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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
Neither the word ‘fellowship’ (κοινωνία) nor any equivalent term occurs in the Synoptic Gospels, but the reality in faith, love, and joy is diffused like the fragrance of the flowers of Galilee through that bright spring of the world’s life. As we pass to the Acts and Epistles, especially the Pauline, the word is found in a variety of meanings. Most frequently it is translated ‘fellowship’ (Acts 2:42, 1 Corinthians 1:9, 2 Corinthians 6:14; 2 Corinthians 8:4, Galatians 2:9, Philippians 1:5; Philippians 2:1; Philippians 3:10). It is rendered ‘communion’ in 1 Corinthians 10:16 ((Revised Version margin) ‘participation in’) and 2 Corinthians 13:14; ‘contribution’ (Authorized Version ‘distribution’) in 2 Corinthians 9:13, cf. Romans 15:26; ‘communication’ ( Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885 ‘fellowship’) in Philemon 1:6, cf. Hebrews 13:18. Though κοινωνία occurs only three times in the Johannine writings (1 John 1:3; 1 John 1:6-7), they are peculiarly rich in the religious ideas which give the term its content. The conception of fellowship in the NT is not exhausted by the varied significations of any one word; it becomes plain only as we comprehend the meaning of the life of the Early Church.
i. Inherited forecasts.—Like most of the great religious conceptions of the NT, this idea has its roots deep in the OT. Isaiah proclaims that the religion of Israel can find its truest expression only in a spiritual fellowship of faith, independent of a national framework. In Israel there is an imperishable remnant, a stock from which new life will spring forth after desolation has swept over Jerusalem (Isaiah 8:13-18; Isaiah 37:31-32). By the time of Jeremiah the disaster of the nation had become so irretrievable that the prophet hardly dares to hope for more than the salvage of individuals from the wreck; but these rescued ones will form the true Israel under a new covenant (Jeremiah 23:3-8; Jeremiah 31:31 ff.). The Messianic blessedness which those prophets foresaw consisted of an intimate fellowship which, in the coming days, the redeemed company of Israel would enjoy with Jehovah (Isaiah 49:6-13, Jeremiah 31:31 ff.). It was to be a fellowship of Israelites because it was primarily a fellowship with Israel’s God (Isaiah 52:6-12; Isaiah 60). This thought of fellowship finds nowhere more vivid expression than in the Psalter. That storehouse of religious devotion is filled with prayers of communion with Jehovah, the supremely moral Person, righteous, faithful, holy, yet full of loving-kindness, who satisfies the needs of man by bringing him into fellowship with Himself (Psalms 16, 34, 40, 63). Though many of the psalms seem to be the utterance of individual yearning for God’s presence, others express the religious desires of corporate Israel, a fellowship of saints with a common thirst for the springs of its life.
A special term had been coined for Israel in her religious rather than her national function—kâhâl,, which was rendered in the LXX Septuagint by ἑκκλησία (‘church’). It signified the religious assembly of God’s chosen people; but as this could never be completely realized, even in the great temple gatherings, the conception remained largely ideal. A rich spiritual legacy was transmitted from the OT in the words Israel, ecclesia, Kingdom of God; and though the Jewish heirs were unable to appreciate their inheritance, these two truths of the prophets and psalmists could never have quite perished—that there is an eternal commonwealth of saints, and that this fellowship of Israel is based upon fellowship with Jehovah.
ii. The Synoptic Gospels.—Jesus not only claimed to fulfil prophecy; by His words of grace He did much more than the most spiritually minded Israelite could have hoped. The spirit of the Lord which was upon Him awoke prophetic thoughts that had long lain in the hearts of those who were waiting for the consolation of Israel. He brought spring and quickened the seed sown in the past. He calls men to Himself and forms them into a new society, within which are to be enjoyed the blessings foretold by the prophets. In this company is found religious fellowship, based upon forgiveness of sins and eternal life through the knowledge of God revealed by Jesus as Father, of which the OT saints had but partial enjoyment or glad anticipation. He places Himself at the head of this society, claiming that He alone can impart the knowledge of God which will give rest to the souls of men (Matthew 11:27-30). Thus His followers, constituted into the society of the Messiah, become a Divinely ordered fellowship not dependent on outward organization, but united by a common faith in Jesus as the Revealer of God to them. They are the New Israel, the imperishable ecclesia (Matthew 16:16-19).
