Is there more to fellowship than coffee and doughnuts after the worship service?
The very first account of The New Testament Church highlights the importance of fellowship. Luke described this Body of believers, newly formed on the day of Pentecost, as people "devoted to the apostles' teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer" (Acts 2:42).
We're not too surprised that Luke mentions their attention to the apostles' teaching. After all, isn't one of the main purposes of a church service to listen to the Word of God taught by men ordained of God? And we would also expect these brand-new believers to devote themselves to prayer, for the Word of God and prayer are the two primary God-given means for building us up in the Christian faith. But what about this matter of fellowship? Luke says they "devoted themselves... to the fellowship." They didn't just have fellowship; they devoted themselves to it! They gave it a priority in their lives along with prayer and hearing the Word taught.
Then consider what the Apostle John wrote to fellow Christians in 1 Jn. 1:3: "We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us." May have fellowship with us? Wasn't it Christian growth John was concerned about? Didn't he want these believers to have assurance of their salvation and to walk in obedience to God’s commands? Why was he so concerned about fellowship?
Now consider us—modern-day Christians. We, too, are concerned about fellowship. Many churches have a room called "fellowship hall." Christian ministries on campuses sponsor events described as "a time of food, fun, and fellowship." Just like those early believers, we are eager to devote ourselves to fellowship. There is only one problem: We have lost sight of the biblical meaning of fellowship. We are devoting ourselves to the wrong thing.
Fellowship, as the Bible describes it, is much more than Christian social activity. It is more than enjoying food together, or playing games in a Christian atmosphere, or chatting with one another about the events of the past week. This doesn't mean that there is no place for such activities. It is just that they are not true fellowship. They may, if entered into for the right purpose, contribute to fellowship, but in and of themselves they are not fellowship.
Many Christians have recognized that there is a deeper and richer meaning to the biblical concept of fellowship. When these people say, "Let’s get together for some fellowship," they usually mean, "Let’s get together to share with each other from the Bible and pray." Or perhaps they bring each other up to date on how God has been working in each of their lives. These activities certainly are a part of biblical fellowship. Yet even they fail to capture the rich, full meaning of the fellowship described in the New Testament.
The Greek word for fellowship is koinonia. It is translated several ways in the New Testament: for example, "participation," "partnership," "sharing," and, of course, "fellowship." These various uses of koinonia convey two related meanings: (1) to share together in the sense of joint participation or partnership, and (2) to share with in the sense of giving what we have to others.
Each of these two meanings can be further divided under two subheadings. To share together in the sense of joint participation refers primarily to a relationship that we as believers have in Christ. This is the fellowship to which John called his readers: "What we have seen and heard we declare to you, so that you and we together may share in a common life, that life which we share with the Father and his Son Jesus Christ" (1 Jn. 1:3, NEB). Fellowship is sharing a common life with other believers, a life that we together share with God the Father and God the Son. It is a relationship, not an activity.
Those first Christians of Acts 2 were not devoting themselves to social activities but to a relationship—a relationship that consisted of sharing together the very life of God through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. They understood that they had entered this relationship by faith in Jesus Christ, not by joining an organization. And they realized that their fellowship with God logically brought them into fellowship with one another. Through their union with Christ they were formed into a spiritually organic community. They were living stones being built into a spiritual house (1 Pet. 2:5), fellow members of the Body of Christ.
If we miss the fact that koinonia denotes first of all a community relationship in Christ among all believers, then we miss the most significant aspect of true biblical fellowship. We must grasp the idea that fellowship means belonging to one another in the Body of Christ, along with all the privileges and responsibilities that such a relationship entails.
Koinonia also means to share together in the sense of partnership. Both classical Greek writers and New Testament writers used koinonia to refer to a business partnership. Luke used a form of koinonia to refer to the partnership of Peter with James and John in the fishing business (Lk. 5:10).
In the spiritual realm, Paul regarded himself as a partner with his dear friend Philemon, and he thanked God for the Philippian believers' partnership in the gospel (Phlm. 17, Phil. 1:5). And when Paul went to Jerusalem to dispute with the legalists over the necessity of circumcision, he said, "James, Cephas, and John... accepted Barnabas and myself as partners" (Gal. 2:9, NEB). The concept of fellowship as a spiritual partnership is firmly embedded in the New Testament use of koinonia.
Whereas relationship describes believers as a community, partnership describes them as the principals of an enterprise. A business partnership is always formed in order to attain an objective, such as providing a service to the public at a profit for the partners. In the same way, the concept of a spiritual partnership implies that it is created with the objective of glorifying God. Just as all believers are united together in a community relationship, so we are all united together in a partnership formed to glorify God. God is glorified when Christians grow in Christlikeness and when unbelievers are brought into His Kingdom. Biblical fellowship, then, incorporates this idea of an active partnership in the promotion of the gospel and the building up of believers.
