The Practice of Fellowship
Passage: Galatians 6:1-5
This is week eleven in our series “Foundations for Church Ministry.” We are wrapping up the series by studying the major practices of the church. We’ve already studied worship from Hebrews 13:15–16, and last week we studied instruction from 2 Timothy 4:1–5. We have two more practices to go—fellowship and evangelism. Fellowship is an important topic to consider because we may have as many assumptions and expectations in this room about fellowship as we have people. Some of you are very relational, and when you think of fellowship, you think of sitting around a table and expressing your deepest thoughts and feelings. If you don’t cry at some point, then you didn’t really talk. There are others in this room that are introverted and private, and fellowship makes you cringe. You don’t find opening up to be pleasant at all, and you are very content living a private life. Your expectations for fellowship include little more than small talk about the weather or politics. We all think differently about fellowship in general, and when we narrow the discussion to fellowship within the church, we add another level of varying expectations. There are some people in this room who expect Life Point Baptist Church to be their immediate family. They want to be deeply involved in people’s lives, and they expect the church to care for all of their financial, emotional, and spiritual needs. Others just want to show up on Sunday mornings and hear a good sermon. They prefer that the church stay out of their private lives. We all have different expectations, and one of the simplest steps we can take toward better fellowship is to acknowledge that my expectations aren’t the only expectations and to adapt to each other.
Another complicating factor is that we don’t necessarily understand what biblical fellowship is. We often assume that fellowship is synonymous with talking or being in the same place, and those things fall under the umbrella of fellowship. But ultimately, biblical fellowship is about partnership. If two people are partners in a business, they have agreed to support each other in building a company. And biblical fellowship is ultimately about mutual support in pursuing a goal. Therefore, biblical fellowship is a much bigger subject than spending time together; it ultimately involves partnering together in the pursuit of godliness. We could probably talk for weeks about the subject, but this morning, I’d like to consider a text that addresses the heart of biblical fellowship (Gal 6:1–5). This text challenges us regarding two responsibilities we have toward each other.
The first responsibility is…
We must care for each other (vv. 1–2).
Verses 1–2 describe two ways that are responsible to care for each other. First, we must…
Restore the Fallen (v. 1).
Verse 1 describes a potential scenario in the church since it consists of an if…then statement. The potential scenario is that “a man is overtaken in any trespass.” This man is a professing believer, but he has sinned. The word for “trespass” can refer to any type of sin, but this sin has “overtaken” the individual. This verb communicates an element of surprise. The idea is that sin ambushed or trapped this man. He didn’t intend to end up where he is, but he finds himself trapped. This isn’t my main point, but I think it’s good for us to be reminded that this is how sin works in Christians. It’s pretty rare that a man who is walking with Christ and in a good marriage wakes up one morning and decides, “I think I’ll cheat on my wife today.” What generally happens is that he lets his guard down. He stops being watchful, and his heart begins to deteriorate. Sin takes advantage of his weakness and traps him. That’s why we must always guard our hearts because if we aren’t watchful, sin can work undetected like a cancer until it kills us. Returning to our text, this verse describes someone who is broken down by a sinful pattern that he can’t seem to overcome. But while this is the primary referent, I believe this verse applies to any situation where a professing believer is really struggling. They may recognize the sin, or they may not. They may be repentant or they may not. It could be a long-term pattern or a single act. Paul challenges the church to respond when this happens.
