Devoted to Fellowship
“They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42 NRSV).”
(This is the second article in a series on Acts 2:41-47. The first article can be found here.)
The verses immediately following Peter’s Pentecost sermon in Acts 2 offer an important look into the practices and structures of the first Christian church. Many of these early practices continue to be the bedrock of Christian worship today–teaching, preaching, communion, prayer, generosity, and hospitality are perennial marks of the church. In Acts 2:42, Luke specifically highlights four things that the believers devoted themselves to, one of which is fellowship.
Today when Christians think of the word “fellowship” a number of images may come to mind–evening small groups, church sports leagues, coffee hour after Sunday worship, weekday mom’s groups, and social media interactions. However, before defining fellowship from a modern Christian perspective, it is best to see what can be learned about Christian fellowship as depicted in the scriptures.
Galatians 2 describes one of the primary struggles of early Christianity. The issue was essentially, “Who am I going to eat with?” Jewish Christians, who had been raised to observe the dietary laws of Moses, found it difficult to enter the homes of Gentiles and eat whatever was placed in front of them (Luke 10:7). In Acts 10, God gives Peter a vision declaring all foods clean, which in turn gives Peter the freedom to enter Cornelius’ home and preach the good news. In spite of this vision, the issue of dietary restrictions continues to be an unsettled debate until the Jerusalem council (Acts 15). Galatians 2 describes a meeting between Paul and the leaders of the Jerusalem church, presumably a meeting that occurred before the Jerusalem council but scholars debate this point. After some discussion and discernment, Paul reports that the pillars of the church in Jerusalem extended “the right hand of fellowship” to he and Barnabas (Gal 2:9). In the context of the passage, fellowship is both a unity of faith and a willingness to share a meal together.
While fellowship is often reduced to simple socialization in today’s church culture, the scriptures have a much richer sense of fellowship. The Apostle John begins his first epistle with an explanation of Christian fellowship. First, he describes in vivid and tangible terms his experience of Jesus Christ, “the word of life (1 Jn 1:1).” Having heard, seen, and touched the Messiah, the apostles now proclaim the good news of eternal life in Jesus Christ. While the apostles touched and believed, the second generation of Christians believes without seeing (Jn 20:24-29). When these new Christians come to a shared faith in Jesus Christ and experience of his risen life, it brings them into fellowship with the original apostles.
Christian fellowship is therefore a shared experience of God’s Son, Jesus Christ, the word of life. This shared experience has a twofold ramification according to John: (1) It brings Christians into fellowship with one another and (2) it brings Christians into fellowship with the Father and the Son (1 Jn 1:3). Maybe it is best to imagine Christian fellowship as a circle with the Holy Trinity at the center. As believers are drawn closer to the center, they are drawn into deeper intimacy with one another, a process that results in the mutual increase of joy (1 Jn 1:4).1
Day by Day
Both Acts 2:46 and 5:42 indicate that the early Christians met publically in the Temple and privately in homes on a “day by day” basis. This ambiguous statement can be taken to mean slightly different things, but the picture of the scriptures suggests that Christians assembled together as often as possible. In Acts 12, after Peter is miraculously delivered from prison, he goes to Mary’s house expecting to find Christians gathered in fellowship. In Acts 17, when a mob tries to attack Paul and Silas for creating an uproar in the city, they go to Jason’s house where it is expected that believers will be assembled. In both instances, believers and nonbelievers alike, assume that they can find Christians together in someone’s home.
If the book of Acts only makes this point ambiguously, the letter to the Hebrews makes the point even more clearly. Hebrews 10:23-25 suggests that even in the early history of the faith, believers neglected meeting together on the basis of it being irrelevant, unimportant, or unnecessary. However, Hebrews makes the argument that believers should meet together “all the more as you see the Day approaching (Heb 10:25).” This passage also makes clear the goal of Christian fellowship, “And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds (Heb 10:24).”
Sharing Meals Together
In the scriptures, the primary context for Christian fellowship appears to be the dinner table. The earthly ministry of Jesus established this pattern which was subsequently followed by the early church. Time and time again, Jesus is seen entering the homes of family, friends, tax collectors, sinners, and even Pharisees (Lk 5:29-32). These moments around the table are often the source of Jesus’ most important parables and teachings (Lk 15). When Jesus sends his disciples out in pairs to proclaim the gospel of the kingdom, he tells them to find hospitable homes and eat the food offered to them (Lk 10:1-9). Especially in Luke’s Gospel, the table is central to the mission of Jesus. It comes as no surprise, then, that the table continues to be integral to the life of the early church. As Luke reports, “Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts (Acts 2:46).”
Table fellowship has the capacity to go wrong even in a Christian context, though. Paul has to correct the Corinthians because they turn Christian fellowship into an opportunity for drunkenness and gluttony (1 Cor 11:17-22). The wealthier members of the church are able to arrive earlier than the poorer members. Those folks then gorge themselves on the love feast prepared for the whole community to share together. Table fellowship is easily compromised by selfish attitudes that reduce it to a mere meal. Christian fellowship often occurs in the context of a meal, but the meal transcends regular, everyday eating. As Paul says, believers have their own homes where they can eat and drink regular meals (I Cor 11:22 and 11:34).
From the scriptures, it becomes clear that Christian fellowship is based on a shared experiential faith in Jesus Christ and a common confession of belief. These two factors bring us into a deeper intimacy with God and with one another. As the fellowship of believers grows in numbers and deepens in love and good deeds, the mutual joy of all increases. Furthermore, the table in the home is the most natural context for Christian fellowship. As believers gather around common elements of food, the presence of Christ transforms them into a communion meal. However, Christians must be ever vigilant to preserve the genuine fellowship of the table. Selfish and self-centered attitudes can easily reduce the meal to mere food and the fellowship to nothing more than socialization.
(1) See the footnote on 1 John 1:4 in regards to “our”/”your” joy. As the joy of one believer increases, the joy of others increases as well. Joy in the fellowship of God is mutually edifying.
Image used under creative commons license from Flickr. Original image by Jordi Boixareu can be found here.