The second primary meaning of New Testament koinonia is to share with others what we have. Just as sharing together has two sub-meanings (relationship and partnership), so sharing with has two sub-meanings. The first of these can be called communion with one another. Although we usually use the word communion as a term for the Lord’s Supper, it is used here to mean communicating intimately or sharing with one another on a close personal and spiritual level. It may be the mutual sharing among believers of what God has taught them from the Scriptures, or it may be a word of encouragement from one believer to another. The key element is that the subject matter is focused on God as well as on His Word and His works.
According to Acts 2:5-11, the first believers who were gathered into the Church on the day of Pentecost came from "every nation under heaven." Prior to their conversion they would have related to one another like billiard balls, constantly colliding and bouncing off one another. But immediately after coming into the community relationship of the Body of Christ, they began to experience koinonia and to value its effect in their lives. The New English Bible says in Acts 2:42, "They met constantly to hear the apostles teach, and to share the common life." The New International Version says, "They devoted themselves... to the fellowship." They couldn't get enough teaching, fellowship, and prayer.
Those first Christians were all Jews steeped in the Old Testament Scriptures. As they listened to the apostles' teaching and were enlightened by the Holy Spirit, they began to see those Scriptures in a new way. And as they individually learned from the apostles' teaching, they shared with one another what they were learning. This is fellowship: sharing with one another what God is teaching through the Scriptures.
How different is our present-day concept of fellowship? Take those typical times of "coffee fellowship." We discuss everything except the Scriptures. We talk about our jobs, our studies, our favorite sports teams, the weather—almost anything except what God is teaching us from His Word and through His workings in our lives. If we are to regain the New Testament concept of fellowship, we must learn to get beyond the temporal issues of the day and begin to share with each other on a level that will enhance our spiritual relationships with one another and with God.
As we examine the account of these early believers' atitudes, however, we see that they did not limit their concept of koinonia to sharing only spiritual things. They also shared their material possessions with those in need (Acts 2:44-45).
One of the most common usages of koinonia in the New Testament is this sense of sharing material resources with others. For example, Paul urges us to "share with God’s people who are in need" (Ro. 12:13). In 2 Cor. 9:13, he speaks of "your generosity in sharing with [others]." The writer of Hebrews urges us to "not forget to do good and to share with others" (Heb. 13:16). The word share in these passages is a translation of koinonia in either its noun or verb form. A willingness to share our possessions with one another is a very important aspect of true biblical fellowship.
Sharing our possessions with others should be a natural consequence of our realization that biblical fellowship denotes both a relationship and a partnership. Paul said that all parts of the Body should have concern for one another (1 Cor. 12:25-26). We will be concerned for the needs of others in the Body only to the extent that we see fellowship as primarily a mutual relationship in Christ among members of the same spiritual organism. The fellowship of sharing with those in need is more than just showing compassion or benevolence. Even unbelievers do that. The fellowship of sharing possessions within the Body is a tangible recognition that when one member of the community suffers, we all suffer together.
When a parent meets a need of one of his children, we do not think of that act as an expression of benevolence but as an expression of relationship. It is both his privilege and his duty to meet that need because he is the parent. In the same manner, believers have both a privilege and a duty to share with each other as fellow members of the same Body.
Similarly, in a partnership the partners share in both the income and the expenses, both the assets and the liabilities of the partnership. It should be the same way in the fellowship of the Church.
Because we are partners in the gospel, we need to share with one another, realizing that we are not owners but only stewards of the possessions God has entrusted (not given, but entrusted) to us.
We see the application of this principle of partnership in 2 Cor. 8:13-14: "Our desire is not that others might be relieved while you are hard pressed, but that there might be equality. At the present time your plenty will supply what they need, so that in turn their plenty will supply what you need." Paul envisioned a continual flow of believers' possessions toward those who have needs. This is an outworking of koinonia, an important expression of true fellowship.
Paul was urging the Corinthian believers to have fellowship with Christians they had never even met and never would meet: the poor among the believers in Jerusalem. They were not going to have coffee and doughnuts together with these people in need; they were going to dig down into their pockets to help meet the needs of these believers who shared together with them a common life in Christ.
It is because we share together a common life in Christ that we are called on to share with one another whatever we have, both spiritual and material resources. For the early Christians, this kind of sharing was not an option—it was a way of life. Can we afford to live with anything less?