“WHAT A FELLOWSHIP”
January 23, 2005
As we have investigated the special servants the Lord’s church requires and the New Testament provides for us, we have tried to notice that a study of church leadership is just a study about Jesus. When we looked at the work overseers and deacons are to do in the Lord’s church, we really studied about the heart of Jesus in the church. When we looked at the kind of qualities that prepare individuals to be able to function in these ways, we looked at the character of Jesus in the church. And today as we give some thought to the process by which a congregation can recognize that kind of service in its midst, we really are studying the fellowship of Jesus in the church. I hope that is the way we will approach this in our thinking. It always starts with Jesus.
This morning we are going to give some thought to how we as a congregation will go about involving ourselves in selecting and then appointing some additional brothers to serve the Lord and us in these important ways. We have tried to offer our thanks to those who have served, and who will continue to serve, in these ways. We have tried also to say, “We must not be content with just having someone do these things for us.” We have a responsibility. We have a part in this fellowship. That is what we will see as we investigate three passages together this morning.
Let’s start by concentrating on the gift of fellowship among the Lord’s people. The song Jon just led us in singing illustrates this point so beautifully. We are part of a family. Fellowship is that relationship which the Lord blesses us with when he adds us to his body. When you and I are forgiven of our sins through the blood of Jesus, we are at that moment taken by the Lord and added to the body which he has purchased for himself. Fellowship is not merely a friendship situation where we like people and we get together to enjoy each other. Fellowship is far more than that. Fellowship is not merely a type of a social club or a fraternity where we belong to something together by free choice. The minute you and I belong to the Lord he sees to it that we belong to his body also. Fellowship is a relationship which exists among people because they are God’s children. Fellowship is that relationship that exists among us because we have been saved by the same Lord, in the same way, and because we share the same life which he has called us to live.
That relationship of fellowship means that we have obligations toward each other. It is a relationship where when one member suffers, all the members suffer with that person. When one member is honored, all the members rejoice with that person, as Paul wrote in I Cor. 12:25. Fellowship is a situation where we have been given a unity of the spirit and a bond of peace, and we are responsible for keeping it. Paul writes in Ephesians 4, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, we bear with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the spirit and the bond of peace.” Fellowship is not optional for the Lord’s people. We have responsibilities toward each other because we are part of the same family and members of the same body.
Not only is fellowship that relationship, that obligation toward each other because of the truth of the Lord, but it is also the action which is involved in our meeting those responsibilities. There are a number of “one another” phrases in the New Testament (some of them I just read here in Ephesians 4) which we have as instructions to us because of our relationship with each other. Action of fellowship involves, for example, meeting together on the Lord’s Day, our being together and singing and observing the Lord’s Supper and giving and praying together, studying together is an expression or an action of fellowship. Fellowship is that which is involved when we encourage each other, when we greet each other, when we warn or rebuke each other, when we stand with each other or walk beside each other. Those are actions or expressions of fellowship. You and I go through all kinds of experiences together because of the action of fellowship. We work together. Sometimes we cry together, as the song says. We laugh together. We try to plan and dream and hope together because of fellowship.
Selecting Special Servants
But one of the most meaningful expressions of that fellowship is when we work together to select and to recognize brothers in Christ who will serve the Lord and us either as overseers or deacons. This is an activity or an action which requires all of us. The elders of a congregation cannot merely select additional elders and announce it to the congregation, because they cannot serve without the consent and without the cooperation of the members of a congregation. The approval of a congregation has to exist before this relationship of knowing each other and working together can really flourish. Preachers may not merely select and set aside men to serve a congregation as elders or deacons. When the New Testament talks to evangelists about setting things in order and appointing elders in every church, what it has reference to is teaching the congregation and helping it to try to apply the Lord’s word to those choices that must be made. The congregation itself will have some responsibilities in this task.
We will focus on this more in just a moment, but for now let me just mention that this is a partnership between the present elders, between the preachers and between the members of the body. And what the word “fellowship” means is “partnership.” When we engage in this kind of an action, we are expressing fellowship with each other. We may not merely draw back and say, “You take care of that; I don’t have anything to do with it.” No, we are responsible, all of us together.
