'Fellowship' At Any Cost? Where Is Jesus!?!

A Facebook friend asked the following question this morning...


LMW: Is it possible for the congregational community to become an idol? Our congregation has begun a study on the Book of Acts and the emphasis is on the example of community building done by the Apostles. The question earlier on, on worship becoming an idol, got me wondering.


Now, you might think that such a question is "absurd" or "ridiculous" even, but here's how another person responded...


EH: I'm worrying about this same thing, because the congregation I belong to is starting this congregational journey towards being more one body in Christ but all of a sudden I see less cross-focus and more people-focus...it saddens me greatly.


Precisely. Naturally, that excellent question (and the equally good responses) got me thinking.

See, the problem with the current emphasis on "community" and "fellowship" at any cost is that it ultimately produces a Christ-less Christianity that leads us to ask -- "Where Is Jesus!?!"

Of course, proponents of a "Fellowship At Any Cost!" church and ministry will tell you that Jesus is right where He said He'd always be, and that He's definitely a part of any of their organized fellowship experiences (Matthew 18:20 ESV "For where two or three are gathered in my name, there am I among them").

I'm not disputing the truthfulness of God's Word, but I am going to challenge this widely accepted notion that Matthew 18:20 applies to any and all types of "fellowship" as proponents would have us believe.

I guess it all comes down to our definition of fellowship and what we believe Jesus meant when He said "for where two or three are gathered in my name" because I'm not so sure He meant that anything-and-everything we do under the guise of "fellowship" today will qualify.

Simply because those taking part in such acts of "fellowship" are self-professing Christians, and especially if those same self-professing Christians are merely getting together to do something fun for themselves with each other rather than serving one another, serving their neighbor, and/or coming together to discuss His Word and Sacraments let's say, then I'm not comfortable agreeing and giving Fellowship At Any Cost proponents a free pass.

As always, we need to look at that often cited verse IN IT'S PROPER CONTEXT and not cherry pick it from the Scripture to mean what we want it to mean; to give a blessing to any activity we could possibly come up with as long as we're careful to call it an opportunity for "fellowship" as well.

In that sense, tacking on the "fellowship" tag to all of our church's social activities and events is sort of the same thing as tacking on the "In Jesus' Name" phrase at the end of a prayer or a sermon to give the appearance that what was just said is Biblically sound and perfectly consistent with our Confessions.

I propose that this sort of shift in ecclessiology (a.k.a the doctrines pertaining to the Christian Church and her purpose) is causing many to "have made shipwreck of their faith" (1 Timothy 1:19) perhaps without them even realizing it.

Let's face it, anything-and-everything that leads us to a "cross-less" Christianity is a bad thing, and likewise, anything-and-everything that leads us to place the emphasis and focus on someone or something other than our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, no matter how noble our intentions, is also a bad thing.

Here's my reply to the original poster's very important question...


 
Oh, I say Y-E-S for sure, IMHO! I think you can tell when this has happened once you notice the congregation elevating "fellowship" over-and-above everything else as though "fellowship" itself was a sacrament. The strange part is that a congregation's idea/use of "fellowship" most often deviates wildly from what the Bible describes as being "fellowship" or unity around the Word and Sacraments (Acts 2:42). Today, "fellowship" is simply anything-and-everything that promotes "deeper" and "stronger" bonds of "community/relationships" within a local church. So, that's why a church can and will host so many activities and events throughout the year and always describe them as "a great opportunity for fellowship!" even though washing people's cars and going bowling together will not include any believing, teaching, or confessing of "the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 1:3) whatsoever between parishioners let alone between the members of the church and the non-believing members of the local community.


What do you think though?

Let's take another look at Acts 2:42, which is the key verse central to this entire discussion.


Acts 2:42 (ESV) And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.


My dear friends, "the apostles' teaching" is simply "the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints" (Jude 1:3), and "the breaking of the bread" is simply the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper.


Although we do not object if some interpret these passages as referring to the Sacrament, it does not make sense that only one part of the Sacrament was given. According to the ordinary usage of language, naming one part also means the other. 
[Apology of the Augsburg Confession XXII 7]


In short, the "they" mentioned in Acts are the Christians, and we are explicitly told that "the fellowship" they engaged in was the conscious pursuit of unity in doctrine and practice.

Plain and simple really, isn't it?

However, today's Christians would rather live a "spirit-filled" life fueled by friendships and feelings of the warm-and-fuzzy kind, but they do so at the expense of doctrine.

Look, I'm all for fellowship of the saints...as long as it's the kind of fellowship described in the Bible. Otherwise, all we're doing is opening ourselves up to false teachers and the false teachings they bring with them, and we all know (or should) that God's Word is overflowing with warnings to be on guard against such people and their perverted professions of faith.

