November/December 2017, Volume 99, Number 6
“And they began to weep aloud and embraced Paul, and repeatedly kissed him, grieving especially over the word which he had spoken, that they would not see his face again” (Acts 20:37,38 NASB. Other scriptures from the Good News Translation, unless otherwise noted).
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The title is a wonderful expression of Christian fellowship. It says we are blessed because we have a bond of love and friendship. But what is real Chris- tian fellowship? How can we as followers of Christ know if we are experiencing this tie that binds us together?
Our fellowship has much to do with whether we become wise or foolish, righteous or evil. “Do not be fooled, bad companions ruin good character” (1 Corinthians 15:33). God knows how much and what kind of fellowship with other brethren is needed. He tells his faithful children “Let us be concerned for one another, to help one another to show love and to do good. Let us not give up the habit of meeting together, as some are doing. Instead, let us encourage one another all the more, since you see that the day of the Lord is coming nearer” (Hebrews 10:24, 25). When considering these words, the encouragement given is to show love, to do good, and to meet together.
Spiritual safety comes through spiritual unity. Today, because of modern technology, we have the means to meet together to a degree even when we cannot physically meet together.
This modern age has made it so convenient to meet together via Skype, Face Time or some other means; it also has made it possible to delude ourselves into thinking it is okay not to meet physically. When we meet together physically, we have a symbiotic relationship with our brethren. We gain mutual benefit from each other and actually create a positive dependence on seeing each other. Unity is not a goal, it is a by-product.
When we meet together we draw closer to the Lord. Some suggest that the closest we’ll ever be to the Lord here on earth is when we meet together with our brethren. When we physically meet together, it is possible to encourage, show love, and do good to the brethren. When we meet physically, we are sacrificing the comfort of our home, our time, and the inconvenience of travel. “Therefore I urge you, brethren, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies a living and holy sacrifice” (Romans 12:1). However, for those who find it difficult to meet together because of poor health, distance, or other unavoidable reasons, the use of technology is a wonderful way to participate in spiritual gatherings, and is entirely appropriate.
Fellowship is the key ingredient in the tie that binds us together. It is also essential to our spiritual growth. Each time we assemble with our brethren and speak of God’s plans and purposes, it stimulates us to want to understand more about our loving God and to do more. “He who walks (as a companion) with wise men is wise, but he who associates with (self confident) fools is (a fool himself and) shall smart for it” (Proverbs 13:20 Amplified).
“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell
together in harmony” (Psalm 133:1). Harmony is much desired among Christians. But what is true harmony? In music, harmony considers the process of simultaneous occurring frequencies, pitches (tones, notes) or chords, and their construction and principles of connection. The term harmony is not used in scripture, but it is derived from the Greek harmonia, meaning “joint, agreement, concord” from the verb harmozo, “to fit together, to join.” How fitting an application to the Christian’s desire of coming together for the sake of making beautiful music of truth!
Harmony is an alignment among four human activities: what you say, what you think, what you feel and what you do. When there is har- mony between your thoughts, feelings, actions and words, you experience an inner, and outer, sense of peace. Remember how the Apostle Paul opposed Peter: “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him face to face, because he was clearly in the wrong” (Galatians 2:11). There never was a breach in their relationship, however. From the writings of both Apostles, it is clear that they were in total agreement. Both speak of the saints as a spiritual house or tem- ple. Note Peter’s words — “you also, as living stones are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 2:5). Note the harmony of Paul’s state- ment: “having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus Him- self being the corner stone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, is growing into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you are also being built together into a dwelling of God in the spirit” (Ephesians 2:20-22).
Basis for Fellowship
Several basic elements of fellowship need to exist in order to for it to be edifying. First, those who meet together, even though they may have differences, should have common basic beliefs. “They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer” (Acts 2:42 NASB). Having common beliefs is the first consideration for fellowship, but it is the com- munion of saints together in harmony that is described in Psalm.133:1, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell to- gether in unity!” Note that fellowship is good and pleasant. In the world, there are things that are good but not pleasant, and others that are pleasant but not good.
A new commandment was given to the footstep followers of Jesus, higher than that given to Israel under the Law covenant. The new commandment comes from our head, and applies to the church of the Gospel Age. This new commandment is “that you love one another just as I have loved you” (John 15:12 NASB). The apostle Peter says we love one another when we love deeply from the heart: “Now that you have purified yourselves by obeying the truth so that you have sincere love for your brothers, love one another deeply from the heart” (1 Peter 1:22). Peter’s admonition uses the Greek word agape, the highest form of love. It is similar to altruism,a selfless concern for the well-being of others. Christian love, however, is different, as it goes deeper. While altruism is for the present, agape has an eternal blessing for others.
When we examine the question, “Do we really love the brethren?,” only an honest appraisal of self can garner a truthful answer. Loving the brethren is so vital, that the apostle John says, “We know that we have passed over out of death into Life by the fact that we love the brethren (our fellow Christians). He who does not love abides (remains, is held and kept continually) in (spiritual) death” (1 John 3:14, Amplified). Regarding this scripture, Bro. Russell comments: “The principle that “perfect love casts out fear” should operate between husband and wife, between parents and children. The wife who fears her husband cannot be as happy as she would be if there were perfect love, and so also children who are in dread of either or both of their parents cannot love them with true filial affection. Each should fear to wound or offend the other and should strive to have that perfect love which God is pleased to have all of his intelligent creatures exercise (What Pastor Russell Said, page 450).
