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Koinōnia: What We Share in Common

What exactly is “fellowship”? We tend to think it means “socializing,” when we read that the earliest church spent so much of their time doing it (Acts 2:42) But then, what does the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit” mean in Paul’s description of the triune God in 2 Corinthians 13:13? What does Paul mean when he says he wants to know the “fellowship” of Christ’s sufferings? (Philippians 3:10) And what does Paul mean when he uses the same word to say that the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper are a “communion” in the body and blood of Christ? (1 Corinthians 10:16) Since we can’t ask Paul at the moment, let’s figure it out by looking at the various ways this word is used in the Bible.

Koinōnia is one of the best known New Testament Greek words, and one of the least understood. Back in the 1970’s, “koinonia” (fellowship) groups were all the rage in churches, until they led to “koinonitis” (a humorous name for a “disease” where groups were too tight-knit to make room for others). Koinōnia and its related words (koinōneō, koinos, koinoō, koinōnos, and koinōnikos) are used 56 times in the New Testament. Meanings for these words range from “fellowship” to “partnership” and even to the adjectives “common” and “unclean.”

The basic meaning of this word group that holds all of the various meanings together is “sharing” or what we “hold in common.” The verb koinōneō means precisely that: “to share.” Galatians 6:6: “Let the one who is taught the word share in all good things with the one who teaches.” 1 Timothy 5:22: “Do not share/participate in the sins of others.” 1 Peter 4:13: “Rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings.” 2 John 1:11 says that whoever greets the false teacher or welcomes them into their home “shares in their wicked deeds.” Paul writes that rich believers should be “rich in good deeds, generous, willing to share” (koinōnikos – 1 Timothy 6:18), and should “contribute to the needs of the saints” (Romans 12:13). Paul tells the Philippians that “no other church partnered/shared with me in giving and receiving” (Philippians 4:15).

“Sharing” of their total lives is a good way to translate the koinōnia to which the earliest church devoted themselves in Acts 2:42. Such a deep and meaningful relationship also seems to be in view in 1 John 1:3-7, where believers who “walk in the light” and not in darkness have true “fellowship” with the Father and the Son, and with one another. It’s the flip side of 2 Corinthians 6:14: “What fellowship has light with darkness?” Such a relationship is incompatible, we are told. In Galatians 2:9, the Jerusalem apostles give Paul and Barnabas the “right hand of fellowship/partnership” (rather than the left foot of rejection!). The way Paul speaks of the “fellowship of the Holy Spirit” is like the Stoic philosopher Epictetus wishing for “fellowship with Zeus” (Discourses 2:19); Paul rejoices that we actually have such a relationship.

Paul tells us that the bread and cup we share in the Lord’s Supper are a “communion/participation/ sharing” in the body and blood of Christ (1 Corinthians 10:16). That’s why Paul warns them in 10:20 that to knowingly eat food sacrificed to idols is to be “partners” (koinōnoi) with demons. When Paul says he wants to know the “fellowship” of Christ’s sufferings (Philippians 3:10), he means he wants to share in what Jesus suffered on behalf of us all.

Koinōnia also is often used for sharing of material goods: “Do not neglect doing good and koinōnia (which probably means sharing rather than companionship), because such sacrifices are pleasing to God” (Hebrews 13:16). Paul writes that the Greek churches were pleased to make some “contribution” for the relief of the Jerusalem saints (Romans 15:26 – see also 2 Corinthians 9:13: “the generosity of your sharing/contribution”). So when Paul says he is thankful for “your partnership in the Gospel” (Philippians 1:5), he may mean either companionship or financial sharing.

The related noun koinōnos means “partner,” as in Luke 5:10 (“partners” with Simon) and in Matthew 23:30 (“we would not have been partners in [shedding] the blood of the prophets”). Hebrews 10:33 says that “you were sometimes publicly exposed to insults and persecutions, and sometimes were partners of those so treated.” Here is also the word used where Peter says we can become “partakers/sharers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4), and where Paul writes that “just as you are partakers/sharers of [our] suffering, so also [you may be partakers/sharers] of [our] comfort” (2 Corinthians 1:7).

The related adjective koinos means “common,” as it does where we read that the earliest church had all material goods in “common” (Acts 2:44), or where Paul calls Titus a true son in a “common” faith (Titus 1:3). Surprisingly, the same word is also often used to mean “profane,” “defiled,” or “unclean.” Paul is persuaded by the Lord Jesus that nothing is “common/unclean” in itself (Romans 14:14). The Pharisees are shocked that Jesus and his followers eat with hands “defiled” (Mark 7:2-5). In Acts 10:14 (= 10:28), Peter reminds God that he has never eaten anything “common” or unclean. Hebrews 10:29 declares how horrible it is for someone to treat Christ’s blood as a “profane/common thing.” Revelation 21:27 declares that nothing “common/unclean” shall enter the Holy City. Note that the Greek of the New Testament is called by the name Koinē or “Common” Greek, not a holy Greek.

Our takeaway from this study is that koinōnia or “fellowship” is a word to describe the bond between people who share one important identity that unites them across what divides them, like Cardinal baseball fans, or US citizens who meet in a foreign country; they may be at odds with each other elsewhere, and may have nothing else in common, but what they do share creates a meaningful bond between them.

The early church was composed of slave and free, dirt-poor and rich, Jews, Romans, and barbarians, women and men, who had nothing else in common but Christ, but what they did share was powerful. Part of why that was true, of course, is because they were talking about the same Jesus, and not wild or grotesque distortions. Unless we are talking about truly the same Jesus, we reduce the meaningfulness of what we share across our diversity. But when we are indeed celebrating the same Jesus, what we share in common becomes all the more amazing.

So fellowship is really all about sharing: not only our Savior and our relationship with him, but also our hearts, our joys and burdens, and even our time and material goods. Genuine fellowship should produce a mutual encouragement that sustains an otherwise isolated soul, which is why Hebrews 10:25 urges us not to forsake the habit of meeting together. The test of how genuine our fellowship may be is how much sharing we can truly do between us. Can we share our burdens – will people listen, and will people care, as they are able? Can we be transparent as we share – is it safe to share what’s in our hearts? The quality of our fellowship, our ability to truly share, to give and receive as fellow members of Christ’s body, will be what leads the outside world to declare, “God is truly among you!”