The modern Church is in crisis. We do not lack the power, presence or purpose of God. However, we do lack the unified fellowship to fully utilize His power, experience His presence, and accomplish His purpose. The unity of thought, spirit, practice and faith that was so evident in the New Testament Church is severely lacking in the modern Church and the effects are devastating.
In part one we established that the crisis of the modern Church relates to our understanding of, and most notably our application of, the doctrine of New Testament fellowship. We will now examine the particulars of New Testament fellowship as it was practiced by the early Church.
Koinonia: More Than Just Fellowship
The Greek word koinonia is used twenty times in the New Testament. It is rendered in various ways including; fellowship, contribution, communion, and communication. Although koinonia is the word most often used to express the notion of fellowship in the New Testament there is much more to it than just one word. Koinonia represents an entire ethos of thought and practice in the New Testament. It undergirded all of New Testament life and made possible the incredible growth of the first century church. Herein we will look at the uses of the word family of which koinonia is a part in the New Testament in order to establish a framework from which to build a clear doctrine of what New Testament fellowship is.
It exists in a family of related words including; koinos, koinoneo, koinonikos, and koinonos. These related terms occur over 30 times in the New Testament. 1 They express ideas such as; having things in common, sharing a common faith, having a common salvation, distributing to needs, partaking together, communicating to one another, willingness to communicate, companionship, and partnership. 2
Clearly, koinonia and its related words communicate the notion of togetherness and involvement between two or more parties. Such was the nature of the New Testament fellowship. There were many ways in which New Testament believers had fellowship with one another. Let us examine the different ways that are laid out explicitly in the Bible.
Material Fellowship with Believers
First of all, the early believers considered their material possessions to be resources to share with fellow believers at God’s discretion as expressed through the apostles. This is obvious in the description of the early church’s commonality (Acts 2:42-44). 3 and the antithesis of this commonality demonstrated in Ananias and Sapphira’s deception of the Holy Spirit (Acts 5:1-11). Paul encourages the Romans to distribute (koinoneo) to the necessity of the saints (Rom. 12:13). He tells the Galatians to share/communicate (koinoneo) with those who teach them (Gal. 6:6).
The exchange of material gifts for spiritual gifts is communicated when Paul tells the Romans that Gentiles are debtors to the Jews. Having been partakers (koinoneo) of their spiritual things, they owe them material things (Rom. 15:27). When writing to the church in Philippi, Paul reminds them that they were the only church that communicated/shared (koinoneo) with him in regards to giving and receiving (Phi. 4:15).
Again to the Romans, Paul tells them of certain ones from Macedonia and Achaia who contributed (koinonia) to the poor in Jerusalem (Rom. 15:26). In his second letter to the Corinthians Paul writes about the gift of giving and refers to their liberal sharing/distribution (koinonia) with/to the brethren (2 Cor. 9:13). The writer to the Hebrews reminds them not to forget to share/communicate (koinonia) for it is a well pleasing sacrifice to God (Heb. 13:16). Finally, Paul writes to Timothy concerning the rich that they should be willing to share/communicate (koinonikos) so that they will be rich in good works (1Tim. 6:18).
Spiritual Fellowship with Believers
Secondly let us look at the ways that fellowship between believers took on a spiritual connotation. Paul refers to Titus as a true son in the common (koinos) faith (Titus 1:4). Jude writes to his audience as those who share a common (koinos) salvation (Jude 3). Paul again references the shared/common (koinonia) faith when writing to Philemon (Phlm. 6), and then appeals to their common faith, stating that if Philemon considers him a partner (koinonos) then he should receive Onesimus as a partner as well (Phlm. 17).
The early church was described as praying together, eating together, in short, having fellowship (koinonia) one with another (Acts 2:42). Paul, speaking of his reception in Jerusalem, states that Peter, James and John gave him and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship (koinonia) that they should go to the Gentiles (Gal. 2:9). Again writing to the Philippians, Paul speaks of his thankfulness for their fellowship (koinonia) in the gospel (Phil. 1:5). John the Beloved writes his first epistle in hope that those he writes to may also have fellowship (koinonia) with he and the other believers (1 John 1:3). Speaking of Titus to the Corinthians, Paul refers to him as his fellow worker (koinonos) in the ministry (2 Cor. 8:23). Finally, the author of Hebrews writes to encourage those who are being persecuted and those who are partners (koinonos) with them (Heb. 10:33) to remain in the faith.
Fellowship with the Father
There is one place in which a biblical author directly references the fellowship we have with the Father. When John the Beloved wrote his first epistle his stated purpose in writing was that those who received it would have fellowship (koinonia) with him and his companions and stated that their fellowship was with the Father and with His Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:3).
