Duties of Christian Fellowshipby John Owen
Length: Approximately 1 hours. To read (95 pages)
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Duties of Christian Fellowship is a necessary book that deals with the practical aspects of interaction amongst believers covenanted in a local congregation. Dealing with the relational aspects between church leaders and the congregation, Owen mines Scripture to understand how Christians can faithfully interact with one another.
Who should read tihs?
Though the name, “John Owen” might cause fear in the mind of some readers due to his high intellect, this short, concise work is attainable to readers of every level. Written from the basic premise that fellowship is required amongst the body of Christ, Owen works on a practical level of delving into the tenants of church fellowship. The book is written primarily for the average church congregant and is intended to be read by those who have covenanted with a local body of believers.
Published by Banner of Truth, the book begins by offering suggested uses for the book. The editors explain that while the vocabulary has been modernized to suit a modern audience, the mood and intention of the book has been left unchanged. The editors took the liberty of adding questions for self-examination throughout the book, offering introspection for the reader. With this helpful lead in, the editors prepare the reader for the Foreword written by Owen, which explains the purpose of the book and how to benefit best from it.
The rest of the book is divided into twenty-two rules. The first seven rules comprise section one, which addresses the relationship between the pastor and the congregants. The final fifteen rules comprise section two, which highlights biblical fellowship between congregants within the church. The formula used by Owen is always a statement of a rule (guideline), Scriptural support for the rule, a short explanation of the rule, and editorial questions for consideration.
Owen’s purpose for this short work is perhaps best explained by Owen himself in the Foreword: “…seek to draw believers from the entanglements of arguments about church matters and to engage them in the serious and humble performance of those duties which are, by the express command of Christ, required of us all.” (10) Living in 17th century England, Owen wrote this book as a pastoral, practical guidance for the lay people of the local church.
Owen understood that fellowship among the local body of believers cannot be assumed, but instead can only be attained with a right understanding of ecclesiology. Therefore, he sought to give groundwork for why church fellowship is essential, why Christians must strive for unity amongst the brethren, and how believers can attain church fellowship.
Owen also wrote during a contentious time between the Puritans and the Church of England. Whereas the Church of England’s theology espoused a faith that led to practicing good works, Owen argued for the importance of fellowship with other brethren. He understood that the local church is more than just a group of believers practicing and teaching good doctrine together. Instead, the relationships between the pastor to congregant and intra-congregation are essential in understanding the unity and fellowship between the believer and Christ.
Whereas one might assume that a book on fellowship would begin with addressing lay people’s personal interactions with one another, Owen’s argument begins with the first seven rules relating to the congregation’s relationship with the pastor. This relationship is foundational to the entire fellowship and unity of the church.
Frequently, Owen argues for submission, obedience, and observance of the pastor’s life. Owen makes the case that the pastoral office is ordained by God and is thus for the benefit and betterment of the church as a whole. As an ordained office, each believer is in need of the leadership and guidance brought by the under-shepherd of Christ.
Bleeding Scripture into every page and rule given, Owen ensures that each rule is not human opinion, but rather biblical commands. Speaking as a pastor himself, Owen understood the importance of a unified fellowship between pastor and congregant. For the Word of God to be promulgated throughout the church and beyond, the pastor must be encouraged and supported in his work of speaking truth. Were the congregation to be divisive and antagonistic to the pastor and his proclamation of truth, then fellowship within the church would be nonexistent.
Dealing with primarily theological themes (submission to authority, observing and emulating godly living, etc.), Owen also gives intensely practical rules as well. He challenges congregations to sufficiently tend to the financial concerns of the pastor, to continually be in prayer for the pastor, to support and stand by the pastor, and to gather at the pastor’s designated church time. Each of these rules are intended to promote a meek and submissive heart from the congregant to the pastor.
Owen understood that church leadership is not about intimidation, control over one another, or a desire for power. Instead, God has placed each pastor over individual local churches for the purpose of tending to the spiritual needs of the people. Local congregations are bettered by having a godly pastor, and the church that cares well for their pastor not only obeys God’s commands, but also helps continue the ministry of the church.
Building from the first seven rules, the final fifteen rules apply directly to the relationship amongst lay people. Owen claims that love for the brethren must first stem from a love for Christ. Fellowship comes from the heart of one who is redeemed and loves Christ. Owen claims that love for Christ always precedes love for the church. Therefore, those who submit to God will look to be unified in fellowship with one another.
