Mention “fellowship” to a group of Christians and chances are that most of them will understand the word in terms of human social interaction. For instance, many churches have a “fellowship time” after worship when congregants chat while munching cookies and drinking coffee. However, that sort of thing is evidence of fellowship (or may be), but it’s not the actual item itself. Yet if koinonia isn’t affectionate human interaction between Christians what exactly is it?
In Acts 2:42 we read that – from the very beginning – the Church “continued steadfastly in the Apostle’s teaching, and fellowship (koinonia), in the breaking of bread and in prayers.” Now, the Bible isn’t telling us the early Church was known for warm fuzzy feelings and pie socials. No doubt, first century Christians had strong emotional attachments to one other. However, Acts 2:42 is not concerned with that; it’s concerned with unity in Christ.
The Apostle Paul tells us that koinonia is Christ, is faith, is the Holy Spirit, and is the Gospel (1 Cor. 1:9 and many more). In other words, koinonia describes a state of being that we enter into when we experience the new birth in Jesus. It is a spiritual bond characterized by unity of thought and purpose. It is the reality of our being the one Body of Christ.
If you read Paul’s letters, you’ll find he is constantly telling the Church to be of one mind, to live in unity or to have the mind of Christ (Rom. 12:16, 1 Cor. 1:10, 2 Cor. 13:11 and so on). In so doing Paul is echoing the desire of Jesus Himself. One of the last things Jesus did before He died was to pray for the unity of all Christians. He prayed that “they all may be one as You, Father are in Me and I in You; that they also may be one in Us that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:21). In other words, when the unity of the Church is compromised, the witness of Christ suffers and the world has reason to disbelieve that Jesus is the Savior.
The bottom line is that failure to maintain spiritual unity in Christ is a serious matter. It is a denial of Jesus Himself. This is what Paul is writing about in 1 Corinthians 11:17-ff. Contrary to what many Christians think, Paul’s primary concern here is not with the elements of the Lord’s supper nor the event of Christ’s crucifixion – as important as they are. His concern is with the living body of Christ on earth, the Church redeemed by the death of Jesus. Hence he chides the Corinthian Christians for “divisions” and “factions” within their local Church (1 Cor. 11: 17-22). He says that failure to “discern the Lord’s body” – failure to understand the nature of koinonia – will result in judgement (1 Cor. 11:29-31).
Does this mean the Church is supposed to maintain mindless uniformity? Not at all. The Bible tells us the Church is characterized by unity in diversity (1 Cor. 12:12 and so on). There are many parts to the Body and many gifts. However, we deny unity and diversity both when we attack the Body of Christ or a part of His Body in any way. Frankly we are playing with fire when we speak against the Church or an individual brother or sister in the Lord. Paul says in another place about individual believers; “If anyone destroys the temple of God, God will destroy him. For the temple of God is holy, which temple you are” (1 Cor. 3:17).
Most Christians regularly recite the Apostles Creed during corporate worship and so we should all be familiar with the words which instruct us saying; “I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy universal church, the communion of saints.” Let us be sure that we are doing our best to live what we confess.