Actually, come to think of it, my Bible study on Matthew 16 from this morning speaks directly to this important point. Matthew 16:1-12 is where Jesus Himself warns about the Pharisees' false teaching.

Please consider my comments on this passage of the text and how it relates to this discussion about the danger of the congregational community becoming an idol.


I look at Matthew 16 and see the stark contrast between "Those Who Do Not Confess Christ" and "Those Who Confess Christ" and how both are directly connected to the importance of what's being believed, taught, and confessed as God's truth. As the notes in my Lutheran Study Bible summarizes for us: "Too often, like the disciples, earthly needs and worries distract us. Jesus makes it clear that one thing is necessary: a focus on His teaching (Luke 10-38-42). When we abide in the Word of Jesus, we will know the truth (John 8:31-32). Lord Jesus, help me to hear Your Word and gladly keep it. Amen." Why is this so important, especially in connection with today's reading from Matthew 16? Galatians 5:9 gives us the clear answer when it says "a little leaven leavens the whole lump." Finally, I never heard it interpreted/taught this way before becoming a Lutheran, but Matthew 16:18's mention of "the gates of hell" is a figure of speech, meaning what causes a person to enter hell (Psalm 9:13; Psalm 107:18). Bede wrote: "The gates of Hell are wicked doctrines, which seduce men and bring them to Hell." Clearly, there is great emphasis placed upon guarding against false teaching and focusing on Christ's teaching in this chapter.


I'm not sure if I have it completely right when it comes to this topic of "fellowship" within Christ's Church, at large, today. However, I think this from Pastor Peters and his Pastoral Meanderings blog is a more proper (a.k.a. Biblical) way for us to begin thinking about our use of the term "fellowship" as opposed to the way in which we want to prefer to use it as though it were always tied to fun and pleasurable experiences.


We are called into the fellowship of His sufferings... I do not recall where I read that line but I jotted it down on a post it and now I can hardly turn away from its words. We are called into the fellowship of His sufferings. Who we were, who we are, and who we shall be all flow from His suffering. Our very identity as the children of God and the Church of Jesus Christ are rooted in His suffering. The blest tie that binds is no inward feeling or warmth but this fellowship of His sufferings. 
It was our suffering that drew us to God. The Lord said of His captive and enslaved people, "I know their sufferings..." Suffering is the language of love we learn from God. Jesus walked among the suffering and not only heard their pain but made it His own. In compassion He responded -- comforting, healing, and even raising the dead. It is suffering that binds us to Him. What is it that St. Paul says: "For as we share abundantly in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. If we are afflicted, it is for your comfort and salvation; and if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we suffer. Our hope for you is unshaken, for we know that as you share in our sufferings, you will also share in our comfort." 2 Cor. 1:5-7 We are called into the fellowship of His sufferings and such is the condition of knowing the power of His resurrection. "...that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death..." Philip. 3:10 No less than St. Peter concurs and raises the stakes by making our sharing in Christ's sufferings the privilege of the faithful: "But rejoice insofar as you share Christ's sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed." 1 Peter 4:13


We should think of the fellowship we have with Christ -- first and foremost -- rather than the fellowship we have with each other.

Please don't misunderstand me either. I'm not suggesting that we shouldn't care for one another or refrain from loving our neighbor. How absurd that would be! I'm merely suggesting that I think we too often think of fellowship in terms of being something that we can only have with other believers as opposed to something that we most certainly have with Christ through His death and resurrection on our behalf.

Isn't that just like fallen, sinful man to think of himself and others like him first without giving a single thought to the Person who purchased him with His own blood (Romans 3:11; Acts 20:28; Ephesians 1:7; Colossians 1:14).

So what of "true fellowship" then? And does such a thing even exist? Here's Hermann Sasse in his This is My Body: Luther’s Contention For The Real Presence In The Sacrament of The Altar and what he had to say about it...


Here lies the basic reason why church fellowship has been altar-fellowship, and vice versa, ever since New Testament times. The oldest traces of Christian liturgy in the new Testament prove that even at the time of the apostles the ‘holy kiss’, the kiss of brotherly love (agape) and peace (pax), was given at the beginning of the Eucharist (in the Eastern church it is still given before the Credo) or the Communion (in the Latin church). Whenever we find the exhortation in the New Testament: ‘Greet one another with a holy kiss’ (1 Cor. 16:20; 2 Cor. 13:12; Rom. 16:16; 1 Thess. 5:26; 1 Peter 5:14), this indicates that the reading of an apostolic epistle (otherwise, a sermon) was followed by the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. The greetings attached to such passages testify to the fellowship that tied the local church to churches elsewhere and to the entire ‘brotherhood throughout the world’ (1 Peter 5:9). Thus, Holy Communion becomes the great Sacrament of the true unity of the Church. To believe in the Real Presence implies belief in the communion of saints as a reality existing within the Church. 
[Source]


That is true fellowship, true unity, my friends.


