The Atonement and Fellowship

 

A major result of the existence of Jesus was unity amongst God’s people. Thus the Angels sang: “…on earth peace among men in whom He is well pleased” (Lk. 2:14 RV). If we are not at peace amongst ourselves, then God is not well pleased. God has reconciled all of us into Himself through the work of Jesus (Col. 1:20 RVmg.); reconcilliation with God is therefore related, inextricably, to reconcilliation with each other. The fact that believers in Christ remain so bitterly unreconciled is a sober, sober issue. For it would appear that without reconcilliation to each other, we are not reconciled to God. All we can do is to ensure that any unreconciled issues between us and our brethren are not ultimately our fault. It is abundantly evident in the New Testament that there is a connection between fellowship and the fact we are all in the same one body of the Lord Jesus. But there is also an associated connection between the fact that all who experience the Lord's saving work are therefore and thereby in fellowship with each other. It follows that if we deny fellowship to a member of the one body, we are suggesting that they are outside the experience of the atonement. Thus we will be judging in the sense of condemning; and as we judge... (Mt. 7:1). Consider the following evidence:

- " If we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ cleanseth us from all sin. If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us" (1 Jn. 1:7,8). To refuse a brother fellowship is to imply that he is in the darkness, and that the blood of Jesus Christ is not cleansing him from sin.

- " If any man trust to himself that he is Christ's, let him of himself think this again, that as he is Christ's, even so are we Christ's" (2 Cor. 10:7). If we are sure we are the Lord's, let's remember that we aren't the only person He died for. Therefore we must receive one another, as Christ received us, with all our inadequacies of understanding and behaviour (Rom. 15:7). We are thereby taught of God to love one another; we must forgive and forbear each other, as the Lord did and does with us (1 Thess. 4:9; Eph. 4:32).

- Paul had " fellowship in the Gospel" with the Philippians, " because...ye all are partakers with me of grace" (Phil. 1:5-7 RV). All those in the Lord Jesus by valid baptism, and who remain in Him by faithful continuance in His way, are partakers of His gracious pardon, salvation, and patient fellowship; and they will, naturally and inevitably, reflect this to their brethren as part of their gratitude to Him.

- We were redeemed in one body by the cross; and therefore, Paul reasons, we are " fellowcitizens with [all] the saints, and of [all] the household of God...in whom all the building fitly framed together, groweth unto an holy temple in the Lord: in whom ye also are builded together for an habitation of God" (Eph. 2:16-22). Christ died for all of us in the one body, and therefore we who benefit from this are built up together into a temple in which God will eternally dwell. To refuse fellowship to other stones of the temple is surely a denial that they are part of that one body which was redeemed by the cross. He died to make us all one, to abolish all that humanly might keep us apart, " for to make in himself one new man, so making peace" (Eph. 2:13-15). To uphold division and disharmony within the " one new man" is well nigh a blasphemy against the body and blood of the Lord. From the Lord's pierced side came His bride, after the pattern of Eve from Adam, through the blood (memorial meeting?) and water (baptism?). The creation of the one body was a direct result of His death. The Greek word for "fellowship", koinonia, is used outside the New Testament to refer to peoples' joint sharing of a common property. We are "in fellowship" with each other by reason of our relation to a greater whole in which we have a part. And that 'property', the greater whole, is the person and work of the Lord Jesus- for our fellowship is "in Him". This background of the word shows that it's inappropriate to claim to have 'withdrawn fellowship' from anyone who is in Christ. They are joint sharers in Christ just as much as we are- so we cannot tell them that they don't share koinonia with us. To say that is to judge either them or ourselves to be not sharing in Christ- and according to the Lord's plain teaching, any such judgment will lead to our condemnation. It is the Lord's body, His work, and He invites who He wishes to have koinonia in Him. It's not for us to claim that we have withdrawn fellowship from anyone who has koinonia in Him.

- Christ being undivided is placed parallel with the fact Paul was not crucified for us, but Christ was (1 Cor. 1:13). The implication is surely that because Christ was crucified for us, therefore those He died to redeem are undivided. We have one Saviour, through one salvation act, and therefore we must be one. The atonement and fellowship are so linked.

