"And they continued steadfastly in the apostles' doctrine and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in prayers" —Acts 2:42
On the day of Pentecost in AD 31, Peter preached an inspired sermon to Jews and proselytes from around the Roman world who had gathered in Jerusalem for the holy day. When he finished, three thousand of his listeners stepped forward to be baptized and accept Jesus Christ as their Savior (Acts 2:41). Just that quickly, the church—a sizable one, at that—was inaugurated.
Suddenly, three thousand people, who may have had little else in common, were thrown together as brethren. Things could have gone very badly very quickly, but to their credit, as Acts 2:42 in The New English Translation Bible (NET) informs us, "They were devoting themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer."
Among the four things to which these early converts devoted themselves was fellowship. Fellowship immediately became an important part of their reasons for meeting together. It was one of their prime objectives.
What is fellowship? We talk about fellowship, and we often tell one another that what we need is more fellowship. However, our modern ideas of fellowship may have become so watered-down that the word no longer carries the same meaning that it did during this infancy stage of the church, which is highly praised for its unity (see Acts 2:44; 4:32-33; 5:12; etc.).
We are not surprised to read that the early church devoted itself to "the apostles' teaching" and "to prayer." These two—essentially, study and prayer—are the most important means of growth and effectiveness in the Christian life, and this is everywhere evident in the rest of Scripture. Yet, Luke records that these early Christians also devoted themselves to fellowship. They just did not have fellowship, going through the motions of being with each other; they devoted themselves to it.
This means that fellowship was a priority, and one of their foremost objectives in gathering together. To them, just being with one another was not necessarily fellowship. Instead, it was something that they devoted themselves to accomplish when they were together.
We often view fellowship as what we do. We have casual conversations and common activities. This is not wrong and can contribute to fellowship, but it falls far short of fellowship according to biblical standards, as well as falling short of the meaning and use of the Greek words that underlie the English word "fellowship."
We 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, and for discussing God's Word to encourage, comfort, and edify one another." And we would be right. These things are certainly aspects of Christian fellowship, but even they do not comprise the full meaning of Christian fellowship in the New Testament.
In order to grasp what it means to devote ourselves to fellowship, we need to understand two Greek word groups: koinônia and its derivatives and metochos, a word that will become important because of its spiritual relationship to koinônia.
Before we consider the Greek words, we need to take a look at "fellowship" from an English dictionary to see what it might add to our understanding. An English dictionary can shed a great deal of light on God's Word if we would use it in our Bible study. When we study Scripture, we often assume that we understand the full significance of a word as it appears in our English translations, but too frequently, our ideas are incomplete or maybe even off base.
This may be particularly true of the word "fellowship." According to Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, it means: a) companionship, company; association; 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. The last definition has become an obsolete usage, but it is an important one, showing how our ideas of fellowship have changed over the years.
Three key ideas come out of this:
1. Fellowship means being a part of a group, a body of people.
2. Fellowship means having or sharing with others certain things in common.
3. Fellowship can indicate a partnership, which involves people working together.
But what about Christian fellowship according to the Greek words for "fellowship" as used in the New Testament?
Koinos is the root word, which means "common, mutual, public." It refers to that which is held in common. For instance, the common Greek spoken across the Roman Empire is called Koine.
Koinônia is the primary word that is translated as "fellowship." Two main ideas are contained in it: 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. The New Testament usage emphasizes that what all parties involved share in common is in some way a relationship.
Koinônos is the noun form of the word, though used less often in the New Testament, meaning "a partner, associate, or companion." A similar word, synkoinônos, meaning "one who shares with" or "a partaker of," is used in Philippians 1:7: "For it is right for me to think this about all of you, because I have you in my heart, since both in my imprisonment and in the defense and confirmation of the gospel all of you became partners in God's grace together with me" (NET, emphasis ours).
It is easy to see that "sharing" and "partaking together" are central to fellowship.
The same idea is found in the other relevant Greek word, metochos, an adjective, along with its verb, metechô, and its noun, metoche. The basic notion in all of these words is "to have with" or "to have together." Specifically, metochos means "sharing in, partaking of," and thus its noun form means "a partner, associate." The verb, metechô means "to become a partaker of" or "to have a share in."
We can observe these two Greek word groups in II Corinthians 6:14, where the apostle Paul uses them in parallel fashion: "Do not be unequally yoked together with unbelievers. For what fellowship [metoche] has righteousness with lawlessness? And what communion [koinônia] has light with darkness?" Obviously, these questions are rhetorical. We know that these concepts are polar opposites; they share nothing in common.
Two Key Ideas
Based on the meanings and uses of these words, two key ideas develop that are important if we are to grasp the biblical teaching on "fellowship." The first is that, in the New Testament, what we have in common is shared, to begin with, because of a common relationship that we all have together in Christ. We can have fellowship and share with each other because we have a relationship with Christ; we share Him in common.
Paul writes in I Corinthians 1:9, "God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship of His Son, Jesus Christ our Lord." The Revised English Bible translates I John 1:3 as, "It is this which we have seen and heard that we declare to you also, in order that you may share with us in a common life, that life which we share with the Father and His Son Jesus Christ."
Fellowship is first the sharing of a common life with each other through a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We were all individuals with little in common until the Father's calling separated us from everyone else in this world, and we became part of Christ's body through His Spirit (I Corinthians 12:13, 27). In this, we can see that true Christian fellowship is primarily a relationship rather than an activity.
In Acts 2:42, the young church was not merely devoting itself to common activities but to a vital, spiritual relationship. It was this relationship that produced an active sharing in other ways. Many of us have gotten this backwards—that the activities produce the relationship. Not so! The relationship comes first, then the common activities follow.
It is so important that we grasp this. Fellowship means that we belong to each other in a relationship because we share with one another the common life and grace of Jesus Christ. From this flows additional sharing of our time, experiences, wisdom, and many other things.
The second key idea derives from the fact that both koinônia and metochos mean "to share together" in the sense of a partnership. As sharers together with Christ, we are automatically copartners with Him and with our brethren in His enterprise here on earth. His work is our work.
A business partnership is always formed in order to attain a known 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 godly objectives, the most important one being glorifying God. Just as we are united in a relationship, so we are all united in a partnership formed to glorify God by completing His work.
Paul writes about Christian unity in Romans 15:5-6, explaining that its aim is to glorify God: "Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." Peter also states that our service for God is ultimately to bring Him glory: "If anyone ministers, let him do it as with the ability which God supplies, that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belong the glory and the dominion forever and ever. Amen" (I Peter 4:11).
Thus, fellowship also means that we have been brought into partnership with our Savior and with each other to fulfill God's will and glorify Him.
To summarize what true Christian fellowship is, relationship describes what we are, a community of people bound together by our common life that we share through our union with Christ. Partnership describes how we interact within that relationship—we are partners in a calling and an enterprise in which we are to work harmoniously with a shared purpose to achieve mutual objectives to glorify God and to do the work of Jesus Christ.
While many today consider it to be of little importance, fellowship in the body of Christ is certainly no side issue. In Acts 2:42, as one of the four activities to which the early church devoted itself, it was listed alongside Bible study and prayer. God has called us and put us together as His Family to accomplish His purpose in us and ultimately in all of mankind. We should not forget that when we fellowship, we are sharing and working together toward a common goal, the Kingdom of God.