In Acts 2:42 we read that one of the four things the early church devoted itself to was “fellowship.” Fellowship was a very important part of their reason for meeting together. It was one of their objectives. But what is fellowship?
We often hear people talking about fellowship. We hear it said that what we need is more fellowship. But our modern ideas of fellowship have become so watered down that the word no longer carries the same meaning it did in New Testament times.
We are not surprised that the early church devoted itself to “the apostles’ teaching” and also “to prayer.” Apart from the ministry of the Holy Spirit, these are the two most important means of growth, power, and effectiveness in the Christian life and this is everywhere evident in the rest of Scripture.
But Luke tells us these early Christians also devoted themselves to fellowship. They just didn’t have fellowship; they devoted themselves to it. This means that fellowship was a priority and one of the objectives for gathering together. They made fellowship a priority.
Today, however, we often view fellowship as what we do in “fellowship hall.” It’s the place where we have casual conversations and savor coffee and donuts. This is not bad and can contribute to fellowship, but it falls far short of fellowship according to biblical standards and according to the meaning and use of the Greek words for fellowship.
Still others who may have become fed up with church seek fellowship through viewing a worship service on television, but this too misses the picture.
Give your TV a hug! Joel S. McCraw has suggested that if you are one of those who gets their religion by watching religious broadcasts on the TV, or listening to the gospel via radio, you might want to step up to the set after a service and “Give your TV a great big hug.”
Foolish, isn’t it. The electronic religion of multitudes of people creates an emptiness—interpersonal relationships are so desperately needed to keep our faith glowing and growing. If you drop off your associations with other Christians and disassociate yourself from them in worship and service, you’ll run out of spiritual fervor and dedication in a short time. There is no substitute for “going to church and worshiping with others of like precious faith.”1
You may be thinking, “My view of fellowship is much richer and deeper than mere social activity. True fellowship involves getting together for spiritual purposes: for sharing needs, for prayer, for discussing and sharing the Word to encourage, comfort, and edify one another.” And you are right. This certainly is an aspect of Christian fellowship, and one much more important than the first idea. It is an area of fellowship that is often lacking in the church today and one that needs to be remedied. But even this does not comprehend or grasp the full and rich meaning of “fellowship” in the New Testament.
In order to grasp its meaning and relate our lives to its truth, we need to study two Greek word groups, koinwnia, and its derivatives, and metocos, a word which will come into importance because of its spiritual relationship to koinwnia.
English Definition of Fellowship
Before we begin a study of the Greek words, let’s get a glimpse of our word “fellowship” from the English dictionary to see what it might add to our understanding. An English dictionary can shed a lot of light on the Bible if we would use it in our Bible study. The translators chose English words according to their real and exact meanings. When we study our Bibles we assume we understand the full significance of a word, but often our ideas are very incomplete. This is particularly true of the word “fellowship.”
According to Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary it means: (a) companionship, company, associate (vb.); (b) the community of interest, activity, feeling or experience, i.e., a unified body of people of equal rank sharing in common interests, goals, and characteristics, etc.; (c) partnership, membership (an obsolete usage but an important one. It shows what has happened to our ideas of fellowship).
There are three key ideas that come out of this:
(1) Fellowship means being a part of a group, a body of people. It is opposed to isolation, solitude, loneliness, and our present-day independent kind of individualism. Of course, it does not stop there because we can be in a crowd of people and even share certain things in common, but still not have fellowship.
(2) Fellowship means having or sharing with others certain things in common such as interest, goals, feelings, beliefs, activities, labor, privileges and responsibilities, experiences, and concerns.
(3) Fellowship can mean a partnership that involves working together and caring for one another as a company of people, like a company of soldiers or members of a family.
But what about Christian fellowship according to the Word of God and the words for fellowship as they are used in the New Testament?
Greek Words for Fellowship
THE KOINWN WORDS
(1) Koinos (the root word)
The language of the New Testament is called koinh Greek because, through the conquests of Alexander the Great, it was the common language of Christ’s day for Romans, Greeks and Jews alike. Koinh means common. Koinwnia comes from koinos which means “common, mutual, public.” It refers to that which is held in common.
(2) Koinwnia (n) and Koinwneo (vb) (primary words)
There are two main ideas with this word: (a) “to share together, take part together” in the sense of partnership or participation, and (b) “to share with” in the sense of giving to others. As we will see, there are four key ideas that come out of these two meanings according to New Testament usage.
The New Testament usage according to sentence construction refers to: (a) the thing shared in common in some way by all parties involved as relationships, blessings or burdens, privileges, or responsibilities (all believers in Christ share many things in common); (b) the person(s) doing the sharing with others; (c) the person(s) with whom there is sharing; and (d) an abstract quality of the concept of fellowship, with no object, used alone as in Acts 2:42.
