What Is Christian Fellowship?
The word typically translated “fellowship” from the New Testament is the Greek word, “koinonia.” It has a range of meaning in Koine Greek, but often denotes “sharing,” “close association,” or “mutual participation.”
Now, that’s what the word means generally. But what makes Christian fellowship distinctively “Christian”? Is it simply any time a Christian shares something with another Christian? A recipe swap? An extra meal? A carpool to work? Is it any time anything happens in part of a church building designated “Fellowship Hall”? Is it any time any Christians get together in a social setting? Women’s Club? At the gym? At the ball park? Is it any time Christian people do something together? Playing video games? Eating a meal? Or does it count as fellowship only if its a spiritual activity? Does the prayer before we eat the fried chicken count as fellowship, but the eating itself is purely carnal. Well, what is it?
In order to answer the question, we will look at passages in the New Testament in which the word “koinania” and its cognates occur. Instead of surveying every instance of the word independently, we can group their usages by common contexts. (As is often the case in language studies, the term appears in multiple contexts). This means that it will take on different aspects of meaning depending upon which context the word is in. In other words, “Christian fellowship” does not have just one concept in mind. In fact, we can observe at least three.
Shared Life from Jesus
Multiple occurrences of the word “fellowship” are used to explain the bond between believers and the Lord.
● 1 Corinthians 1:9. “God is faithful, through whom you were called into fellowship with His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
● 1 Corinthians 10:16. “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?
● 2 Corinthians 13:13. “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God, and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with you all. (See also Philippians 2:1; 1 John 1:3).
Paul uses the term “fellowship” in the verses above in order to explain the shared life all believers have in Jesus. To be called, to participate rightly in the Lord’s Table, to have the Holy Spirit – in other words, to be a “Christian – is to “fellowship” with the Lord.
While the passages are all clear enough, 1 Corinthians 10:16 provides a particularly helpful image. Christians have life by fellowshipping in the life (i.e. the body and blood) of Jesus. Real “Christian” fellowship, therefore, happens when branches draw life from the vine (John 15:1-11).
Shared Life with Each Other
“Fellowship” also involves believers’ efforts to help one another. More specifically, the connotation often includes taking care of physical needs. Note the verses below.
● Acts 2:42-45. And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship (koinonia)…. And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common (koina); and they began selling their property and possessions, and were sharing them with all, as anyone might have need.
Here fellowship directly correlates to supplying assistance to the needs of other church members.
● Romans 15:26. For Macedonia and Achaia have been pleased to make a contribution (koinwnian) for the poor among the saints in Jerusalem (Rom 15:26).
● And do not neglect doing good and sharing (koinwnias); for with such sacrifices God is pleased (Heb 13:16).
From those texts, it is clear that Christian fellowship occurs when believers meet the tangible, physical needs of other believers. Much the same way Christ supplies all our needs according to His riches (Philippians 4:19), we image His love by supplying the same to the rest of His body (1 John 3:17).
Shared Living for the Same Purpose
Finally, the koinwnia references take a third connotation, namely, a sharing of the same purpose.
● Acts 2:42; 44. And they were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer….And all those who had believed were together, and had all things in common.
What made their fellowship was unity in doctrine, belief, and direction. In the essentials of their core identity and function, they had a common union.
● Galatians 2:9. James and Cephas and John, who were reputed to be pillars, gave to me and Barnabas the right hand of fellowship, that we might go to the Gentiles, and they to the circumcised.
In a pivotal moment of mission efforts, the Jewish and Gentile missionaries agreed in their purpose and gospel. The “right hand of fellowship” is more than a euphemism; it indicates solidarity of vision.
● Philippians 1:4-5. …always offering prayer with joy in my every prayer for you all, in view of your participation (koinania) in the gospel from the first day until now.
Paul thanks God that the church shares in the same process of advancing the true gospel.
This aspect of fellowship gets at the sense of unity described by combat soldiers while on the front lines. They fight together for a common cause, help each other in a common goal, and offer their lives for the welfare of each other and the mission they believe in. That makes for a powerful chemistry, which, when applicable to Christian ministry, the New Testament defines as “fellowship.”
The Way We Talk
Very often, when we talk about “fellowship,” it is very likely that we often have a sense of the third aspect of the term. What we commonly mean is that we got together with people with whom we share a similar life direction, value, and goal. We love Jesus, and so whether we are sitting in a restaurant, a deer stand, or a back porch with our Christian friends, there is an unspoken understanding: we are on the same team trying move the ball in the same direction.
Although the other two aspects appear just as frequently, we don’t often apply the term when describing life in Jesus or mutual aid.
For this reason, it is challenging to provide any sort of rubric for what activities constitute Christian fellowship, because fellowship isn’t always an event. In some cases, it’s simply the unspoken but understood consonance of two believers’ love of God.
However, we can say without a shadow of a doubt, that there are instances when fellowship occurs in all three senses, that is, in the assembly of the Lord’s people. There, we celebrate shared life from Jesus; we contribute to the needs of the brethren, and we unite in song, doctrine, and committment to the Lord. The gatherings of the Lord’s people are so critical, because it is one of the only times in the weekly calendar when all three aspects of fellowship merge into a moment. It must be why the author of Hebrews urges us to not forsake “our own assembling together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another; and all the more, as you see the day drawing near” (Hebrews 10:25). You and I need this kind of fellowship, for the Lord is coming quickly.