December 12, 2017

A Theology of Fellowship

Larry Oats

Fundamentalism is best known for its separatism, a willingness to separate when biblical truth is at stake. Separation, however, is the flipside of fellowship. If we can fellowship with someone (or something like a church or an association), we cannot separate from him (or it). If we do not have a basis for biblical fellowship, then we will struggle with our basis for biblical separation.

There is not enough space to examine everything pertaining to fellowship in Scripture, so this article will look at the primary passages concerning this topic. Since the author intends to focus on the church age, the discussion will be limited to the New Testament.

The word “fellowship” is koinonia; it refers to association for the purpose of mutual involvement. In the New Testament it routinely carries the idea of religious involvement. This is not the only term that speaks of the unity and fellowship among believers in the New Testament, but it is a significant term. It is translated as “close association involving mutual interests and sharing, association, communion, fellowship, close relationship.”[1] The word can be used to refer to a sign of fellowship or a proof of brotherly unity, such as a gift or contribution. The concept can also include activities that accompany the mutual interests. The definition of fellowship is important. “Fellowship” in the 21st century is a cup of coffee and piece of pie after the Sunday evening service. This is not the biblical concept of fellowship; biblical fellowship is partnership in ministry.

Acts 2:42

One of the early uses of koinoniais found in Acts 2:42. As a result of Pentecost, the new believers “continued steadfastly” or “devoted themselves” to four practices.

Apostles’ doctrine or “teaching.” Didache refers to both the act of teaching, as well as the content of the teaching. There were no New Testament books in the early church. The disciples were dependent on the apostles to learn what Jesus did and taught, as well as what further revelation would be given to them by the Holy Spirit. The content of their teaching undoubtedly included the Old Testament (while he was not an apostle, Stephen’s speech to the Sanhedrin in Acts 7 was filled with historical Jewish references), particularly the Messianic passages (since the early church was Jewish) and discussions of how Jesus fulfilled those passages, but it certainly also included the truth of the resurrection, the Christian witness in obedience to the Great Commission, and the apostles’ memories of Jesus’ life, ministry, and teachings.[2]

Fellowship. Acts 2:42 is the only place the word koinoniais used in Luke’s writings, although Paul uses it frequently.[3] In secular Greek this term referred to the sharing of goods (2 Cor 9:13) or the communion of a devotee with a god, especially in the context of a sacred meal (1 Cor 10:16).[4] Because the term is used in a list, it is difficult to determine its contextual meaning. The following chapters in the book of Acts, however, identify the various ways in which the church members engaged in this fellowship or partnering in ministry. Immediately Luke records that the members of the church shared possessions with those in need (2:44-45). The events which produced the judgment of Ananias and Saphira in Acts 5 show that the sharing of resources was an important and prominent activity in the early church. In Acts 6 the election of the first deacons was undertaken for the express purpose of taking care of the widows. The members were caring for one another because they were in “fellowship” with one another. There is nothing in the text to indicate that the fellowship involved anyone from outside the church.

Some suggest that the term “fellowship” introduces the next two words; the fellowship between these early believers was expressed in a common meal and in prayer.

Breaking of bread. There is a question of whether this is a reference to the disciples eating in the homes of the various church members or the Lord’s Supper. If “fellowship” introduces this breaking of bread, then this would clearly be the Lord’s Table. The use of the article with “the bread” would seem to emphasize the latter meaning. Additionally, this list of four activities focuses on the activities of the church as a whole rather than that of just a few members.

Prayers. Literally, it is “the prayers.” Formal prayers were a part of the Jewish worship, and Luke notes in Acts 2:46 and 3:1 that the early disciples were faithful in attending the temple worship. The reference to prayer is probably broader and refers to the prayers of the church, which Luke also includes in his history of the church.[5]

All four elements were part of the corporate worship of the new church.

1 Corinthians 1:9

In this passage Paul calls believers into the koinoniaof Jesus Christ. In verse 7 Paul introduced his discussion of the gifts which have been given to the Corinthians; at this point the gifts are referred to positively. In light of their giftedness, he reminds them of three key truths. First, the day of the Lord is a time of judgment, although those who are believers are free from that judgment. Second, their confirmation of the gospel will lead to God’s confirmation of their righteousness. Third, the goal of the Christian is a fellowship in which the believers become one people under the lordship of Christ.[6]

Garland translates koinoniahere as “common-union,” based upon the believers’ shared participation in Christ. This “common-union” with Christ creates union with His followers and precludes union with idols.[7] Thiselton calls this a “communal participation in that of which all participants are shareholders, or are accorded a common share.[8] Since the context is in a letter to a local church, it is obvious that the emphasis is for the church to be united because they are all in fellowship with Christ. The following verses (11-13) demonstrate Paul’s concern that the church n Corinth as divided. The fellowship was damaged and needed to be restored.

