Sunday, 17 February 2013

What Does Koinônia (“Fellowship”) Really Mean?

      The English word “fellowship” generally conveys the idea of friendly association or a mutual sharing of something in common. People talk about the various religious organizations as this or that fellowship, having fellowship meals, assembling with other Christians for fellowship, withdrawing fellowship from an erring member, and whom we should or should not fellowship. But when one limits his understanding of Christian fellowship to its common usage in the English language, the full significance of this term, as depicted in the Greek NT, is not sufficiently grasped.
      The focus of this study is on the noun koinônia,1 found no less than twenty times in the Greek NT, used in a variety of ways, and variously rendered fellowship, communion, sharing, partnership, contribution, and participation. Sometimes it is used in the sense of generosity or selfless giving (2 Cor 9:13; Heb. 13:16; cf. Eph. 3:9), or a gift or contribution (Rom. 15:26), or a participation or sharing in something (2 Cor 8:4; Phil. 1:5; 3:10; Phlm. 6; cf. Acts 2:42; 1 Cor 10:16). But in all its uses it carries the idea of a close relationship. In secular Greek koinônia was used to describe the common type or bond of life that unites certain people together, and it was a favorite expression for the marital relationship as the most intimate between human beings (BAGD 438). In this sense koinônia is used in the NT to describe the close relationship Christians have with God (1 John 1:3, 6; cf. 1 Cor 1:9; 2 Cor 13:14; Phil. 2:1) and consequently with one another (1 John 1:3, 7; cf. Gal. 2:9). Sometimes this is described as “vertical” and “horizontal” fellowship, and only the former makes the latter possible. 
      One of the best ways to define a biblical term is to use the Bible itself. In 2 Cor. 6:14-16 six words are used interchangeably: heterozugountes (unequally yoked or matched; bound together), metochê (a sharing, partaking; partnership), koinônia (communion, fellowship), sumphônêsis (unison, agreement, concord, harmony), meris (a portion in common, a share), sugkatathesis (accord, alliance). With these synonyms in mind, it is apparent that koinônia involves much more than just “external association.” It requires a relationship that has agreement, unity of mind and purpose, certain things in common, etc. In this passage Paul is not simply addressing physical union or calling for spatial separation (“since then you would need to go out of the world,” 1 Cor. 5:9-13; cf. 7:12-13; 10:27), but the focus is on spiritual, mental, and participatory alliance (cf. Col. 3:2; 1 John 2:15). In this sense, therefore, the reality of fellowship (koinônia) is unaffected by whether or not people actually spend time together or engage in mutual activities.2
      It is a mistake to think of “fellowship” merely in terms of social activity without considering the spiritual relationship koinônia entails. When the idea of “fellowship” is considered, many have in mind a special type of association, and that’s probably why the term “disfellowship” is often used to describe the latter stage of church discipline. However, neither the term “disfellowship” nor the phrase “withdraw fellowship” is ever used in the Bible. Koinônia is not something we withdraw from someone, nor is it something we simply do, but it is something we either have or do not have based upon our relationship with the Lord.
     Inevitably there are some Christians, initially having koinônia with God and God’s people, who become unfaithful (2 Pet. 2:18-22; etc.). Unless they penitently return to the Lord, their koinônia with him is at some point lost or destroyed (1 John 1:6; 2 John 9; Rev. 2:5; etc.). This simply means that, because of the sinful lifestyle they have chosen, they are no longer in agreement, unison, communion, and accord with the righteousness of God (cf. 2 Cor. 6:14-16). When this occurs, the koinônia with God’s faithful children is automatically severed, even if the association happens to continue for a time. The Lord calls upon the faithful to seek to restore the erring by way of teaching, admonishing, etc. (Gal. 6:1; 2 Tim. 2:24-26; etc.). But if that does not work, stronger measures are to be taken. At this point the words “withdraw fellowship” or “disfellowship” are inserted by some into the process, but in none of the scriptures that address church discipline is the word “fellowship” (koinônia) ever used! The reason is, “fellowship” is not something that is withdrawn from errant Christians, but the faithful are to withdraw themselves or their association from those who have already broken the fellowship (koinônia). Again, fellowship is a spiritual relationship we either have or do not have based upon a relationship with God, but it is not something we simply do with each other, nor is it something that we can take away from another person. Koinônia (agreement, unison, accord) cannot be withdrawn if it no longer exists!
     What happens when a non-Christian attends one of our worship assemblies (cf. 1 Cor. 14:22-23)? He sits among the brethren, bows his head during prayers, sings the hymns, listens to the sermon, puts money in the collection basket, and maybe even partakes of the bread and grape juice. Does this mean, therefore, he has had “fellowship” with these Christians or that he is “in fellowship” with them? It would appear so, if we limit our understanding of fellowship to its English connotation. But when we understand what koinônia actually means, we realize that despite going through the same motions, this non-Christian has not met the biblical requirements for having koinônia with God (e.g. Rom. 6:3-18; 1 John 1:6-7; 2:3-5), and therefore, no matter what else he might do, koinônia is not shared with the people of God.
     Koinônia is something shared by all faithful Christians (world-wide), even though each personally associates with only a comparatively small number of fellow-Christians. And the beauty of koinônia is that when the unfortunate mistake is made of withdrawing (association) from someone who happens to be in fellowship with God (e.g. Acts 9:26), the existence of koinônia is unaltered. A faithful Christian who is isolated from all others still has koinônia with God and all of God’s people.3 
     To put it another way, koinônia is something a person automatically has with God and other Christians as a result of his obedient faith and consequent forgiveness, reconciliation, etc. But when a child of God persistently “walks disorderly” (2 Thess. 3:6), koinônia is automatically broken with those who are not walking disorderly, even though some degree of association might continue for a time. Faithful Christians are instructed to withdraw from, not keep company with, turn away from, remove, put away, and not associate with those who persist in disorderly conduct (1 Cor. 5:2-13; 2 Thess. 3:6, 14; et al.), and the primary reason for this is because koinônia has already ceased to exist.
     When the term “fellowship” is perceived as a synonym for mere “association,” or even for a special kind of “association,” the NT concept of koinônia has been missed and confusion and miscommunication prevail. It is important that biblical terminology be used to describe biblical concepts, which in turn must be understood in a biblical way. Only then will koinônia be fully appreciated and recognized.
--Kevin L. Moore

