind. If we are there to honor his name and do his will, we are not just a bunch of human beings sitting there on our own. He is with us in a very real sense. And there is definitely a companionable atmosphere that exists when there is agreement about the goal of glorifying God and furthering his agenda in the world. To the extent that we can agree with the Lord and with our fellow believers about that, we are enjoying fellowship.

Fellowship and Agreement

IC: That’s good. Now, how about we make this practical, too: how does one put into reality this thing that we are now speaking of in theory? You give us one thing, for sure: Fellowship is when we come together with the specific purpose of advancing the Lord’s concerns, agenda and glory.

Tom: And of course fellowship requires agreement. But that needs to be qualified a little.

I think about the very common situation when two Christians with different beliefs about what scripture teaches sit down to talk about it with one another. Are they out of fellowship because they don’t see things exactly the same way? Not necessarily. It depends on how they go about the business of disagreeing. They may not be in harmony about all the detail, but if they fundamentally agree about how the matters in question should be discussed, that the glory of God is the goal, and that the scripture is the final word on the subject, then at least to that extent they are having fellowship with one another even though they haven’t reached a perfect accord on all the detail. And I think the Lord honors that sort of collegial disagreement.

IC: Controversy does not rupture fellowship, so long as the people involved remember who they are, and that the most important fact about them — by far — is that they are going to share eternity with each other and with Christ. If they forget that, and instead make the controversy decisive of their relationship, then they are not acting in fellowship at all. Good.

Distributing the Burden

What about the “division of labor” idea, Tom, the one in the video, I mean? In fellowship, different people occupy different roles and perform different functions … I think the speaker refers to Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring in relation to that, but the Christian idea is that of “giftedness”, perhaps.

Tom: I like the way he talked about “distributing the burden of cognition”, which is just to say that people in fellowship with one another contribute different thinking to the mix, and therefore to the end result. But I think we can take it further and say that a number of different “burdens” are distributed in fellowship, not just an intellectual one. As you say, we bring our spiritual gifts to the group, but also our experience, knowledge, individual personalities and areas of concern for the body of Christ — in short, all the things the Lord has been developing in our lives.

But yes, in Tolkein’s book, Legolas does not fight or think in the same way as Gimli or Aragorn, and the hobbits are not much use for fighting at all, but great for traveling into Mordor unobtrusively. So maybe we could say that fellowship consists in finding ways to use what the Lord has given each of us to greatest effect.

IC: I like that. And it reminds us that in a true “fellowship” no person, whether giant or hobbit, is simply dispensable. None is merely redundant. All have their value, and have only to discover their respective roles in the major mission of discovering how to continue in Christ.

Fellowship and Emotions

Now, as skeptical as I am sometimes inclined to be about this sort of thing, there’s an emotional aspect to fellowship too, isn’t there?

Tom: Well, if we are going to talk about fellowship being a participation in the life of God and a sharing in the love of the Father for the Son, I would have to say yes, absolutely — but I’m going to qualify that too. The way those emotions are expressed is bound to differ from person to person and from culture to culture. That is perfectly okay, I think. My only stipulation would be Please don’t fake it. The Christian Brit might simply say, “Nicely done, old chap.” For his culture, maybe that’s getting positively mushy. But let’s neither imitate him nor ask him to change for us.

A personal example: I often close my letters and emails with the salutation “Love in Christ”. I’m entirely comfortable with that because I grew up in a home environment where love was expressed regularly and verbally. So I don’t feel like I’m baring my soul to state the obvious when I’m writing to someone with whom I feel genuinely in fellowship, and it’s certainly not overstating how I feel about them. But I’m also quite comfortable with the way others close their responses to me, which is often much more ... is ‘brittle’ the word? Maybe. ‘Cautious’, perhaps. But I prefer they express themselves in a way that is comfortable and real for them, so that’s fine. I would hate it to become a game of one-upmanship, where every Christian tries to reach new depths of self-disclosure, or where we all start copying one another.

IC: Right. I was only thinking of something like this: “Since you have purified your souls in obedience to the truth for a sincere love of the brothers and sisters, fervently love one another from the heart, for you have been born again not of seed which is perishable, but imperishable, that is, through the living and enduring word of God.” You are all born again of the eternal. Therefore, maintain your fellowship with each other in love.

Tom, there are a lot of divisive issues in the public square today. Some are political, some are medical, some are technological … and there are strong passions raging in the world over these things. I think we need to remind ourselves of just what grounds our unity.

Tom: Amen to that.

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