However, Paul is not simply declaring that believers in a single location are together in a church. The emphasis is that these believers are in fellowship with Christ, which necessitates union with other believers who are also in a similar union with Christ.

1 Corinthians 10:16

The context of 1 Corinthians 10:16 is in a section which contrasts fellowship with Christ and fellowship with idols. This verse asks two parallel rhetorical questions, both of which are to be answered in the affirmative.[9] The believer engages in fellowship with the blood of Christ and the body of Christ. In this context the emphasis is that all the members of a church are in fellowship with Christ and therefore in fellowship with each other. The fellowship which each believer has with Christ at the koinonia(“communion” or “fellowship”) table, which is more frequently called the Lord’s table, restricts the believer from a similar fellowship with idols.

In 1 Cor 11:23-26 Paul uses the common order of the body and then the blood, the bread and then the cup. Here, however, in 1 Cor 10:16 he reverses the order. By placing the bread at the end of the verse, he is able to introduce the idea in the next verse of one loaf representing the one body of Christ.[10] “Paul could have said that believers partake of one loaf because they are one body, because this is also true—but he did not. Rather, he said that believers are one body because they partake of the one loaf.”[11] Paul argued that the same effect took place when the Corinthians worshipped the idols. They became one with the demons behind the idols when they partook of the meal dedicated to the idol. The symbol identifies one with the reality. Therefore, Paul commanded the Corinthians’ not to participate in the idolatry of their past. Biblical fellowship is limiting; fellowship with Christ and His people does not allow fellowship with an idol.

Believers participate in the “fellowship” of the blood and body of Christ. The use of koinoniarefers to the vertical relationship the believers have with Christ. They are not simply associated with Christ, however; they are also in union with fellow believers. As a body of believers, they share in the benefits of Christ’s death and enter into a lifestyle that reflects their identification with Christ.

2 Corinthians 13:14

2 Corinthians 13:14 is the concluding statement in the book of 2 Corinthians. Grace comes to believers from the Lord Jesus Christ. The love which comes from God is demonstrated in saving humans. Fellowship is “of the Spirit.” This may reflect the source of the fellowship (fellowship which comes from the Spirit), or it may reflect the thing in which believers participate (fellowship which is based in the Spirit). The parallelism with the first two elements would indicate that the fellowship should be viewed as coming from the Spirit. The Spirit is the member of the Trinity who creates the commonality which believers find in the church. The fellowship or participation is in the Spirit and in His work in our lives. Paul is praying that the Corinthians would deepen their participation in the Spirit and that the Spirit would expand the unity which he gives to the community.

Galatians 2:9

The previous passages emphasized the association or participation that believers have with God and with one another based on the commonality of their salvation and their participation in the Holy Spirit. Should the study of fellowship end at this point, one might conclude that fellowship is an unlimited experience of Christianity.

In Galatians 2:9 James and Peter extended the right hand of koinoniato Paul and Barnabas, so that while the Jerusalem church would continue to evangelize the Jews, Paul and Barnabas would go to the Gentiles. This was not just a gentlemen’s agreement over who would do business where. This refers to the common life of the community, the working together for a common good. This indicates the partnering of Jerusalem with the Gentile ministry of Paul.

The “fellowship” (or here perhaps “partnership” would be a better term) which these representatives of Jewish and Gentile missions shared was symbolized by the external action of the clasping of the hands. This fellowship or partnership was an outgrowth of the common life of the Holy Spirit.[12] This partnership happened because the Jerusalem authorities recognized that the grace given to the Jews was the same grace given to the Gentiles.

Robertson points out that this partnership into which James, Peter, and John entered with Paul and Barnabas was not solely a fellowship. It was also a declaration of separation, for “the compromisers and the Judaizers were brushed to one side when these five men shook hands as equals in the work of Christ’s Kingdom.”[13] This fits with Paul’s arguments in Galatians that the Judaizers were not being faithful to the truth of the New Testament.

Philippians 1:3-5; 2:1

In Philippians 1:3-5 Paul expressed his thankfulness to the church at Philippi. Part of that thankfulness referred to the koinonia(“participation”) of the Philippians in the gospel. The Philippians participated in the gospel (1:5), in grace (1:7), in the Holy Spirit (2:1), in the suffering of Christ (3:10), and in giving (4:14-15).[14] This reflects an active participation in the gospel in a number of ways. They were saved by the gospel, they advanced the gospel in their own community, and they gave to Paul so that he could advance the gospel elsewhere. They were making a contribution (koinonia) to Paul (chapter 4) to further the gospel.

