Koinonia in the 21st Century

The concept of fellowship as a core function of the Church originates from Acts 2:42, which says that on the Day of Pentecost, “They [the believers] devoted themselves to … fellowship.” The Greek word used in Acts 2:42, koinonia, occurs 17 times in the New Testament and can have several meanings. Eleven of those times, it is translated fellowship, meaning a communion, fellowship, or society. It is important to note that fellowship is not used only to describe good relations between believers but also, most importantly, to describe communion with the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (1 Jn 1:3,6, 1 Cor 1:9, 2 Cor 13:13). A good relationship with the Triune Godhead ensures healthy fellowship with other believers. Fellowship, in relation to other Christians, has many purposes such as: providing a caring community, partnership in sharing the gospel, building up one another spiritually, and worshiping God. Ultimately, fellowship pleases God. The manner in which this function is employed has certainly changed throughout the years and new challenges have contributed to churches being able to effectively perform this function. Still, the Bible mandates fellowship among believers and it is much to one’s benefit to partake. As Paul writes, “In Christ…each member belongs to all the others” (Rom 12:5). This truly reflects of the heart of fellowship as it demonstrates that God did not design us to walk alone in our faith.

One purpose of fellowship is to produce a loving community. The church is purposed to love and care for our brothers and sisters in Christ as seen all throughout Scripture. In the Old Testament, this was demonstrated through the close companionship shared by Naomi and Ruth. Ruth had fulfilled her duty to Naomi as a daughter-in-law but she clung to Naomi anyway and would not leave her side. She knew that Naomi was mourning and heartbroken feeling the Lord’s hand had been “turned against” her (Ruth 1:13) and so Ruth refused to leave her. Romans 12:15 supports this concept with the command for believers to “Rejoice with those who rejoice” and, oppositely but with equal weight, to “…mourn with those who mourn.” Another example of this lovingness is the deep friendship between David and Jonathan whom made a covenant with David that he would not leave his side because “…he [Jonathan] loved him [David] as himself” (1 Sam 18). In the New Testament, various examples support this type of love and care between Christians. Paul writes in 1 Cor 12:25 that each Christian is part of the body of Christ and, as such, each part “should have equal concern” for the other parts. He also give the command to believers in Galatians 6:2 to “Carry each other’s burdens” and in Romans 12:9 to “Be devoted to one another in love” by honoring one another above themselves. It’s evident that this can only happen in fellowship with other Christians for this is something only the Holy Spirit can enable a person to do.

Referring to the statement earlier about the various definitions of koinonia, there are times when it is not used to mean communion, society, or fellowship; rather, it is translated to mean partnership. This connotation implies more of a business relationship than a friendship or marriage which the word fellowship gives off. For example, in Phil 1:4-5 Paul writes, “In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership (koinonia) in the gospel from the first day until now…”. The purpose and function of fellowship in terms of partnership then is not only a caring community but also as a vehicle to share the gospel through prayer and monetary giving. Koinonia in this regard does not denote that believers must be in physical proximity to be in partnership. It is a koinonia that extends across the nations when fellow believers help each other spread the Gospel and both pray for and give money to missionaries. In 1 Thess 5:25, Paul urges, “Brothers and sisters, pray for us.” This is what it means to see koinonia functioning in its second purpose: as not only fellowship but partnership in prayer as well.

In America, many Christians see their faith and relationship with God individually but disregard their relationship with God as shared with other church members. However, a third purpose of fellowship is building up one another spiritually. Rarely can Christians thrive in isolation or grow on their own when left to their own devices. That is why the writer of Proverbs writes, “As iron sharpens iron, so one person sharpens another” (27:17). Similar to how iron cannot sharpen itself, people are spiritually “sharpened” not by themselves but by others who can see their situations more objectively and provide wisdom. Therefore, it is important to have fellowship with other Christians. This type of fellowship can be seen from the very beginning of time when God created Eve because it was “…not good for the man [Adam] to be alone” (Gen 2:18). Eve was designed as a “suitable helper” for him (Gen 2:18). In Romans 14:19, Paul says, “Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.” In his warning against unbelief, the writer of Hebrews adds, “…encourage one another daily, as long as it is called “Today,” so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.” One is at a greater disability to be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness where there is no accountability. For this reason, fellowship is necessary.

Finally, fellowship carries the purpose of pleasing God. In the concluding exhortations, the writer of Hebrews commands believers: “Do not forget to do good and to share (κοινωνία) with others for with such sacrifices God is pleased” (Heb 3:16). Looking at this verse, one can see that fellowship and sharing with others–whether it be money, possessions, or, as one might even argue, life–is pleasing to God. Notice as well that fellowship with others includes an element of sacrifice as doing life with others often requires.