This society is no closed circle. Associating Himself more or less intimately with groups of disciples, Jesus sends them forth with the knowledge they have gained concerning Him, to proclaim to the people that the new epoch of Divine rule is about to be inaugurated, and that they should prepare for its advent. The condition of membership in this brotherhood is to follow Jesus, even though this may seem to the man of the world to be nothing less than to lose one’s life. Fellowship with Jesus costs much. Family ties may be severed, the hatred of the world may be vented upon His disciples, billows of persecution may sweep over them, but in this society is life indeed (Mark 8:34-38, Luke 14:25-35). Jesus offers His followers a fellowship in this new brotherhood, which more than compensates for any worldly friendship that they may have to renounce (Mark 10:26-31). Their true kindred, even like that of Jesus Himself, will be found among those united by spiritual affinities in this new circle. New virtues abound in this brotherhood. Love working in helpful ministries for others is of the essence of fellowship in Messiah’s company. Rank is assigned, not as in worldly kingdoms, but by the degree of service rendered by each to all (Mark 10:35-45).
In time Jesus announces to His followers that His society, as the true Israel, is to take the place of the Jewish nation, which as such is becoming a massa perdita. Out of this perishing world His disciples are saved into the eternal Kingdom, and as heirs of salvation they are in reality, as they were afterwards called, ‘the saints of the New Covenant’ (Mark 12:1-12). Before His death the Messiah gave concreteness to this fellowship by a solemn communion with His disciples in the Last Supper, which became the means of making real to them the blessings of the New Covenant. The connexion of the Supper with the Paschal meal, which may here be assumed as having existed, either by anticipation or directly, would suggest to the minds of the participants that in this New Covenant they were entering into fellowship with Jehovah, and that they were also binding themselves together as brothers in a new covenant with God (Mark 14:22-25). A promise of enlarging fellowship fitly closes the Gospel of Matthew in the words, ‘Lo, I am with you to the end of the ages’ (Matthew 28:20), and gives us a glimpse of the transition from the earthly to the heavenly life of Jesus.
To sum up, the Synoptic Gospels show us the conception of an eternal Divine Commonwealth, made actual by Jesus in a society welded together by fervent loyalty to Himself as the Christ of God, and pervaded by a life of mutual service to the members. He brings His followers into true fellowship with Jehovah by revealing Him and pardoning their sins. They enjoy the life of a brotherhood, which is true life, in His company.
iii. The Primitive Jewish-Christian Church.—Fellowship is the most real definition of the unity which was a constituent quality of the Early Church. Intercourse, intimate and universal, among brethren, whose life was consecrated by a gracious Divine presence, and thus free from everything secular, constituted the Church as distinctively one. This unity was not expressed by any rigid cohesive organization, not even primarily by the leadership of the Apostles. Indeed, the disciples had been warned by their Lord not to allow themselves to be called ‘Master’ (Matthew 23:10). A company of baptized brethren, they had received the Holy Spirit from their risen Lord, who had welded them into one. His personal gifts were manifest in each brother passionately devoted to his unseen Lord, and so on terms of friendship with all who loved Him.
The Church appears on the stage of the public world as a new sect, holding to the belief that Jesus is Messiah. Outwardly the brethren were probably indistinguishable from good Jews, and such organization as they had would follow the lines of their former life. But it would seem that they did not think of themselves as a new organization. They were slow to cast loose their hawsers and swing out into the stream as an independent Church. Led by powerful personalities, Peter, John, and James, who had been either intimate or of close kinship with Jesus, they regarded themselves as the true Israel, and for a while hoped that the nation would repent. Before St. Paul’s time, however, there was a change, for we find that the brethren throughout Judaea were organized into distinctive communities, not as ‘synagogues,’ but as ‘churches’ (Galatians 1:22). But in these churches the utmost freedom of the individual, which is essential for true fellowship, prevailed; for the Church grew not by official initiative, but by the prophetic power of the Holy Spirit impelling the brethren to spread far and wide the good news of their gospel.
