Fellowship . . . What does it really mean?

When we talk about the idea of biblical fellowship, we enter into a discussion with fuzzy lines. They’re not necessarily fuzzy or gray because it’s so difficult to understand the concepts, but because it’s such an ambiguous concept. That is to say, we don’t always know which fellowship we’re talking about.

When most English bibles use the word fellowship they are translating the Greek word koinonia. Here are the definitions of the word from one of the most common Greek dictionaries:

  1. fellowship, association, community, communion, joint participation, intercourse
  2. the share which one has in anything, participation
  3. intercourse, fellowship, intimacy
  4. the right hand as a sign and pledge of fellowship (in fulfilling the apostolic office)
  5. a gift jointly contributed, a collection, a contribution, as exhibiting an embodiment and proof of fellowship

Just from looking at the different definitions of the word, it easy to understand why it would be difficult to consistently define when it comes to the way the biblical writers used the word (and the way we use it today). Because there are so many different meanings, it stands to reason that there would be many different English words that are used to translate koinonia. Here’s a few examples from the scriptures.

1 Corinthians 10:16-17 – Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing (koinonia) in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing (koinonia) in the body of Christ? Since there is one bread, we who are many are one body; for we all partake of the one bread. 

Paul is arguing here that Christian’s take the Lord’s Supper because they are a community but that they are a community because of the fellowship in the body and blood of Christ. We experience fellowship with each other when we take the Lord’s Supper together. This might be  the most missed applications of fellowship among the Churches of Christ. Think about the way you’re congregation does the Communion together. Physically we’re usually in our pews that are lined up to face forward. We take the bread with our heads bowed and pass the plate on to the next person with hardly no contact or interaction – no fellowship. We really only have one example of a church in the New Testament participating (fellowshipping) in the Communion that we can draw from. There’s no reason to think that every church did it the same way. But no church that I ever seen come close to sharing/participating/fellowshipping in the Lord’s Supper in the nearly the same way as the Corinthians.

2 Corinthians 8:3-4 – For I testify that according to their ability, and beyond their ability, they gave of their own accord, begging us with much urging for the favor of participation (koinonia) in the support of the saints

2 Corinthians 9:13 –  Because of the proof given by this ministry, they will glorify God for your obedience to your confession of the gospel of Christ and for the liberality of your contribution (koinonia) to them and to all, while they also, by prayer on your behalf, yearn for you because of the surpassing grace of God in you.

Romans 12:10-13 – Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing (koinonia) to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality.

Romans 15:25-27 – But now, I am going to Jerusalem serving the saints. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make a contribution (koinonia) for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem. Yes, they were pleased to do so, and they are indebted to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in their spiritual things, they are indebted to minister to them also in material things. 

Paul uses the word koinonia to describe what takes place when we share the burden of caring for other people’s physical needs and contribute our material possessions. We create and participate in true fellowship and community. We should all remember this the next time the collection plate is passed.

1 Corinthians 9:23 – I do all things for the sake of the gospel, so that I may become a fellow partaker (koinonia) of it.

 2 Corinthians 8:23 – As for Titus, he is my partner (koinonia) and fellow worker among you; as for our brethren, they are messengers of the churches, a glory to Christ. 

Philippians 1:3-7 – I thank my God in all my remembrance of you, always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, in view of your participation (koinonia) in the gospel from the first day until now. For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. For it is only right for me to feel this way about you all, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel, you all are partakers (koinonia) of grace with me.

There is a sense in which our labors for the gospel creates a special fellowship among us. There is no earthly endeavor more important that a group of people could join together on.

Acts 2:42-44 – They were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship (koinonia), to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone kept feeling a sense of awe; and many wonders and signs were taking place through the apostles. And all those who had believed were together and had all things in common (koinonia).

Fellowship includes sharing life together. This goes beyond simply sharing a meal or having commonality. Their regular “life” activities took on a spiritual significance. When they came together in the name of the Lord – when they came together as Christians. Do you feel connected in this same way to the family that you worship with? If not, why not? Is that someone else’s responsibility to put you into fellowship and community or do you own that for yourself?

1 John 1:3 – What we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ.

This is the example of fellowship that we usually refer to, at least in the case when we’re talking about who’s in and who’s out. When God first created the world and placed man in it, the scriptures seem to indicate that he maintained a close personal relationship with mankind that was physical, spiritual and emotional. We ruined that relationship with our sin. We destroyed our community, our fellowship with God. This was not acceptable to God. So he provided a way to re-establish community and fellowship with his creation — he became a human and the once and for all sacrifice. Now we are able to have fellowship with him again. And one day we will experience the full fellowship once and for all.

This is also where and how our community with each other is created and maintained. Quite simply, we meet at the foot of the cross.

This definitely isn’t an exhaustive list. But perhaps this will help us to be more consistent and clear with how we use the word fellowship.