Many large churches today have adopted Andy Stanley’s motto of, “Life change happens in circles not rows.” The message Stanley conveys with this statement is that while useful, sermons have an expiration date and a limit of effectiveness. Humans are changed more through interactions with others (celebrating together, joining one another in prayer, and even mourning together, to name a few) than from sitting in a service where these activities are not possible. For this reason, many churches, though not all, have some form of small groups led by volunteers that meet at various times throughout the year whether in quarters, trimesters, or semesters. Some groups meet once a week, others once a month, but all the people in these groups have similar goals: to get to know both God and the people they attend church with on a deeper level. Churches tend to offer groups based on several factors. Some of these factors can be geographical in nature, but many also extend to shared interests or similar life stages. For example, there may be a group offered to parents with young children and one for empty nesters or a group for those who enjoy mountain biking or baking.

Several challenges face local churches in the area of fellowship including: space, awkward social concerns, and competing commitments. A certain blockade to talking and catching up with one’s friends on a Sunday can be multiple Sunday experiences. These multiple experiences demand a steady flow of traffic: one group of people must leave before the next have room to enter. This new multi-service system is great for seating more people; however, it only encourages and excuses the aversion that many Millennials and Gen Z-ers have of social interaction. However, it must be noted that around eighty percent of A.G. churches have a single Sunday experience that allows time for family and friends to gather following service. Growing up I remember being at my small, A.G. church from 8:30 A.M. – 1:00 P.M. on most Sundays but that has changed as many people rush off after service ends in order to provide room for the next crowd. In years past, churches held at least two services each week, both with moderate attendance.

In 2018, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to have families commit to the Church both mentally and physically. True fellowship implies a deliberate, deep commitment. Koinonia was often used to refer to a business partnership or a marriage. Today many people are afraid of deep commitments. Support for this claim lies in the increasing number of couples who live together without a marriage license in case one of them “loses feelings” for his or her partner. Churches used to be the center of community life but today coaches, clubs, and other organizations plan events on Sunday and Wednesday nights. When I played club volleyball in high school, our tournaments took place on Saturdays and Sundays. Without the component of commitment to other believers, church simply will not make the never-ending list of calendar possibilities and will lose out to other time commitments.

If we continue to become more individualistic as a culture, the need for fellowship may appear to be obsolete. However, there is no question that the need for fellowship in the future is very much alive. God has made each of us with an innate desire to connect with people and feel a sense of belonging. This is why as pastors, it is our job to stress that it is okay, even healthy, to need other people to grow and provide our congregations with ways to do so. We ourselves have to demonstrate what fellowship looks like and convince them that it is necessary. In the future, people will need continual reminders that talking to their church friends on Facebook is only a small part of doing life together. Teenagers and young adults will have to be shown that sometimes fellowship is boring and that other times it is hard work. They will have to be taught that it can be very rewarding and fun but that the fun parts do not come without the sacrifice or unglamorous parts. The future of fellowship looks like people gathering not in churches but in homes around communities with those in close proximity. During that time, fellowship is continued in praying for those near and far. Fellowship will not take place during a Sunday experience but outside of it. It will take place at the supermarket when two moms from the same church run into each other, catch up, and leave encouraged, fulfilled, and challenged. Fellowship will be when a family sits down to dinner and talks about issues in the Bible they do not understand. It will happen when a couple decides to sacrifice an amount of their monthly budget to support a missionary in Thailand to help spread the Gospel.

The core function of fellowship in the church embodies itself in various ways. It involves caring for and loving fellow Christians and building each other up in the faith; activities which are not in any way opposite each other. Fellowship, however, does not merely include physical proximity but is also presented in praying for Christian missionaries around the world as Paul urges the church in Thessalonica to do for Silas, Timothy, and him. Fellowship even still is giving to missionaries financially as 2 Corinthians 6 suggests. True fellowship pleases God and is therefore necessary in today’s churches. Challenges that face this function include lack of time, both after Sunday services and throughout the week, awkward social interaction concerns, and a lack of commitment. Unless we are intentional about building real relationships with other Christians and truly allow them into our decision-making processes, into our greatest challenges, and into our joys, then we will not fully experience all that God has for us.

Cherish Ward is a senior in Church Leadership at Evangel University, Springfield, MO. She is the Executive Director for Crosswalk, the school’s ministry program, made up of over 100 leaders. She interned with the Church Multiplication Network at the A/G headquarters and adventure church in Lewis Center, Ohio. Her passion is to demonstrate the love of God to others through personal interaction, speaking, and writing. One day, she hopes to lead a church.

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References

Bridges, Jerry. True Fellowship: The Biblical Practice of Koinonia. Colorado Springs, CO: NavPress, 1985.

Bubna, Donald L., and Sarah M. Ricketts. Building People Through a Caring, Sharing Fellowship. Wheaton, IL: Tyndale House Publishers, 1982.

Zodhiates, Spiros. The Complete Word Study New Testament with Parallel Greek: King James Version. Chattanooga, TN: AMG Publishers, 1992.

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