Little as the primitive Christians differed outwardly from the Jewish world, their inner world was a new creation. It was a brotherhood of Divine origin; for not only were they baptized into the name of Jesus the Lord of life, but they had received the Holy Spirit. How sacred this fellowship was is manifest from the terrible punishment meted out to Ananias and Sapphira for violating the mutual trust that made the brother hood possible (Acts 5).
There were various manifestations of this fellowship. (a) It was a house-church. Brethren met as sons round the common board in the homes of those who could best provide accommodation, and partook of a daily meal consecrated to the memory of their unseen but present Lord. They held communion with one another because they held communion with the risen Jesus. Common prayers, songs, and thanksgivings rose to Jehovah from these family groups (Acts 2:42; Acts 4:23-32).
(b) This fellowship (κοινωνία) found further expression in a life of mutual service,—the rich for the poor, the strong for the weak. They rejoiced with those who rejoiced; they wept with those who wept. In fact, true κοινωνία could not be better defined than in the words of the Golden Rule—‘Whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them’ (Matthew 7:12). No formal ordinance, such as the community of goods, was enjoined on the brethren; their love welled forth in such a pure and powerful stream that it made its own channels. All blessings, earthly and spiritual, were spontaneously shared with those who were in need (Acts 2:44-47; Acts 4:32-35).
So we have in the earliest days a true fellowship a brotherhood united by love to a risen Lord, whom many of them had known on earth, and led without rivalry by favourite disciples of Jesus, enjoying gifts and graces from the ever present Spirit of their Lord. But that brotherhood gathered in the earthly Zion was nationalistic in sentiment. It was provincial in spirit, especially, it would seem, throughout Judaea, where the churches were in villages remote from the world of men.
iv. The Gentile Churches of the Pauline world.—With the rise of Antioch a peril threatened the prestige of Jerusalem. Could the fruit of the Spirit thrive equally well in the valleys and on the plains of Syria and Asia as on the isolated plateau of Judaea? If so, it was bound to be very much more abundant. Fortunately, Paul the Apostle to the Gentiles was a man of varied culture. While his world was in cities and he thought imperially, he never treated the Jewish mind lightly, and he knew what that mind was. He understood its worth and its rights. He could discern every wave of feeling, every gust that shivered duskily across it. So St. Paul was himself the greatest power of his day making for the unity of the Church. It was a passion with him to avert a breach which would be fatal; and he was successful, for the other Apostles responded nobly as brethren, and gave him the right hand of fellowship (Galatians 2:2; Galatians 2:9). But the sections thus united had to be cemented; so he devotes much energy to effecting a durable κοινωνία by organizing the collection for the poor saints at Jerusalem. In 2 Corinthians 8:4; 2 Corinthians 9:13 and Romans 15:26 the word κοινωνία is translated ( Revised Version NT 1881, OT 1885) ‘contribution’; but ‘there is always at the root of κοινωνία, in the NT, the idea of Christian communion in one form or another. Those who bestow make common cause with one another and with the recipients’ (Waite). The collection is a religious act, because it is a mark of Christian fellowship. Indeed, the Macedonians regard it as a signal token of Divine favour to be allowed thus to help those from whom they had received the gospel; and the poor Jewish Christians, who had made experience of the liberal Christian kindliness of the Gentiles, could hardly refuse to call them brethren (2 Corinthians 8:1-5; 2 Corinthians 9:11-14).
The Christian fellowship was world-wide. This brotherhood was one everywhere (1 Peter 5:9), and in writing to the Corinthians St. Paul assumes that what he says will be of interest not only to them, but ‘to all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours’ (1 Corinthians 1:2). The Church of God which is in Corinth is a visible but partial manifestation of the larger whole. This idea persisted after the Apostolic age; for ‘Brotherhood alternates with Ecclesia in the oldest sets of ecclesiastical canons, while omnis fraternitas and πᾶσα ἡ ἀδελφότης are used to denote the whole of Christendom’ (Lindsay). This world-wide brotherhood was not held together by any outward organization, though the Apostle Paul does group his churches by provinces. But organization is local: it does not follow the lines of provincial units. Of course, Christian life had to be expressed in outward fellowship wherever it was possible, so that all the brethren within a convenient radius, such as a city, would be grouped together to form the Church of God in that place. And the Spirit of God supplied these local churches with leaders who had the necessary gifts for the conduct of their life. This became the basis of a permanent ministry.
