A Word for Today: Fellowship (Gk. Koinonia)
Brian Clatworthy, Newton Abbot, Devon, England [SEE PROFILE BELOW]
One of the things that cricket enthusiasts are always keen to see, especially if they are English(!), is meaningful batting partnerships. This sort of partnership emphasizes the very English concept that a partnership is an arrangement where parties agree to cooperate to advance their mutual interests. The Greek word, koinonia, however, is much more multifaceted, as William Barclay states, ‘When we examine the connexions in which it is used we come to see how wide and far-stretching is the fellowship which should characterize the Christian life.’1
In the Septuagint (LXX), the noun koinonia is rarely used, and, where it is used, the meaning highlights a breach of faith with a neighbour, as in Leviticus chapter 6 verse 2. The related word koinonos, and the verb koinoneo, appear passim throughout the LXX, and provide both positive and negative instances of partnership associations. They refer to general alliances forged between leaders for military purposes, 2 Chr. 20. 35. Alliances of this kind were roundly condemned by God as being unholy, hence the prophet Eliezer is sent by God to prophesy against Jehoshaphat, cp. 2 Cor. 6. 14-18. In Proverbs chapter 28 verse 24, using one’s parent’s wealth, as eventually it will pass to you, is condemned by the writer as evidence of bad behaviour, or of being a partaker with, or a companion of, vandals. A salutary warning to all of us, even today! Similarly, in Isaiah chapter 1 verse 23, the leaders of Jerusalem are condemned for their sinful activities, and are described pejoratively, as ‘cronies of thieves’, Isa. 1. 23. Important to note, however, is that there are no instances in the LXX where any of these terms are used to describe a relationship or partnership between God and human beings.
But it is in the classical Greek period that the word koinonia becomes more embedded in the everyday language of the people, and takes on the meaning of human society or community. Plato, for example, in The Republic, whilst valuing individuals and individual rights, explains koinonia as emphasizing a sense of duty and common ownership within society. This was to be contrasted with the Greek word pleonexia, which highlighted a mean and grasping spirit of self-interest. Thus, koinonia and its allied forms came to describe the spirit of generous giving and sharing within the community as contrasted with selfish individualism. Plato’s work is, of course, viewed as influential to the communistic ideal, but we should not fail to recognize this important stage of word development as it is then applied by writers in the New Testament.
Principally, the word koinonia is found in Paul’s writings with certain important exceptions. We indicated earlier that koinonia is multifaceted, and this is very evident when we turn to the New Testament. In Luke chapter 5 verse 10 the word is used in a general sense to describe business partners in a fishing enterprise, whereas in Hebrews chapter 10 verse 33, the term conveys the idea of companionship or empathy with others in the experience of suffering for Christ. A major text is found in Acts chapter 2 verse 42 where koinonia expresses the fellowship or the companionship evident in a local company of Christians who readily comply with apostolic teaching. Of interest here is that in the Greek text of Acts chapter 2 verse 42, the definite article appears before koinonia, so it is correctly rendered ‘the fellowship’. When the definite article is used in this way, the emphasis is placed upon particular identity or even, in some contexts, by uniqueness. The expression of this unique local fellowship or community of believers was evident in the practice of breaking bread and praying together. So fellowship in the New Testament church context is an expression of partnership evidenced by sharing in, sharing with, and sharing out the things of God. Other forms of sharing can also be identified as:
- Romans chapter 15 verse 26, where the word is translated ‘contribution’, and refers to some form of gift made by Greek believers for poorer saints in Jerusalem. This was an expression of fellowship.2
- Galatians chapter 2 verse 9 where the word is translated ‘fellowship’ and is used in the sense of extending communion to those who had a common identify. Hence the endearing expression, ‘the right hand of fellowship’.
- Philippians chapter 3 verse 10 where the word is used of sharing or of participating in the sufferings of Christ. This does not mean that we as believers share in the vicarious sufferings of Christ, but rather experience that deep union with Christ that comes daily through denying self and taking up the cross.
- 2 Peter chapter 1 verse 4 where believers share in the divine nature. This should not be understood as implying that we participate in God’s own essence, i.e., this is not some form of deification or theosis theology, but rather as Richard Bauckham states, ‘To share in divine nature is to become immortal and incorruptible’.3
- 1 John chapter 1 verse 3 where John indicates that the essence of true fellowship can only be found in partnership with God. But note that it is ethically conditioned, i.e., it cannot be for those who have chosen to walk in darkness, 1 John 1. 6.
All these uses in the New Testament imply that this spiritual partnership or fellowship of believers is not something loose or at arm’s length. What fellowship involves is an active and dynamic engagement with God and other believers. Patently, fellowship is much more than mere attendance at assembly meetings, although that is an important aspect of Christian growth, Heb. 10. 25. If we truly recognize the value that God Himself has placed on this partnership with Him through Christ, then our response should be shown in the sincerity of our love for the Lord and His people, and our faithfulness in the fellowship of the gospel, Phil. 1. 5. Significantly, the New Testament does not sanction sleeping or limited liability partners!
For further reading/study
Harold K. Moulton, ‘Partnership’ (pg. 220-223) in The Challenge of the Concordance.
Craig A. Evans and Stanley E. Porter (Eds.), Dictionary of New Testament Background.
1. New Testament Words, pg. 173.
2. See also 2 Corinthians chapter 8 verse 4 and chapter 9 verse 13, where the word is translated ‘distribution’, and again refers to an expression of fellowship in giving to those less fortunate than them.
3. Jude, 2 Peter (WBC), pg. 181.
AUTHOR PROFILE: He is an elder and active member of a pioneer assembly work in Newton Abbott. For many years he has been welcomed as a ministering brother in the south of England and has written a number of articles for the magazine. He is married and has two children.