What Is a Fellowship, Anyway?

The Ohio Bible Fellowship began in 1968. Now, that was a year before I was born, so I obviously have no firsthand knowledge of this organization! My knowledge of the OBF has come from reading the Visitor, attending its quarterly conferences, and talking with those who fellowship with it.

Over time, when new members join a fellowship, they are unaware of its history, character, and purposes. Sometimes they enter the fellowship because they know someone in it, they would like to participate in one of its ministries, or, sadly, to gain prestige and power through political maneuverings.

When those in a fellowship misunderstand its nature, purpose, procedures, or even beliefs, there can be tragic results. They may find they have joined something they do not agree with and thus depart from the fellowship; or they might work to change fundamental aspects of the fellowship. I hope that they would instead correct their misunderstanding so they can participate and benefit from the fellowship.

Undoubtedly, pastors and churches have had bad experiences in such organizations. After a bad experience they may completely change their belief and theology about fellowships. I don’t deny the fact that one can grow in his understanding regarding such matters; I would hope, though, that careful thought would be given before pronouncements are broadly declared.

Regardless of how misunderstandings come about, they should never happen in the first place. One should never enter a relationship with partial, incomplete knowledge. The fellowship should do all it can to clearly communicate aspects fundamental to its existence.

My objective in this article is to give a basic idea of what a church fellowship or association is, the biblical basis for such, what their purposes and objectives are, and how an independent, autonomous church can consistently participate in such a fellowship.

What is a Fellowship?
Basically, a fellowship is a formal organization of churches and/or individuals who associate in an orderly manner for the purposes of edification, encouragement, and working together on agreed upon projects.

When the fellowship meets at agreed upon times reports are heard, sermons preached, times of prayer observed, discussions held, acquaintances strengthened, and plans made for future endeavors.

At such meetings, the fellowship is not composed of churches but of individuals, the pastors and messengers. To say it is composed of churches is a bit misleading, for a church cannot technically be a member of any other body—the church would lose its individuality and independence. Thus, it would be more proper to say that churches are not received into membership (though this expression is used), but rather they are received into fellowship and cooperation.

A fellowship is not a representative body, as an independent church cannot authorize an individual or individuals to act on its behalf, binding the church by their action. An independent church cannot rightly transfer its authority and responsibility to another person or persons.

What Do Fellowships Do?
Formal fellowships provide a means for mutual help. Mutual means joint, common, shared, reciprocal—each one is involved. In our individualistic day the common attitude is “what will this do for me?” or “this meets my need.” In order for fellowships to work such attitudes cannot be present. It is sadly ironic that those who have these kinds of attitudes about fellowships decry the very same thing in their own churches.

Fellowships help promote brotherly care, concern, and unity among churches as they share and pray for the Lord’s work in their area. The gatherings of the fellowship provide an opportunity to grow in knowledge and godliness through prayer and preaching.

Formal fellowships provide a means for working together in an orderly, agreed upon manner. This enables churches of all sizes to participate and “have a say” in a joint effort.

Fellowship can be helpful in promoting the Great Commission in its particular geographical area. Small churches with limited resources but with a heart for church planting can work together with other churches in this. They can work together through prayer, financial support, and ministry as each church is able to participate.

Such work—as anything done on an organizational level—is only done through mutual agreement, as each church in and of itself is independent and can determine what it can and will do.

How Can Independent (Autonomous) Churches be in a Fellowship?
First, we need to explain what the synonymous terms independent and autonomous mean. Essentially they mean self-governing—a local church is fully capable of determining its own affairs without intervention from any outside body.

The New Testament clearly teaches the autonomy of the local church. Jesus Christ gives each local church the authority to observe and guard the ordinances (Acts 20:7; 1 Cor 11:23–24), elect its own officers, leaders, and messengers (Acts 6:1–6; 14:23; 15:3; 1 Cor 16:3), ordain men to the ministry (Acts 13:1–3; 1 Tim 4:14), discipline its members (Matt 18:15–17;
2 Thess 3:6), settle its internal affairs (1 Cor 6:1–5), and determine its relationship to other religious groups (Acts 15).

The church is the only thing appointed by Christ for the spread of the gospel throughout the world (Matt 16:18; Acts; 1 Tim 3:15). No other organization can claim this. Because of this, the church alone should have this position of honor and never be looked down upon.