The “spiritual” are to “restore” this individual. I want to emphasize that the spiritual aren’t a special class of Christians. Chapter 5:16 commands all believers to “walk by the Spirit,” and when they do, they will produce the “fruit of the Spirit.” In light of this context, the spiritual are simply those who are living in obedience to God and who by the strength of the Spirit are manifesting the fruit of the Spirit. Since this should be the normal experience of every Christian, this command applies to most of us in this room, not just pastors or special Christians. When a believer stumbles you are to restore him or her. This verb simply means to fix something. It’s used of rebuilding a wall (Ez 4:12, 13) or mending a fishing net (Matt 4:21). Paul commands the spiritual to fix what is broken in the life of a struggling believer. Depending on the situation, this can take several forms. First Thessalonians 5:14 says, “warn those who are unruly, comfort the fainthearted, uphold the weak, be patient with all.” Jude 22–23 states, “on some have compassion, making a distinction; but others save with fear, pulling them out of the fire, hating even the garment defiled by the flesh.” We’ve got to identify the need and attack it appropriately. We can’t allow a fellow believer to continue stumbling in sin; we’ve got to confront it and fix it. And again, this responsibility belongs to all of us. A major aspect of fellowship in the body is that we are close enough to each other that we can identify sinful patterns and practices and confront them. We can’t turn a blind eye or hope the pastor notices. If you are walking with Christ, you are responsible to partner with your brother and see that he is restored. There may be times where he need more help than you can offer. If that’s the case, get me or another mature believer involved. That’s great, but we can’t sit back and do nothing. Fellowship in the church means that we are responsible for each other’s souls and we help each other through struggles. Take responsibility. It might be that you know about a pattern that needs to be confronted. I want to challenge you to love your brother enough to get your hands dirty. Let’s support each other in our battle with sin.
Spirit of Meekness:
Paul adds that in your efforts to restore, you must do so “in a spirit…” It seems that Paul adds this statement because at least some in the church struggled with pride and petty division (5:15, 26). At least some thought of themselves as spiritually superior, and they were taking steps to flaunt their supposed superiority. But this kind of spirit won’t get you far in helping someone who is struggling. Rather, we must support each other with “gentleness.” This term describes a compassionate and yet firm type of care. When someone is overtaken by sin, they need to be loved, but they also need to be corrected. Sometimes, we get frustrated or angry when people sin, but we must continue to love gently. We can also fail by being too timid to say what needs to be said. We must confront firmly but compassionately. Paul also adds that you must “consider…” There is some debate about how to understand the final phrase. It’s popular to think that Paul is warning the confronter to be careful not to fall into the sin of the person he is trying to help. For example, if you need to pull someone out of a nightclub, be careful that you don’t stick around by being exposed to it. This is certainly something we have to be careful about, but that’s not primarily what Paul has in mind. Rather, in light of the context, Paul is warning the Galatians against self-righteous pride that would look down on the person who has fallen as if I would never commit such a sin. When we hear that another Christian is struggling, we should never respond arrogantly, appalled by their sin; instead, we should be reminded that but by the grace of God, I would be there to.
Verse 1 challenges us regarding our responsibility to restore the fallen. You are responsible for the spiritual health of the people sitting around you. We must be close enough to examine each other’s lives and to see struggles. And when struggles arise, we must help each other through them with love and humility.
The second way we are responsible to care for each other is that we must…
Bear Burdens (v. 2):
This command is relatively simple to understand, but incredibly important. A burden is a weight that is difficult to carry. In light of v. 1, Paul probably is especially thinking of the weight of a sin struggle, but he also has in mind any sort of heavy weight a fellow-believer may face. It might be a health struggle. It might be a care that weighs someone down such as a sick parent, family tension, a wayward child, or pressure at work. It might be a financial challenge or some other tangible need like a car that’s not running or a leaky roof. Burdens can come in many forms, and they can make life feel very heavy. But God never intended for us to bear these burdens alone. He designed the church to help us bear our burdens. The idea is that we get underneath the load with someone who is weighed down, and we help carry it. We partner with our brother in bearing his burden. It’s worth noting that this command is to continually bear burdens. Paul won’t let us off the hook by offering token help that soothes our conscience but leaves the person crushed by the load. No, we must love each other enough to stay with it to the end. If someone is grieving, we don’t just send them a card a day later, we continue to encourage over the entire course of the grieving process. If someone is facing a health challenge, we don’t just make a meal, we continue helping until the challenge is past. If someone is overtaken by sin, we don’t just confront once, we hold them accountable until they achieve victory. When you really start to think about this kind of aid, it seems overwhelming, especially for me as a pastor. If I think of all of the burdens in our church and all that is involved in bearing all of them, that’s a lot of work. There’s no way that Pastor Kris and I or a even a team of us could keep up. But this command isn’t directed toward a few people. It’s directed to the entire church. You are responsible to bear the burdens of the people in this body. When you see a need, don’t sit back and hope someone notices. Attack it. If it’s too much for you, then recruit some people to help. If you don’t know about any needs, then get to know people, and you will find needs pretty quickly. There is a lot to be done, but if we bear the load together, we can bear each other’s burdens.