- " All men" would be drawn together unto the crucified Christ (Jn. 12:32). There is a theme in John's Gospel, that there was disunity amongst the Jews whenever they rejected the message of Christ crucified (7:43; 9:16; 10:19- which implies this was often the case). Conversely, acceptance of His atonement leads to unity.

- There is great emphasis in Ex. 26 that the tabernacle was " one" , joined together in such a way that taught the lesson of unity. The spiritual tabernacle, the believers, was " pitched" by the Lord- translating a Greek word which suggests 'crucifixion' (Heb. 8:2). Through the cross, the one, united tabernacle was pitched. To tear down that structure by disuniting the body is to undo the work of the cross.

- The Lord spoke of the giving of His life, as the good shepherd, in the context of bringing all the sheep together into one fold (Jn. 10:15-17).

- Clearly enough, the bronze serpent lifted up on the “standard” was a symbol of Christ crucified. But time and again throughout Isaiah, we read that a “standard” or ensign will be “lifted up” in order to gather people together to it (Is. 5:26; 13:2; 11:12; 18:3; 62:10). This was the idea of an ensign lifted up. Thus our common response to the cross of Christ should be to gather together unto Him there. And we need to take note that several of those Isaiah passages are speaking about what shall happen in the last days, when divided Israel will unite on the basis of their acceptance of the crucified Jesus.

- The Lord Jesus died as He did in order that all who benefit from His cross should show forth the love, the glory and the Name of the Father and Son, and thus have an extraordinary unity among themselves- so powerful it would convert the world (Jn. 17:20-26). This theme of unity amongst us played deeply on His mind as He faced death in Jn. 17. He died that He might gather together in one all God's children (Jn. 11:52). Those who advocate splitting the body, thereby showing the world our disunity, are working albeit unwittingly against the most essential intention of the cross. And in this, for me at least, lies an unspeakable tragedy.  The atonement should create fellowship. 

The Lord Jesus is a yoke- He unites men together, so that the otherwise unbearable burden of the spiritual life is lighter (Mt. 11:29). If we do not let our fellowship with others lighten our load, then we basically have not been brought under Christ. To be in Him, under His yoke, is to put our arms around our brethren and labour together. The Lord paralleled "Come unto me" with taking His yoke upon us, in order to have a light burden (Mt. 11:28-30). A yoke is what binds animals together, so that they can between them carry a burden which otherwise would be too great for them individually. The invitation to come unto Jesus personally is therefore an invitation into a community- to be lined up alongside another, and have a yoke placed upon us. Without submitting to this, we can't actually carry the heavy burden laid upon us. This heavy burden laid upon the believer must surely have some reference to the cross we are asked to share in and carry. We can't do this alone; and perhaps it happened that the Lord Himself couldn't even bear His own cross without the help of another, in order to show us the point. We can't claim to have come personally unto Jesus, somehow liking the idea of the Man Jesus, intellectually accepting His teachings on an abstract level- and yet keep our distance from our brethren. Paul had this in mind when he described his brethren as 'yokefellows' (Phil. 4:3). For Paul, his joy and crown would be to see his brethren accepted into God's Kingdom at judgment day. David had the same spirit when he wrote of how he longed to "see the prosperity of thy chosen, that I may rejoice in the gladness of thy nation, that I may glory with thine inheritance" (Ps. 106:5). His personal vision of God's Kingdom involved seeing others there; there's no hint of spiritual selfishness in David. And he goes straight on to comment: "We have sinned with our fathers, we have committed iniquity... our fathers understood not..." (Ps. 106:6). David felt himself very much at one with the community of God's children, both in their failures and in their ultimate hope. Life with God simply can't be lived in isolation from the rest of His people. Our salvation in that sense has a collective aspect to it, and if we want 'out' with the community of believers in this life, then we're really voting ourselves out of their future glory.

