The Bible is clear that we are to have association with God and with our fellow brethren. As it is written:
And they continued stedfastly in the apostles' teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread and the prayers (Acts 2:42).
That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you also, that ye also may have fellowship with us: yea, and our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:3).
Association, or fellowship, is an essential term defining our relationship with God and with one another. Unfortunately, many difficulties arise when many misunderstand the nature of association. Fellowship is often understood in English not just as a noun but as an active verb, as if one can "do fellowship" somehow. The Greek word for "fellowship" is koinonia, defined by Thayer's as:
Fellowship, association, community, communion, joint participation, intercourse; the share which one has in anything, participation...
Association, or fellowship, is a state of being; it cannot be an action in and of itself. The verb form means "to have association/fellowship." Association, strictly speaking, is not something that you can "do"; it is something you either have or do not have with other people.
This is not to say, however, that we do not manifest association in our deeds-- quite the contrary! How can there be "association" if one does not "associate"? As with other relationships in our lives, the relationships exist no matter how much effort we may or may not put into them. Nevertheless, we understand that the depth and quality of the relationship correlates with the amount of time and effort we put into it. So it is with our association with God and our brethren-- the relationship may exist, but association will not be the benefit God designed it to be if we put no time or effort into it.
Lack of association is a pervasive reality in modern "Christendom". For many years denominations have tried to solve the problem by involving the church, as if it is the responsibility of the church to manufacture social association of its members. Churches have built fellowship halls, gymnasiums, obtained camping places, and all kinds of other places and events all in the name of "expediting" brethren getting together. Where, in the New Testament, has the church been so burdened (cf. 1 Timothy 5:16)? Why is it the church's responsibility to help brethren get together in social functions? We recognize that the church is to come together for spiritual association-- after all, what is an assembly that never assembles? It is important for us to share in the spiritual association of the assembly; such is one of the purposes of the Lord's Supper, as seen in 1 Corinthians 10:16-17:
The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not a communion [Gk koinonia] of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not a communion of the body of Christ? seeing that we, who are many, are one bread, one body: for we are all partake of the one bread.
While spiritual association, at least in part, is vested in the assembly, the church is not responsible for facilitating periods of social association. Nevertheless, the New Testament provides evidence that social association among the brethren was taken up by the brethren, and cheerfully, as we can see in the following:
And day by day, continuing stedfastly with one accord in the temple, and breaking bread at home, they took their food with gladness and singleness of heart (Acts 2:46).
Above all things being fervent in your love among yourselves; for love covereth a multitude of sins: using hospitality one to another without murmuring (1 Peter 4:8-9).
Social association with brethren, then, was expected to be part of the life of the Christian. I fear that too many, in their fear of being seen as participating in the "social gospel" and other forms of liberalism regarding the church, entirely neglect association with brethren outside of the assembly. Sometimes the impression is given that since the church has not been burdened with facilitating social association that Christians do not need to have social association. This is not God's intention for His people! The New Testament presupposes that Christians spend time with one another.
Bear ye one another's burdens, and so fulfil the law of Christ (Galatians 6:2).
How can we bear one another's burdens if we do not know each other well enough to know what burdens them? How can we expect our brethren to be open to us regarding their burdens if we have not taken the time to get to know them? Can we really expect to get to know our brethren through our joint participation in the spiritual assembly alone?
For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of the body, being many, are one body; so also is Christ. For in one Spirit were we all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether bond or free; and were all made to drink of one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many (1 Corinthians 12:12-14).
Would we expect our bodies to work properly if the different parts were entirely ignorant of each other and their functions? How can we expect Christ's body to work properly if we the members of it do not know one another well enough to work with one another?
How much time do we spend associating with our brethren? Do we spend more time with people at work or our friends in the world? We have association (albeit a different sort of association) with such persons; are our ties with them stronger than with our brethren? With whom will we spend eternity? Will Heaven seem to us to be a lonely place because we did not spend the time on earth getting to know our fellow citizens of Heaven (cf. Philippians 3:20)? We should cherish and nurture our association with the fellow saints of God above all others. Consider for yourself (2 Corinthians 13:5), and strive to have the association with your brethren both within and without the assembly!
Ethan R. Longhenry