What is the church’s responsibility in arranging social and recreational activities for its members? This is an important question, that becomes even more pressing as more and more churches turn to the “fun and games gospel” to raise interest and draw crowds. Diametrically opposing positions have been taken on this matter. Some affirm that a church can support, coordinate, provide for and pay for nearly any social activity because such represent an opportunity for fellowship. Others have argued that social and recreational activities have no place in the work of the New Testament church. What is right? What does the Bible say?
Let us begin by understanding what the issue is not. The question is not may the preacher eat his lunch in his office, is it scriptural to maintain a drinking fountain (with chilled water!), or can’the men who come on a Saturday Work Day eat their lunches in the foyer or a classroom. These are incidental matters, and represent incidental uses of the building. These activities occur in conjunction with and (please note) are subordinate to the main reason folks have come to the building: to be about scriptural, authorized kingdom business. No one comes to this church building to drink water! These kind of activities are no more parallel to the building and maintaining of social halls then having a first aid kit in the cry room is parallel to the church building and supporting a hospital.
The issue is “Are social and recreational activities true fellowship activities as found in the New Testament?” Please understand that many would answer “yes.” In an article from a bulletin of a local church of Christ one writes “We are told to have fellowship of the righteous (Psalm 55:14; John 13:34; Romans 15:1). This coming Sunday evening after services we are all encouraged to have fellowship of the righteous. Bring your freezer of ice cream and join us on the back parking lot. It is a wonderful opportunity for the whole congregation to fellowship together. I hope to see each of you there.”
Yet a search of the New Testament yields a different viewpoint entirely. The term “fellowship” in the New Testament is used to mean “share together, or participate together.” It is never used in the New Testament to refer to social activities, dinners, or entertainment. In the New Testament the word is always used to mean sharing together in spiritual activities. “That which we have seen and heard we declare to you, that you also may have fellowship with us; and truly our fellowship is with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). This passage is wonderfully instructive because it shows how fellowship cannot mean social activity. Fellowship is a spiritual activity, participating together in spiritual actions with spiritual goals and spiritual ends in mind. We challenge anyone to produce a single verse of scripture where a meal or social activity is referred to in scripture as “fellowship.” A careful search of the New Testament will find that the only “meal” labeled fellowship is the Lord’s Supper (“is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing in the body of Christ?). When brethren tried to make that into a social occasion they were sternly rebuked and told to take their parties home (see 1 Cor. 11:34)!
Only by redefining the biblical word “fellowship” to mean partying, banquets and fun can one arrive at the place where he or she has Bible authority for his practice. But by such reasoning we must allow sprinkling and pouring as means of baptism, because today’s dictionaries so define baptism. We will take today’s definition of baptism, read it back into the Bible, and presto — Philip sprinkled the Ethiopian eunuch! If brethren cry “Foul!” at such a misuse of scripture do we not rightly point out the very same error when some take today’s use of “fellowship” (meaning fun and games) and then read it back into the Bible to justify the church sponsoring parties of every kind?
The truth of the matter is that the New Testament shows the church’s collective work to be preaching the gospel, edifying the saints and relieving needy Christians. Examples and commands for these works abound in the New Testament, yet nothing is said in any place of ice cream socials, parties, baby showers, potluck suppers or other purely social activities that now go on in many churches of Christ. Where is the Bible authority for these activities? We see clearly that these events are not fellowship, so what are they? Frankly put, they are unauthorized and unscriptural additions to the Lord’s work (see 2 John 9). Every dime spent on fun and games simply is one dime loss to do the God-given, God-authorized work the church must be about.
For those who would justify the church sponsoring social and recreational activities as fellowship we would pose the following questions. First, is attending such events mandatory? Surely none would say that fellowship is optional in the Lord’s church. Note Paul’s command: “Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind.” The Philippian brethren were obligated to be about spiritual matters, to partake and share together in spiritual activities. Many have understood the principle from Hebrews 10:25 that assembling and worshiping together is a spiritual activity and that all Christians are indeed obligated to participate in that activity. Would any argue that potluck suppers and other such social meals are obligations that no Christian should shirk? To sharpen the point, would anyone say that a brother or sister sins by not attending a “fellowship meal” in the “fellowship hall”? This and this alone reveals that these activities are not in the same class as spiritual endeavors (true New Testament fellowship) to which Christians are obligated to be a part of.
Secondly, we note that there are many churches of Christ that are very comfortable with a fellowship hall and occasional social get togethers sponsored from the treasury but adamantly oppose the church constructing gymnasiums and “Family Life Centers.” Could we kindly ask what is the difference in principle between the church constructing and maintaining a room purely for social activities and the church constructing a bigger and more elaborate room (or rooms) for pure social activities? If eating together (a social activity) is Bible fellowship why can’t playing basketball be classified as Bible fellowship too? If it is right for the church to sponsor social activities because they are fellowship please tell what social activity the church cannot sponsor as fellowship and why? What makes an ice cream social in the back parking lot fellowship while playing softball isn’t? The truth is neither constitute a correct use of the Bible term “fellowship” and thus neither are fellowship. Therefore, neither eating together or playing ball is part of the church’s work.
It is of interest that some who have protested the loudest about “liberalism” among brethren when various big churches of Christ have constructed multi-million dollar gymnasiums and places to play have fellowship halls at their own meeting houses. Such inconsistency is evident to all. Some want the church to be involved in only a little error, just a little digression. If apostasy comes along in a big way with a big price tag they renounce it furiously, while protecting their own small apostasy. But where did the idea of bigger and grander social and recreational activities come from? Is it not so that a generation was taught that fellowship meant Christians having fun together, and so “anything goes?” Wasn’t that lesson taught by those who re-labeled their parties and potlucks “fellowship?”
For too long brethren have been divided over something that no one believes is mandatory in Christ’s kingdom: social activities. Why should this be, when Christ prayed for unity (see John 17:21)? There is no authority for the church to be involved in recreational and social activities. Such do not constitute true New Testament fellowship. Hence, we call on brethren to leave off these unauthorized practices that we might truly participate together in spiritual things to the building up of the kingdom of Christ.