True Community (Book Review)

true-communityIt is amazing to me how little has been written about fellowship.  Christians talk about fellowship all the time.  “Come to my Bible Study and we’ll have some fellowship.”  “Stick around after church for some coffee and donuts as we fellowship together.”  Our church majors on fellowship and that is why we schedule so many social activities.”  And so on.  The ESV translation of the Bible only uses the word “fellowship” 9 times—all in the NT.  Does the OT not have a doctrine of “fellowship”?  Are the 9 occurrences so clear that everyone knows what the essence of “fellowship” really is?  Based on your reading of these verses, would you say fellowship is a simplistic concept?

Acts 2:42  And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.

1 Corinthians 1:9  God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.

2 Corinthians 6:14  Do not be unequally yoked with unbelievers. For what partnership has righteousness with lawlessness? Or what fellowship has light with darkness?

2 Corinthians 13:14  The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all.

Galatians 2:9  and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship to Barnabas and me, that we should go to the Gentiles and they to the circumcised.

1 John 1:3, 7, 8   that which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ…  If we say we have fellowship with him while we 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 his Son cleanses us from all sin.

If anything is clear from these verses, fellowship is not just Christians socializing and eating together.  So where should one turn to get a grasp of Bible’s doctrine and practice of fellowship?  Noted Bible teacher Jerry Bridges wrote a book called True Community: The Biblical Practice of Koinonia (formerly published under the titles True Fellowship and The Crisis of Caring) that attempts to explain what fellowship really is.  He studies the Greek word (koinonia) that is commonly translated in English as “fellowship” and discovers that fellowship is a pervasive doctrine found throughout the Greek NT (not to mention a theological concept present throughout the OT embodied in the people and nation of Israel).  According to Bridges, the doctrine and practice of fellowship is about the ministry of caring.  For one another, for the gospel, for the world, and most importantly for God.  He says life-changing fellowship will help you “renew your bonds of love with other believers, participate in the partnership of the gospel, contribute your spiritual gifts to help others, and share your possessions according to God’s plan.”  Fellowship, therefore, is a blueprint for living the Christian life—together for the glory of God.

The book’s table of contents serves as a useful summary of the author’s findings about fellowship.  Chapters are named:

  1. What is Fellowship?
  2. Union with God
  3. Communion with God
  4. Fellowship Is a Community
  5. Spiritual Fellowship
  6. Partnership in the Gospel
  7. The Fellowship of Spiritual Gifts
  8. Sharing Your Possessions
  9. Supporting Your Local Ministry
  10. The Fellowship of Suffering
  11. The Fellowship of Serving
  12. Social Fellowship

Fellowship is conceptually organized into four particular aspects of fellowship that may be described as either “sharing together” and “sharing with one another”.  Sharing together includes (1) Community relationship rooted in the Christian’s relationship with God, and (2) Partnership as committing to a shared objective.  Sharing with one another includes (3) Communion as intimately sharing with other Christians on a personal and spiritual level, and (4) Sharing material possessions.

Most Christians have at least a rudimentary understanding of fellowship as community.  Bridges does an admirable job of explaining community in such a way that fills out our understanding.  He employs personal stories, illustrations to explain the various “fellowship” passages in the Bible, and a systematic theology of connecting all of Scripture to flesh out the meaning of fellowship.  I benefited the most from the sections in the book that deal with those aspects of fellowship that often get ignored.  Gospel partnership, sharing possessions, sharing in suffering and serving, and communion with the living God.  A filled-out doctrine and practice of fellowship must include these.

One thing I appreciate about Bridges is his straight-forward manner of addressing Christians.  He is very gracious, but he doesn’t beat around the bush getting at common sins, shortcomings, shallow thinking, and other ways Christians try to avoid the plain teaching of Scripture.  His more recent book Respectable Sins is an example of this manner of speaking clearly and directly to Christians, waking them out of their spiritual slumber to engage in the radical call of Christian living: following Jesus in all walks of life.  If I were to summary what this book teaches about fellowship, I would say it is fundamentally union and communion with God resulting in sharing unity, community, and partnership as a committed member of Christ’s body, the Church.

True Community also has an accompanying (now out of print) study guide to facilitate personal growth or group discussion.  It provides suggested questions and related Bible passages to make the move from teaching to application.  From the study guide’s back cover:

“…And please bless this time of food, fun, and fellowship, Amen.”  Ever hear a prayer like that?  It’s just one example of how we’ve watered down the meaning of a significant biblical concept.  What we call “fellowship” is often just a time of talking sports, kids, or mortgage rates over coffee and donuts.  But according to Jerry Bridges, what the early church called fellowship—koinonia—takes us a great deal further.  In this personal-response study guide (a companion to Bridges’ book True Community) you’ll do a lot more than just fill in the blanks.  You’ll deepen your understanding of the strong scriptural basis for fellowship.  Personal, practical guidelines will emerge to make your encounter rich and meaningful.  And ultimately, you’ll learn how to apply God’s Word in the context of your own fellowship, sharing with others the joy of biblical koinonia.  Your group, whether it meets in a home or a church, will want to break new ground with this study.  It’ll lead all of you to the kind of life together that invigorated the world’s first Christians.”

Good resources on fellowship continue to be hard to find.  Thankfully we have True Community to begin filling the void.

Here is a webpage containing books reviews of True Community at Good Reads.

Here is an audio interview with Jerry Bridges regarding True Community:

Here are two videos of Jerry Bridges giving talks on the subject of fellowship:

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