Word Study #8 — “Fellowship” is more than a party!

My friend’s invitation to an event at her church was kind and gracious.  “It’s just a fellowship meeting,” she explained, “Coffee, some board-games, conversation ….”  Now, I like coffee.  Conversation is pleasant.  I can even occasionally enjoy a board-game with the grandkids.  But is this “fellowship”?  “JUST a fellowship meeting? ”  Has the contemporary church forgotten, or has it deliberately rejected, the “length and breadth and height and depth” of that beautiful word, reducing it to softball games and hot dogs?

“Fellowship” is the most common translation (12 times) of koinonia, which in other contexts has been rendered “communication (2 x), communion (4 x), contribution (1 x), and distribution (1 x).”  Historically, it was quite a versatile word, used of joint business ventures, charitable contributions, the routine associations of human society, and even marriage!  The verb form could refer to almost any sort of a co-operative effort — even crime! –while the adjective refers to things held in common by corporations, willingness to share among members of a group, and partaking of either the suffering or the good fortune of one’s fellows.

In the New Testament, the usage is also varied:  these related words can refer to something as mundane as James and John’s partnership in their father’s fishing business (Lk.5:10), or as amazingly ultimate as Peter’s description of believers’ actually participating in the glory of the Lord Jesus at his coming (I Peter 5:1)!  The word only appears twice in the Gospels — the previously mentioned passage in Luke, and Mt.23:30, where Jesus warns his opponents of “sharing”  (koinonon) in the deeds of those who had stoned the prophets.

Interestingly, the word seems to have acquired broader and deeper meaning in the church after Pentecost.  Might a new slant on koinonia be connected to the power Jesus promised when he instructed the baffled disciples to “wait around” for the coming of the Holy Spirit?  The New Testament usage certainly changes after that momentous occasion.

Acts 2:42-47 and 4:32-35 provide detailed descriptions of the “fellowship” (koinonia) of the early believers.  They couldn’t get enough of being together!  (But I don’t think they were playing board-games.)  They eagerly soaked-up the apostles’ teaching, shared their meals and possessions , and prayed together.  Incidentally, please note that there is no hint, in that description, of coerced communalism: the new brethren were just looking out for each other’s welfare, as they shared their whole lives.  That concern also spilled out beyond their immediate associates, as well, in many practical ways:

–When they learned of the famine in Judea, the scattered congregations spontaneously  started a relief-effort for the brethren who were affected (Rom.15:26, II Cor.8:4, 9:13)
–They shared willingly in each other’s sufferings for their faithfulness, as well as in the suffering of the Lord Jesus for them (Phil.3:10, Heb.10:33, II Cor.1:7, I Pet.4:13)
–Various individuals and groups contributed support, not only to Paul’s efforts (the whole epistle to Philippi is a “thank-you note”), but to those of other teachers (Gal.6:6), and also to the needs of the wider brotherhood (Rom.12:13).

Paul speaks of “fellowship” (koinonia) as related to the approval other apostles gave to his work (Gal.2:9), the sharing of the “mystery” of the inclusion of Gentiles in the plan of God (Eph.3:9), and also to individual people who had shared  his labors in various places.  He refers to sharing (koinonia) , personally and as a group, in the very sufferings of Jesus Christ (Phil.3:10), as does Peter (1 Pet. 4:13).  John’s first letter is the most extensive direct treatment of “fellowship” .  Created when folks learn of the Gospel and respond, koinonia is nurtured by honesty, love, mutual confession and forgiveness in the brotherhood.  Both Paul and John also warn against “sharing” (still using koinonia) in the evil of others: both in idol worship situations, and relating to those of their own number who would turn them away from Jesus — frequently for financial gain.

Koinonia is also used –only once, in I Cor.10:16 — of the celebration that has come to be labeled “communion.”  I have treated this subject in greater detail in Citizens of the Kingdom, chapter 12. This is the same word that has been used of all the sharing of life, teaching, resources, joys, and sufferings already detailed.  Paul’s choice of the word koinonia makes abundantly clear that the purpose of the observation is the celebration of the depth of the mutual participation of the members of the Body — NOT some privatistic, esoteric appropriation of an undefined “spiritual” benefit.  Luke records in Acts 2 (previously cited) that they “broke bread from house to house” with JOY.  Nothing is said about a solemn ceremony officiated by a representative of a hierarchy (which, as noted before, Jesus had flatly forbidden.)  As in every other reference to koinonia, the mutuality of the entire brotherhood is paramount.

So yes, dear people!  May all our meetings be “fellowship meetings”!  May we live and breathe the koinonia described so vividly by the New Testament writers!  Building each other up in love, may we continue to grow together into “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ!”  (Eph.4:13).   For “Our fellowship / sharing / participation / koinonia is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.  We’re writing these things to you all in order that our mutual joy may be made complete!” (I John1:3-4).

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