Fellowship or “Followship”

Cults, Tribes, and True Communities

Humans have a proclivity to ban together for many reasons. Being part of a family, tribe, group, or community is a very natural part of being human. The reason for belonging to such groups can be both good for us as well as detrimental. As a member of a family, one can feel secure, cared for, and even loved. This also can apply to almost any kind of group, organization, club, or team. These groups usually have a specific purpose, task, or function. Family and community membership is usually the result of birth or habitat however the former can be the result of adoption and fostering a child or the result of a marriage or remarriage of two adults. The latter group is certainly more versatile and transitory but nevertheless a means of belonging.

Tribes, groups, and communities can be formal or informal, intentional or casual, born into, or a matter of choice. Fellowship is a friendly association, especially with people who share one’s interests. Such associations are freely chosen and freely abandoned without any sense of betrayal yet possibly causing disappointment or sadness. Also, the dynamics of a group can change drastically and frequently. An existing group or team can grow to be intimate, reaffirming, and supportive. But as members leave, the flow or pattern of the group interaction can change from acceptance to avoidance as personalities, trust, and affirmation make all the difference in the growth and development of each member and the bonds of the group or community. Along, with these variables are the relationships that may begin or dissolve due to the absence or presence of certain individuals.

Other groups and communities can be the result of proselytizing, assimilation, or a matter of simply joining for support or protection. Political, religious, and social or cultural groups can result in a variety of cults based on membership and indoctrination or as the result of a powerful and influential personality of the leader who invites individuals to join making that person feel wanted and special.

“In modern English, a cult is a social group that is defined by its unusual religious, spiritual, or philosophical beliefs, or by its common interest in a particular personality, object, or goal.” In many cases “cult” is another name for Religion. 

An older sense of the word cult involves can be related to a particular figure and can be associated with a particular place. References to the “cult” of a particular Catholic saint, or the imperial cult of ancient Rome, for example, use this sense of the word.

Groups labeled as “cults” range in size from local groups with a few followers to international organizations with millions of adherents. Certainly, the Catholic Church, like most religions, may be referred to as a cult. The word “religion” is based on the Latin “religare” ‘to bind’, which for my purpose, implies the use of “indoctrination” or the process of teaching a person or group to accept a set of beliefs uncritically.

Most older Catholics remember the Baltimore Catechism from grade school religion class. There were questions and answers that every student was required to memorize. For example, a question may be, “Who made the world?” The prescribed answer is “God made the world.” or another question may be, Who is God?” And the answer is, “God is the Creator of heaven and earth, and of all things.” 

Explanations for such questions and answers were usually given in Sunday homilies or special meetings for adult education provided by some but not all Catholic parishes.

Like any cult, there was no room for opposing the designated answer and those that did were reprimanded and even ostracised or considered “outside” the Church which, in the history of the Church through the ages, was considered heresy and may have resulted in drastic punishment even death.

Allegiance and complete loyalty to the teachings of the Catholic Church were required at all times and not to be ignored or abandoned. Sure, there were theological and moral disputes throughout the history of the Church as there are today but in the end, they were resolved by dogmatic pronouncements that indicated which definition or theology was correct and which are not.  Creeds, Papal Encyclicals, and even Councils spelled out the dogmatic beliefs and ethics and how to apply them. These were not negotiable.

Obviously, cults do not allow any room for dissent or controversy both of which weaken the cohesive bonds of the group and contribute to the identity of the cult’s existance and the validity of its purpose and message. Catholicism, like all serious religions or organizations, have bylaws and statements of goals and purposes. For the Catholic Church, Canon Law and the Catechism of the Catholic Church are two of the many sources of Church laws and teachings in that order. Creeds, doctrines, and dogmas were added as needed to further explain and interpret the Sacred Scriptures. Religion like a cult requires a certain permanent adherence which is usually not easily undone without permission, scorn, or being ostracized.

Tribes are considered to be a political unit formed from an organization of families (including clans and lineages) based on social or ideological solidarity. Membership of a tribe may be understood simplistically as being an identity based on factors such as kinship (“clan”), ethnicity (“race”), language, dwelling place, political group, religious beliefs, oral tradition, and/or cultural practices.“Sometimes, though, the belonging aspect can translate to a sense of “us versus them”. It can create a situation where you view someone who is not of your tribe, team or group as the enemy and the person to be feared.” writes Beverly D. Flaxington https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/understand-other-people/201809/the-danger-in-belonging

One way to avoid simply following the crowd or community is to use your conscience and then decide whether or not to do as you see fit. 

“Conscience is an inner feeling or voice viewed as acting as a guide to the rightness or wrongness of one’s behavior, beliefs, values, or choices. The Catholic Church defines conscience as “a judgment of reason whereby the human person recognizes the moral quality of a concrete act that he is going to perform, is in the process of performing, or has already completed. In all he says and does, man is obliged to follow faithfully what he knows to be just and right. It is by the judgment of his conscience that man perceives and recognizes the prescriptions of the divine law.” #1778 CCC

Therefore, if you are a member of a family, tribe, community, or religious cult, fellowship does not require your allegiance to someone, to some teaching or belief. You are required to listen to and follow your conscience.

