They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the communion (κοινωνία), to the breaking of bread and to prayer...All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need…They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people

- Acts 2:42

If there's a word to describe the earliest of Christian communities that encapsulates everything about them and their ideal, it's the Greek word κοινωνία, which is translated in multiple ways when found in the New Testament.

The root is κοινος, a prefix meaning "common", "having in common". The term κοινωνία was also used to describe corporations, marriages (intimate ones, as opposed to arranged), and other intimate or closely kept relationships.

It's also worthy to note that it's a word denoting activity, and also translated as 'participation', 'sharing' and 'contribution'.

But in the New Testament it's used in multiple contexts.

  • To describe the relationship in the first Christian communities - where people would actually sell their property and share food with each other and in each others' homes, donating funds to whoever need them.
    • They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the communion (κοινωνία), to the breaking of bread and to prayer...All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need…They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people - Acts 2:42-47
  • To describe the post-Pentecostal relationship between God and man. (It is not used in this sense before Pentecost).
    • God is faithful, by whom you were called into fellowship (κοινωνία) with his son, Jesus Christ our Lord. - 1 Corinthians 1:9 
  • To describe the act of communion (the Eucharist)
    • Is not the cup of blessing which we bless a sharing  (κοινωνία) in the blood of Christ? Is not the bread which we break a sharing  (κοινωνία) in the body of Christ? - 1 Corinthians 10:16

When you start looking at this repeated and multiple use of the term, a lot of themes in the New Testament start to interweave.

Primarily, the idea that God and Man can not only co-exist in the same person, but the divine can be shared.

Secondarily, that one is not separate from others. Galatians 3:28 takes on new depths of meaning:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

or from the Lord's Prayer

forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.

And lastly, that a proper relationship between God and Man, and between all people, is active, shared, and mutual. Sadly, the term "fellowship" in English doesn't quite cut it as a translation - but then again, there isn't a word in English to describe the depth and connotation of the Greek. Nor, as some have suggested, is the notion that it's communist, that resources are simply pooled and allocated. It's an active sharing where one works for self and others, justice replaces charity, and concern for one's neighbour as oneself takes on the full meaning of Jesus' commandment in Mark 12:31 - "Love your neighbour as yourself". It's interesting to note that in the Koine Greek, the "as yourself" is ὡς σεαυτόν" - "in the same manner of yourself" but also "while you love yourself." In some sense both connotations in the double meaning are just as applicable.

A lot of churches use "fellowship", sometimes even as a verb. There's NOTHING wrong with encouraging people to share together in a coffee morning or in a Bible study. Other churches have taken the Greek concept further and gone to far greater degree, building communes or even entire communities separated from the rest of the world, while working together and sharing everything together for all common purposes.

But it would be interesting to see what would happen to the human race if every single person therein ever got to the point where an insult to another would be seen as literally an insult to oneself, and the welfare and happiness of one's neighbour and community as important as one's own. The early Christian community experimented with it, and they lived in fellowship and joy even in the midst of severe fear and persecution.

Here's to that old time religion.

 

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