When Naomi and I were engaged to be married, a brother in Christ offered us this advice: “The world will work relentlessly to separate you.” This warning alerted my wife and me to our need for constant maintenance of our relationship. Since the Scriptures use marriage as a picture of Christ and the Church (Eph. 5:22-33), it is unsurprising that the world assiduously seeks to divide us from the Lord and the local assembly. God’s tactic for keeping believers close to Himself depends on the fellowship that should thrive in His churches. Assemblies are designed to provide glory to God and solace and encouragement to His people.
Sharing in a Common Life
Believers share1 in eternal life, which is an active relationship with God through His Son in the power of His Spirit (John 14:16-19; 17:3; 1 John 1:1-7). This life begins at conversion, but extends into eternity, because the Lord never deserts His people (Heb. 13:5-6). It is both eternal in quality and duration (2 Pet. 1:2-11). Being bound together by the bonds of divine love, Christians are commanded to love one another—an injunction empowered by the indwelling Holy Spirit (John 13:34-35; Gal. 5:22). This is the hallmark of their common life together.
Christians delight to be together, worshiping God and serving one another (Acts 2:42-47). As one mature saint told the newly-converted John Wesley: “You must find companions or make them. The Bible knows nothing of solitary religion.”2 The Church exists for this companionship.3 Another explains: “All Christians should have the benefit of being a member of a local church. The local church offers its own kind of fulfillment of Genesis 2:18: ‘It is not good that the man should be alone.’ The Christian may be an orphan in the world with no earthly family. He may not have a spouse, or he may lose the spouse he loved. The Christian may be ostracized by the culture for his beliefs. He may find himself surrounded by people of a completely different cultural background. But the Christian in covenant with a local church is never alone. As long as the church endures, which will be for all eternity, the Christian is always part of an ‘us.’ The local church takes the theory of Christianity and makes it tangible—in love, deed, and especially in prayer.”4 Biblical metaphors such as the temple, the body, and the family emphasize the Church’s corporate nature and unity (1 Pet. 2:4; 1 Cor. 12:12-14; John 1:12-13; 1 John 3:1; Eph. 3:15). The saints are meant to traverse life together, building one another up in the faith by their spiritual gifts and service (1 Cor. 12; Rom. 12; Eph. 4).
Good and Bad Separation
The Church is a people set apart from the world for God’s pleasure. The common life of the saints is meant to foster sanctification. Put another way, believers pull away from what is evil, and gather around the living Lord in order to encourage, instruct, and comfort one another. They assist each other in burden-bearing and lovingly help in the “feet washing” work of maintaining personal purity in a defiling world (John 13:12-17; Gal. 6:1-5; Jas. 5:19-20). They also spur one another on in spiritual growth and service (Heb. 10:24-25). As a seventeenth-century saint wrote: “The coals that lie together in the hearth, you see how they glow and are fired, while the little coals that are fallen off, and lie by, separate from their company, are black without fire. If ever thou desirest to be zealous, make much of the fellowship of the saints.”5 Separated from fellowship, wandering Christians can grow cold quickly; therefore, they must diligently seek involvement with their brothers and sisters in Christ.
Of course, our arch-adversary the Devil seeks to divide the saints. Spurgeon noted this, saying: “Satan always hates Christian fellowship; it is his policy to keep Christians apart. Anything which can divide saints from one another he delights in.”6 The Corinthians experienced this dangerous declension, chasing after spiritual celebrities in a fleshly, sectarian manner that undermined the truth of the faith (1 Cor. 1:10-31). Later, it wrought disunity in the church where Diotrephes dominated the church as his own fiefdom (3 John 9-10).
Instead, believers should deny themselves and put their fellow-saints first (Phil. 2:1-4). The native atmosphere of the church is the unity of the Spirit, which believers are exhorted to maintain (Eph. 4:1-6). Romans 15:5-6 agrees: “Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” “Not I, but Christ and my brethren” is the proper motto of the saints.
A Fortress Against Spiritual Attack and Despondency
Amid a divisive, hopeless world, believers must redouble their participation in the fellowship of the Body of Christ. Body life is for spiritual growth, encouragement, collective strength, and—ultimately—for God’s glory. The Church is “the pillar and ground of the truth,” demonstrating the reality of the true God, as well as the redemption and the hope of the resurrection which He provides through His Son, the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Tim. 3:15-16). It is “a dwelling place of God in the Spirit” providing a temple and priesthood for worshiping the Lord (Eph. 2:19-22; 1 Pet. 2:5-10). It is also the training ground for preparing believers to reign with Christ during the millennium, as well as the nursery for their growth in Christlikeness (1 Cor. 6:1-11; Eph. 4:11-16).
Physical circumstances and spiritual forces alike conspire to separate the saints. But they must use every opportunity to share in each other’s lives. If physical meetings are thwarted, then technology can be of help (online meetings, e-mail, etc.). On the individual level, a phone call, text, or note may be exactly what is needed to inspire a disconsolate fellow-believer to look afresh to the Lord. Prayer for one another is more indispensable than ever in these difficult times. One could give up on gathering with other Christians, but that would shut one off from most of the divinely provided resources for our spiritual progress and strength. Like marriage, fellowship with God and His people is worth the ongoing effort. It will take work, but the Lord will certainly bless our efforts.
1. The New Testament core idea of fellowship is “sharing” or “participating in.” See Strong’s Concordance, Vine’s Dictionary, Mounce’s Dictionary, etc.
2. Augustine Birrell, Letters of John Wesley. (London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1915), p.19
As one preacher expressed it: “How do the believers manifest this new life that they have received? And the answer is that they do so by gathering together. Now that they have come to believe in that way, the church is the central thing in their lives.” D. M. Lloyd-Jones, Setting Our Affections upon Glory. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2013), Kindle loc.: 725
3. John Onwuchekwa, Prayer: How Praying Together Shapes The Church. (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), Kindle Loc. 711-717
4. William Fenner, A Treatise of The Affections. (London: 1642), p.83
5. C. H. Spurgeon, Metropolitan Tabernacle 11:602