Fellowship with Jesus Christ
Next we will examine the ways in which New Testament believers had fellowship with Jesus Christ. Paul states that God had called the Corinthian believers into fellowship (koinonia) with His Son (1 Cor. 1:9). The writer of Hebrews talks about how those who partake (koinoneo) of the body and blood of Christ are one with Him (Heb. 2:14). Paul explicitly states that this action (taking of the body and the blood of Christ) refers to the taking of communion sacraments in his address to the Corinthians regarding the communion (koinonia) we experience with one another and with Christ when we take of the bread and the cup (1 Cor. 10:16-17).
This community with Christ is explained more clearly by Peter’s statements about us partaking (koinoneo) in Christ’s sufferings (1 Peter 4:13), an idea popularized by Paul’s statements concerning wanting to know Christ in the fellowship (koinonia) of his sufferings (Phil. 3:10). Of course if Christians share in/partake of (koinonos) the sufferings of Christ they will also partake of His consolation (2 Cor.1:7).
Fellowship with the Holy Spirit
Twice the Bible speaks of Christians having fellowship with the Holy Spirit. In both cases Paul assumes this relationship, once in a benediction to the Corinthian church, blessing them with the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God, and the communion (koinonia) of the Holy Spirit (2Cor. 13:14). Next, when encouraging the Philippians to be like-minded he refers to the fellowship (koinonia) of the Spirit along with the consolation of Christ and the comfort of love (Phil. 2:1).
Fellowship in the Divine Nature
Next we hear of a somewhat mystical fellowship when Peter speaks of Christians being partakers (koinonos) of the divine nature through the great and precious promises bestowed upon them by Christ (2 Pet. 1:4). When speaking to the elders, Peter states that he is a partaker (koinonos) of the glory that will be revealed (1 Pet. 5:1) and Paul when writing to the Ephesians speaks of how the church has been chosen to reveal the manifold wisdom of God to the world, and that, having been chosen for such a task, they partake in the fellowship (koinonia) of the mystery of God (Eph. 3:9).
An Exclusive Fellowship
Finally, we observe the fact that the New Testament fellowship was an exclusive fellowship. Paul warns Timothy not to be a partaker (koinoneo) of other men’s sins, but rather to keep himself pure (1Tim. 5:22). When writing to the Corinthians Paul tells them not to be unequally yoked with unbelievers, asking, “For what fellowship has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion [koinonia] hath light with darkness?” (2 Cor. 6:14 NKJV). Formerly when writing to the Corinthians Paul warned them concerning idolatry, telling them plainly that he does not want them to have fellowship (koinonos) with demons (1 Cor. 10:20). Making a clear case for the exclusivity of the fellowship, John remarks about the believers fellowship being with either light or darkness (see 1 John 1).New Testament fellowship was exclusive. Light and darkness don't mix. Click To Tweet
As we have seen, the New Testament Church had a unique and complex understanding of fellowship. This perspective has been lost on the modern Church. Understanding how the early Christians lived out the concept of fellowship—of koinonia—will help us recover the unity of thought, spirit, practice, and faith that was so evident in the New Testament Church. Part three will explore the principles that may be derived from these examples of New Testament fellowship. Part four will propose how these principles can be applied to the modern day Church.The New Testament Church had a unique & complex understanding of fellowship. - Israel Steinmetz Click To Tweet
As Israel stated in part one, “Christianity is a way of shared life.” And it is through our shared life—our biblical fellowship that we can influence our daily circles for Christ. Want more on your role as an everyday Christian leader in our 21st Century culture? Here are a few resources you might be interested in:
- Read Why Jesus-Followers Should See Themselves as Leaders & 10 Qualities of Influential Christians
- Read our four part series From Modernity to Postmodernity: A Primer for Leaders
- Get Artios Christian College’s free download of Discovering Your Leadership Strengths
- Enroll in Artios Christian College’s introductory course: Essentials of Vibrant Leadership
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- Martin Reardon, Sharing Communion: the New Testament Legacy, n.p., 1998. Online: www.interchurchfamilies.org/resource/eucharist/legacy.shtm. [September, 2003]. ↩
- J. Spender, New Testament Church Series (XIV) Fellowship – An Outline, n.p., 1984. Online: www.newtestamentchurch.com/Series/ntc30.htm. [October, 2003]. ↩
- All Scripture quotations and references are taken from either, The Holy Bible, New King James Version. Copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. or, The Holy Bible, King James Revised Standard Version. Copyright © 1970 by Thomas Nelson, Inc. ↩