Ultimately, fellowship in the local church is for the sake of purifying the bride of Christ by promoting holiness, godliness, and kindness to one another. Owen essentially describes fellowship amongst brethren as relational care for another, stemming from a heart that desires a pure bride of Christ. Drawing from Christ’s example, Owen calls for believers to carry one another’s spiritual and physical burdens. In doing so, Christians demonstrate changed affections from a love of the world to a love for what Christ loves – his bride, the church.
Owen’s final rule in describing Christian fellowship calls for believers to be so committed to Christ and the church in daily living that even the unredeemed take notice. Christian unity in the church must be so tangible and visible that it is desired by those who surround it. For the church that desires holiness and fellowship amongst themselves in obedience to Christ, the Gospel will be validated in the lives of those who claim it.
While Duties of Christian Fellowship is significantly different than much of Owen’s regular writing, it certainly is a valuable read. Instead of a complex, theological treatise, Owen intentionally writes from a predominantly practical perspective. Allowing biblical theology to drive his rules, he focuses on practical interaction with one another within the confines of the local church. Due to this obvious accessibility, I found the book potentially helpful for every lay person. He spoke to the level of the average lay person, and obviously strove to help facilitate right fellowship within the church.
Reading as a pastor, I appreciated especially the foundational starting point of Owen’s work – fellowship amongst the pastorate and the congregant. Too often, there is disjunction between the two, either because of pride or uncertainty. This book helps remind the pastor of the expectations of his office – preaching faithfully the Word of God and living an exemplary life in obedience to God – and reminds the congregant why fellowship is commanded and necessary.
Therefore, because of my appreciation for Owen’s efforts, I selected this work for study for a men’s discipleship group at my church. In a predominantly individualistic culture, this book’s challenges, gives unique perspectives, and offers helpful encouragements concerning what the local body of Christ needs to hear and take heed.
There are many strengths to Owen’s work. Owen is realistic in understanding the practical needs and concerns of both the pastorate and congregant. He doesn’t speak above the reader, but rather addresses important issues with which every church deals. Owen rightly diagnoses that fellowship within the church is often misunderstood, even among well intentioned believers.
Owens progression of rules build upon one another to succinctly articulate the reasons why believers must fellowship with one another and how it is possible within the confines of the local church. By taking each rule to the logical conclusion, Owen demonstrates that fellowship is a necessity among believers, coming secondarily from a love for Christ and His Word.
Perhaps the greatest strength in Duties of Christian Fellowship, however, is the undeniable biblical evidence given by Owen. For every assertion about fellowship and Christian relationship, Owen always gives biblical proof. He rightly understood that opinions are always secondary to the truths depicted within God’s Word. Therefore, every single rule, and often the following explanations, consistently quote proof texts. Owen’s book is dripping with Scriptural truth to give proof to each assertion.
While Owen gives a remarkable amount of Scripture to indicate the truth behind each rule, his personal explanations are sometimes lacking. For some of the rules, after stating proof texts, Owen quickly summarizes the point, without giving a more wholistic understanding of his reasoning. Undoubtedly, Owen was striving to keep this book short and approachable to the lay people. While he attained this aspiration, he could have included further insights to better make his argument as a whole.
A final weakness of the book is not of Owen’s writing but of the editors’. At the conclusion of each rule, the editors included a set of questions for the reader to consider either in a group setting or individually. Often the questions are overly basic, unhelpful for groups, and lacking in pushing the issue further. Questions driving to the heart of Owen’s argument and forcing the reader to honestly asses himself would have been much more advantageous to the book.
Overall, I greatly appreciated Owen’s work and his heart behind the work. In a culture marked by indifferent individualism and blatant disregard for accountability, this book strikingly stands out. Owen challenges Christians to take their faith seriously, and to strive for biblical relationships within the church.
Duties of Christian Fellowship is a short, classic book that is necessary as a foundation for believers to understand their role in the local church, and how they ought to interact with one another as the bride of Christ.
- “If a man teaches uprightly but walks crookedly, more will fall down in the night of his life than he built in the day of his doctrine.” (18)
- “If, according to these names [of pastors], they honour God as they ought, God will also honour them as he has promised, and God’s people, in all conscience, are to esteem them highly for their work’s sake. But if any of them are fallen angels, falling stars, negligent bishops, treacherous ambassadors, lordly reveling stewards, tyrannical or foolish leaders, blind guides or unsavoury salt, the Lord and his people will abhor them.” (23)
- “Those who are not concerned in the troubles, sorrows, trials, wants, poverties, and persecutions of the saints, not even so as to pity their wounds, to feel their blows, to refresh their spirits, to help bear their burdens upon their own shoulders, can never assure themselves that they are united to the head of those saints.” (62)