This does not rule out, however, the voluntary mutual involvement of independent churches working together for specific ends. Not every church can provide secondary and post-secondary education, effectively care for all the needs of foreign and domestic missionaries, operate a camping program, or supply helpful written materials for the needs of their people. However, churches in a particular geographical area can accomplish these ends as they work together!

The term “sister” best signifies the relationship that independent, autonomous churches have to each other. Each church is equal in position and authority; no church has any “power” over another church. Thus, “sister” has been the most common designation churches have used in referring to each other, as it most consistently conveys the ideas of equality and kinship. This is true whether they are in a formal fellowship or not.

As true New Testament churches are autonomous, no fellowship or association can legislate, exercise authority, or force them to do anything. The formal fellowship has no authority to interfere with church life, discipline, or activities. If a church in a fellowship becomes disorderly or subscribes to teaching contrary to the fellowship, all that can be done is to dissolve the connection.

Likewise, when it comes to what the fellowship does, it is just as independent. No single local church can force the fellowship to a particular action. If a church is not happy with something the fellowship does, it can withdraw at any time.

Is Fellowship Among Churches Biblical?
The New Testament demonstrates that churches cooperated with each other—there existed among them mutual ministry, edification, and encouragement. A brief survey of the New Testament will demonstrate this: Titus was “chosen of the churches to travel with us,” (2 Cor 8:19); the Colossian letter was to be read in the Laodicean church and vice versa,
(Col 4:16); John wrote his last letter—a single letter—to the seven churches of Asia (Rev 1:4, 11); churches in Macedonia and Achaia worked together to collect money for the Jerusalem church (Rom 15:26); and churches in Macedonia supported Paul while he was in Corinth (2 Cor 11:8–11).

But the New Testament Says Nothing about Fellowships!
Clearly, the New Testament never mentions any “formal” organization that pastors and/or churches “joined.” Doctrinal statements, constitutions, quarterly meetings, and the like cannot be found. However, the New Testament also does not say that local churches had and did these things!

When believers had definite differences of opinion concerning the ordinances, church government, doctrinal beliefs, or other issues, they had to form separate bodies to worship and serve God according to their understanding of the Scriptures. This is the essential historical background for “denominations”—believers denominated or differentiated themselves from others. They stated what their beliefs and practices were so that others would know where they stood.

My point here is this: aspects of formal organization in churches are not found in the New Testament. They weren’t needed! Today a local church does not need a formal doctrinal statement and by-laws, but wisdom dictates that such would be dangerous and foolhardy. In order for a church to do “all things decently and in order” (1 Cor 14:40), such formal documents are practically indispensable.

I hope that the application here to formal fellowships is clear. A local church can choose to fellowship and work with whomever it desires. They are under no obligation to do so. Churches can participate in non-formal fellowships. Obviously a church would do well to ensure that they are in basic agreement with those it fellowships with.

However, there is nothing unbiblical about agreeing upon certain doctrines, practices, principles, and procedures that will help a fellowship be able to determine who can associate with them and who cannot. Such formal documents help protect that fellowship from error, remind the fellowship of its purpose and character, set forth procedures for various actions, and protect the rights of each member.

But Why a Formal Fellowship?
If a church is only interested in occasionally fellowshipping with another church, there is no need for any formal organization. The moment that more churches decide to do something together, however, there will be some level of organization, whether admitted or not.

Cooperative efforts among local churches do not happen spontaneously. There must be vision, planning, and administration. In a non-formal fellowship someone has to get the ball rolling, and frequently it is a single local church that heads up the effort. While other churches are invited to participate and help, they have no real voice in the planning and administration of the effort.

This is one of the benefits of a formal fellowship. It provides a means for everyone to be involved as they desire to be and to participate in the effort. Each member has a voice—all are equal, none holds a position of superiority or control.

The Ohio Bible Fellowship has been in existence for over forty years now. It is not a perfect, formal fellowship, as it is composed of sinners saved by the grace of Jesus Christ. We can and must, however, strive to work together for the sake of the Name by encouraging, exhorting, helping, and serving with one another.

A formal fellowship might not be for everyone, but it is a great tool and mechanism for mutual blessing, encouragement, and service.

October/November 2009

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The OBF Visitor is the official publication of the Ohio Bible Fellowship. Feature articles from past issues of the Visitor are made available here for your use. You may read, distribute, and use this material as long as you do so in its entirety and without modification. All articles © The Ohio Bible Fellowship.

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