The (Debatable) Meaning of Koinonia in the New Testament Church . . . and the Important Implications for Today


Apparently there has been some debate about the meaning of koinonia (Christian fellowship/community) as described in Acts 2:42 and the rest of the New Testament. I didn’t know that . . . until I listened to a podcast on the topic.

John Mark Hicks, professor of theology at Lipscomb University in Nashville, Tennessee, was interviewed on an After Class Podcast on Acts 2:42 and its application for modern churches. Hicks points out that Acts 2:42 has been used in a variety of Christian circles for many years as a “programmatic text” of the four practices that serve as markers of the true church. The four practices presented in the verse—the apostles’ teaching, fellowship, breaking of bread, and prayer—can be viewed as the “rule of worship” or “rule of faith” for the church. Nothing too debatable there.

Where we run into some contention is in the interpretation of the words that describe those four practices. For instance, does “breaking of bread” mean sharing a meal or sharing the Lord’s Supper or both? (In the early church context, I believe it’s both, but people smarter than I have debated the meaning of the phrase over the years.) Apparently, the meaning of the word fellowship has also been debated.

Hicks points out that Alexander Campbell, an early leader in the Restoration Movement (aka the Stone-Campbell Movement), for instance, viewed fellowship as the sharing of monetary resources, that is, the contributions on the first day of the week. So had John Calvin and other theologians and pastors. Isaac Errett, founder and first editor of Christian Standard, however, “thought it was broader than that,” says Hicks. Koinonia as “shared resources” seems evident in Acts 2:44-45: “All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need.” The word common is koinonia in the Greek. We see the connection in our English words, community, common, communion, and others.

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To be sure, a huge part of the New Testament church’s life in community was in how they shared everything with one another, backed up by Acts 4:33-35:

All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. . . . And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.

I’ve experienced this kind of sharing-everything community in several small groups I’ve been blessed to be a part of. I’ve shared those stories elsewhere in my blog posts, articles, and books. Indeed a mark of true biblical community is that there are no needy persons among them. Unfortunately, this is not the norm in many churches—or even in many small groups. It should be.

A mark of true biblical community is that there are no needy persons among them. Unfortunately, this is not the norm in many churches—or even in many small groups. It should be. Click To Tweet

But, like Isaac Errett, I believe biblical community is more than just that. In true biblical community, we share not only financial resources and food, but much more. Our individual and mutual communion with God and our community with one another are so intertwined that they cannot be separated. As we gather in biblical community, we share God’s love, grace, joy, peace, wisdom, and more with one another. We also share our sorrows and burdens and allow others to carry them with us. We share our struggles, temptations, and sins with one another through confession and God brings healing. Much of this happens in the practice of the New Testament “one another” passages; it’s all part of New Testament koinonia.

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God uses all of these practices—the apostles’ teaching, everything contained in how we share with one another in the fellowship, the Lord’s Supper, and prayer—to transform us and mature us. It’s all part of God’s design to grow us spiritually and his church numerically.

But we must not limit the extent of what this biblical community entails and requires of us. It’s so much more than just hanging out and enjoying one another’s company. When we embrace the community we see lived out in the early church, we will be enlivened and emboldened; we will live with contentment, joy, peace, power, and so many more of God’s resources. It’s the kind of life God desires for us—a life where we may disagree with one another but we still are “one in heart and mind.” It’s a life in which God’s grace is powerfully at work in us (all of us) and there are no needy persons among us. It’s a self-sacrificing life where we don’t live “out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility [we] value others above [ourselves], not looking to [our] own interests but each of [us] to the interests of the others” (Philippians 2:3-4), just as Jesus did.

When we live like this, our community life comes to its intended fruition: “And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved” (v. 47).

I recently came across this interesting meme on social media:

"The renewal of the church will not start with microphones on stages, it will start with meals around tables." - Dan White, Jr.

This doesn’t take anything away from worship, preaching, or any other part of the life of the church. But, yes, I believe renewal will begin with face-to-face, heart-to-heart relationships. It happened in the early church in and through valuing-others-above-ourselves community, and it will happen in that kind of community today as well.

The Christian community we see in the New Testament church and which is available to the church today is one of the greatest, richest gifts God has given his church. It’s a gift that flows out of his own triune nature, and it will be a part of the community we experience in the new heaven and new earth. It’s a gift, a blessing, that itself is meant to be shared with others—all others—as the Lord adds to our community those who are being saved.

I wrote a four-session group study on biblical community based on Acts 1-4, Launch into Community Life: Building a master plan of action with your small group. I originally developed the guide for all new groups in churches I served, and we found it very effective in helping groups grasp a biblical vision and mission and to plan out their future together based on how the early church did it. Touch Outreach Ministries eventually published it.

Here are a dozen books I’ve read over the years that have helped me develop a practical theology of Christian community. Click on any of the books to go to Amazon where you can get more information, purchase it, or look around for other options. (I’m an Amazon Associate.)

One Thought to “The (Debatable) Meaning of Koinonia in the New Testament Church . . . and the Important Implications for Today”

  1. Jerran Jackson

    “We must not limit the extent of what this biblical community entails and requires of us.” Well said, Michael. Thanks for the challenge. Jerran

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