Word study: What does it mean?
The early church in Jerusalem devoted themselves to fellowship. In a Christian context, fellowship is the act of sharing in relationship with other believers in Christ. It is a most basically a relational term. The word is an English translation from the Old Testament Hebrew chabar and New Testament Greek koinonia. The Hebrew word chabar is used throughout the Old Testament to express the ideas of a shared home (Prov 21:9), binding or joining something with another (Ex 26:6), and companionship (Eccl 4:10). In Jewish religious sects (i.e. the Pharisees), a member was called a chaber. These chaberim, or members, would study the law together and share meals with one another as a regular feature of Jewish life.
The New Testament koinonia is a broad term that means “fellowship,” “participation,” or “community.” Though koinonia is a popular word in the modern Western church, the original Greek term is not distinctly Christian in meaning. For example, the word is used to describe both Christian community (Acts 2:42) and the taking part in the evil works of a false teacher (2 John 11). It is important to note that, throughout the New Testament, the practice of fellowship occurs in concept even where the Greek word koinonia is not present. That is, the idea of fellowship is not only a precise Greek term, but also a broad concept. For example, the concept of fellowship among believers is implied in the fifty-nine “one-another” commands throughout the New Testament letters (John 15:17; Rom 15:14, 17; Gal 5:13). That is, when believers love or serve or show hospitality to one another, the concept of fellowship is present.
Biblical usage: What does the Bible say?
The New Testament speaks of fellowship in theological and practical contexts. Theologically, koinonia was the Apostle Paul’s favorite word to describe a believer’s relationship with Christ. Practically, the term is used to refer to the relationship and unity between believers. These two uses of the word are connected. The fellowship believers have with Christ is the basis for the fellowship believers have with one another.
“Fellowship” in Theological Contexts
We have fellowship with Christ.
"God is faithful, by whom you were called into the fellowship [koinonia] of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord” (1 Cor 1:9).
We have fellowship in the gospel and it's benefits.
“I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share [koinonia] with them in its blessings” (1 Cor 9:23).
We have fellowship with the Holy Spirit.
“The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship [koinonia] of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Cor 13:14; see also Phil 2:1-4).
We have fellowship with the sufferings of Christ.
“…that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share [koinonia] his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” (Phil 3:10)
“Fellowship” in Practical Contexts
Believers practice fellowship when they have relationship with one another—if friendship and discipleship.
“…and when James and Cephas and John, who seemed to be pillars, perceived the grace that was given to me, they gave the right hand of fellowship [koinonia] to Barnabas and me.” (Gal 2:9)
Believers practice fellowship when they share generously what they have with one another.
“Do not neglect to do good and to share [koinonia] what you have, for such sacrifices are pleasing to God.” (Heb 13:16)
“For they were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have come to share [koinonia] in their spiritual blessings, they ought also to be of service to them in material blessings.” (Rom 15:27; see also 2 Cor 8:4; 9:13)
Believers practice fellowship when they treat all who are in the church with love and hospitality.
“My brothers, show no partiality as you hold the faith in our Lord Jesus Christ, the Lord of glory. For if a man wearing a gold ring and fine clothing comes into your assembly, and a poor man in shabby clothing also comes in, and if you pay attention to the one who wears the fine clothing and say, “You sit here in a good place,” while you say to the poor man, “You stand over there,” or, “Sit down at my feet,” have you not then made distinctions among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (James 2:1-4; the term koinonia is absent, though the concept is implied).
In church history: How did it get to where it is today?
Early Church Era
In the New Testament era, the early Christians distinguished between public worship and private fellowship. Luke tells us the early Christians attended the temple together on the Sabbath and gathered in homes throughout the week (Acts 2:46). This pattern of public worship and private fellowship in the early church set the precedent for all future Christian fellowship. For the next two thousand years of the church, public worship and private fellowship remained central to true believers and faithful churches.
