The Forgotten Habit: Fellowship as a Means of God’s Grace
We nixed the name “Fellowship Hall.”
Our church purchased the building three years ago. “Fellowship Hall” had been the name we inherited for the other big room. Recently, in the process of doing some renovations, we needed to formalize a name for each room. The sign now reads, “Chapel.”
The word fellowship has fallen on hard times in many churches, like the word encourage — emptied of its power by casual overuse. Trivialized, you might say.
We scrapped fellowship from the name not because the biblical reality of fellowship is waning in importance. Quite the contrary. We want our church to reclaim the electric reality of fellowship in the New Testament and not have the term die the slow death of Christian domestication.
Fellowship Bigger Than Us
Perhaps the word can seem hollow if we have lost the concept of fellowship as a means of grace, with the end of enjoying Jesus.
That we have means of grace in the Christian life implies some end, some goal, some target. In other words, “means” means means to some end. The means are not the end. And if we leave the great end undefined, lesser ends come to replace it. Lesser ends like growth. Nor is godliness or holiness the goal, vital and precious as they are.
“Knowing and enjoying God himself, in the God-man, Jesus Christ, is the goal, the end, of Christian fellowship.”
Rather knowing and enjoying God himself, in the God-man, Jesus Christ, is the goal, the end, of Christian fellowship. The final joy in any truly Christian habit of grace is, as Paul writes, “the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). “This is eternal life,” Jesus prayed — and this is the goal of the means of his grace — “that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). And as J.I. Packer writes, “The more strongly one desires an end, the more carefully and diligently one will use the means to it” (Honouring the People of God, 274).
Of those means, God’s word and prayer are often emphasized for their crucial place in the Christian life. Rightly so. But in the age of the individualist modern self, a third vital means — like a forgotten middle child — needs more attention: fellowship.
Something More Than Friendship
Christian fellowship — our holy commonality of sharing in one Savior, through one Spirit, as one body — goes far deeper than games and a potluck. In the New Testament, fellowship is less the Christian Super Bowl party, and more like the players themselves huddled on the field, calling the next play.
Perhaps few of us realized how vital fellowship was as a means of grace until COVID hit. Many languished unexpectedly, and some of our churches still feel the fallout. We tend to underestimate how much our souls are fed, and stay healthy, through the regular rhythms of in-person corporate worship and face-to-face fellowship. Especially in an age of enormous technological advances which keep us in touch with those who are remote, while quietly undermining ties with those most proximate. Our devices have increased our sheer count of “friends,” while stripping our lives of real, flesh-and-blood friendships.
New Testament fellowship is far deeper than common human friendships. Fellowship, at its best, is comprised of deeply committed relationships, that is, covenant allegiance through thick and thin, through pain and inconvenience and awkwardness and annoyance. This has long been a challenge for Americans who, when they rally together, have often done so in defense of individual rights, liberties, and our personal pursuits of happiness.
God Gave Us Each Other
Hebrews’ twin texts on fellowship as a means of grace speaks into the challenges of our generation. As we see in Hebrews 3 and 10, life and health and perseverance in Christian faith is a community project. Our hearts harden, and our faith fails, as we distance ourselves from the fellowship.
“Life and health and perseverance in the Christian life is a community project.”
But when we stubbornly stay connected, and deepen those connections, we not our find our own hearts staying soft, and our faith enduring; we also taste the joy of being Christ’s means of grace to each other. It is marvelous and deeply satisfying to be human instruments of the Spirit’s keeping work in the church. Both passages in Hebrews show us the benefit of receiving grace and giving grace in the covenant fellowship of the local church.
The first of the twins we might see as cast in more negative terms, but both texts work together, with the second being more expressly positive in thrust.