From the world they became outwardly separate, ‘saints’ chosen out of it and consecrated to God (Romans 1:7, 1 Corinthians 1:2, Galatians 1:4), and so forming one family, ‘the household’ of faith (Galatians 6:10, Ephesians 2:19), throughout the empire of this world. Hence great stress is laid upon the grace of hospitality (Hebrews 13:1-2). In that busy world with its thronged highways, the Christian was always sure of a warm welcome wherever there was a church or a group of brethren (see per contra 3 John 1:9 f.), and the sufferings of the saints were made the occasion of active sympathy (Hebrews 6:10; Hebrews 10:33-34; Hebrews 13:3). St. Paul experienced many such marked tokens of fellowship, especially at the hands of the Philippians, for whom he cherished the deepest affection. They were unremittingly active in co-operation with him for the spread of the gospel; and whatever his needs, bodily or spiritual, might be, they were ready to do their best by gifts or sympathy to supply the lack. This was true fellowship (Philippians 1:5; Philippians 1:7; Philippians 2:18; Philippians 4:14-15). Philemon also was a real Christian, whose faith in, and love to, the Lord Jesus was manifested in his kindly offices towards all the saints; and the Apostle delicately suggests that he should not stop till his benevolence becomes complete and embraces even the slave Onesimus (Philemon 1:6; Philemon 1:15-16).
This religious idea of brotherhood issues in a new grace, ‘love of the brethren’ (φιλαδελφία), which is to be cherished as an especial sign of Divine life (1 Thessalonians 4:9, Romans 12:10, Hebrews 13:1; 1 Peter 1:22). A fine word, ἀπλότης (‘singleness’), is used by St. Paul to denote the quality of the man in whom fellowship (κοινωνία) is a ruling motive. He is ἀπλοῦς, ‘single-minded,’ ‘liberal.’ He does not serve God and Mammon. His eye is single. Looking only at the needs of his brother, he realizes the truth of the Lord’s words that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35). Among the brethren there is no almsgiving. All that is sordid in almsgiving is removed, and generosity becomes a choice token of fellowship (2 Corinthians 8:2; 2 Corinthians 9:11; 2 Corinthians 9:13). ‘When men thankfully receive God’s gifts, and in imitation of His bounty use them for the good of others, so that the recipients also thank God for the benefaction, it is as far as it goes the re-establishment of the right relation between God and men, and men and men.’ The slave is not only made partaker of such bounty, but as he possesses this spirit he pays an ungrudging service to his master (Ephesians 6:5).
The fellowship of church with church was further increased by the visits of Apostles and teachers, as well as by the interchange of correspondence. What was of interest to one was of interest to all in so far as it touched their common gospel. While we do not find any uniform creed or liturgy in these Epistles, there was almost certainly a substantially similar form of worship, and in their prayers and hymns the brethren gave utterance to the same faith in Jesus Christ, and in their teaching they adhered to the common truths which the Apostles taught (Romans 6:17, Galatians 1:8). We cannot fail to be impressed by the combination of a sense of unity with great individual freedom. The Spirit took the life of believer or church, and produced in it some distinctive grace or function, which brought diversity without disharmony, enrichment without lack of proportion. Manifold, however, as these gifts were, the greatest of all and that which lay at the root of their fellowship was love; for not only was it the best because the commonest, but it tempered and restrained the more individualistic endowments, which might easily destroy the harmony of the Christian company (1 Corinthians 12:31; 1 Corinthians 12:13). True fellowship demands variety in unity, individual freedom working at the impulse of a common spirit.