My concern is that this "Fellowship At Any Cost!" mentality that is sweeping throughout our churches today will only lead us to let our guard down against the false teachers and their false teachings they bring into the church with them.

The result? We open the front doors to our church, let the wolves walk right in, and invite everyone to come and pet them. Never good and never a happy ending.

In a Lutheran layman's terms, promoting fellowship at any cost will only lead us to do so at the expense of Word and Sacrament ministry.

Worse, it could very well lead to promulgating church fellowship with unspecified entities (a.k.a. other denominations) that do not necessarily hold to an orthodox understanding of the Gospel.

NOTE: As you know, I am a newly converted Confessional Lutheran who recently escaped American Evangelicalism. That being said, please contact me ASAP if you believe that any of my "old beliefs" seem to have crept their way into any of the material you see published here, and especially if any of the content is not consistent with our Confessions and Lutheran doctrine (in other words, if it's not consistent with God's Word, which our Confessions merely summarize and point us back to) so that I can correct those errors immediately and not lead any of His little ones astray (James 3:1). Finally, please be aware that you might also discover that some of the earlier pieces I wrote on this blog back in 2013 definitely fall into that category since I was a "Lutheran-In-Name-Only" at the time and was completely oblivious to the fact that a "Book of Concord" containing our Confessions even existed. In addition, there are some entries that are a little "out there" so-to-speak since the subject matter was also heavy influenced by common Evangelical concerns/criticisms that aren't that big a deal for us Lutherans. I know that now and I'm still learning. Anyway, I decided to leave those published posts up on this website and in cyberspace only because we now have this disclaimer and only to demonstrate the continuing work of Christ and the Holy Spirit in my life (Hebrews 12:2; Philippians 1:6). Finally, please know that any time we engage in commenting on and/or interpreting a specific portion of the holy Scriptures, it will always follow the verse-by-verse notes from my Lutheran Study Bible unless otherwise noted. Thank you for stopping by and thank you in advance for your time, help, and understanding. Grace and peace to you and yours!

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2 comments:

  1. Fellowship is nothing more or less than the baptized saints gathering together to hear the Word and receive the sacraments and to respond with prayer and thanksgiving. Acts 2:42 implies a liturgy: the believers devoted themselves to THE apostles’ teaching (didache, doctrine) and to THE fellowship, to THE breaking of bread and to THE prayers. This isn't just any kind of meeting, but worship according to the pattern of the church, the liturgy.

    We don't have to worry about "building community" in the church. The Holy Spirit calls, gathers, enlightens and sanctifies the whole Christian church on Earth and keeps it with Jesus Christ in the one true faith. We can come together and enjoy the Sabbath rest as we are being fed by our Savior. This is nothing we need to work at!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Matt,

    Well stated, my friend! (and much more succinctly than me).

    Appreciate you chiming in here to add a more complete Biblical statement in response to this subject, because I always worry that my posts read more like "rants" and tend to leave out some of the "spiritual meat-and-potatoes" like yours clearly has.

    Grace And Peace,
    Jeff

    ReplyDelete

Thank you for visiting A Lutheran Layman! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question since we do not exercise censorship. We've seen a similar policy with other blogs and it's worth repeating: Please act as if you're a guest in my home, and we'll get along just fine. I think anyone would agree that the kind of back-and-forth that is characteristic of blogs/chat forums is becoming tiresome for all of us. Still, we should confess, edify, and love (and contend and defend when needed). Bottom line? Search the Scriptures! Apply Acts 17:11 to anything and everything you find here and, if you do happen to disagree with something you find here (which is certainly ok), or think I'm "irresponsible" and "wrong" for writing it, then please refute my position by supporting yours with...Scripture and/or the Confessions. I don't think that's an unreasonable request, especially for those who identify themselves as "Christians" here, right? Besides, Proverbs 27:17 tells us "Iron sharpeneth iron; so a man sharpeneth the countenance of his friend" and 2 Timothy 3:16 says, "All scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness." If you have an opinion that's great, I welcome it, but try to support it using God's Word. I mean, if the goal here is to help us all mature spiritually (myself included) then it should be easy to follow through on this one simple request (I'm talking to all you "Anonymous" visitors out there). Grace and peace to you and yours!