This fellowship was more than merely having some things in common. These believers “had been taken up into a divine fellowship. And thus they were united, not upon a social level, but by their commitment to the truths of the Gospel.”[15] There was little to bind the church at Philippi together from the world’s view. The New Testament reveals only three specific church members: a violent jailer who would have committed suicide in a crisis, a slave girl who was delivered from a demon, and a business woman who traded in the valuable purple cloth that the wealthy desired.

If you unite with other Christians on the basis of affluence, you will exclude the poor. If you unite along social lines, you will exclude those who do not belong to your own level of society, be it high or low. If you unite intellectually, then you will exclude either the simple or the intelligent. And however you do it, the witness of the Church will suffer.[16]

They did have one great thing in common, however. They all had a share in the Gospel of Christ. Paul declared that they had continued in the fellowship of the Gospel from the very beginning of the church until the time he wrote his epistle.

In Phil 2:1 there is a series of similar items. “Encouragement” or “comfort” is found in Christ. “Consolation” is found in love. “Fellowship” is found in the Spirit. Paul is declaring that the fellowship or participation of the Philippians with one another is based in their common possession of the Spirit. In Philippians 1:5 Paul spoke of the partnership which the Philippians had because they had a mutual participation in the Gospel. In 2:1 Paul emphasizes that they had a mutual fellowship or participation in the Holy Spirit. When believers participate in the Gospel of Jesus Christ and participate further in the power of the Spirit, they are then the “glue” of the church.

Philippians 3:10

Paul desired to know Christ more fully. This is one of Paul’s later epistles. It is amazing to think that this far into this great Christian’s life, he realizes how much further he has to go to truly “know” Christ. This greater knowledge is explained by two elements: to know the power of his resurrection and to know the fellowship of his suffering.

The power of the resurrection operates in each believer to give daily victory over sin (Eph 1:18-2:7).[17] Jews prided themselves in their religion. Greeks were proud of their wisdom. The Roman, however, was proud of his power, for they ruled the known world. Paul referred to a great power than Rome; the greatest power in the world was that which raised Christ from the dead.[18]

The fellowship of the suffering refers to the submission of the human will to the divine. Jesus prophesied that each of the apostles would die a martyr’s death (Matt 20:23; 26:36-46). Paul, as well, suffered such a death. Believers today may not die for Christ, but they can and will suffer for the sake of righteousness. Believers deny themselves, take up their crosses, and follow Christ (Matt 16:24; 1 Pet 2:21). In doing so they participate in the sufferings of Christ. In chapter two Paul spoke of Christ’s obedience unto death, and he presents this obedience as a pattern for believers. Jesus “laid aside His outward mantle of glory and took to Himself man’s form and nature, enduring all the sufferings of this world. . . . The fellowship of Christ’s suffering is won at the price of such radical and total obedience.”[19] Peter emphasizes that this fellowship involves suffering according to God’s will, for doing good, for the name of Christ, and for being a Christian (1 Pet 3:14; 4;14-19).[20]

Philemon 6

The fellowship of faith is emphasized in Philemon 6. The grammar in this verse is a bit confusing. The RSV, ESV and NIV render this “the sharing of your faith.” The NEB translates it “your fellowship with us in our common faith.” The REB states “the faith you hold in common with us.” The GNB translates it as “our fellowship with you as believers.”

A key problem is that koinoniacould be taken as either subjective or objective. If it is taken as subjective, the idea is that of a participatory or shared faith. If it is taken as objective, then the fellowship is that which is produced by faith. “Faith” could also be subjective or objective. If the faith is taken as subjective, then it refers to the shared experience of believing. If faith is taken as objective, then the idea is the fellowship of a shared belief.

The subjective sense (see the NEB or REB translation) seems to fit the context best. Paul is encouraging Philemon to recognize that Paul, Philemon, and Onesimus all have experienced a common faith. This gives a theological foundation for Paul’s desire for Philemon to receive Onesimus not as a slave but as a brother.

Romans 15:25-28, 2 Corinthians 8:1-6 and 9:6-15

The early church took care of its own. Acts 2:44-45 speaks of the charity of some believers for others in need; this idea is repeated in Acts 4:32ff. In Acts 6:1 deacons were chosen to aid in the “daily ministry” or the providing for the needs of the Grecian widows in the church. The church at Jerusalem was caring for its own members.

