I am a Christian pastor who wishes to bring glory to God in all that I do, and to help people through my writing to know Him better.
A Misunderstanding of Fellowship
What comes to mind when you think of Christian fellowship? Many followers of Christ think of having coffee before church or bringing a dish to pass for the potluck after the service. And of course, it has to be eaten in the "fellowship hall" in order to be considered true fellowship. Although there is nothing wrong with these things, we have to get a totally different picture of this word when we think of it. For true Christian fellowship is something else entirely. It is more rich and meaningful than simply sharing coffee, lunch, and conversation in a building or a room. True Christian fellowship goes to the heart of what it means to be a Christian.
The Christian life was never meant to be a solo flight. We were designed to need both God and other human beings in order to live fulfilled fruitful lives. The idea that has developed of God and me against the world without fellow believers is unheard of in Scripture as is the idea of a Christian that isn't in some way attached to a local assembly of believers.
And if the Apostle Paul were alive today, there is no doubt that he would have something to say against those who think they have done their spiritual duty just because they've taken an hour on a Sunday to turn on their television and listen to the latest sermon by whatever preacher they enjoy. While listening to a T.V. or radio preacher isn't bad in and of itself if they faithfully proclaim the Word of God, it simply isn't enough. It is merely a selfish enterprise because it takes away my responsibility to be there as God's hands and feet to my fellow believers and to add my gift to the mix in order to play my role both for them and with them to help proclaim the love of God to the lost world.
The Church, the Body of Christ, is Gods idea and He has designed for His message of Salvation to be both proclaimed and modeled by His people working together in fellowship and using their Spiritual gifts for edifying or the building up of the Body of Christ (I Corinthians 12; Ephesians 4:1-16).
The biblical word for fellowship is koinonia. It is found 19 times in the Greek New Testament. The word is very rich in meaning as it is used for the people of God and their relationship with God and with each other.
I. Definition of Biblical Fellowship
The Greek word Koinonia, (κοινωνία), has the primary meaning of fellowship, sharing in common or communion. We first see it in the New Testament context when it is used of the early followers of Christ in Acts 2:42 where it says of the believers that:
“They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer."
But even before the writing of the Book of Acts, the Apostle Paul was using this term in his first letter to the Corinthians. And besides the 19 times that the noun is used, if you add all of the related forms of the word you can see koinonia a total of 36 times in the New Testament writings. And a good majority of them are in Paul's letters.
J. I. Packer, in a book entitled 'Your Father Loves You' had this to say about koinonia:
"The Greek word for fellowship comes from a root meaning common or shared. So fellowship means common participation in something either by giving what you have to the other person or receiving what he or she has. Give and take is the essence of fellowship, and give and take must be the way of fellowship in the common life of the body of Christ."
In the ancient Greek world, koinonia could be used of any type of commonality that people have. For instance, if you were a group of fishermen, you were united by your common profession of fishing. Christians have the commonality of all having faith in the Lord Jesus Christ and what he did for us on the cross of Calvary. We are all brothers and sisters because we have one common Father. Through Christ, we have been adopted into the family of God (Ephesians 1:5; Romans 8:14-17).
II. The Eternal Koinonia of the Trinity
The fellowship the Christian enjoys originates from the fact that we were created in the image of God and long before we were created, or the universe came into existence there was the fellowship of the Trinity. God, Himself is a relational being but has never been lonely. For there has always been the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Jesus, in his High Priestly prayer in John 17 prayed to his father for the disciples, both then and in the future. Here is some of what he said:
“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
“Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world (20-24).
So we see the eternal relationship which the Father and Son had. But the Spirit was there as well. We can see this by His having been there during the whole process of creation. For example, Genesis 1:2 tells us:
"The earth was formless and void, and darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters."
And in the book of Job we have this insight:
"The Spirit of God has made me, And the breath of the Almighty gives me life" (Job 33:4).
So God had complete fellowship in the Trinity but desired to have other creatures that could share in this wonderful companionship that He has had for eternity. And it is his choice of us that is the basis for the bond that we have.
III. Koinonia is First Vertical, Then Horizontal
The fellowship or koinonia that we have with one another first has to start with our mutual relationship with God through Christ. In that sense, it starts vertically, between us below and God above. In I John 3 we see this fact. The Apostle states:
"That which we have seen and heard declare we unto you, that you also may have fellowship with us: and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things write we unto you, that your joy may be full. This then is the message which we have heard of him, and declare unto you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanses us from all sin (1:3-7)."
So we see that the vertical relationship with God leads to a horizontal relationship with other believers. We have a common Lord. It is this commonality amongst believers that should put us in agreement with one another for a common purpose and should cause us to serve alongside each other for the cause of Christ. But it goes even farther. We are to care for each other and put the needs of others ahead of our own if we are truly in a bond of faith. In Philippians 2:1-4 Paul says:
"So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any fellowship in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests but also to the interests of others."