(3) Koinwnos, Koinwnikos (secondary words)
Koinwnos means “a partner, associate, companion” (2 Cor. 8:23; Luke 5:10; Phil. 1:7) or “a partaker, sharer” (1 Cor. 10:18-20; 2 Cor. 1:7; 1 Pet. 5:1; 2 Pet. 1:4).
Koinwnikos, is an adjective meaning “characterized by koinwnos, ready to share or partake” (1 Tim. 6:18).
THE METOCOS WORDS (METOCOS, METOCH)
These words come from meta, “with,” plus ecw, “to have.” The basic idea is “to have with” or “to have together.”
Metocos means: (a) “a sharing in, a partaking of” (Heb. 3:1, 14; 6:4; 12:8); and (b), “a partner, associate” (Heb. 1:9; Luke 5:7).
Metoch means: (a) “sharing, fellowship”; or (b) “partnership” (cf. 2 Cor. 6:14 where it is used with koinwnia).
Based on the meanings and uses of these words, four key ideas develop that are important if we are to grasp the richness the New Testament’s teaching on “fellowship.” If we understand these four concepts we will begin to have a grasp of the doctrine of fellowship and its implications and demands on our lives.
Fellowship in the New Testament
In the New Testament, what is shared in common is shared first of all because of a common relationship that we all have together in Christ. Koinwnia was an important word to both John and Paul, but it was never used in merely a secular sense. It always had a spiritual significance and base. The idea of an earthly fellowship founded upon just common interests, human nature, physical ties like in a family, or from church affiliation was really rather foreign to the apostles.
In the New Testament, believers can have fellowship and share together because they first of all have a relationship with Christ and share Him in common (1 Cor. 1:9; 1 John 1:3). The New English Bible translates 1 John 1:3 as follows: “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 with His Son Jesus Christ.”
Fellowship is first the sharing together in a common life with other believers through relationship with God through Jesus Christ. Fellowship is first and foremost a relationship, rather than an activity. The principle is that any activity that follows, should come out of the relationship.
In Acts 2:42 the early church was not merely devoting itself to activities, but to a relationship. It was this relationship that produced an active sharing in other ways. It is so important that we grasp this. Fellowship means we belong to each other in a relationship because we share together the common life and enabling grace of Jesus Christ.
There is also, however, a negative aspect. Because of our relationship with Christ, there can be no legitimate fellowship with the world, demonism, idolatry, or anything that is contrary to Christ and our relationship with Him (cf. 2 Cor. 6:14f).
Both koinwnia and metocos mean to share together in the sense of a partnership. As sharers together of the person and life of Christ, we are automatically copartners in His enterprise here on earth.
Both sets of Greek words were used in this sense by classical and New Testament writers.
(1) In the secular realm, koinwnos (a form of koinwnia) and metocos were both used by Luke to refer to the partnership of Peter with James and John (Luke 5:7, 10).
(2) In the spiritual realm, koinwnos was used by Paul of Titus (2 Cor. 8:23) and Philemon (Philemon 17), and koinwnia of the Philippians (Phil. 1:5) because he viewed them as partners in the ministry of the gospel, as co-workers who shared in ministry (cf. Gal. 2:9).
(3) In the spiritual realm, metocos was similarly used by the author of Hebrews to express the concept of our partnership with the Lord (Heb. 1:9) because we are also sharers of His life and calling (Heb. 3:1, 14). “The concept of fellowship as a spiritual partnership is firmly embedded in the new Testament …”2 by the use of both word groups.
Whereas the word 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 …
… Biblical fellowship, then, incorporates this idea of an active partnership in the promotion of the gospel and the building up of believers.3
This element is strongly brought out in the argument of the author of Hebrews who shows us that believers are both partakers of and partners with Christ in His salvation, kingdom, and purposes for earth and man.
In Hebrews 1:14 this “salvation” which believers are to inherit, within the context of the passage, includes the believer’s share in the Son’s triumphant dominion in which He has partners, those who belong to Him and are involved with Him in His kingdom and reign (1:9; 2:10,13; 3:1). This partnership, however, begins here on earth, and this forms the foundation for what believers will share with Him in the future kingdom. We are responsible to share with Him in the work He is now doing on earth so we can share in the blessings of the future by way of rewards (cf. Luke 19:11f; 1 Cor. 3:12f). A steadfast confidence in Christ is vital or we will defect and fail to carry our responsibilities as His companions. As those who share in His life through faith, we are also partners with Him in His enterprise and purposes here on earth. We are His representatives on earth (cf. 1 Pet. 2:5f).
Perhaps one of the keys here is our understanding of the word metocos, which is used a number of times in Hebrews (cf. 1:9; 3:1,14; 6:4; 12:8). As seen above, this was a term used of business partners. It was used in precisely this way in the papyri and in its only occurrence in the New Testament outside of Hebrews, in Luke 5:7.