The noblest exposition of Christian fellowship, outside the Gospel of John, is contained in the Epistle to the Ephesians. In that prose poem in praise of unity, the Church is described as one body of which each Christian is, or should be, a perfect member. A Divine creation purposed from all eternity by the Father’s love, it was made actual in history through Jesus Christ. The Church is one because of the unities on which it is based. Its members are baptized into the name of the one Lord whom they confess. They are inspired by the same Spirit, and there is one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all (Ephesians 4:4-6). Historically the Church became one when, in Christ, Jew and Gentile were both reconciled unto God in one body by the cross (Ephesians 2:14-18); and in the ages to come each individual with variety of function will reach his perfection in this perfect organism, and contribute to the completeness of the whole (Ephesians 4:7-13). A fellowship so sublime in its ideal must be undisturbed by selfish desires. Only where love, patience, long-suffering and humility reign will there be on earth ‘a communion of the saints.’ ‘In the Apostle’s eyes all true life in an Ecclesia is a life of community, of the harmonious and mutually helpful action of different elements, so that he is giving instruction on the very essence of membership when in each of the nine Epistles addressed to Ecclesiae he makes the peace of God to be the supreme standard for them to aim at, and the perpetual self-surrender of love the comprehensive means of attaining it’ (Hort, Christ. Ecclesia, 123).
All the manifestation of fellowship among the brethren, the very brotherhood itself, is possible only because the individual members of the communion of the saints are in personal fellowship with Jesus Christ. He indeed is the fountain and source of communion. All human fellowship is derivative. The word κοινωνία is used by St. Paul only in 1 Corinthians 10:16 to express this personal fellowship with Christ, the thought being that in the Lord’s Supper believers are united in close communion, because through the cup and the bread they are enabled to participate in the life of Christ Himself. But the idea is central in St. Paul’s religion—‘I no longer live, but Christ liveth in me’ (Galatians 2:20); ‘For me to live is Christ’ (Philippians 1:21). However, this fellowship of the individual is no selfish enjoyment. Only those who are ‘rooted and grounded in love’ are ‘able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth and length and depth and height; and to know the love of Christ which passeth knowledge,’ that they may be filled with all the fulness of God (Ephesians 3:17-19). Now the Apostle expects that even in his own imperfect churches there should be some real enjoyment of this fellowship with Christ. He reminds the Church of Corinth that they ‘were called into the fellowship of his Son Jesus Christ our Lord’ (1 Corinthians 1:9), i.e. the fellowship of which He is the soul. Fractured though the Church is by schism and marred by impurity, it is a society of redeemed sons, whose destiny is to be conformed to the image of Him who is the firstborn among many brethren (Romans 8:29-30), and even now it must reflect with real truth some of the glory of that future fellowship. The same conception is conveyed in 2 Corinthians 13:14 in the words, ‘the communion of the Holy Ghost’; for the Spirit who unifies the Christian society into a body of redeemed men who have experienced the unmerited favour of Christ and the love of the Father, is the Spirit of Christ (2 Corinthians 3:17-18). The Philippian Church also, pervaded by love and comforted by reciprocal compassion, has enjoyed fellowship because of the presence of this Spirit who brings the consolation of Christ Himself (Philippians 2:1).
The Johannine writings .—Assuming that the books which bear the name of John came from the Apostle, we may consider them together, for they bring before us the conditions of a later period. The Gospel and the Epistles at least are the mature work of one who seeks to set before his readers the mind of Christ, after the attempt had been made for half a century to work His teaching into actual life. Much must be taken for granted. The visible Church is one; the old problem of Jewish and Gentile sections is a dead issue. Now the Church is face to face with the world. Two spiritual forces are opposed—the realm of light over which the Son of God rules, and the world of darkness organized and directed by the Prince of Evil. Error concerning the Person of Christ, and lack of love of the brethren, are disintegrating the Christian society. So the author takes his readers to the fountain of Christian fellowship, and allows them to taste its quality as it was enjoyed by the disciples of Jesus, whom having loved He loved unto the end (John 13-17). These discourses illuminate the Lord’s Supper, and the feet-washing serves as a noble approach to it. There are two prominent aspects of the Eucharist as interpreted by John: (a) that it is a feast for the spiritual nurture of the faithful (John 6:48-58); (b) that it sets forth the love of the Lord, and so becomes a love-feast of brethren. Love is the note of the conversations. Only through the clear atmosphere of love can they see their absent Master. If they obey Him and love one another, He will come to them bringing the peace and the joy which He alone can impart (John 14:21; John 14:23; John 14:27). So will there be, as Loisy says, ‘a hierarchy of love,’ the disciples loving one another with the new love which springs from their Master, and their Master loving them as the Father loves Him (John 13:34, John 17:26). These chapters teach respecting Christian fellowship that (i.) its source is God as revealed in Jesus Christ, (ii.) its agent is the Holy Spirit, (iii.) its condition in the believer is faith in and obedience to Jesus Christ, and (iv.) its fruit is a life of love, joy, and peace among brethren here, and perfect sonship hereafter.
