Paul offers a unique perspective on fellowship in Philemon 1:4-7: I thank my God always when I remember you in my prayers, because I hear of your love and of the faith that you have toward the Lord Jesus and for all the saints, and I pray that the sharing of your faith may become effective for the full knowledge of every good thing that is in us for the sake of Christ. For I have derived much joy and comfort from your love, my brother, because the hearts of the saints have been refreshed through you. (ESV)
Should we keep our sufferings private to spare the pain of others?
Recently, I spent some time with Sal, a member of our church who is now in hospice care after battling cancer for some time. I thank the Lord for Sal because Sal’s willingness to allow me to enter into his suffering has caused me to pray for him more and grow in my own faith.
Some think by keeping this kind of news private they spare others’ pain, but I disagree.
We do not grow our faith. God does. And God does not grow our faith in isolation but in a fellowship of other believers, through mutual participation, contribution, and sharing.
Paul discusses this idea of Christian fellowship in Philemon 1:4-7. Writing from prison, he makes it clear that we cannot be private Christians as he encourages Philemon to forgive his runaway slave Onesimus.
What is Christian Fellowship?
While Paul talks about “sharing your faith” in this passage, he is not referring to witnessing and evangelizing, though we should all be engaged in that regularly.
Instead, Paul uses the Greek word koinonia. While koinonia can mean fellowship, it also has three other meanings that help us understand what Christian fellowship should look like.
Communion literally means sharing in common. In this sense, when Communion refers to our church ritual of remembering the Last Supper, we are sharing in the blood and body of Christ. Koinonia is the word Paul uses in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17 about Communion.
In 2 Corinthians 9:13, Paul also uses koinonia to refer to a contribution of generosity and charity. We give because we have a common interest in spreading the Gospel, promoting missions, and caring for others.
In other translations of Philemon such as the KJV, koinonia is translated as “communication of faith,” instead of “sharing of your faith.” Either way koinonia bears witness in words and actions. It is clear here that someone has shared with, or communicated to, Paul that Philemon has professed faith in Christ.
Why Is Christian Fellowship Important?
God did not create us to be our own, nor to live out our faith as lone rangers.
The purpose of fellowship is to share in love, life, loss, gain, and faith. It is to care, participate, contribute, grow in faith, and serve together.
In this letter particularly, Paul wants Philemon to arrive at his own conclusion about how koinonia, the sharing of his faith, would play out in regards to Onesimus. The sharing of their common faith means that Onesimus, who has been transformed by the Gospel, is made one in Christ with Philemon.
The result of fellowship is sharing a common love for Christ and His people. This means we share our joys and sorrows with each other. While Paul is in prison, we see that Philemon’s fellowship of faith has resulted in joy and comfort for Paul and a refreshing of the hearts of all believers.
Probably, this prompted Paul to be vulnerable before Philemon because in Christian fellowship it is one for all and all for one. Church, if Paul is not hesitant to be vulnerable before believers, we should not be either. Believer-to-believer vulnerability has a different meaning than how the world defines it because of the love of Christ in us. It grows our faith.
How does Christian Fellowship work?
In Colossians 1-2, Paul uses the example of a human body to illustrate the idea that we are all parts of one body—the body of Christ.
What do you do when a part of your physical body is hurting? Do you tell the part to deal with it or do you ignore it?
No, the rest of the body jumps into action to relieve or care for the hurting part.
Similarly, when one person in the fellowship of believers hurts, the rest must feel their pain and rush to their aid.
When we struggle with suffering and pain alone, because we do not want to share with other believers what’s happening in our lives, whether sickness, chronic diseases, troubled marriages, or personal addictions in doing so,
we take the ministry away from other believers to bless us in our time of need and along with that we steal their opportunity to be vulnerable before us in their time of need.
it generates a mindset that my life is my private business. This leads to a mindset of not wanting to help others because, if I do not ask in my need, why should others ask. Since I can handle my stuff by myself, others should too.
Neither of those are koinonia, the fellowship in which Gospel hope and Gospel love grow our faith. Church, we’ve got to allow others to enter into our suffering, and we must be willing to enter into others suffering.
This is the only way true Christian fellowship works.
Allowing fellow Christians to enter into our suffering is as critical for the growth of our own faith as our willingness to enter into the suffering of other believers.
When I share my struggles, my vulnerability opens up an opportunity for others to share their struggles. It strengthens our faith as we are reminded that we are not alone in our struggles and together we build each other up by encouraging each other to stay on course.
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