Life "In Christ"

So many does Paul speak of life "in Christ". We become "in Christ" by entering into the body of Christ by baptism; yet the "body of Christ" refers to the body of believers. A fair case can be made for interpreting Paul's phrase "in Christ" as very often having some reference to life in the community of believers. "In Christ" appears to be often a shorthand way of saying "in the body of Christ". It's because we are of "the same body" that we are sharers in all that is "in Christ" - whatever is true of Him becomes true of us. If He is the seed of Abraham, then so we are we, etc. (Eph. 3:6; Gal. 3:27-29). Salvation was "given us in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 1:9) as a community, just as Israel were saved as a body, "the body of Moses", when they were baptized at the Red Sea. This is why we usually read about "you" plural as being "in Christ", rather than of an individual alone being "in Christ". We were created "in Christ" (Eph. 2:10); "all you that are in Christ" (1 Pet. 5:14); you are now all made near "in Christ" (Eph. 2:13); we are in heavenly places "together... in Christ" (Eph. 2:6); all God's children are gathered together in one "in Christ" (Eph. 1:10; Gal. 3:28). God's whole purpose is "in Christ" (Eph. 3:11); His plan to save us was through our joining a community, the body of Christ, headed up in the person of Jesus. It can't really be so, therefore, that a believer can live "in Christ" with no association with the rest of the body of Christ. This is how important fellowship is. Salvation is "in Christ" (2 Tim. 2:10); not in any particular ecclesia or fellowship, but through being an active part of His body in the Biblical sense. In what form our active participation takes place is of course a wider question- I know a paralyzed brother in a remote village who constantly communicates with members of the body world-wide through mouth-operated text messages and brief emails. But he doesn't of course get to attend any ecclesial activities. I have elsewhere pointed out the way that Paul's writings constantly allude to the words of the Lord Jesus. It makes an interesting exercise to plot out how his commands about life "in Christ" allude to the Lord's teaching about what the Kingdom of God is to be like. The "Kingdom of God" is not only a future political entity to be established on earth; the term refers also to whatever God has Kingship over now. A Kingdom is essentially a people. God's people are His Kingdom, here and now. By entry into the body of Christ by baptism, we are like Israel being declared as God's Kingdom on earth (Ex. 19:5,6) after their Red Sea 'baptism'. Life in [the body of] Christ now, the Kingdom life now [as the Lord speaks of it in Mt. 5-7], the life to be eternally experienced in the future manifestation of the Kingdom of God on earth... it's all about life in a community. It's not about splendid isolation now, because it won't be about that in the eternal future either.

This idea of salvation through belonging to a community is taught by Paul in Romans, where he speaks of two representative men- Christ and Adam. They were, as the early Christadelphians liked to say in the 19th century, "federal heads". They headed up a 'federation' of millions of little people who were somehow "in" them. Everyone "in Adam" dies; but all those "in Christ" are made alive. Or as C.H. Dodd put it in the 20th century: "...the corporate nature of salvation, realized through Christ as our Representative" (1). Or as I am putting it in the 21st century: salvation is in a person, Jesus- but that "person" is comprised of a multitude of believers located in His "one body".

What all this means is that we shouldn't seek isolation from our brothers and sisters; we should seek to be with them and interact with them. Think of Gad, Reuben and the half tribe of Manasseh. They didn't want to go over Jordan and be with their brethren; they chose the good pasturelands East of Jordan to live in because it was good cattle country. But in later Scripture, every reference to the towns they settled in records those towns (Dibon, Ataroth, Heshbon etc.) as being in Gentile hands (Num. 32:33-38); and it would seem from the 1 Chron. 5 genealogies that they went off into Assyria and assimilated into the tribes there. By choosing separation from God's people, they drifted off with the world. And notice how Gad asked for permission to build dwellings East of Jordan "for our cattle and for our children / little ones", but God gave them permission to build such dwellings "for your little ones and for your cattle" (Num. 32:16,24). Gad and co. put cattle before kids; God put kids before cattle. And how many times have we seen this come true- those who move away from fellowship with their brethren drift off to the world, they put cattle before kids, materialism before raising a Godly seed... And of course we can go far from our brethren in many ways other than geographically moving away from them; there can be a distance within us from them which is just the same.

The internet generation especially seems to find fellowship "in Christ" difficult. They have grown up relying upon emails, text messages etc. for communication- the written word rather than the spoken word and face to face contact. The online, virtual life results in difficulty in actually living life in relationship with others. If you are hurt by a person, you don't reply to their email or text; or you regulate your response by the sequence of letters you tap out to them as an answer. Life in families, in ecclesias, just isn't like that. We don't just walk away or shrug and tap a sequence of letters when the going gets tough in relationships. We are in the body of Christ for eternal life; and it starts now. In our temporary, disposable-everything society, relationships too have become all too short. Hence the loneliness and short-termism we see on every hand. Life "in [the body of] Christ" isn't to be like this; its very permanence and family nature is intended to be the unity which has the power to make the world know that truly, our community is none less than Jesus on earth.