As we grow in the truth, we see our faults more clearly, and notice our brethren have faults as well. We, in our fallen natures, probably exhibit a greater ability to see weakness in other believers than to see strengths. It is as if we use a magnifying glass when looking for weakness and a telescope when looking for strength. Therefore, unless we develop deep (agape) love, we no doubt will be continually finding fault in others.
When we sing “blest be the tie that binds our hearts in Christian love; the fellowship of kindred minds is like to that above,” we are claiming for ourselves the love of the Father and his Son, our Lord Christ Jesus. We appreciate God’s mercy, His holy Spirit, the pure truth, and together we have the mission to extend that love to the human family by blessing all the families of the earth. “Love covereth a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8 KJV).
Unity, Peace, and Opinion
Is unity the same as keeping the peace? Do we believe that if we agree upon a list of beliefs and behaviors that are considered “safe” by everyone within the group, we are in unity? Since we have differences of opinion on nearly every subject and every behavior, how could we then ever be unified? Do we want to be mere clones of each other, thinking and behaving in exactly the same way? Do we really think this attitude of agreeing to not discuss the “hot-button” top- ics is what Jesus meant by “unity” when he prayed that we would be one as He and the Fa- ther are one (John 17:21)? We may distinguish between unity and unanimity.
Keeping the peace is not true unity because it is not based on doing the will of the heavenly Father. Jesus and his Father are one because Jesus surrendered his will to the Father’s will, saying, “not my will, but thine, be done” (Luke 22:42, Reprints 5749). True unity requires both openness and honesty. An honest assessment recognizes that no two brethren think and act identically. Actually, diversity of opinion keeps friendships interesting. When we have love (agape) as our goal, friends can be at peace and in this way, be unified despite their differences. It is healthy to be able to discuss a subject to understand both strengths and weaknesses of the other person’s view, and of our own.
Iron Sharpens Iron (Proverbs 27:17)
Because of our closeness to each other, friction between brethren is possible. This is a challenge to overcome. For example, there may be someone in our congregation with whom we strongly disagree. How can we keep the cords that bind us together from breaking? The Apostle Paul, in writing to the Colossians, says “So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity” (Colossians 3:12-14 NASB). In other words, act like Jesus toward each other! He is the tie that binds.
Every congregation is a mixture of diverse people. But there is the tie that binds our hearts together — the love that God has for each of us, and the common love we have for God, Jesus, the Truth, and our brethren.
It takes courage within the body of Christ to soberly estimate the actual talents we have. Self- conceit is dangerous to a Christian. On the other hand, some are inclined to undervalue their abilities, and hence fail to be as useful servants of the truth as they might be. When we make allowances for inherited weakness in others, we then demonstrate brotherly love. “Let us not love in word (merely), but in truth (sin- cerely)” (1 John 3:18 ESV).
The Apostle Paul, after speaking of the great faith of those ancient worthies, now says to the church, the little flock, the body of Christ, that we are to run the race that is set before us (Hebrews 12:1). We are to run the race as a body, not as individuals. We are to run, not like one merely beating the air, but as ®one who has a purpose in view (1 Corinthians 9:26). The prize of the high calling is not for the easy- going Christian. We are to view the affairs of the present life as a racecourse. The race is not imaginary, it is real and directed by the Lord. He gave us the terms, and the help to be victorious. It would do us no good, as prospective members of the church running the race of the high calling, to carry around hindrances or weights that would hold us back or slow us down. This race is different. It is uphill. Run — not just moving your legs, but one who has a purpose.
Unity and Diversity
These two words express widely different thoughts. Unity carries the thought of being at peace and harmony when coming together with our brethren, whether at meetings, or on a one-to-one basis. (Psalm 133:1). Diversity is described in 1 Corinthians 12:4, “Now there are diversities of gifts.” The word diversity is translated from Strong’s 1243, which means “a distinction or variety, difference, diversity.” “Since we have gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, each of us is to exercise them accordingly: if prophecy, according to the proportion of his faith; if service, in his serving; or he who teaches, in his teaching; or he who exhorts, in his exhortation; he who gives, with liberality; he who leads, with diligence; he who shows mercy, with cheerfulness” (Romans 12:6-8 NASB).
Diversity in the church is not related to doctrines of truth, but rather to the skills and activities of the brethren. Paul realized that unity of spirit and purpose may be difficult where diversity exists. This is why he advises strongly to manifest love in our cooperation with the brethren. “Walk worthily of the calling of which you were called, with all humility and gentleness; with patience, sustaining each other in love; using diligence to preserve the unity of the spirit by the uniting bond of peace; there being one body and one spirit, as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one immersion; one God and Father of all, he who is over all, and in all” (Ephesians 4:1-6).
True unity can exist in the body of Christ only in proportion to the degree of Christlikeness controlling each of its members. We should each search our own heart first. In Colossians 3:16 Paul admonishes us to let the word of Christ — his commands — dwell in us richly in all wisdom. Our Lord’s example was loving, fully compassionate, humble, gentle, and self-sacrificing.
As with Jesus, so should it be with his consecrated followers. God has revealed to us by His holy Spirit through the word His instructions for us to follow. To the extent that we respond to these instructions, we are assured to have unity, peace, and the blessed tie that binds.