When speaking of our horizontal relationship with fellow believers, the modern understanding of fellowship as fun social gatherings is foreign to Scripture. True koinonia involved some sort of sacrifice. I like what J.D. Morris had to say about the word. He tells us:
"Nowhere in the New Testament do any of the Greek words translated "fellowship" imply fun times. Rather, they talk of, for example, "The fellowship of the ministering to the saints" (II Corinthians 8:4) as sacrificial service and financial aid. (See, for example, I Timothy 6:18). Elsewhere, Paul was thankful for the Philippian believers' "fellowship in the gospel" (Philippians 1:5), for he knew that "inasmuch as both in my bonds, and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, ye all are partakers (same word as fellowship) of my grace" (Philippians 1:7). This sort of fellowship may even bring persecution. We are to emulate Christ's humility and self-sacrificial love (Philippians 2:5-8) through the "fellowship of the Spirit" (Phil 2:1). In some way known only partially to us, we have the privilege of knowing "the fellowship of His sufferings, being made conformable unto His death" (Philippians 3:10), and even the communion (i.e. fellowship) of the blood...and body of Christ" (I Corinthians 10:16)."
In short, Koinonia requires more of us than seeing each other one to two hours on a Sunday and an occasional meal together. It implies the sharing of our life as well as our ministry with our fellow believers. True Koinonia is more than being casual acquaintances with other church members. It involves getting to know each other on a deeper level so that we can help each other to live fruitful Christian lives.
If we had to answer Cain's age-old question in the book of Genesis "Am I my brother's keeper?" ,(Genesis 4:9), the answer would have to be: "Yes, we are!" We are to be responsible for each other. This is to be so much the case that if one member suffers, we all suffer. And if one member rejoices we all share in his or her rejoicing! (I Corinthians 12:25,26).
IV. Koinonia and the 'One Another' Passages
One of the best ways to understand what is involved in true biblical koinonia or fellowship is to look at the passages that have the phrase 'one another' in them. This phrase is a translation of the Greek word ἀλλήλων ( pronounced ah-lay-loan). You will find this Greek word 100 times in 94 verses in the New Testament. And the Apostle Paul wrote 60% of those commands. Below is not an exhaustive list but examples.
One-third of the commands deal with unity or the church getting along. They include:
- "Be at peace with one another (Mark 9:50)
- "Accept one another" (Romans 15:7)
- "Bear with and forgive one another" (Colossians 3:13)
Another one-third of the passages are about loving one another. Some of them are as follows:
- "Love one another" (John 13:34; Romans 13:8; I Thessalonians 3:12; I John 3:11 and others.
- "Through love serve one another" (Galatians 5:13).
- "Be devoted to one another in love" (Romans 12:10).
Around 15% of the verses stress the idea of humility such as:
- "Wash one another's feet" (John 13:14)
- "Serve one another" (Galatians 5:13)
- "Regard one another as more important than yourselves" (Philippians 2:3)
The remaining 12 are various commands on different subjects. Here is a small sampling:
- "Speak truth to one another" (Ephesian 4:25)
- "Bear one another's burdens" (Galatians 6:2)
- "Encourage and build up one another (I Thessalonian 5:11)
As we can see from these and many other passages, the Bible commands us to take care of fellow believers and to show them the unconditional love that was first shown to us by God Himself. We are truly connected to each other and cannot ignore that connection and still be all that God wants us to be. There are no Lone Ranger Christians. We have fellowship with God and with one another. Further, we are eternally interconnected with both. What a wonderful future believers have together!
I recently read a story by Don Graham which summarizes what Scripture means by koinonia. He wrote of a woman named Linda who went alone on a road trip from Alberta to the Yukon. Apparently, she didn't know that a person should never take such a trip to Whitehorse in a run down Honda Civic.
The first day she was able to get to a place to stay for the night in the mountains near the summit. She couldn't understand why the person behind the hotel desk looked so funny at her when she asked for a 5 a.m wake-up call. The next morning she woke up to an extremely foggy day and at once found out why the person was wondering about her. But rather than looking foolish, she decided to go to a local cafe where there were no people other than herself and two truckers.
The truckers asked her if she'd like to sit with them. The place was so small that Linda felt an obligation to do as they asked. One of the first things that the truckers inquired of her was where she was headed. When she told them Whitehorse, they both looked extremely surprised and one of them said: "You're going to Whitehorse in a little Honda Civic?" "The pass is dangerous in good conditions. But in weather like this, it is nearly impossible!" Still, Linda told them that she was determined to try.
"Then we are going to have to have to hug you" one trucker replied. Linda drew back and said: "There's no way I am going to let you touch me!" The trucker then laughed and replied that he didn't mean it like that. They then suggested that one truck drive ahead of her and one behind her all the way through the mountains. In that way, she would make it safely.
All morning she followed little red dots ahead of her on that foggy mountain. At the same time, she had the reassurance of a set of headlights behind her as they made their way through the mountain pass.
In the same way, this world is full of scary and treacherous mountain passes and it is nearly impossible to get through them on our own. As a matter of fact, we were not ever meant to do it by ourselves. We were given koinonia, the fellowship of the Body of Christ. There are people who can go ahead of us to lead the way. And there are those who will have our backs and will support us on our journey.
Further, we have the greatest resource that a person can ever have! We have the fellowship of the God of the Universe and the power of His Holy Spirit living in us! He is our Father and we are His children. We are not alone! Praise God for true Koinonia! It is one of the greatest things about our salvation. May we never diminish it or take it for granted ever again!!
© 2018 Jeff Shirley
Jeff Shirley (author) from Kentwood, Michigan on August 05, 2018:
Amen brother!! Thanks for reading!!
William Kovacic from Pleasant Gap, PA on August 05, 2018:
Thanks for a good study, Jeff. It always impressed me how Jesus prayed for us in John 17. I was on His heart even then!