To appreciate the full meaning of the word-group in the New Testament that conveys the nature and reality of Christian fellowship (i.e., the noun koinonia [koinwniva], the verb, koinonein [koinwnevw], and the noun koinonos [koinwnov"]) as used in the New Testament, it is necessary to be aware of two fundamental points.
First, the fact and experience of Christian fellowship only exists because God the Father through Jesus Christ, the Son, and by/in the Spirit has established in grace a relation (a "new covenant") with humankind. Those who believe the gospel of the resurrection are united in the Spirit through the Son to the Father. The relation leads to the reality of relatedness and thus to an experienced relationship (a "communion") between man and God. And those who are thus "in Christ" (as the apostle Paul often states) are in communion not only with Jesus Christ (and the Father) in the Spirit but also with one another. This relatedness, relationship, and communion is fellowship.
By his sacrificial death and glorious resurrection/exaltation, Jesus Christ brought into being a new creation, a new order, and a new epoch. Though this new situation will only be present in fullness at the end of this evil age, it is a reality now on this earth. Christ exercises his relation in this new creation in and through the controlling and liberating Holy Spirit, whom the Father sends in the name of Christ. Thus to be "in the Spirit" is also to be "in Christ." And this is another way of saying that Christians who are baptized into Christ and given the gift of the Spirit are dynamically related to the Father through the incarnate Son in and by the Spirit of the Father and the Son. On the basis of this relation there is fellowship for Christians both with God and with each other.
In the second place, it is probably best not to use the word "community" as a synonym for "fellowship." The reason for this is that in modern English "community" presupposes "individualism" and thus carries a meaning that is necessarily foreign to biblical presuppositions since individualism (i.e., the thinking of a human being as an "individual" and as the basic unity of society) is, technically speaking, a modern phenomenon. So "community" seemingly inevitably today usually refers to a group, body, or society that is formed by the coming together of "individuals" in a contractual way. The emphasis is on the initiative of the "individuals" and on the voluntary nature of the group thus formed. In contrast, koinonia [koinwniva] has its origin in a movement out of the internal, eternal relation, relatedness, and communion of the Godhead of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Koinonia [koinwniva] for baptized believers is thus a participation within human experience of the communion of the living God himself.
General Background. In the colloquial Greek of the New Testament period, koinonia [koinwniva] was used in several ways. It was used of a business partnership, where two or more persons share the same business and are thus closely connected in work. Also it was used of marriage, of the shared life of two persons, a man and a woman, together. Further, it was sometimes used of a perceived relatedness to a god, such as Zeus. Finally, it was used to refer to the spirit of generous sharing in contrast to the spirit of selfish acquiring.
Much of the use of the word group koinonia [koinwniva], koinonein [koinwnevw], and koinonos [koinwnov"] in the New Testament corresponds to general Greek usage. Thus the fellowship and sharing are religious or specifically Christian only if the context requires this meaning. For example, in ac 2:42 we encounter the word Koinonia [koinwniva] and read that the new converts continued in "the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship." Here it is a normal meaning adapted to Christian usage. Then the verb, koinonein [koinwnevw], is found in Hebrews 2:14 with an ordinary, general meaning: "children share flesh and blood." Likewise, koinonos [koinwnov"] occurs with the meaning of "partner" in Luke 5:10" [James and John] Simon's partners. "
However, it is especially, but not solely, in the writings of the apostle Paul that the theological dimension of koinonia, [koinwniva] "fellowship/sharing/participation" is developed and clearly presented. Here the normal meanings of the words are transformed in service of the kingdom of God and as they identify a sharing in the communion of the blessed and Holy Trinity. That is, they point specifically to the supernatural life of God given to and shared with humankind through Jesus Christ in the Holy Spirit. The emphasis of the New Testament is also on participation in something that is an objective reality rather than on an association with someone.
Theological Use. Perhaps the clearest theological use of koinonia [koinwniva] is in 1 John 1:3-6, where we read that when we walk in the light truly our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ and that this relation of grace has profound implications for daily living. For if we say that we have fellowship with God and walk in darkness, we lie! Here the basic meaning of "fellowship" is a real and practical sharing in eternal life with the Father and the Son.
