On fellowship vs. koinonia
- It has been said more than once in this volume that "fellowship" is the English term most often used as a rendering for the Greek koinonia. It is not the equivalent of koinonia, for equivalent means "equal in value or power," and there is no single English word capable of capturing the full meaning of koinonia. The translators who gave us The New English Bible knew this and used the expression "sharing in the common life." My own investigation leads me to endorse this as the best rendering known to me.
Fellowship is composed of the two words "fellow" and "ship." Fellow is from the Anglo-Saxon felagi, comrade or partner. It has been surmised that it may have originally signified those who bound themselves together by a blood-covenant. If this is so, the word signified more than a casual partnership in land or business, but there is no real evidence to sustain this. "Ship" is a suffix indicating state or condition. Sonship is a state in which we share as sons, companionship is a state in which we share as companions. Fellowship is a state in which we share as fellows, that is, as associates or peers.
The word "fellow" shows it is a relation of persons to each other, and not of persons to ideas or things. No one ever asks, "Do you companionship automobiles"? Nor does one ever ask, "Do you partnership the common market theory"? But that is no more ridiculous than to ask, "Do you fellowship instrumental music in corporate worship?" or "Do you fellowship premillennialism"? It would be just as absurd to ask, "Do you partnership your associate in the service station"? Yet we constantly hear those who are ignorant of the significance of fellowship asking, "Do you fellowship this individual or that?" You may be in partnership with your associate, and in the fellowship with your brethren, but we need to keep our language straight unless we wish to demonstrate that our ideas are warped.
In the context of the new covenant, fellowship is the state or condition of sharing in the life of Jesus Christ into which we are called by God (1 Corinthians 1:9). God issued the call through the gospel (2 Thess. 2:14), a distinct proclamation of seven historical facts designed to establish the most sublime truth of all ages, that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of the living God. The response to this call is belief of the fact and submission to the lordship of Jesus in one act, immersion in water under His authority or name. Every person in the universe who believes with all of his heart that Jesus is the Messiah and God's Son, and who is immersed in validation of that faith is in the fellowship. He is in it by an act of God. He is received of the Lord to the glory of God (Romans 15:7).
We are called as individuals, we respond as individuals, and we are received as individuals. But we are not simply called out of the world, we are also called together in Christ. We share in the common life of the Father and Son, which is eternal life, but because we do we also share with all others who share that life (1 John 1:3). We are not joined to Jesus because we are joined to others, but we are joined to others because we are joined to Jesus. Our relationship on the horizontal plane does not create our relationship on the vertical plane, but our relationship on the vertical plane creates our relationship on the horizontal.
This means that what one does or thinks on the horizontal plane need not affect the vertical relationship of another at all unless he personally condones or endorses it. No one is held responsible for anything which he disavows. Jesus plainly taught that individuals could be in a congregation which was dead and whose works were not perfect before God, and still walk with him in white because they were worthy (Revelation 3:1-4). Indeed, He also taught that persons could be in a congregation where a woman taught and seduced his servants to commit fornication, but if they refused her doctrine and practice and kept His word to the end, they would be blessed.
Obviously there will be some things occur among brethren in which one cannot participate because of conscience. One must never violate his personal conviction by sharing in any view or act which appears to him to be contrary to the will of God. But such differences will not affect the fellowship which results from our relationship to Jesus unless one or the other denies the Son of God or renounces His rule. Our fellowship with God is not conditioned upon seeing everything alike or upon doing everything in the same fashion but upon receiving Jesus as the Messiah and His Son. So long as we do not deliberately repudiate this conviction by word or deed the fellowship remains intact.
Fortunately we have a good example of this in the letter Paul addressed to the Romans. There were those who could freely eat meat and others whose consciences would not allow them to do so. Certainly the latter could not jointly participate with the former in this action. But this did not affect the fellowship, for the simple reason that God had received them. "Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him" (Romans 14:3). One of our human problems has always been the false assumption that if we could not jointly participate in some things we could not work together in anything.
What has been overlooked is that God's children can differ in Christ although they cannot differ about who He is. They need not regard everything alike, but everything they regard must be to the Lord. "He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it." So long as two persons exalt their relationship to the Lord above their differences they can keep both their differences and one another. It is only when what they think means more than what God did for them that they fall apart. This is not so much an indication of fidelity to God's word as it is a sign of egotism. It is a form of idolatry in which men worship their opinions more than they respect God's power and purpose. It is always a sin to destroy a brother for meat or for anything else!
We do not create the fellowship for God has done that. He invites us to share in it by becoming His sons and daughters through faith. Our task is to demonstrate the beauty and strength of a fellowship based upon faith, to a cold and cynical world. We can best do this by manifesting an unbroken love for and attachment to those who differ with us about many things. The world expects those who see everything alike to work together, but to see those laboring in unity who do not concur with each other proves that they have discovered a dynamic more powerful than the carnal nature. It is for this reason that all division within the family of God is condemned. Such division is never once authorized as the solution to fraternal disagreement. Christ is not divided and those in Christ must not be.
It is the thesis of this book that opinions and doctrinal interpretations are occasions for differences, but never for division. It is no sin to differ but it is a sin to divide. Congregations should provide an umbrella of love under which saints with divergent views can find shelter and be loved and cherished. We must make a distinction between a man and his rationalizations. We are not called upon to agree with one's ideas but to accept his person in Christ. Jesus died for men, not for opinions. When I receive men upon their faith in Jesus, I acknowledge the efficacy of His work, but I need not acknowledge the validity of their reasoning.
My only creed must be Christ. Jesus is the gospel and the gospel is Jesus. The crowning truth of the gospel is that He is the Son of God and, therefore, Lord of all. If I demand that one adopt my view or explanation of a secondary matter, or surrender his own, in order to be received by me, that thing becomes my creed. Whatever one must believe or subscribe to in order to be accepted by any group is the creed of that group, and like all human creeds it is exalted to a position of prominence above the divinely-established fact that Jesus is the Messiah and God's Son. The only basis of koinonia is the relationship with the Son created by faith in Him. It is not orthodoxy of opinion, interpretation or explanation.