Endnotes
     The verb koinôneô simply means to “share” (Rom. 12:13; 15:27; Gal. 6:6; Phil. 4:15; 1 Tim. 5:22; Heb. 2:14; 1 Pet. 4:13; 2 John 11), and the noun koinônos means “partner, sharer” (Matt. 23:30; Luke 5:10; 1 Cor. 10:18, 20; 2 Cor. 1:7; 8:23; Phlm. 17; Heb. 10:33; 1 Pet. 5:1; 2 Pet. 1:4). Similar terms include sugkoinôneô, meaning to “participate with someone or be connected with something” (Eph. 5:11; Phil. 4:14; Rev. 18:4), and sugkoinônos, meaning “joint-partaker, co-sharer” (Rom. 11:17; 1 Cor. 9:23; Phil. 1:7; Rev. 1:9).
     Three notes of clarification: (1) While the nature of an activity may be indicative of an existing koinônia, the activity itself is not koinônia. (2) The potential good or bad influence of one’s associates (cf. 1 Cor. 15:33) is not the topic of discussion here, but rather what constitutes “fellowship” in the biblical sense. (3) The regular assembling of Christians (Heb. 10:23-25), while important and somewhat related, is a separate issue.
     3 Three more notes of clarification: (1) This is not an excuse for someone to willfully forsake church assemblies (Heb. 10:23-25). But Christians assemble together because of the koinônia already shared, not vice versa. (2) This is not a justifiable reason to sever ties with fellow Christians over petty differences. The “body is not one member but many” (1 Cor. 12:14), and any Christian’s inability to get along with and work with others must be overcome with much humility and selfless concern for the Lord’s church. (3) This is not to suggest that koinônia is shared by a wide variety of religious people, irrespective of their teachings and practices (cf. Matt. 7:15-23; Acts 20:28-30; 2 John 9-11; et al.).                 

First appearing in The Exhorter 5:3 (July-September 2000): 1-2.

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