In Paul's letters we find that the apostle emphasizes the faithfulness of the call of God the Father in the gospel "into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord" ( 1 Cor 1:9 ). In other places Paul makes it clear that Christians were buried with Christ in baptism and raised up with him into newness of life ( Romans 6:4 Romans 6:6 Romans 6:11 ; Gal 2:20 ; Eph 2:4-6 ; Col 2:20 ; 3:3 ). So the fellowship is based on the great saving Acts of God the Father through his Son. The character of this fellowship is made clear in the celebration of the Lord's Supper, the Holy Communion, where there is intimate fellowship or communion with Jesus Christ, the exalted Lord, and with those who are "in Christ, " for those who faithfully participate ( 1 Cor 10:16-17 ). Here is not a mere act of historical memory and imagination but a real and vital union and communion with Jesus Christ, the exalted Head of the Body.
Paul also points to a fellowship in the Spirit ( 2 Cor 13:14 ; Php 2:1 ), a dynamic experience that is inextricably related to receiving the love of the Father and the grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the Son. In fact, to be "in the Spirit" is possible because of the fundamental truth of Christ's establishment of the new order, age, and epoch by his death and resurrection. "Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come" ( 2 Cor 5:17 ). It is important to note that Paul wrote in the indicative mood. It was not his purpose to urge Christians to become new creatures; also it was not his aim to tell them what they could or would become if they stayed Christian.
The present position of Christians is that "in Christ" united to him in the Spirit they are a part of the new order and creation. So Paul elsewhere writes of congregations being "in Christ" ( Php 1:1 ; 1 Thess 1:1 ), of members of such being "the faithful in Christ Jesus" ( Eph 1:1 ; Col 1:2 ), and of the churches of God (in Judea) in Christ Jesus ( 1 Th 2:14 ). Further, he insists that as such Christians are sealed in the Spirit ( Eph 4:30 ), consecrated in the Spirit ( Rom 15:16 ), righteousness in the Spirit ( Rom 14:17 ), and have life through the Spirit ( 1 Cor 6:11 ). Therefore, the richness of the experience of fellowship in the Holy Spirit is because of the reality of the new creation and of being "in Christ."
Christian fellowship is also a practical reality. So Paul was clear that the relatedness of Gentile and Jewish believers "in Christ" leads to mutual obligation. "For if the Gentiles have shared (verb, koinonein [koinwnevw]) in the Jews' spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings" ( Rom 15:27 ). In koinonia [koinwniva] the Jewish Christians have given the message of Jesus the Christ to the world, and in koinonia [koinwniva] the Gentile Christian are to give material assistance to the Jewish Christians. The leaders of the church in Jerusalem gave the right hand of fellowship to Paul and Barnabas, who had been given the mission to the Gentiles. In response Paul called for the collection to be made from the Gentile world for the poor in Jerusalem and Judea. Fellowship as practical sharing within the wider church is highlighted in Romans 15:25-31 and 2 Corinthians 8-9 (see also Heb 13:16 ; and Php 1:5 ; 4:15 ). Such fellowship is a practical "fellowship of the mystery" ( Eph 3:9 ), a mystery now revealed that Jews and Gentiles are one body in Christ Jesus through the gospel.
Practical sharing by Christians because of their relatedness in Christ is sometimes communicated by the verb koinonein [koinwnevw], which has already been noticed (see Rom 12:13 ; 15:27 ; Gal 6:6 ; 1 Tim 5:22 ). Further, to suffer for the gospel is to share the suffering of Christ ( 1 Peter 4:13 ).
Apart from its general use as a companion and fellow worker (e.g., 8:23 ) koinonos [koinwnov"] is used in the plural of the recipients of the grace of deification in 2 Peter 1:4, where Christians are said to be partakers of the divine nature.
Bibliography. J. Y. Campbell, Three New Testament Studies; G. Panikulam, Koinonia in the New Testament.
Copyright © 1996 by Walter A. Elwell. Published by Baker Books, a division of
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[N] indicates this entry was also found in Nave's Topical Bible
[E] indicates this entry was also found in Easton's Bible Dictionary
Bibliography InformationElwell, Walter A. "Entry for 'Fellowship'". "Evangelical Dictionary of Theology".