(1) C.H. Dodd, The Epistle Of Paul To The Romans (London: Fontana, 1959) p. 93

Defining Koinonia
The Greek word beloved of Paul when writing about "fellowship" is koinononia; but the problem is that this word has a wide range of meaning. In classical Greek it referred to a sharing in anything, often in a business sense. Thus we read that the disciples were "partners" in a fishing business (Lk. 5:10). Koinonos means 'a sharer' as in to share with one another in a possession held in common. Only participation as a contributive member allows one to share in what others have. What is shared, received or given becomes the common ground through which Koinonia becomes real. A state of being "in fellowship" is therefore impossible without some active sharing in something which is held in common by the parties. "Fellowship" is therefore never an on-paper agreement which means nothing in practice. Koinonia creates a brethren bond which builds trust and, in Greek thought, overcomes two of humanity’s deepest fears and insecurities: being betrayed and being demeaned. The misuse of "fellowship" to demean and exclude others is therefore very human, and never intended within the original concept of koinonia. To create a bond between comrades is the meaning of koinonia when people are recognized, share their joy and pains together, and are united because of their common experiences, interests and goals. Fellowship creates a mutual bond which overrides each individual’s pride, vanity, and individualism, fulfilling the human yearning with fraternity, belonging, and companionship. This meaning of koinonia accounts for the ease by which sharing and generosity flow. When combined with the spiritual implications of koinonia, fellowship provides a joint participation in God’s graces and denotes that common possession of spiritual values. The more one surveys the richness and variety of meaning in the word koinonia , the more apparent it is that it is facile to draw a line of "in fellowship" and "out of fellowship" between Christian believers. And likewise, the more apparent it is that Paul's statement that we are called to have koinonia in and with Christ (1 Cor. 1:9), especially with His crucifixion sufferings (Phil. 3:10), is a call to an ideal, which will only be fully realized at His return and our participation in the koinonia of His resurrection (Phil. 3:10). It is as he says in 1 Cor. 1:9 a "call" to that koinonia.

It's apparent from a look around any Christian community that koinonia  therefore refers to an ideal. It's never really achieved in totality; to speak of our being "in fellowship" is therefore at best a description of how God graciously perceives the body of His Son. There's therefore no point in assuming that all within a human group defined by certain theological and practical propositions are "in fellowship"; this is a myth. But because it is believed, those within the groups claiming to have "fellowship" within them maintain very hard boundaries against those outside the group, fearing that their "fellowship" will be spoilt or compromised. But we can never be completely certain who believes what in their hearts, and how many closet moral failures there are in the human lives of those within "our" group. And there will always be some who for whatever reason are technical members of the group, but fail to contribute to it in the sense which koinonia requires. The body of Christ in which koinonia is experienced is in fact indivisible; this is a major Pauline teaching. The net into which the fish of humanity fall cannot in fact be severed, like the garment of Jesus at the crucifixion. We need not fear, therefore, that we may break His body by fellowship practices. It is indivisible. Only human denominations can fracture and break up.

The Jewish, especially Pharisaic, misunderstandings of "fellowship" appear to be repeated in many exclusive "fellowships" today. "In Jewish literature, koinonos took the place of Hebrew haber" (G.V. Jourdan, "Koinonia in 1 Cor. 10:16", JBL 57 (1948) 111,112). The Pharisees spoke of their fellowship with each other as the haberim, thus marking themselves off from the "people of the land" (amme ha-ares) with whom the Lord Jesus so insistently identified Himself. Paul therefore speaks of koinonia as being experienced by all of us by reason of being human (Heb. 2:14), and as the great characteristic of the entire body of Christ. The highly exclusive Qumran community styled itself the koinonia in a similar way to which many exclusive Christian fellowships do today.

Paul's emphasis is that koinonia is in and with Christ. It always has a collective sense; the focus of our koinonia is in a person, the Lord Jesus. It never refers to a set of theological propositions, a "statement of faith", as a basis for koinonia. Acts 2:42 speaks of the experience of koinonia in the breaking of bread, praying together, and the apostles' teaching about Christ. But these are not the only aspects of koinonia; and these things are all centered around the person of Jesus.