Note Hebrews 3:14 which may be rendered, “… we have become partners with Christ.” It can mean “sharer, partaker.” “Of Christ” then becomes what we share in: we partake of His life. This is true, but I don’t believe this is the point here. As in Hebrews 1:9, the author is saying we become companions, partners of the Christ, the Messianic King, but to share in what He is doing now and in the future, we need fidelity and confidence in Him (cf. Rev. 2:26-27).
DISTINCTION BETWEEN RELATIONSHIP AND PARTNERSHIP
Relationship describes what we are: a community of people bound together by our common life and blessings that we share together through our relationship with Christ. Partnership describes how we are related to each other in that relationship: we are partners in an enterprise and calling in which we are to work together in a common purpose to obtain common objectives for the glory of God and the gospel of Jesus Christ (cf. Phil 1:27).
Later, as we look at the foundation for fellowship, we will see that our relationship with Christ is like a coin, it has two sides, union and communion, or relationship (the positional side) and fellowship (the experiential side).
Companionship is the interchange or communication (communion) that exists among companions, those associated together through a relationship they hold in common. The key ingredient in companionship is communication. Key words that describe companionship are “interchange, communion, sharing.” Communication is the sharing of concepts, feelings, ideas, information, needs, etc. through words or other symbols like body language and actions so that all members of the relationship hold these things in common.
In the Christian community, companionship includes communicating on a spiritual level through a mutual sharing of the things of Christ: the Word, the filling of the Holy Spirit, and the ministries and gifts of the various members of the body of Christ.
Companionship through communication would include:
(1) The Vertical: This is our communion and fellowship with the Lord through the Word, prayer, the filling of the Holy Spirit, and the abiding life.
(2) The Horizontal: This is our communion and fellowship with the body of Christ, other believers. This includes: (a) assembling together as a whole body (Acts. 2:42; Heb. 10:25); (b) assembling in smaller groups (2 Tim. 2:2); (c) meeting together one-on-one (1 Thess. 5:11); (d) sharing and communicating truth together and building up one another (Rom. 1:11-12; 2 Tim. 2:2; 1 Thess 5:11; Philem. 6); (e) sharing together in worship, i.e., the Lord’s supper (1 Cor. 10:16), the singing of hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16), prayer (1 Cor. 14:16-17), the ministry of the Word (Acts 20:20; 2 Tim. 2:2; 1 Pet. 4:10-11); (f) sharing together as partners in the needs, burdens, concerns, joys, and blessings for the purpose of encouragement, comfort, challenge or exhortation, praise, prayer and physical help according to the needs and ability (cf. Phil. 1:5 with 1:19; and 2:4 with 1:27; also 4:3; Rom. 12:15; and 1 Thess. 5:11,14,15; Heb. 10:33).
This means we must develop the loving art of communication. We need to be willing to share our own burdens and aspirations and be available to hear what others are saying so we may minister to needs according to the directives of the Word. The ultimate goal is to build up and enrich others in the things of Christ that we may all together experience the sufficiency of His life and tune our lives into His. We need others for that. As the early church was first devoted to the apostles’ teaching, they were also devoted to caring for one another and to sharing with one another what they were learning and what Christ was meaning to them (Acts. 2:42; Heb. 3:12-14).
Ted Malone, whose radio show came on early in the morning, told of an Idaho shepherd who wrote: “Will you, on your broadcast, strike the note ‘A’? I’m a sheep herder way out here on a ranch, far away from a piano. The only comfort I have is my old violin. It’s all out of tune. Would you strike ‘A’ so that I might get in tune?”
Malone honored the request. Later he received a “thank you” note from the distant shepherd saying, “Now I’m in tune.”
One of the purposes and responsibilities of personal and public worship is to enable the aspirant to keep tuned to the Great Shepherd. One of the joys of the Christian life is to help others recapture the missing note!4
A steward is one who manages the property of another. A steward is not an owner; he is a manager. As stewards we must recognize that all we have belongs to the Lord and has been given to us as trusts from God to invest for His purposes. Believers need to be willing to share their material possessions for the promotion of the gospel and to help those in need. Good stewardship stems from recognizing our relationship to Jesus Christ, but it also means recognizing our partnership in Christ’s enterprise on earth.
In any good partnership, the partners share equally in both the privileges and responsibilities, the assets and liabilities, and the blessings and burdens. What kind of partnership would it be if one partner took all the income and enjoyed all the privileges while the other partner did all the work and paid all the bills? Would you enter a partnership like that? No, of course not! Partners are to share and share alike in all the aspects of their enterprise. They may not do the same things. In fact, they will be much more successful in their enterprise if they work and share according to their abilities, expertise, and training, but still share the load.
