There is a vast difference between the relational fellowship of the saints of God and those of a religious social club. The revelation of this difference lies at the heart of 1 John 1:3:
That which [the incarnational Son of God] we have seen and heard we declare to you so that you also may have fellowship with us, and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ.
This is the biblical definition of our relationship with God and with one another. John prefaced this statement with the declaration of the incarnational Word: “For the life was manifested and we have seen and bear witness and show to you that eternal life that was with the Father and was manifested to us” (1 Jn 1:2). John wanted to focus the attention of His readers on the “incarnational Word” with which he had commenced his epistle:
That which was from the beginning, that we have heard, that we have seen with our eyes, that we have looked [Gr., gazed] upon and our hands have handled, we proclaim concerning the Word of Life (1 Jn 1:1).
A more clear statement in any language could not have been made that explains the fellowship (relationship) of the saints with God and one another. The saints’ relationship with one another is a fellowship that is based on the gospel fact that “in the beginning was the Word … and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us” (Jn 1:1,14). And since all the saints have obeyed the gospel of this incarnate Word, then He, not ourselves, is always the foundation of our relationships with one another. There can be no other foundation for true Christian relationships.
Christians are drawn together because of their common obedience to the incarnational offering of the Word on the cross, His burial for our hope, resurrection, and His present reign over all things. Connection (fellowship) with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit through our common obedience to this gospel is what establishes our relationship with God and one another. Our obedience to the gospel of the incarnational Son of God is the impetus, the foundation, the eternal bond of fellowship that we have with the eternal Word of Life, and thus, the guarantee of living forever. The Christians’ relationships with one another is far beyond the relationship of friendship.
We hear a great deal today about relationships in the religious world. Religions throughout the world have invented every possible stimulus to produce relationships among the members of their respective churches. We have heard on numerous occasions the statement that “Christianity is about relationships.” And, it is. However, are the relationships of religion truly based on the incarnational and resurrected Word of Life that the members have obeyed in their burial and resurrection with the Word of Life? Or, are they manufactured relationships through relational encounters of the members with one another in order to enhance friendships?
If our relationship with one another is not first based on our obedience to the gospel of the Word of Life, then we will become a religious social club when we come together in assembly as friends. If our relationships are simply fabricated and maintained by the art of human relational mechanisms of psychology, then the gospel soon passes from being the primary purpose for which we come together in assembly. We must remember that the relationships that gospel-obedient Christians have with one another goes far beyond friendships. There is something much deeper in the relationships of gospel-obedient disciples than having “good buddies,” or being faithful in attendance at the local church social club.
The bond of the relationships that gospel-obedient disciples have with one another is not initially based on their friendships with one another. John clarified that we have a relationship (fellowship) with one another because of our common obedience to the gospel of the Word of Life. Paul explained that “by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body” (1 Co 12:13). And because baptized disciples are one body, they organically function as a body of relational disciples (See 1 Co 12:15-27).
Cult members have strong relationships with one another. They are driven together because of their great respect for, or fear of, the leader of the cult. Religions often lean toward cultism in the sense that the “pastor” is the attraction of the hour of assembly and center of reference for the faith of the members. Assemblies that are generated and maintained around a dynamic personality can never be the relational fellowship that is so natural with gospel-obedient saints. Gospel-obedient saints are drawn to one another because of their common obedience of the gospel of the Word of Life. They are relational before they show up at any assembly that is designed to promote relationships. In other words, the relationships that Christians have with one another are divinely generated, not humanly manufactured. If one simply wants to be a co-religionist with other religionists, then he can simply “join the church of his choice.” But when one joins himself to Jesus through obedience to the gospel, he is added by God to a family of gospel-obedient disciples (At 2:47).
Religionists assemble in order to experience either a relational or experiential event that would enhance their relationships with one another. But gospel-obedient saints come together in assembly because they have established a relationship (fellowship) with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit through their obedience to the gospel. They were baptized in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit into a covenant relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (Mt 28:19). Their motivation for assembly, therefore, is not to establish a greater relationship (fellowship) with one another and God, but to celebrate the fact that they already have a gospel-obedient relationship with one another and God because they have been baptized into the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Their individual addition to the body of members has brought them into a relationship of a gospel-obedient family of disciples.
