In the church tradition in which I grew up, there was little talk about being a “member” of the local church. As believers, we were assumed to be “members” of Christ’s body—the global church—but it was felt that a more intimate expression of togetherness was needed for the local church. So we opted for “fellowship”.
We spoke of “being in fellowship”.
Similarly, we didn’t usually provide hospitality but rather we would invite guests to have “fellowship” in the home.
A very specific usage of “fellowship” related to the financial gift given to a visiting speaker. This was usually limited to covering expenses, but sometimes a gift was given to express “fellowship”. This usually meant that the money was more than just to cover expenses. Nowadays, I have come to rely more on these expressions of fellowship!
On a less encouraging note, the word “fellowship” was sometimes used to communicate our insular nature. A person who spoke at other denominations was considered to be going “outside the fellowship”.
How we use and misuse language sometimes.
You can see that the term in my very confused brain was conditioned by my specific denominational upbringing. It spoke of intimacy but also of exclusivity. You can imagine my surprise, therefore, when I started to study the New Testament for myself, and especially when I grew in my knowledge of the Greek used by its authors. In my weird system of visual thinking, I had come to associate—wrongly—"fellowship” with giving money. This misunderstanding was exacerbated by the Greek word for fellowship—koinonia. The first part of that word sounds very much like “coin”. In my West of Scotland accent I would say, “Have you got coin oan ya?” (Best understood when spoken out loud!) Yes, I confess this was a foolish way to interpret Greek of the first century. An aid for memory isn’t the best way to land on the right meaning of a word. In fact, some might even accuse me of thinking like a stereotypical tight Scotsman!
I have been thinking a lot about the breadth of the word, and the teaching of the New Testament. Here’s the apostle John writing about koinonia.
This is the message we have heard from him and proclaim to you, that God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say we have fellowship (κοινωνία—koinōnia) with him while we walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin.
1 John 1.5-7
A beautiful duality is presented in the text about our fellowship with God and our fellowship with each other. But did you notice that the term is, in both cases, fellowship “with”? It communicates that we have our own identity while also telling us that we have a partnership, we act together. That’s a beautiful idea, isn’t it? We don’t lose our individuality but it’s made richer and more beautiful by our “fellowship” with God and with others. What a remarkable truth.
The apostle Peter uses a related word, koinonos, in one of his letters.
His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers (κοινωνός— koinōnos) of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.
2 Peter 1.3-4
That opens up a whole new meaning for us, doesn’t it? We become those who share something in common with another. We become part of each other. We were introduced into this “divine nature” at the time of conversion through the generating power of the Holy Spirit, who gives us life. Then, as we live in the enjoyment of God's precious and magnificent promises, we are conformed more and more into His image so that we become more like him (2 Cor 3.18). The Holy Spirit changes us into the likeness of Jesus from one degree of glory to another.
Ancient false teachers (the Gnostics) and more recent ones (Eastern mystics and New Age gurus of all sorts) have often emphasised the importance of attaining transcendent knowledge. But the apostle Peter stressed to his readers that only when we are born anew by God’s Spirit are we able to share in God’s nature. The false prophets of Peter’s day believed that transcendent knowledge elevated people above the need for morality. But Peter countered that notion by asserting that genuine knowledge of God through Christ gives believers all they need to live godly lives.
Including ordinary blokes like me. And ordinary people like you.
Peter was writing for Greek readers in particular, so he frames this argument in terms of nature, which might be confusing. He doesn’t wish to state that human beings become God. Of course not. Instead, his focus is on the moral change within the believer’s heart and life. As the first man, Adam, was made in the image of God, but something even more marvelous happens through the renewal of the Holy Spirit. We are in a yet diviner sense made in the image of the Most High, and are partakers of the divine nature. (C .H. Spurgeon. Morning and Evening.).
In Hebrews 2:14-15, we read,
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook (μετέχω—metechō) of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.
In the previous verse, the writer has just described the “children God has given” to Jesus, which refers to believers. They are children of God (see John 1.12-13 and 1 John 3.1). The idea is that since His children are human, Jesus had to become human in order to be their Redeemer (1 Peter 1.18-19). There is a word the writer could have used—koinoneo. It marks the sharing of the common fleshly nature (which must include the sin of Adam). The writer instead used metechō (took part of) which describes that Jesus took hold of human nature in the incarnation and held it to Himself as an additional nature. By doing this, He is associating Himself with the human race in its possession of flesh and blood, yet without its sin. He took to Himself something with which by nature He had nothing in common (metechō) - that is, flesh and blood. Whereas human beings possess human nature in common with one another (koinoneo), yet the Son of God took upon himself something that was not natural to Him.
One of the requirements of a redeemer in the Old Testament was that one must be related to those for whom the redemption is undertaken. Jesus, our nearest Kinsman-Redeemer, took upon Himself our nature, in order that He might die in our place. In doing so, he paid the price of redemption, which in turn liberates us to take hold of the divine nature, which does not naturally belong to us.
That is a remarkable truth. In fact, it is so remarkable that it should cause us to bow down in worship. What took place at Christmas was something well beyond our understanding. Here, I am barely scratching the surface of its wonder. The Son of God put on flesh, yet without sin. (John 1.14) He laid aside his glory to join us in an earthly body, and partook—metechō—of our flesh so that we could have fellowship—koinōnia—with God and with one another.
The Greek word “fellowship” is so much more than just a word to describe what happens when we come together as the church, wonderful though that is. It certainly goes beyond any thoughts about monetary gifts. The word describes the miracle of Jesus becoming human but also the miracle of the new birth where we become part of God’s extended family.
My own personal journey with this one word, koinōnia, has changed how I see both my place in this world and my role in God’s family. I have discovered that I am not simply called to have fellowship with, but experience fellowship in. I’m called to partake in God’s nature—koinōnos. And as I’ve studied the word metechō, so the wonder has grown. The Son of God took on a new nature, one that joins him to me, and to all of us. He became a human being, yet without sin. Our fellowship with each other is founded upon Christ’s metechō, his partaking of our nature so that he could redeem it and make us new.
Allow these thoughts to lead you to worship today.