Elert on Fellowship

The popular idea that fellowship is simply sharing breakfast with another person in a friendly atmosphere, implies human initiative and creativity. Such a definition cuts the very heart and source out of the meaning of the word by merely externalizing the concept.

(14.) Werner Elert in his study of Eucharist and Church Fellowship in the First Four Centuries traces this popular understanding of fellowship back to the days of 19th century theologian Friedrich Schleiermacher. Schleiermacher writes, “The church at all events is a fellowship created by the voluntary actions of men and only through these does it continue to exist.” Dr. Elert criticizes that remark when he says, “The concept of fellowship which is here said to characterize the Church does not derive from the nature of the Church, but the nature of the Church is derived from the concept of fellowship.” The consequence of such a view results in a view of fellowship as “a matter about which men are free to make their own arrangements depending on the good or ill will of those concerned.” Elert spells out how Luther insisted that fellowship means “using, enjoying, or having part in a common thing.” Fellowship is not a matter of human arrangement, nor do people have fellowship with each other simply because they want to. Fellowship is a gift of God and comes into existence solely as a result of His initiative and activity through the Means of Grace. Those people who are brought into the fellowship of the Triune God also become partners with all the other saints, as the letter to Ephesians so aptly states, “This mystery is that through the Gospel the Gentiles are heirs together with Israel, members together of one body, and sharers togethir in the promise in Christ Jesus” (Ephesians 3:6 NIV). While fellowship or partnership is primarily a vertical relationship created and nourished by God Himself, nevertheless those united with Christ will manifest the unity which has already been given them by the Spirit and join hands in proclaiming and preserving the Gospel. Ralph P. Martin in the Tyndale Commentary Series, quoting J. Muller, says that the “Philippians indicated the reality of their partnership in the Gospel not by ‘a quiet enjoyment of it, but (by) a keen activity in the interest of it.’ These words share the twofold meaning of koinonia. There is the unity which Christians have with Jesus Christ by faith in Him. There is also a desire from these same people to express this unity with others and to join their hands in work “before the night comes when no man can work” (John 9:4).

1986 ELS Synod Report, p. 44-45

This quotation makes some important points. Toward the end, I gather that the author is thinking mostly of the second great Christian task: telling the Gospel to others. Yet the first great Christian task, keeping the Gospel in its purity, fits here just as well, doesn’t it? Both activities are borne out in the outward expression of Christian fellowship.

What bothers me still about some recent events is that they seemed to convey a Schleiermachian view of fellowship. To wit:

  1. A local doctrinal statement is adopted.

  2. The doctrinal statement’s meaning is contested (to the present).

  3. Those who most forcefully wish to change the statement challenge it.

  4. The most disagreeable challengers are declared out of fellowship on the basis of their disagreement with the doctrinal statement.

Such a declaration of fellowship is not meant to recognize that fellowship in biblical doctrine is already lacking. Rather, it is a proclamation that establishes the will of a group of humans, namely the group that seeks to impose the doctrinal statement despite its contested meaning. In that particular way, it bears some resemblance to Exsurge Domine, which, being Latin, should probably be abbreviated E.D.

There are undoubtedly some who would see these observations as inflammatory.
Fine. Whatever. I have been as gentle as I can. As I’ve mentioned before, when someone points out genuinely troublesome facts, it can’t really be helped. The only alternative is to imitate the ostrich, which I prefer not to do. Please don’t react to any “inflammatory character” you may detect in my words, but respond instead to the meat and facts of the matter.

Leave a Reply