Something that took me a while to sort out is the difference between the words “fellowship” and “communion.” A lot of Christians today seem to use them almost interchangeably, and they both seem to be quite popular at the moment in mission statements, vision statements, slogans, and the like. But what do they actually mean?
Fellowship is more basic of a concept. It refers to the relationship between a group of people who have something in common, like a community or fraternity or religion or friendship. Fellowship in the Church is about Christians spending time together. One of those absolutely terrible catch-phrases out there right now is “do life together.” That’s basically fellowship. Christians spend time with other Christians doing a mix of ordinary life things like bowling and watching movies as well as Christian-y things like going to bible studies or small groups together. Fellowship is very important in the life of the church (locally and regionally), though it’s not really an end goal in itself.
Communion is more complex. Much deeper than fellowship, communion is about being in union together (hence com-union). As far as English words are concerned, communion does sound like it could probably mean the same thing as fellowship. But unlike fellowship, communion is a word from the Bible, and thus we find its meaning there, rather than in a dictionary. (The Greek word is κοινωνία.) One of the places we find this word is in 1 Corinthians 10:16 where the bread and cup of the Lord’s Supper are described as a “communion” in the body and blood of Christ. This word gets translated differently according to which Bible you pick up. Some say communion, others participation, and others sharing. I find “participation” to be the most helpful description of what communion is.
Perhaps it would help to draw some lines of contrast between fellowship and communion. Fellowship is:
- time and activity spent together doing similar things;
- life is shared alongside one another.
Communion, however, is:
- time and activity spent together doing the same things;
- life is shared and exchanged with one another.
For example, a group of guys get together for discipleship, Bible study, and accountability. They form a strong bond over time and some really great ministry takes place there. This is an example of excellent fellowship, and the fruit of it is evident in each of their lives. At the end of the day, though, their lives are distinctly different from one another.
A good example of communion would be marriage. The Bible describes the union of husband and wife as two “becoming one flesh.” Their lives aren’t just similar or parallel, they’re shared and exchanged. And the fruit of a marriage is more than just spiritual growth in the husband and wife – their communion is so profound that it actually produces tangible fruit: children! Bone of their bones, flesh of their flesh, children are products of the co-mingling of man and woman.
What’s really amazing about the Christian Gospel is that God invites us to share communion with him! Sometimes people settle for fellowship with God like he’s some sort of life coach or bff to hang out with. God wants more than that. He doesn’t want to “do life” with us, he wants to give life to us! This is one of the things about the Sacrament of Holy Communion that I most love – God is sharing his infinite life with us so that we can live forever with him into eternity.
As I said earlier, though, part of the definition of communion is “participation.” We participate in the life of God when we receive him as sacramental food. And we participate in God in other ways too. When a man and woman come together and share communion with one another, the product of children (assuming all is well) comes forth. This marital union creates life. Wait, isn’t God the Creator? Which is it – does God create new life when man and woman come together, or does the combining of man’s sperm and the woman’s egg create new life? Why, it’s both! The marital union is a communion (or participation) in the creative life-giving power of God!
So when the young children ask that awkward question for the first time, “what is sex?” we should try to remember the beauty of the biblical answer: When a man and a woman fall in love with one another, they get married, and through sex they join in with God’s work of Creation to make new life. Sex, by God’s miraculous design, is our act of pro-creation, communion and participation in God’s life-giving power!
Tuesday, March 3rd, my dear and brave wife bore our first child: William Edward Brench. I couldn’t be more proud as husband or a father, and this past (nearly) week I have been in absolute awe of this participation in God’s creative power that he has given to us as human beings. I pray that I will always treasure this communion with God through the marital union, and that we as Christians might re-discover our voice to proclaim this so that the awesome beauty and dignity of sex might be restored in this all-too broken and twisted world.