Watch Out for Each Other
In Hebrews 3, the writer quotes from Psalm 95 to spur his readers to Christian perseverance, and then pivots to this immediate application to the church as a whole, not just individuals:
Take care, brothers, lest there be in any of you an evil, unbelieving heart, leading you to fall away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin. (Hebrews 3:12–13)
Look out, watch out, take care of each other — be vigilant over your brother’s soul, not just your own. The church body as a whole is to watch out for some (“any”) whose hearts may be cooling. And the stakes could hardly be any higher. An “unbelieving heart” is not just unfortunate, but evil. It leads to falling away from the living God — that is, from spiritual life to spiritual death. The preventive measure, or the remedy, says Hebrews, is at least twofold.
First is the daily charge to vigilance. Why daily? Well, for one, Psalm 95 says “today.” We are not promised tomorrow. If you recognize hardness of heart in yourself or a brother, address it right away, today. Such watching out for own souls, and others, needs to happen at the daily and weekly level (rather than monthly or yearly). Hearts harden in subtle increments, a day at a time, not all at once. The good news is that it’s preventable, and doesn’t just happen to you without some process. The bad news is that the increments can be difficult to discern, and snowball over time. But regular attentiveness keeps us from a pattern of hardening. Fellowship is a means of God’s grace that interrupts the cooling of our hearts.
The second emphasis is the power of words: “exhort one another.” This word for exhort (Greek parakaleo) appears as “comfort” or “encourage” in other contexts (as in Hebrew 10:25). At its heart is the idea of helping one another with words — with helping words that take various forms in different contexts, whether rebuking a hard heart, comforting a tender conscience, or encouraging a humble faith. This is a call to come alongside a brother or sister in the faith and be a human instrument of the Spirit’s keeping work through our words.
In other words, we might say to the struggling saint, Hear God’s voice in your brother’s voice! And to the whole body, watching out for the some, Be God’s voice in the ear of your brother, to keep his heart from hardening and unbelief — to stay soft and believing.
Provoke Each Other
The other twin, then, Hebrews 10:24–25, expands on the vision, now cast in more positive terms:
Let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.
Now, as Hebrews 3 has its positive charge to take up helping words, so Hebrews 10 includes the warning against “neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some.” Here again is the some from Hebrews 3 (who were falling away), which the whole body together watches out for, and cares for, through the ministry of words (“encouraging one another”).
Striking in Hebrews 10 is this charge to “consider how to stir one another up” — or literally, “consider one another for the provoking of love and good works.” There’s no “how” in the original. Rather, the object or focus of the saints’ contemplation is “one another.” Consider one another . . . It’s a personal charge, and assumes that saints know each other specifically and with some depth — enough to contemplate what particular words might be pressed into service, not just to inspire humans or Christians in general, but to stir up love and good works in particular struggling saints.
Here helping words are designed by one saint to stir up, or provoke, Christian affection and action in another saint. This is a good provoking, not bad — not to anger but to love; not to evil but to good; not to bitterness but to joy. And being God’s voice to your brother does not mean the mere parroting of Scripture, but knowing your brother, on the one hand, and being informed by Scripture, on the other, to then speak as God’s voice, fallibly and in your own words, what needs to be said, as a means of grace, to your brother, to incite him to love and good deeds.
And it is not insignificant that Hebrews 10:24 mentions the assembly, the gathering (“meet together”). Corporate worship is a singularly important means of grace in the Christian life, combining the three essential elements we’ve noted: word, prayer, and fellowship. All three come together in the gathering. At the weekly level, this is the single most important means of grace in the Christian life.
Today and ‘the Day’
In the Christian life, every day matters. And every Sunday matters, with its rhythms of fellowship. Keeping ourselves, and others, in the faith does not call for herculean efforts, but regular upkeep. Routine vigilance, watching out for the souls of others, leads to losing less of the some, and to “all the more” grace as we anticipate the Day of Christ’s return drawing near.
Fellowship as an irreplaceable means of grace in the Christian life offers us two priceless joys: receiving God’s grace through the helping words of others and giving his grace to others through our own. Jesus does not call us to “hold fast” alone, as if we didn’t need the fellows he gives. But we help each other hold fast and thrive.
Whether fellowship is the namesake of a room at our church or not, we will do well to reclaim this reality as a vital means of God’s ongoing grace, and perhaps all the more after the trials of recent years.
Credit: David Mathis