Every church I have ever attended has had a “fellowship hall.” Even the Anglican church in Basel, Switzerland that my wife and I belonged to for three years had one (though they didn’t always call it by that name). If you’ve ever attended or belonged to a church in America that has its own building, chances are you’re familiar with the concept of a fellowship hall.
A fellowship hall is a room designated by a church for a variety of activities, the majority of which are meant as a celebration of community life. The descriptor is “fellowship,” a concept which harks back to the Greek word, koinonia, found over forty times in the New Testament. It means to be in communion with one another. And in our fellowship halls, we do just that, don’t we?
We put on prayer breakfasts and potluck lunches and appreciation dinners.
We use them for graduation recognitions and Bible studies and AA meetings and ministry events and leader workshops.
We rent them out for both wedding receptions and funeral receptions.
We hold special worship services in them. And youth rallies. And Vacation Bible School activities.
We organize community outreach events in them. And in the halls that double as gymnasiums, you’ll find church-league basketball games, all-night lock-ins and aerobic classes.
Fellowship. The communion of saints. Given the wide range of activities that take place in a fellowship hall, is there any reason to question its essentiality within congregational life?
After all, to be in fellowship with one another is a foundational precept of the Christian church. Our earliest creeds include the belief that believers exist in communion with one another. The early Church operated off of the model established in Jerusalem following Pentecost (Acts 2:43-47, 4:32-35). The Apostle John reminds the churches to which he ministered that those who “walk in the light” with God naturally “have fellowship with one another” (1 John 1:7). Like the old hand-folding rhyme reminds us, the church is indeed the people.
And yet, almost from the start, differences of opinion entered the church. Despite the the first believers being described in Acts as “of one heart and mind,” the people began to take sides on a variety of issues.
In Jerusalem, it had to do with nationality and cultural identity, the Hebraic Jews versus the Hellenist Jews.
Later, in Thessalonica, it was between those who continued working and those who retired early in expectation of the Second Coming, the breadwinners verses the idlers.
In Philippi, it was two influential women holding a grudge against one another, Euodia versus Syntyche.
In Galatia, it was theological disagreement between Jewish law and Paul’s teachings, the circumcised versus the uncircumcised.
And in Corinth it had to do with which visiting preacher you preferred … and which side you stood on in various lawsuits … and whether or not you believed it was okay to eat food sacrificed to idols. Yeah, Corinth had a lot of problems.
Now, in some cases, the church leaders were able to settle the disputes and work out the problems that arose from these disagreements. However, in other cases, there is no evidence the disagreements were ever fully settled. But while a few became significant theological issues for Christians throughout the region, most others simply remained within particular communities. In other words, the presence of disagreement between believers was never fully eradicated.
This is why, for instance, Paul does not spend time in his letter to the Philippians hashing out the details of the disagreement between Euodia and Syntyche (Phil. 4:2). Instead, he simply writes, “I urge [them] to be of the same mind in the Lord.”
On the one hand, that seems an almost impossible statement. We might think that for these two women to achieve such like-mindedness, one side would ultimately have to be proven right and the other side wrong. That, or both parties would have to simply forget about the matter on which they disagreed.
On the other hand, though, I don’t believe this is how Paul viewed the issue. I think he had come to accept certain disputes as inevitable. It is part of the nature of all communities. When you get different kinds of people together, disagreement happens. It happens between siblings, between spouses, between parents and children, between relatives, between neighbors, between townspeople, between citizens… the list goes on.
Disagreement is not an impairment of community; it is a symptom of it.
Now, over the centuries, we know that there have been monumental issues in the Church that have moved beyond mere disagreement and civil dispute. We know of many churches, as well as and many denominations (i.e. churches functioning in community with other churches), that have cracked apart and divided. Sometimes bitterly, but many times essentially. In fact, my very faith tradition is named for the Middle Age protestors who disputed the way the Church had been doing things in that time. History seems to show that every once in and while, division is necessary. It’s sad but true. However, I believe such monumental disagreements are far less prevalent, and such necessary divisions far less necessary, than we think they are today.
I’m not denying that disagreements can’t get out of control in this day and age. Nor am I advocating a fuggedaboudit ideology in which Christians avoid all manner of conflict in order to prevent division. Like I said, disagreement is a symptom of community, and we shouldn’t fear its presence among us. We will disagree from time to time. We’ll sometimes see things differently, even when it comes to seemingly important issues like interpretation, theology, moral conduct, politics, culture…
But here’s the thing. I’m only thirty-three years old and I have already witnessed first-hand two church splits. Both divisions were incredibly tragic and surprisingly nasty. I’ve also served in several churches that have experienced crippling scandals that saw many members turn their backs and walk away. I don’t want to negate any of the difficulties the people of these churches dealt with, but in each case it seems to me that what pushed the dispute into full-fledged division was a lack of humility.
What do I mean by “a lack of humility?” I’m talking about a shortage of individuals who have learned how to admit they don’t know everything about the issue at hand. Who are comfortable with the possibility that their opinions might not be fact, no matter how clear it seems to them when they open up their Bibles in search of proof.
When I was serving in my first youth ministry position, I remember arriving at the church on a particular night only to be waylaid by an elderly deacon who adamantly insisted I take a ride with him so we could talk. We ended up parked at a Sonic and after adamantly insisting I order a drink, he spent the next hour and a half telling me all the reasons why the young pastor who had hired me, and whom I dearly loved, was actually a selfish, envious power-hungry false teacher. The most frightening thing I remember about that night was not his fiery vehemence for our pastor. It was when I realized he was living beyond the range of argument. Not only could I not change his mind, but any difference of opinion was met with more frustration and adamant insistence in his rightness.
These experiences have made me sensitive to the paucity of humility in our churches today. Sometimes it takes the form of disagreement without a desire to compromise. Other times, it is revealed by a general indifference to actively participate with those people, (but that’s more for part two of this post). Ironic, considering how many activities still take place in our “fellowship halls.” Fellowship – from the Greek koinonia – means to coexist, and to do so in a tone of celebration. But genuine fellowship will not happen without a healthy level of humility.
This is what I believe Paul was advocating to the Philippian church. Urging Euodia and Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord was Paul’s way of saying, “Hey, I know you have your differences, and I know you think the other one is wrong on some significant issue. However, that disagreement in no way prevents your mutual belief in the salvation of Jesus. So find a way to coexist in that hope, not because we all need to get along but because getting along is part of experiencing the koinonia we are meant to have with God himself. So, remind yourself that while you know some things, you don’t know everything, and stop allowing a difference of opinion to rob you of fellowship with each other and with your Creator.”
The Church is filled with disagreements, but it is about so much more than those disagreements. We are not meant to be defined by what we disagree on. We are meant to be defined solely by the God who has called us and saved us. We’re meant to be defined by Jesus’ love for us.
Perhaps the churches that have fellowship halls should begin using them in ways that point its members back to this reality. In addition to the dinners and rallies and lock-ins and league games, maybe we can begin using those spaces as venues for patient dialogue and safe places for disagreement. Maybe these multi-purpose rooms can someday reclaim the true meaning of their names.