Law of Christ:
When we serve each other like this, Paul says that we “fulfill the law of Christ.” We don’t have time this morning to fully discuss what the law of Christ is. But essentially, the law of Christ is the teachings of Christ and the apostles as well as the example Christ set during this life on earth. In this context, Paul is especially concerned with Jesus’ example of sacrificial love (5:13–15). Verse 14 is especially clear that loving each other is at the heart of godliness, and sacrificial love was certainly at the heart of Jesus’ life on earth. Jesus gave of himself throughout his life, and then he made the ultimate sacrifice when he died for sin. And Paul’s point is that when we love each other enough to bear each other’s burdens, we model the heart of the gospel, which Jesus demonstrated during his life.
Verses 1–2 command us to care for each other by helping each other through spiritual struggles and by bearing each other’s burdens. When we do these things, we demonstrate the love of Christ, and we are truly partnering together in the Christian life. It’s essential that we see that Christian fellowship is so much more than talking to each other or spending time together. I’m not saying those things aren’t important. We will never bear each other’s burdens if we don’t take the time to get to know each other, to build trust, and to find out where needs exist. But it has to go beyond talking; it must translate to genuine love and partnering together in pursuit of godliness. All of us need to take responsibility for the spiritual care of our brothers and sisters in Christ.
Our second major responsibility is that…
We must walk humbly before God and each other (vv. 3–5).
In vv. 3–5, Paul addresses some heart issues that were apparently affecting the fellowship of the Galatian the church. As I already mentioned, the Galatian church was being affected by self-righteousness and pride, and few things will eat away at unity and fellowship like arrogance, especially a Pharisaical arrogance.
In order to overcome pride and pursue godly fellowship, v. 3 states that…
We must recognize our own weakness (v. 3).
This verse is a bit tricky to interpret because Galatians was written to address problems in a particular body of believers, and we only have access to one side of the conversation. Because of that, it’s hard to know exactly what Paul is addressing in this verse. It is clear that Paul is addressing arrogance. He warns the readers against deceiving themselves by thinking they are “something” when they are “nothing.” But how does this fit a conversation on fellowship? I think there are two forms of arrogance in view. First, v. 1 warns against an arrogance that thinks I am above falling into sin. This kind of arrogance looks down on others from a false sense of superiority, and it really hinders fellowship and support. After all, who really wants help from someone with an air of superiority? But as well, the grammar connects v. 3 closely to v. 2, and so it seems that some in their arrogant self-righteousness saw themselves as being above bearing the burdens of other Christians and as above needing others to bear their burdens. They thought they were too good to help others, and they didn’t need anyone to help them. However, they were “deceived,” and they didn’t realize they were nothing. Arrogance ruins fellowship. It’s very sad when believers are more concerned with asserting their greatness than getting along and serving. It’s very sad when believers are so proud that they are unwilling to depend on each other. It’s even sadder when a Christian thinks he is too good to get his hands dirty with the needs of fellow-Christians. When we display this kind of arrogance, we fail to follow the example of our Savior who was so humble as to get his hands dirty washing his disciples’ feet and to die a criminal’s death so that we could have life. All of us need to guard our hearts carefully against pride. Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are nothing. We are susceptible to falling, and there are burdens we can’t bear. We need the body, and we need to humbly plug ourselves into the fellowship of the body. As well, because we are nothing, we are never above serving. May God help us to love each other like Christ loved us and to humbly support each other in the pursuit of godliness? We must recognize our weakness.