After the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem in 70 AD, Christian worship and fellowship occurred almost exclusively in homes. Still, the principle of gathering multiple times a week for fellowship continued. Believers would gather in homes on the Lord’s Day (Sunday) for worship and throughout the week for fellowship. Home gatherings for both worship on the Lord’s Day and fellowship throughout the week continued until the fourth century. In the fourth century, the emperor Constantine made Christianity the imperial religion and built cathedrals for Christians, allowing them to meet in buildings sanctioned for public worship. The practice of meeting collectively in a large group on Sunday and meeting in smaller groups in homes during the week was the norm in the early Middle Ages (350–500AD).
In the later Middle Ages (500–1300AD), the clergy of the Roman Catholic Church regulated and defined an individual’s religious life. Religious life revolved around the Church. People, especially women, would attend church several times daily for prayer and at least once a week for services, the sacraments, and confession. Keep in mind that many in medieval Europe were illiterate, with the exception of the wealthy and the priests. Naturally, worship and fellowship were dependent on the Church. Believers relied on their literate priests to lead them in prayer, Scripture reading, and confession. There is little evidence that serious Christian fellowship in homes throughout the week was commonplace in the Middle Ages.
The Reformation and Modern Eras
The Reformation era reclaimed the biblical vision for fellowship. The Reformers freed the Word of God and prayer from the four walls of the Catholic Church and gave them back to the believer. Reformers like Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Ulrich Zwingli called believers to public worship on the Lord’s Day and private fellowship throughout the week. The English Puritans (1600-1700s) were perhaps the first to establish a formal “small groups” ministry as we would refer to it today. The Puritans would gather for worship on the Lord’s Day and then hold “holy conference” throughout the week. Holy conference consisted of small groups of believers gathering together in homes to serve one another, study the Bible together, and pray for one another. In Protestant churches today, the public worship and private fellowship model is prevalent.
In practice: How can we recover the biblical vision for this element?
The biblical vision for fellowship far surpasses what many believers today understand it to be. Scripture teaches that our spiritual fellowship with Christ is the basis for our fellowship with one another. What a profound truth! What meaningful relationships we can have with fellow believers because of Christ! In practice, there are at least four ways we can recover the biblical vision for fellowship in our Groups.
First, we can pursue meaningful relationships. Fellowship is more than “hanging out” with other Christians, talking about the latest political news or last night’s game. Fellowship runs deeper than that. The very basis of our fellowship with one another is the gospel of Christ. And the gospel is infinitely meaningful and precious to the believer. Consequently, we urge you to seek out meaningful relationships together. Plum the depths of Scripture. Confess sin. Labor in prayer. Serve the Church. Remind one another often of the gospel.
Next, we can carry out the one-anothers of the New Testament. The one-anothers teach us how to live in biblical community. Not sure where to start in an effort to recover the biblical vision for fellowship? Start with the one-anothers. Every believer can, by the power of the Holy Spirit, carry out these commands in his or her Group. Commit to loving, serving, instructing, welcoming, and praying for one another.
Third, we can use our spiritual gifts. Scripture teaches that every believer without exception has been given a spiritual gift—a manifestation of grace—to build up the church. Recovering a biblical vision for fellowship requires supernatural strength. And the Holy Spirit has already equipped us with at least one gift to build up the people around you. Whether hospitality, faith, encouragement, teaching, wisdom, or another gift, we can use these gifts in fellowship.
Finally, we can invite others into the fellowship through evangelism. If fellowship is theological (union with Christ) and practical (unity with other believers), then evangelism is most essentially inviting others to participate in that fellowship—first with Christ and then with other believers.
Resource by: Chase Selcer
- Beeke, Joel R., Jones, Mark. A Puritan Theology. Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2012.
- Brand, Chad, Charles Draper, Archie England, Steve Bond, E. Ray Clendenen, Trent C. Butler, and Bill Latta, eds. Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary. Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2003.
- Martin, Ralph P., Davids, Peter H., eds. Dictionary of the Latter New Testament and Its Developments. Downers Grove: IVP, 1997.