Let’s go then from fellowship to the process of recognizing leaders to serve in special ways. One of the things that I notice in reading the New Testament is that the church always assumed responsibility. The members of the congregation always faced their obligation in choosing special servants. There are several illustrations of this that we can notice. In Acts 15:22, when the church in Jerusalem was trying to communicate with the congregation at Antioch, the Bible says that they all together chose two men, Judas and Silas, to send to the church at Antioch to offer the encouragement that was necessary. They, together, appointed two special servants to represent them in this important work. In II Cor. 8, the apostle Paul was involved in collecting funds from congregations throughout Macedonia and Asia Minor to be taken to Jerusalem to help the poor and needy who were suffering from want in that area. One of the things Paul did is to have those congregations to choose for themselves a representative to accompany him so that there would be no question about what would be done with the money. In II Cor. 8:18, 19 we read of a brother who “has been appointed by the churches to travel with us as we carry out this act of grace that is being ministered by us for the glory of the Lord himself.” The churches had a part in choosing someone to serve in this way.
But one of the best examples of this that I can identify is in Acts 6. I don’t think there is any description of the exact process that churches used to select and appoint special servants for these kinds of activities, but Acts 6 gives us the clearest glimpse we have of the way they might have gone about this. This is a situation where first the apostles and others in the church at Jerusalem recognized the problem that existed among them. As long as there are congregations, congregations will have to face problems. That in itself is a part of fellowship. In this situation it was that those Christians who were from a Greek speaking background were complaining against those from a Jewish background because their widows were being neglected. Until people who were Christians who were already Jews could get along (that is Greek speaking and Hebrew speaking), there was no hope in the world that Christians who were Gentiles and Jews might get along. So this was a serious problem that might have impacted the progress of Christianity forever had it not been faced. The first part of the process was recognizing the need.
Secondly, the twelve took the lead and faced the situation by setting the problem before the entire congregation. Verse 2 says, “The twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, ‘It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables.’” So they faced the problem and they set priorities. And then notice that they said to the congregation, “Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute.” Notice that the answer to the need here is for the congregation, the people who were involved in the problem, to assume the responsibility to help pick out from among them men to serve in this way. I think this is a crucial point. There are some of us at times who want to reserve for ourselves the privilege of complaining without having to face the responsibility of cooperating.
“Pick out from among yourselves,” the twelve said, and then they laid down the qualifications: “seven men of good repute, full of the spirit and of wisdom whom we will appoint to this duty.” Then the twelve said they would devote themselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word. This pleased the whole gathering (verse 5), and they chose seven men. It is interesting the seven men who were chosen all have Greek names. The complaining was coming from Greek-speaking Christians who felt neglected. Greek-speaking Christians were going to have to answer the problems that were there. They set before the apostles these seven. These seven men were appointed by the apostles, and the word of God continued to increase and the number of the disciples multiplied greatly in Jerusalem.
Isn’t that an interesting process that they used and isn’t it a powerful expression of fellowship? Even where there was difficulty in working together, fellowship overcame it by their working together to appoint men to serve in these ways.
As I said, the New Testament does not lay down for us any clearer example of the process a congregation might use than that. We are going to adapt aspects of that in the process we are asking you to help us complete. Our elders have identified a need for us to be appointing some additional servants in these ways because of changing circumstances in the lives of some of them. We have done our best to do some teaching about the kind of men required to do the kind of work that the Bible assigns to them. We are going to ask you now to pick out from among yourselves men like that to do this work. You have been given today a sheet which lists on one side the kind of qualities we have studied from the Bible. We ask that you review those. There is a list of men who are currently serving in these functions. We are going to now ask you to give careful, prayerful thought, loving consideration, of this congregation, of what we need, and what the Bible says, and then to offer your input into that process. Fill out that sheet and turn it in by the end of next Sunday. It will be a partnership between you in that way, between our present elders who will go through the names submitted, and then we will take the names of those who are most often suggested. Those brethren will be contacted and interviewed. Dennis and I as gospel preachers will try to meet our responsibility and have input into it as our elders ask us, and together we will complete a task that will bless us all.
