There are many words in the Bible that often get confused with the concept of “gaining eternal life.” The word “salvation” is the primary word of this sort, but the word “fellowship” is similar. Often, when people read in Scripture about “fellowship with God” they think it is referring to having eternal life or being born again.
But the word fellowship does not refer to gaining eternal life, but to the experience of life within the family of God. This is especially true for the word fellowship.
The word fellowship is a translation of the Greek word koinōnia (2842). “Fellowship” is a good translation, but not if we think of “fellowship” as what typically happens on a Sunday morning in most church buildings.
Your Church is Not Really a Fellowship
Though many churches call themselves a “Fellowship,” the people who gather there are not often good examples of genuine fellowship. The term refers to a friendship, a community, a partnership, of having common interests, desires, goals, directions, and even possessions.
The term “fellowship” is a favorite expression for the close, intimate friendship that exists between a husband and wife, and also for the unity one experiences in the context of brotherly love. So the word fellowship is not about gaining a relationship, but rather about maintaining the friendship, love, and unity within a relationship.
Relationship vs. Fellowship
To understand how this works, it is helpful to think of our relationship and fellowship with God as we think about these with other person.
There is a vast difference between being born into a family, and having a positive experience within that family.
For there to be a positive experience in a family, certain things need to happen. Everybody in the family needs to participate, help out, contribute, love, forgive, and work together as a team.
It is a lot of work to maintain harmonies and loving fellowship within a family.
Sometimes the friendships that are to naturally exist within a family begin to break down. A son might rebel against his parents. Parents might abuse or neglect their children. Such activities will result in a loss of fellowship, friendship, or “togetherness.”
It is even possible for families to be so broken that people who are related to one another by blood might not see or talk to each other for years at a time. In some cases, family members might spend most of their lives apart, such as when a parent abandons a child or gives them up for adoption, or when a child runs away from home and severs all contact with his or her family.
But note that even in these situations where the families are severely broken, this does not cause the relationship itself to stop.
From a biological, or “blood relative” perspective, children are always related to their parents, and vice versa, even if they break off contact for years at a time or never know each other at all. This is not an ideal situation, nor is it the way God intended families to function, but it is a very common situation for many people.
We could say that in such situations, while the relationship itself continues to exist, there is no fellowship or friendship between the separated family members.
They are related, and nothing can ever erase that relationship, but they do not have fellowship.
Even if someone changes their last name, considers their family members as dead, or gets legally-binding court documents to change their identity, the biological fact of the relationship remains unchanged and unchangeable.
This is exactly how it works with the family of God.
Once a person is born into the family of God, they cannot be unborn. Once a person is in the family of God, they have entered into an unbreakable and unchangeable relationship with God and with every other member of the family.
Even if this person says they hate God, hate Christians, and wants nothing ever to do with God or His people ever again (just as nearly every teenager says or thinks from time to time about their own parents or family), the fact of the relationship remains unchanged and unchangeable.
The relationship is eternal even if the fellowship is not.
But again, this is not God’s ideal, and this is not what God wants or desires for the people who have an eternal and unbreakable relationship with Him.
God desires both relationship and fellowship with and between His children.
This also is the healthiest and happiest way to live within the family of God. This is why the Bible contains so much teaching about how to have fellowship with God and with one another.
In fact, it is not an exaggeration to say that most of the Bible contains teachings of this sort. Though the word “fellowship” is not always used, the vast majority of Scripture is not about how to join the family of God or be born again into the family, but about how to live within the family of God so that we can have the healthiest and happiest relationships possible with God and with each other.
So when the Bible talks about fellowship with God, it is not telling non-believers how to gain eternal life or join the family of God, but is instead telling believers (people who are already part of the family of God) how to enjoy and fully experience their relationship with God and with other Christians.
One key passage that is helped by this understanding is 1 John 1:6-7.
Fellowship in 1 John 1:6-7
If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin.
If someone confuses the two concepts of fellowship and relationship with God, then passages like 1 John 1:6-7 will be radically misunderstood.
When people think that 1 John contains “Test of Life” then they read 1 John 1:6-7 as teaching that if we claim to have eternal life and a relationship with God, but we walk in the darkness by sinning, then this proves that we are a lair and do not actually have eternal life.
This is a very dangerous teaching.
In fact, since John goes on to say that we all still sin (1 John 1:8), then if John is saying that the presence of ongoing sin proves that a person really isn’t a Christian, then nobody is a Christian.
Thankfully, a proper understanding of the word fellowship helps clear up any confusion about this text.
John is giving instructions about fellowship with God rather than about gaining or keeping a relationship with God. He says that if we claim we are friends with God, but we walk in sin and darkness, then we’re lying, because God only walks in the light.
One cannot walk in the darkness and also be a friend with God.
While a person can be a child of God and walk in the darkness, such a child is living in rebellion and is not abiding with Christ or living in fellowship with God. If we walk in the darkness, we obviously cannot be walking with God, because God does not walk in the darkness but in the light.
But if we walk in the light, then we will obviously be walking with God—going where God goes and doing what God does, because God walks in the light.
Walking in the light, however, leads to fellowship both with God and one another, as Jesus works to cleanse us from sin and help us live in unity and peace with each other.
This is a much more encouraging and helpful message, as it does not lead to doubt and fear about our standing with God or eternal destiny, but instead helps us move forward in our life with God on the basis of His infinite and undying love for us (1 John 4:7-19).
Fellowship vs. Relationship
Recognizing the difference between fellowship and a relationship is key to properly understanding several passages from Scripture. To see this difference, it is helpful to consider the difference between these two words in our normal, everyday relationships.
It is quite common for people to have a biological relationship with someone without participating in any fellowship with them at all.
It is not uncommon for some related family members to go days, weeks, months, and even years without eating meals together, celebrating holidays together, or even speaking to each other. In such tragic situations, the relationship still exists, even though fellowship is absent. Even where there has always been a complete lack of fellowship, the relationship remain intact and nothing can dissolve or break it.
It is the same in our relationship with God and other Christians.
All who have believed in Jesus for eternal life are part of the family of God. These relationships exist eternally and cannot be broken or dissolved. But this does not mean that all who belong to the family of God will live and exist in fellowship with God and with each other. For that to happen, we must seek to live in peace and unity with each other, while extending love, grace, and forgiveness toward others.
This is the only way to experience fellowship and friendship within the family of God.
Does this understanding of the difference between relationship and fellowship help you make sense of 1 John 1:6-7? There are other texts in the New Testament that are helped by this as well, which I discuss in my online course, The Gospel Dictionary.
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