Being part of a community of believers wasn’t just a ‘nice-to-have’ for the first Christians. Fellowship was vital for a family’s wellbeing, explains David Instone-Brewer
My father died without a pension, leaving my mother with a pair of toddlers. He’d belonged to a barristers’ Inn of Court, a church and the Freemasons. Sadly, only that last group offered my mother any practical support. She dismissed them angrily, saying she didn’t want help from an organisation where women were viewed as inferior to men. So we lived on welfare, which was more generous in the 60s than it is now. It was OK.
In New Testament times, there was no welfare state, so everyone needed to belong to a ‘fellowship group’ or ‘association’. This was a formal organisation of individuals who covenanted to support each other in hard times. If a member was ill, had a sudden bereavement or needed expensive medical care, their fellowship group would help out. They were usually formed by people who felt committed to each other by a common interest, such as having the same occupation, originating from the same country or even just being neighbours in the same street.
Jews usually belonged to fellowship groups associated with the synagogues they attended, which often consisted of like-minded people from similar backgrounds. The Synagogue of Freedmen in Jerusalem, for example, had members who were ex-slaves from North Africa and Turkey, who had made enough money to emigrate and retire in Jerusalem (Acts 6:9).
When Jews became Christians, they faced severe practical consequences because they could be dismissed from their synagogue fellowship group. Gentiles who became Christians also had to leave their fellowship groups because they mostly met for meals in the dining rooms of pagan temples (2 Corinthians 6:14-16). When this happened, it meant much more than a sad goodbye to long-term friends; it was a leap into uncertainty. If illness or bereavement came, there was no guarantee of financial or practical help.
Solving the problem
After Pentecost, thousands of people became Christians in just a few weeks and, in the early days, they were mainly Jews. They weren’t immediately thrown out of their synagogues, but they’d no longer be members of their synagogue fellowship group. After all, why should such groups keep supporting someone who was now attending a different congregation?
The Church had to come up with an answer very quickly – and it did. Fellowship was an integral part of being a Christian from the start (Acts 2:42). Fellowship meals for widows and other impoverished members were quickly established (Acts 6:1-2). Today, we may think of fellowship in terms of friendship and sociability but, in the early Church, it always implied practical support.
The battle for unity
The first fellowship meals weren’t very friendly – they were almost ruined by rivalry and suspicion. Some widows who had come from Greek-speaking synagogues accused the Church of giving the Aramaic-speaking widows more food than them (Acts 6:1).
Fellowship goes beyond practical help – we also share each other’s sufferings
This rivalry helped split the young Church into two groups, one centred at Jerusalem, led by Peter and James, and a separate Gentile group of churches that grew from Paul’s work in Europe. Paul’s churches probably worshipped differently from the culturally Jewish churches in Judea, and the two groups even had problems eating together (Galatians 2:11-14).
Paul wanted the Church to experience the unity that Jesus prayed for (John 17:20-23). So, when the Christians in Judea suffered a famine, he organised a collection for them from his churches. This practical fellowship no doubt helped dispel some of the animosity between the two groups. It showed that while Paul promoted fellowship on the principle of ‘looking after your own’, this included those abroad. Paul regarded all churches as part of one large fellowship group (Romans 15:25-27).
Love in practice
Whenever the New Testament refers to ‘fellowship’ (Greek: koinōnia) the original readers would be thinking of practical support – which is why this word is often translated as ‘contribution’ or ‘sharing’ (Romans 15:26; 2 Corinthians 8:4; 9:13; Hebrews 13:16). But Paul expanded the meaning, because the whole Trinity is part of their fellowship group (2 Corinthians 13:14). Every group aimed to have a rich member, but none of them had a member this powerful!
However this also prompted Paul to regard fellowship as more than sharing benefits – we also share sufferings, like Jesus did: “I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation [koinonia] in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death” (Philippians 3:10). Hebrews 13:16 reminds us to share sacrificially: “share [koinonia] with others, for with such sacrifices God is pleased.”
Many churches today continue practising practical fellowship – making meals for members who are ill, babysitting, giving lifts to hospital appointments – and many extend that help to the wider community through projects such as food banks or support for asylum seekers. This goes far beyond the concept of Roman fellowship groups, who only helped those with whom they had something in common. And fellowship goes beyond practical help – we also share each other’s sufferings, bringing consolation or encouragement where possible.
God longs for everyone to know him, and his heart for the poor means that he wants everyone to be part of a ‘fellowship group’ – including those who aren’t yet following him. The Christmas angel said God wanted his Son to bring “great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10, my emphasis) – which may mean offering them more than a great carol service.