I would contend that many of our disillusions with the church are based upon a wrong ethic. We misunderstand the true nature of fellowship in the gospel community. And therefore, we wrongly apply the ethic of other communities to the church.
The foundation of our fellowship is not the feelings we have for one another, as important as they may be. Neither is the foundation of our fellowship based upon the fact that we live in the same geographic place, educate our children in the same way, hold similar political views, or are the same ethnicity. No. It is the gospel that is the foundation of our fellowship. Nothing else. It is truth rooted and founded in the person and work of Christ that lays the structure, creates the realm, and the reality of our union with one another. The key to understanding biblical fellowship is that it is rooted in a spiritual reality, rather than something that is physical. The basis of our fellowship is spiritual.
Because our bond is spiritual, in Christ, in the gospel, the way we are related to each other is drastically different than any other entity on the face of the earth. Deitrich Bonhoeffer pointed out in his little book, Life Together, that because the Christian community is spiritual there is never any “immediate” relationship between its members. This is unlike every other community. Individuals in the Christian community never have direct contact. We are always related to each other through Christ. I am not bound to you because we share common things or you to me because we have similar interests. Our contact, our relationship, is always through and in Christ as He is revealed in the gospel.
This means that we don’t love one another for our own sake. The love we have for one another is for Christ’s sake, because it is always through Him. Bonhoeffer said, “human love seeks direct contact with the other person; it loves him not as a free person but as one whom it binds to itself. It wants to gain…Human love desires the other person, his company, his answering love, but it does not serve him. On the contrary, it continues to desire even when it seems to be serving.” Human love looks for something in return. But Christian fellowship is wholly something else.
We can live sacrificially for each other, because we are bound together in Christ, who meets our every need. I don’t need you to fill my cup, because Christ does. You don’t need me to fill your cup, because Christ already has. I can serve you truly sacrificially and you can serve me sacrificially, because we come to one another in Christ who is our all in all.
Many of our disappointments in the local church are rooted, founded, and based upon the ethic of other communities. We are disappointed and critical of our brothers and sisters in Christ, because they are not giving us what we want or what we think we need. But true fellowship isn’t grounded in what others can give us. Rather, it is grounded in what we have already received.