Biblical fellowship is a two-sided coin, or a two-edged sword, or a two-way street, or something. (The title of this post strongly implies that I don’t know anything at all about baseball.)
I’d like to close this series, and the larger metaseries about the means of grace, by noting that fellowship, our reciprocal care for one another in the body of Christ, is a comprehensive task that involves complex people. It’s not enough to just try to be positive and encouraging.
Of course it includes encouragement, what the good old King James calls “exhortation.” The Greek word is paraklesis, a term applied to the work of both the Holy Spirit, our “Comforter” (Jn 14.16, 26; 15.26; 16.7), and Jesus himself, our “Advocate” (1Jn 2.1). We’re often “called alongside” to comfort others, perhaps just to be there with a ministry of presence, sitting silently with them in their grief or frustration or rage, or to pray with them and for them, or to encourage them to get back up and keep going, or to step in and do for them what they’re unable to do for themselves at the moment (Jam 5.14-15).
So yes, we ask a lot of questions when we gather, and we listen to the answers, seeking for ways that we can encourage our brothers and sisters through our spiritual gifts, teaching, helping, showing mercy, praying. It’s an obsession with us, or it ought to be.
But there’s more to fellowship than just that.
This word paraklesis, “exhortation,” is sometimes—indeed, most of the time—used in a stronger, more “negative” sense, one that includes confrontation, rebuke, the image of the coach getting in the player’s face and telling him that he can do better.
Paul exhorted the Corinthians to finish the work that they hadn’t yet completed (2Co 9.5). He exhorted the Thessalonians, without “flattering words,” to hear and respond to the gospel (1Th 2.3-6)—both the offer of salvation and the threat of perdition. Once they believed, he exhorted them to start making progress in obedience to God’s Word (1Th 4.1), and to exhort others in ways that included “warn[ing] the unruly” (1Th 5.14). Later he exhorted the indolent in the same church to get a job and earn their keep (2Th 3.12). He advised his protégé Timothy to “reprove, rebuke, exhort” (2Ti 4.2) his hearers. He told Titus to “exhort … those who contradict” (Ti 1.9). Jude exhorts his readers to “earnestly contend for the faith” (Jude 1.3).
As a former pastor of mine used to say, these are “stout words.” There is grace here, and patience, but there’s no coddling. Given who we are—in the image of God, but broken and susceptible to the gravitational force of our own sinful nature—we need brothers and sisters who will speak truth to us, lovingly but firmly, and who know us well enough to know when it’s time to jerk the chain. And we need to be that kind of spiritual sibling to those around us in the body as well.
We can’t do that for people we don’t know. We have to talk deeply and trustingly with one another, wisely using gentle support when it’s called for, and turning into the football coach when that’s necessary for the good of the player on the field.
You don’t get to know somebody that well just by saying “Hello” in the hallway or the aisle on Sunday morning. You don’t get that far into someone’s head and heart if you’re refusing to be honest about your own struggles, or worse yet, if you’re gossiping about the things they tell you. You get there over time, with attention and sacrifice, and with lots of prayer, individually and together.
Biblical fellowship is time-consuming hard work. It doesn’t happen without commitment and purpose and focus.
But the payoff is beyond words.