Similar conceptions dominate the First Epistle of John. Fellowship with God is the goal of the Christian life (1 John 1:3-4). Such fellowship comes through knowledge, which is only another aspect of the love of God (1 John 4:7-8). But sin is a barrier to this fellowship, which would therefore be impossible were it not that it has been removed by the propitiatory sacrifice of Christ (1 John 2:1-2). No sin is greater than hate; and since all love comes from God (1 John 4:19), he who hates his brother cannot love God. If he love God, that love must first have come from God, and stream forth through the heart of the believer upon his brother. To live in loving fellowship with the brethren is at once the proof of fellowship with the Father and the ethical condition for receiving it, for only to hearts broadened and deepened by love can God reveal Himself and bring fellowship (1 John 4:12-13; 1 John 4:20-21).
This mystic, whose spirit was more responsive than any other to the mind of the Master, opens up the profound depth of that fellowship which the early Christian Church enjoyed, as we have seen, in no inconsiderable measure. Since Christ is the soul of Christian fellowship, it is impaired by lack of truth concerning Him. But truth and love are inseparable. Therefore when we seek for the true unity of the Church of Christ, we must begin by keeping our Lord’s great command to love the brethren, and thereby advance with all saints to a true knowledge of Christ.
Looking back through the dim distance we discover the foreshadowings of prophet and psalmist growing clearer, till in these latest books of the NT we can almost touch the reality on earth in this ideal of the Apostle whom Jesus loved. The supreme poetic description of that fellowship is the city of the King of Love in Revelation, whose citizens see the face of the Lord (Revelation 22:1-5), the beatific vision for which the psalmists strained their eyes.
The Christian fellowship as it existed on earth in the 1st century was a stupendous creation. Philosophers had dreamed of Utopias. Humane Stoics had taught the brotherhood of man. But all attempts to realize these ideals had been comparatively ineffective. In the Christian Church, however, aliens and the disfranchised found fellowship with those who inherited religious promises and social privilege. Roman and Greek stooped to love the hateful Jew, and the Jew was willing to transfer the sacred name of Israel to Gentiles whose past was unclean. Well-born and slave greeted one another as brethren, without thereby disturbing social order. A love so compelling as to reverse the national and social values, must have been derived from a Presence altogether transcending the measurements of ordinary human life. Christian fellowship is not to be defined as intercourse glowing with human love at its highest. It is primarily a spiritual communion with the Supreme Person, whose love recreates life and makes it a complete expression of love. So the goal must be, as the writer to the Hebrews says, in the world to come, when Jesus shall have introduced His many brethren into the Holy of Holies, where they will, as a company of the redeemed, hold fellowship with the Father (Hebrews 2:5; Hebrews 2:10-11; Hebrews 7:25; Hebrews 12:22-24). See, further, art. Communion.
Literature.—Hort, The Christian Ecclesia; Weizsäcker, The Apostolic Age; Lindsay, The Christian Ministry in the Early Church; v. Dobschütz, The Early Christian Churches; art. ‘Communion’ in Hastings’ DB [Note: DB Dictionary of the Bible.] ; Herrmann, Communion with God, pp. 49–133; Dale, Fellowship with Christ, Serm. i., also The Living Christ and the Four Gospels, Lects. i.–iv.; Harnack, Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries.
R. A. Falconer.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Fellowship (2)'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/f/fellowship-2.html. 1906-1918.