May 23, 2022

When Is Fellowship, Fellowship?

people hands raised in the air, vote, election, democracy

The word, a Greek word, is even popular among English-speaking Christians: Koinonia. Partnership. Participation. Translated communication, communion, distribution, fellowship. It is used by Luke, Paul, and John, in 8 Bible books. Have we fully understood and implemented the meaning of this concept?

I mean, really, what is a “fellowship dinner?” What is a “communion service”? Since both words – fellowship and communion – come from the same Greek word, they must be related somehow. Is it proper to say, “I’m taking communion,”? What does it mean to be “out of fellowship”? Or, “Let’s get together at my house for some fellowship”?

As is my custom when discussing Biblical topics, I like to examine the Biblical texts that cover that topic. Sounds obvious, but not all teachers in our day are bound to Scripture when searching out the mind of God. For me, it’s simply a lot easier and more direct to ask God what He meant when He gave His words to our spiritual forefathers. So let’s take a look:

Acts 2:42 is the best place to begin, I think. But for sure we run into trouble right away in trying to determine the Biblical usage of koinonia. First we need to understand that there are many words which we use in life, that in themselves are neutral. Like “religion” and “weather” etc. Put an adjective in front of those words if you want people to know what you mean. I believe koinonia, whether in Greek or in English, is one of those words. “Participation” is a generic concept. “Partnership” can be used in many ways. We need to see, in what people are being called upon to participate, before we know the model that is there for us.

Unfortunately, a little more translation study confronts us in Acts 2:42. Most translations list four things in which the early church was continuing per the verse. Catholic-leaning ones list only three. Consider these two lists: The early church and its leadership continued steadfastly in:

A. According to most translations:

1. Apostles’ doctrine
2. Fellowship (koinonia)
3. Breaking of bread
4. Prayers

B. Via the Douay-Rheims and a few others:

1. Apostles’ doctrine
2. Fellowship (communication) of breaking of bread
3. Prayers.

Which is it? This old English teacher wants to apply English rules about “ownership” or “genitive” to the Greek language. And his small knowledge of Greek tells him that the words “breaking” and “bread” do not have endings that demand an ownership context. That is, there seems to be no evidence in the Greek that “fellowship” is in any way bound to “breaking of bread.” Four separate items here are listed, in my opinion. Sounds like someone was interpreting as they translated… never a good idea when dealing with the Holy Words of God Himself. Tell us what He said, not what you think about what He said.

So let’s go with the list of four. These are the four things that the early church considered non-negotiables. Things they had to do. Steadfastly.

• Apostles doctrine. The very teachings of the apostles of Jesus. Essentially, that teaching was passed down to us in the form of the New Testament, and we assume that these good Jewish men passed on those portions of the heritage of Moses, the Israelite history, the prophecies, the songs, the wisdom, or what we commonly call the Old Testament. All of this together we call, the Bible.

• Fellowship. Koinonia. Not explained exactly here. We’ll talk about it in other Bible passages.

• Breaking of bread. A common phrase for a common meal. They ate together. And we are assured that they kept that very special meal, instituted by their Lord, that we call “The Lord’s” supper, the bread and the fruit of the vine. Jesus had left no specifics on how often this latter meal was to be kept, but it seems that the early church honored His wishes much more often than the evangelical church of our day, where occurrences can be as separated as far away as an entire year! For others it is monthly. For some it is weekly. Someday I may do more sharing on this topic, and the wild extremes to which the church goes in this celebration, but for now we simply say that the “breaking of bread” most certainly included both “normal” eating and supra-normal eating. These folks loved each other and wanted to share their lives in every way possible.

• Prayers. They brought their requests to God. They worshiped and praised the risen Christ. They interceded. They prayed in the natural and in the Spirit. They prayed together and individually. They would not have considered moving on without prayer. It is likely that prayer, as the Lord’s Supper, also played a much larger role in the life of the church of the first century than that of today. Hence its growth. It is probable that there were fewer meetings called specifically “prayer meetings” and more lengthy “church services”, as we call them, that included large portions of time for just praying. I’ve seen only one church in my experiences in the church world, that practices this sort of thing.

Now let’s follow the koinonia teaching through the rest of the New Testament, to see what all was involved in the steadfastly continuing in it.

After the book of Acts, the term koinonia is used almost exclusively by Paul. And to the church of Corinth are addressed by far the most messages of “participation” and “partnership”, a message they needed. As do we.

In his first letter to Corinth, (1:9) Paul brings out the Request personal prophecy most important of all fellowships, that which came from the call of God Himself: the partnership with His Son Jesus Christ. Union with Him. Partnering with him. Participating in His very life. In the next breath he exhorts the believers in Corinth to stop their fighting! There is a clear connection here between being connected to Christ and being one with each other. Seems we can’t have one without the other. Christ is in His body, and so to be a divider, a trouble-maker, in the body, is a serious offense. So true fellowship involves the absence of conflict.

It is that same sharing that is in view much later in the letter (chapter 10), when Paul discusses what we refer to today as “the communion service.” The context here is idolatry, and the unfaithfulness of Israel, though they had actually been given a participation in heavenly things as long ago as the days of Moses.

Paul contends that they actually participated with Christ, symbolically, when they ate the manna from heaven, and drank from the rock. Today, he says, we have a food and drink also. When we partake of bread and wine that was given to memorialize the death of Christ, we are actually sharing in Christ. It is a participation, a koinonia, in Jesus. Using Israel again, he says that when they ate food sacrificed to God, they were sharing in God, and when pagans eat food sacrificed to their idols, they share in demon spirits.

The point: Though we are dealing sometimes in physical visible materials, we have been put in touch with the realities of Heaven, and must recognize such when we partake. In that sense we don’t “take communion.” Communion is a sharing in Christ. When He is present, He takes us, fills us. We become one with Him. That is true fellowship. (And that is why some wanted to make Acts 2:42 a list of 3 instead of 4. We cannot keep the koinonia out of the Lord’s supper.)

In Paul’s second letter to this city, new meanings are attached to the koinonia. In a well-known verse in chapter 6 (14) he chides the Corinthian believers about their involvement with non-Christians. (See also Ephesians 5:4, where the church there is told not to have koinonia with darkness.)

We have always been quick to point out that when Paul questions what koinonia we have with unbelievers, he surely wasn’t talking about going to the work place. There are some Christian groups who would differ with that assessment.