Some of us have been on a date, a third date to be precise. It’s been a date of ‘fellowships’, or should that be ‘denominations’. The Fellowship of Independent Evangelical Churches has gone out with the Fellowship of Evangelical Churches of Australia. We had three leaders of each group meeting, listening, talking, exploring, wondering what it might be like to be in ministry together. Two of their leaders attended our national conference, then two of our leaders shared in their conference. We’ve begun to explore matters of unity in the gospel and what matters are non-negotiable when it comes to getting hitched. There has been much to thank God for and there is much more yet to be considered.
There have been lots of questions in the mix, but I’d like to focus on one in particular. It’s an issue that has concerned both groups at different times and, in some cases, has led to a separation and parting of ways between churches. It has to do with whether our groups are ‘fellowships’ or ‘denominations’ and how that might be expressed in financial terms. The mindset of some appears to be that ‘fellowship’ is good, but ‘denomination’ is bad. Perhaps there have been fears of centralism, external controls, wasted resources, inertia, growing bureaucracy and the like. If so, then these are legitimate concerns and need to be taken seriously.
To put a sharp edge on it, if a fellowship gathered fees from its members, would that make it a denomination? Is giving money to the centre so as to resource the ministry of the fellowship a step too far? Does it boil down to taxation, socialism, control, establishment, or some other negative idea?
It strikes me that we need to renew our understanding from the scriptures. But we wont get very far searching for ‘denomination’ in the Bible. We’re better off looking in a good dictionary. ‘Denomination’ is literally concerned with naming things or designating something. It can be used of different categories. For example, when we speak of denominations of bank notes, we are describing notes with the same value and appearance. Likewise, a denomination of churches could be simply a collection of churches that share a name and the same values. Our government recognises formal denominations in this way, and affords certain privileges and sets obligations and expectations accordingly. The reality is that both the FIEC and the FECA are denominations.
What about fellowship? I grew up with a weak understanding of what ‘fellowship’ meant. Sometimes it meant having a coffee and biscuit after church. Other times it seemed to be a name given to a group that was more fun than work—a fellowship group rather than a Bible study. But the Bible offers us much greater clarity when it comes to understanding ‘fellowship’. The word for ‘fellowship’ in the Greek New Testament is koinonia. It appears in English versions translated variously as ‘fellowship’, ‘sharing’, ‘participation’ and ‘contribution’.
The book of Philippians is a good case study for the use of ‘fellowship’ because the word appears on six occasions. Each highlighted word below is a translation of koinonia in the New International Version:
In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now (1:4-5)
It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. (1:7)
Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. (2:1-2)
I want to know Christ – yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, and so, somehow, attaining to the resurrection from the dead. (3:10-11)
I know what it is to be in need, and I know what it is to have plenty. I have learned the secret of being content in any and every situation, whether well fed or hungry, whether living in plenty or in want. I can do all this through him who gives me strength. Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. (4:12-14)
Moreover, as you Philippians know, in the early days of your acquaintance with the gospel, when I set out from Macedonia, not one church shared with me in the matter of giving and receiving, except you only; for even when I was in Thessalonica, you sent me aid more than once when I was in need. (4:15-16)
We discover some profound and powerful things about ‘fellowship’ in Paul’s letter. Fellowship is a unity in the Holy Spirit. It’s a reality of being Christian that we are united to brothers and sisters in the gospel. God’s work in us means that we arein fellowship together. All Christians are joined together in having received God’s grace. We are brought into partnership with others from day one of our new life in Christ. So fellowship is first and foremost not something that we create, but a gift from God in the gospel.
However, expression of this fellowship can be sought, developed, offered and maintained. It is to be given observable and practical expression. Paul seeks to share in Christ’s sufferings and he is united with fellow believers who are similarly focused. He was in physical need, not discontented, but definitely in need. And the Philippians showed him fellowship. Their fellowship with the Apostle cost them as a church. It meant giving gifts and aid to their brother. In other words, sharing resources was what fellowship looked like. It’s a fundamentally Christian attitude and behaviour.
It seems bizarre, therefore, to oppose churches giving money to each other, or committing together to provide common resources for gospel work, or ‘giving to the centre’ to help the gospel work grow and develop in health and numbers, or setting fees to share the costs of working well together, or taking up a collection to assist other churches. Yes, we are to be careful and prudent with our funds. No, we don’t want to throw money away or waste it on bad ideas. But sharing money doesn’t tip us into becoming a ‘denomination’—it’s simply what Christians and churches and fellowships do.