Finally, vv. 4–5 state that…
We must carefully evaluate our lives in preparation for the judgment (vv. 4–5).
Like v. 3, these verses are a bit tricky to understand. For one, if this is a passage about partnering together, then why do these verses command Christians to focus on themselves? In particular, v. 2 commanded us to bear each other’s burdens, but v. 5 says that each person will bear his own load. Aren’t those contradictory statements? As well, if Paul is confronting pride, then why does v. 4 commend “rejoicing in himself alone”? Again, we are somewhat limited in our ability to understand what Paul is saying by the fact that we are only hearing one side of the conversation. But I think we can be fairly confident that Paul is continuing to address the pride and divisiveness within the church. Self-righteous people love to dwell on how they are better than others and on all of the good they have done. It seems that there was a lot of petty competition within the church over who was most righteous, and this extended to taking pride in how they influenced others in the church. The end of v. 4 condemns boasting in another Christian.” Chapter 6:13 clarifies what this boasting is. The self-righteous Jews took pride in influencing the Gentiles to be circumcised. You can imagine the testimony services at Galatia. One man stands and notes how this month he influenced three Gentiles to be circumcised. Then the next guy stands with a smug face and notes how he persuaded five Gentiles to be circumcised, and on it goes. In response, Paul’s point of vv. 4–5 is that we shouldn’t be concerned with competing with other Christians to see who is the best; instead, we need to “examine our own work” and stay focused on faithfully doing what God has called us to do. We must maintain this focus in preparation for the day we will stand before Christ and give an account of our lives. The second part of v. 4 and v. 5 are both in the future tense, and it seems that Paul is looking forward to the final judgment. When we stand before Christ, we will “bear our own load.” We will give an account of how we lived, not how anyone else lived. And if we, as v. 4 says, examine our works and prepare well for that day, we will be able to rejoice at the judgment as we hear Christ say, “Well done, good and faithful servant; you have been faithful over a few things, I will make you ruler over many things.” Few things will ruin fellowship in the church more than arrogant competition. We can get caught up in comparing ourselves with each other, and we either feel jealousy because we don’t have the role we think we should have or we feel superior. But rather than competing with each other, we all need to stay focused on faithfully doing what God has called us to do in preparation for our own judgment.
My challenge today is that we must support each other through sacrificial love and humility.
For Our Church:
This text ought to serve as a great reminder that all of us who are part of this church are on the same team. We aren’t just a bunch of random travellers who happen to be driving down the same road; we are partners in pursuing godliness. Because of that, we all need to sense an obligation to care for each other. After the service today, we are going to eat together and then spend time singing and sharing testimonies together. Take advantage of this time to get to know your church family and to let them get to know you. Build relationships that you can use to partner together in pursuing godliness. And then use those relationships. When you recognize a spiritual struggle or a burden, meet it. And when you have a struggle or a burden, have the humility to let others help you. And let’s all help each other prepare to stand with joy at the judgment seat of Christ.
Before we close, I want to speak to any who are here who have never truly been saved. I just mentioned that for a Christian, the coming judgment is something we can look forward to with joy. Maybe that sounds surprising because standing before God sounds quite scary to you. And you are correct. You will one day stand before God and be judged for your works. And if you have to stand on what you have done, the Scriptures are clear that you will face God’s wrath because you are sinner. But Jesus died so that we wouldn’t have to face the wrath of God. If you put your faith in the gospel and turn from your sin, you can be saved from God’s wrath and receive his favor. If you do that, you don’t have to fear God’s judgment; you can look forward to it. I hope that you will receive Christ today.
In a moment, we are going to stand and close with #285. This song reflects on the fact that through the cross, we have been joined together in a family. And through the cross, we can press forward together in pursuit of godliness. Let’s rejoice together in this great gift.