Principles To Guide Us
There are some things for us to keep in mind while we do this. I want to use as a basis for the points that I am about to make something that Paul wrote to Timothy in I Timothy 5, verses 17 and following. This whole section seems to have to do with his relationships with elders. Perhaps it would be well for us to adapt that to our own thinking. There are some points I want to remind us of while we look and suggest things for our congregation.
The first clue to doing this is: honor the work, but be realistic about it. In I Timothy 5:17, it says, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor at preaching and teaching.” Those elders were going to be involved in the great work of being examples and shepherds and overseers. Some of them were apparently especially worthy of consideration because of their labor in preaching and teaching. Observe carefully that while this work is to be honored, it is still work done by men and it can be done. No man is completely without any weakness or fault. While you and I look for men to serve in this way, let us not suggest that this work is so high that it requires people who are not even men. I am not suggesting that we overlook the qualifications. I am suggesting that we have the sense of balance and the common sense to think about how those qualities apply. It is interesting to me, in reading Acts 14:23, that churches at Iconium, Lystra, and Derbe and places like that ended up having elders appointed apparently within a year of when the congregations were established. Granted, many of them may have had a background in Jewish law already, but I can’t help but wonder if we don’t find people who are qualified because we haven’t matured and developed, or are if we unreasonable in our applications of these standards sometimes. Honor the work but don’t overestimate it.
Secondly, I want you to notice from I Timothy 5:19 that this process calls for us to show consideration -- the same kind of consideration that would be due any human being. This passage says, “Do not admit a charge against an elder except on the evidence on two or three witnesses.” In the Old Testament, two or three witnesses were required to establish a charge against anybody. In this case, a charge against a man who serves in this way is not even to be admitted except at the mouth of two or three witnesses. We want to pursue a process here of consensus. This is not an election; this is not a democratic vote of some sort. But, one or two persons who are critical should not be allowed to be louder than they really are. If a man is willing to accept the responsibility and his name comes up, there are better ways to deal with any concerns than to use him as a dart board or a punching bag. Our concerns can be communicated personally, and we can work through this as a body of people who want to do what the Lord wants and who want what is right.
A third principle that is here is for us to do everything we do out in the open, respecting the presence of God. Verse 20 says, “This is to be done in the presence of all,” and verse 21 says “in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus and of the elect angels.” Our motives should be noble, out in the open. Our actions must stand the test of sunlight.
Fourth, nothing is to be done from partiality or prejudging. This is a process that requires for us all to be fair and not to practice favoritism. There is more to this than trying to have our way. We must honestly think things through.
Fifth, this is a process which requires us to be thoughtful and realistic about time. Notice verse 22 says, “Do not be hasty in the laying on of hands.” The laying on of hands has to do with appointing men to special service. Don’t be hasty. Allow time for a congregation to know a man and for a man to prove himself, and then keep your balance.
How much time does it take? This is a place where I might point out that in almost all of these principles, there is some amount of judgment involved. When it says, for example, that a man is to be self controlled, how much self control are we talking about? When it says he is to be able to teach, how skillful does that mean? How old does an elder have to be? I notice that those of you who came back from WW II tended to appoint men who were not very far into their 40s to serve the church as elders. This congregation has been blessed by men like Woodrow and Rathel who must have started serving when they were not very much older than that. But I also notice that now your generation wants people to be somewhere into their 60s before the possibility comes up. Have you thought about that? How much time? How old? We need to use common sense and be realistic when thinking about those things. Does the man have the confidence of the congregation? That is the question. Is he the kind of man the Bible describes? That is the question. You and I engage together, then, in the fellowship of being responsible before the Lord and trying to see that his name is honored.
Finally, meet your own responsibility to the Lord and to the church. Paul summed it up by saying “keep yourself pure” (v. 22b). None of us knows everything about all our men and what each one needs to do. We can still pray for wisdom, focus on doing right, and do our best. The Lord can take that and make something good out of it.
Maybe this morning you are interested in the wonderful fellowship of leaning on the everlasting arms. What a fellowship it is when we because of our relationship with God are related to each other! May we then invite you if you are interested in that kind of fellowship to take advantage of the gospel invitation today to come to the Lord and confess your faith in him, turn away from sin, be baptized into him, walk in the light.