“Conscience is a law of the mind; yet [Christians] would not grant that it is nothing more; I mean that it was not a dictate, nor conveyed the notion of responsibility, of duty, of a threat and a promise. . . . [Conscience] is a messenger of him, who, both in nature and in grace, speaks to us behind a veil, and teaches and rules us by his representatives. Conscience is the aboriginal Vicar of Christ” claims John Henry Cardinal Newman, in Letter to the Duke of Norfolk. “It is important for every person to be sufficiently present to himself in order to hear and follow the voice of his conscience. This requirement of interiority is all the more necessary as life often distracts us from any reflection, self-examination or introspection.” #1779 CCC

However, one must consider the role of virtue, education, and experience in the formation of one’s conscience. Conscience is not to be confused with desire, habit, or any other predisposition that may influence one’s decision to take or not take a particular action.

“The education of the conscience is a lifelong task. From the earliest years, it awakens the child to the knowledge and practice of the interior law recognized by conscience. Prudent education teaches virtue; it prevents or cures fear, selfishness and pride, resentment arising from guilt, and feelings of complacency, born of human weakness and faults. The education of the conscience guarantees freedom and engenders peace of heart.” #1784 CCC

For the Christian, Koinonia refers to concepts such as fellowship, joint participation, the share which one has in anything, a gift jointly contributed, a collection, a contribution. It identifies the idealized state of fellowship and unity that should exist within the Christian church, the Body of Christ. The term may have been borrowed from the early Epicureans—as it is used by Epicurus’ Principal Doctrines.

The word appears 19 times in most editions of the Greek New Testament. In the New American Standard Bible, it is translated “fellowship” twelve times, “sharing” three times, and “participation” and “contribution” twice each. Koinonia appears nowhere in the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint.

The Eucharist is the sacrament of communion with one another in the one body of Christ. This was the full meaning of eucharistic koinonia in the early Catholic Church. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, “the Eucharist is the sacrament of the unity of the Church, which results from the fact that many are one in Christ.” Yet other denominations of Christianity consider the New Testament description of fellowship as described in the book of Acts: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. … All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people” (Acts 2:42-47)

According to the International Journal for Pastors “Christian fellowship is vertical as well as horizontal. The horizontal plane presupposes the vertical for its very existence. John described the vertical dimension this way: “Our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3). This fellowship is what makes a Christian, Christian. Indeed, John’s words provide a definition of what it is to be Christian. Those not in fellowship with the Father and the Son, however upright they may be, are not actually Christian in this Johanine sense. The horizontal dimension of fellowship is the habitual sharing, the constant giving to and receiving from each other, which is the true, authentic pattern of life for God’s people. Fellowship with God, then, is the source from which fellowship among Christians springs; and again, fellowship with God is the end to which Christian fellowship leads.”

https://www.ministrymagazine.org/archive/2003/06/fellowship-its-meaning-and-its-demand.html

True Christian fellowship, like a true Christian conscience, must be open to the Grace of God, to pure goodness, and in keeping with Christian virtue all of which comes to us in and by the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Certainly, the basic foundation upon which fellowship and conscience exist is the Word of God and prayer.  “Discernment has steps that can be taken in order to achieve a level of discernment. The following actions can be made when making decisions of discernment; taking time in making decisions, using both the head and heart, and assessing important values involved in the situation. Time has been considered necessary in the process of making a smart choice and decisions made in a hurry can be altered by lack of contemplation.”

“The focus on God and Jesus when making decisions is what separates Christian discernment from secular discernment. Ignatius of Loyola is often regarded as the master of the discernment of spirits. Ignatian discernment comes from Ignatius of Loyola (1491-1556) when he created his own unique way of Catholic discernment. Ignatian discernment uses a series of Spiritual Exercises for discerning life choices and focuses on noticing God in all aspects of life. The Spiritual Exercises are designed to help people who are facing a major life decision. There are seven steps of discernment to be followed that include identifying the issue, taking time to pray about the choice, making a wholehearted decision, discussing the choice with a mentor and then finally trusting the decision made.

“Lectio Divina is another means of informing oneself about decisions pertaining to conscience and fellowship. It has been likened to “feasting on the Word”: first, the taking of a bite (lectio); then chewing on it (meditatio); savoring its essence (oratio) and, finally, “digesting” it and making it a part of the body (contemplatio). In Christian teachings, this form of meditative prayer leads to an increased knowledge of Christ.”

Therefore, just because one belongs to a family, tribe, cult, community, or religious group, one shouldn’t merely “follow” the crowd but genuinely discern whether one should or not accept the teachings, ideas, rituals, traditions, or requirements of any of the above. Instead, for the Christian, true membership or fellowship is built upon the Way, the Truth, and the Life of Jesus. 

Thus a few caveats are in order: Genuine fellowship has enemies: the self and the shadow or dark side of the self. James asks: “What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from the desires that battle within you?” (James 4:1). 

We must also remind ourselves that each person must follow their own conscience which means that we are not in the position to condemn or judge another. For Paul writes: “You, therefore, have no excuse, you who pass judgment on someone else, for at whatever point you judge the other, you are condemning your self, because you who pass judgment do the same things” (Rom. 2:1).

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About Dr. Ernie Sherretta, D. Min.

Retired Director of Religious Education for the Catholic Church since 2014, granted a B.A. in Philosophy from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Religious Studies from St. Charles Seminary, an M.A. in Counseling Psychology from Immaculata University, and a Doctor of Ministry from the Lutheran Theological Seminary. Spiritual Well-Being Counselor
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