It is for this reason that we question the assembly of those who have come together with little desire to celebrate the gospel through the celebration of the Lord’s Supper. By this we mean that those who assemble on the first day of the week and fail to partake of the communal (fellowship) Supper of the incarnational Word of Life, have either forgotten, or never established the purpose for which the saints assemble in the first place. If we assemble without the Supper, then we are simply renewing our friendships with one another. Our assembly has become no different than the assembly of the local “Rotary Club.” If our purpose is simply to come together with the saints in order to reestablish our relationships, then we have become a religious social club that can cerebrate nothing greater than our friendship with one another. If we have come together to fulfill our narcissistic desire to enjoy a Sunday-morning entertainment event, then we have failed to come together for the purpose of honoring the incarnational Son who came in the flesh in order to establish our covenant relationship with Him.
Saints who come together simply to reestablishing relationships, experience an emotional event (speaking in tongues, or concerts), or simply out of obedience to law, have not yet understood the purpose for the saints’ assembly. If they have lost their way in this matter, then they are not drawn in attendance to the Table of the Lord. Their assembly simply becomes an attendance to a Hollywood experience. If Jesus does not take center stage for our assemblies, then our assemblies have become narcissistic productions in order that we “get something out of the Sunday morning event.” Those who fail to show up at the Table of the gospel have identified themselves to have lost their motivation by the gospel of Jesus.
The early disciples came together in a relational manner in order to experience together the celebration of the Word of Life. It was this Word that the early apostles handled, touched and gazed upon. Because of their relationship (fellowship) with the Father through the incarnational Son, the saints came together to remember and celebrate the incarnational sacrifice and risen Word who came down out of heaven into this world in order to take us out of this world. The saints in Ephesus remembered and celebrated this gospel event every first day of the week in a fellowship meal that surrounded the Supper of the Lord (At 20:7).
The “breaking of bread” among the early disciples was a fellowship meal that they enjoyed with one another in their remembrance of the blood and body of the Lord. The Holy Spirit reminded the Corinthian saints that their participation in the feast was a relational (fellowship) experience.
The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not the fellowship of the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, it is not the fellowship of the body of Christ? (1 Co 10:16).
The Corinthians started to marginalize, or corrupt the Lord’s Supper during this love feast. They turned the “breaking of bread” into a drunken occasion where they revealed their inconsiderate relationships for one another. Because their assemblies digressed into pleasing themselves (narcissism), they were not able to celebrate the Lord’s Supper that should have revealed their fellowship with the Lord and one another (See 1 Co 11:20,21). In other words, their dysfunctional relationships with one another in assembly revealed that they had a dysfunctional relationship with the One who should always be the center of attraction for every assembly. They had lost their way for coming together for a love feast that should have been an expression of their love for one another (See 1 Co 11-14).
When we produce attractions to stimulate attendance, then our assemblies move away from a clear focus on the gospel. When people are not motivated in life by the gospel of Life, something other than the gospel must be the stimulus for them to attend the religious assemblies.
Gospel-obedient saints come together in assembly in order to celebrate the reason why they have a common bond with one another. It is because they have fellowship with one another through their common obedience to the gospel that they come together in assembly. Every Christian has a relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit because of his or her obedience to the gospel (Rm 6:3-6). And because this relationship has been established by obedience to the gospel, they have a relationship with one another before and after any assemblies.
Christians can come together because they are good friends. But their relationships with one another in friendship never has priority over their friendship with Jesus through their obedience to the gospel. In fact, the friendship (relationship) of Christians is based on Jesus, not simply on a relational friendship they might have with one another as neighbors in a community.
Those religious groups that minimized the observance of the Lord’s Supper in their assemblies have lost their way, if indeed they ever knew the way to a gospel covenant relationship with the Father, Son and Holy Spirit through baptism into Christ. Because they have not focused on obedience to the gospel, their assemblies have often become narcissistic Hollywood productions, religious parties as some in Corinth, or simply the observance of ceremonial rituals that bring some comfort to those who are ridden with guilt.
Unless the gospel is preached and obeyed, assemblies will always be religious ceremonial exercises or concert experiences. Unless the gospel of the incarnational Son of God is restored as the center of reference for assembly, the attendees will never realize the worshipful experience that results from an assembly that is focused totally on the resurrected and reigning Son of God who first brought them together in their common obedience to the gospel.