Years later Paul began a collection to aid this same church. In the early church Jews had cared for Jews, but in Paul’s day Gentiles were caring for the Jews. koinoniais used in Romans 15:26, 2 Corinthians 8:4 and 9:13 to refer to an offering that Paul was planning to take to the Jerusalem church. In 2 Cor 8:1 Paul notes that this was a gift of grace. He commended the churches of Macedonia for their great joy and their great sacrifice even in the midst of their own poverty; he encouraged the wealthier church in Corinth to follow their example. In verse 4 Paul notes that the giving was a “ministry.” This is the same word, diakonia, that was used in Acts 6 to refer to the ministry of giving to the widows. “Paul understands that God’s grace does not lighten the Macedonians’ afflictions nor remove their deep poverty. Instead, it opens their hearts and their purse strings to others.”[21]

Paul’s collection, however, was not merely a charitable gift. It was not given out of pity for Jewish believers suffering in Jerusalem. Instead Paul emphasized that this gift was a “fellow­ship.” The use of koinoniameans that it was an “outward expression of the deep love that binds Christian believers in one body, the church.”[22]

Conclusion

In almost every case, “fellowship” is a union with spiritual underpinnings or spiritual purposes. A biblical theology of “fellowship” is, therefore, a partnering of individuals, churches, associations, ministries or any other group for the purpose of promoting biblical truth, based on a common spiritual foundation. In some passages the emphasis is on the union that all believers should have with one another. This includes cooperation in ministry. It includes churches caring for their own members. It includes churches helping other churches. It also includes a recognition that there are limitations to this fellowship; including some means excluding others.

The question of koinonia is, “With whom or with what can I legitimately enter into a spiritual partnership?” Peter, Paul, and others rejected fellowship or partnership with the Judaizers because they were teaching false doctrine. Paul fellowshipped with the Corinthians, however, even though they believed false doctrine. The answer to this dilemma will be dealt with more thoroughly in a later article, but it seems that a key concept is that the Corinthians were teachable. 2 Corinthians does not deal with the same problems that Paul addressed in 1 Corinthians. The Judaizers were not interested in being taught; they were already convinced of the truth of their position and focused their attention on teaching others their version of the truth.

Fellowship, in the New Testament, appears then to have two elements. Because all believers have the same Savior, the same God, and the same Spirit, they have fellowship with God and with other believers. Because fellowship is based on the truth of Scripture, a believer does not have the same amount of fellowship with every believer. Fellowship is greatest in the local church, for there believers know and can easily care for one another. Fellowship cannot be as great with believers outside the local church. When the truth is compromised, the possibility of fellowship is compromised as well.


Dr. Oats is the Dean of Maranatha Baptist Seminary and Professor of Systematic Theology.

This article first appeared in the Maranatha Baptist Theological Journal, published on the web here and is republished here by permission.

  1. William Arndt, Frederick W. Danker and Walter Bauer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000), 552. []
  2. John B. Polhill, Acts, New American Commentary 26 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1995), 119. []
  3. Thirteen of its nineteen occurrences in the New Testament are in Paul’s writings. []
  4. F. Hauck, “κοίνης,” TDNT 3:805. []
  5. Polhill, Acts, 120. []
  6. David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commen­tary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2003), 35. []
  7. Ibid. []
  8. Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians: A Commentary on the Greek Text (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2000), 104. []
  9. Simon J. Kistemaker and William Hendriksen, Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians, New Testament Commentary 18 (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2001), 340. []
  10. Kistemaker and Hendriksen, First Corinthians, 341. []
  11. Richard L. Pratt, Jr, I and II Corinthians, Holman New Testament Commentary 7 (Nashville: Broadman and Holman, 2000), 167. []
  12. Timothy George, Galatians, vol. 30, The New American Commentary (Nashville: Broadman & Holman Publishers, 1994), 164–165. []
  13. A.T. Robertson, Word Pictures in the New Testament (Nashville, TN: Broadman Press, 1933), Ga 2:9. []
  14. Robert Gromacki, The Books of Philippians and Colossians, Twenty-First Century Biblical Commentary Series (Chattanooga: AMG Publishers, 2003), 22. []
  15. James Montgomery Boice, Philippians (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1971), 36. []
  16. Boice, 37. []
  17. Gromacki, 88. []
  18. Boice, 216. []
  19. Boice, 218. []
  20. Gromacki, 88. []
  21. David E. Garland, 2 Corinthians, The New American Commentary 29 (Nashville: Broadman & Holman, 1999), 366. []
  22. Leon Morris, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988), 520. []


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