It is interesting that one of the most prominent uses of the koinwnia group of words is its use in connection with sharing material blessings—giving money to meet financial needs. Of the 36 usages of these words, they are used 9 times specifically in connection with giving, and in a couple of other passages giving would be included among other aspects of fellowship (Acts 2:42; Phil. 1:5; Heb. 10:33).
Giving is meant in the following passages: koinwneo (Rom. 12:13; 15:27; Gal. 6:6; Phil. 4:15); koinwnia (Rom. 15:26; 2 Cor. 8:4; 9:13; Heb. 13:16); koinwnikos (1 Tim. 6:18); and metecw (1 Cor. 9:10, note context vss. 9-14). Therefore as partners in Christ’s enterprise on earth, “we need to share with one another, realizing that we are not owners but stewards of the possessions God has entrusted (not given) to us.”5
The concept and application of this partnership/stewardship combination is seen clearly in 2 Corinthians 8:12-15. “Paul envisioned a continual flow of believers’ possessions toward those who have needs. This is an outworking of koinwnia, and an important expression of true fellowship.”6
What was happening here? What was Paul wanting to see done? Paul was asking the Corinthian believers to have fellowship as partners, as fellow sharers in Christ and laborers together in the gospel. As partners, they were to give out of their abundance to other partners, to other believers, even though they had never met. Why? Out of love, certainly, but also because they were partners in the Savior’s enterprise on earth.
Note 3 John and its application here:
3 John 5-8 Beloved, you are acting faithfully in whatever you accomplish for the brethren, and especially when they are strangers; 6 and they bear witness to your love before the church; and you will do well to send them on their way in a manner worthy of God. 7 For they went out for the sake of the Name, accepting nothing from the Gentiles. 8 Therefore we ought to support such men, that we may be fellow workers with the truth.
“Acting faithfully” (vs. 5) refers to their partnership as those who share in common the life and enterprise of Christ. It goes on to say, “especially when they are strangers.” Why is this? Because we share a common relationship through a common life, the person of Christ, and thus, a common objective.
“To your love” (vs. 6) refers to the expression of Christ’s love in the lives of these saints as they shared in His life through fellowship or communion with Him. “To send them on their way” refers to fellowship. Here was a group of believers who, recognizing their partnership, shared their resources with these missionaries. The word used here is propempw, which became a technical term for sending someone forth with all that they needed for their journey. It involved “supplying them with food and money to pay for their expenses, washing their clothes and generally helping them to travel as comfortably as possible.”7
“For they went out for the sake of the Name” (vs. 7) refers to the purpose of their going out. They were missionaries involved in the enterprise of propagating the gospel, the news about the Savior. This is the enterprise and objective we should all have in common as Christians. They sought nothing and refused to accept any support from unbelievers (“accepting nothing of the Gentiles”). Why? Because there was no common relationship in Christ. They were not partners together in this enterprise. They were instead, the objective.
“We ought” (vs. 8) refers in the Greek text to a moral obligation. It is the Greek ofeilw, “to owe a debt.” We owe such a debt to others of the body of Christ because we are partners. “Support” is the Greek @upolambanw which means “to bear up, lift up by giving financial aid, support.” Why? The reason is expressed in the final words of verse 8, “That we may be fellow workers with the truth.” Because we are partners and should live like it by sharing in the work (cf. Gal. 6:6 and the partnership principle there).
These four major areas cover the doctrine of fellowship as it pertains primarily to our relationship with one another, but the basis of our relationship to one another is our relationship with Jesus Christ. It is that vertical aspect of fellowship that forms the foundation and means of fellowship in the body of Christ.
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1 Bible Illustrations, Parsons Technology, 1990-94, electronic media.
2 Jerry Bridges, True Fellowship, Navpress, Colorado Springs, 1985, p. 18.
4 Parsons Technology, electronic media.
7 Fritz Rienecker, Linguistic Key to the Greek New Testament, Vol. II, edited by Cleon L. Rogers, Jr., Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1980, p. 800.
9 The Expositor’s Bible Commentary, Frank E. Gaebelein, general editor, Vol. 11, Zondervan, Grand Rapids, 1981, p. 406.
11 The Theological Dictionary of the New Testament, Abridged in One Volume, Gerhard Kittel and Gerhard Friedrich, editors, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1985, electronic media.
12 Merrill C. Tenney, John, The Gospel of Belief, Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1948, p. 228.
13 The Scofield Reference Bible, Oxford University Press, London, 1967, p. 1148.
14 Zane Hodges, Absolutely Free, Academie Books, Grand Rapids, 1989, p. 137.
16 Bridges, pp. 76-77, quoting J. I. Packer, God’s Words, p. 193.
17 Jim Peterson, Disciple Journal, issue fifty-five, 1990, p. 12.
20 For an overview of the concept of financial stewardship see the study Financial Faithfulness on the Biblical Studies Foundation web site.