Koinonia and Life Together in the New Testament
Editor’s Note: Jeff Kloha’s essay appears in the Winter 2012 Concordia Journal. It is the second in a three-part series of essays that reflects on the current three-part emphasis of The Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod, as outlined by President Matthew Harrison: “Witness, Mercy, Life Together” (related to the biblical Greek words martyria, diakonia, koinonia). We reprint it here for the sake of conversation and dialogue (click here for the first essay by Erik Herrmann).
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In the Fall 2011 issue of the Concordia Journal, Erik Herrmann offered some observations regarding how terms like “mercy” and “service” might be heard—and, more importantly, shape our own behavior. This essay offers some exegetical observations on the third term in the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod’s three-fold emphasis: “Life Together.” As the Bible study produced by Albert Collver notes, “Koinonia, fellowship, and life together are perhaps both the easiest and the hardest to describe in the Church.” Of course, neither “fellowship” nor “life together” are adequate translations of the Greek word κοινωνία, and the latter is really more an interpretive gloss than an English equivalent. But using the phrase “life together” helpfully emphasizes some New Testament themes that “fellowship,” as commonly used in American Christianity, gets wrong. First, κοινωνία involves all of “life,” not just the “fellowship hour” after worship or the activities that take place in the “fellowship hall.” “Life together” happens before, during, and after worship; on Monday through Saturday; in homes and workplaces; and even (in its limited way) on Facebook and the blogosphere. “Together” is not only an abstract concept, it happens in “life.” Second, the highlighting of “together” prevents us from viewing our life in Christ as an individual, personal “relationship.” You do not have your own, personal Jesus. Rather, together we share in something that is common: Jesus Christ and life in him. A third benefit of the use of “life together” is that it gives us the opportunity to think through old questions in new ways. For example, using “life together” and not “fellowship” as a gloss for κοινωνία helps us to recognize that the theological and ecclesial use of the word “fellowship” is informed by, yet distinct from, the individual occurrences of the Greek word κοινωνία in the NT. This allows us to hear the NT on its own terms and allow it to shape (perhaps even reshape) and invigorate our practice of “fellowship.”
Fundamental to an analysis of κοινωνία in the NT is the recognition that it is an event word. For such words, “in the meanings they convey, a component of activity is, in fact, present, though that is not apparent to the ‘naked eye.’” In contrast to words like “tree,” “pamphlet,” or “σῶμα,” which are static nouns, every example of κοινωνία entails activity between and among actors. Take the word “handoff” as a parallel example in English. A “handoff” necessarily includes actors (a quarterback and a running back) and an action (handing the ball off). Were one to snap a photo of a handoff it would be an action photo of specific players, a ball, a field of play, fans, officials, etc. A handoff is never a static event. It is the same with κοινωνία. Every time it is used, it refers to an “event” that includes specific people who are doing specific activities with specific things.
Greek uses a root system, with cognate words built from the same root. English also does this; for example, “teacher” and “teaching” are derived from the verb “teach.” The best way to come at event nouns in Greek is to look at the root upon which it is based. The nouns κοινωνία and κοινωνός and the adjective κοινός all derive from the verbs κοινωνέω. The root κοιν- is used in situations where something is common or shared. Kοινωνέω, or “participating together in something,” can be a positive or a negative event, depending on who is participating together and what those people are participating together in. For a negative example, look at 1 Timothy 5:22; Timothy is not to “participate together in the sins of others.” But “participating together” in the (financial) needs of the saints (Rom 12:13; 15:27; Gal 6:6) is encouraged and commended. Two points are critical. First, it is not possible to κοινωνέω alone. Just as it takes two to tango, it takes at least two to κοινωνεῖν. Second, the question of whether κοινωνέω is encouraged or discouraged in the NT depends upon several things: What is the “common thing” in which one is “participating together”? With whom are you “participating together”? In the example from 1 Timothy 5, “the sin of others” is the “common thing” in which Timothy is not to “participate together” with others.
The phrase “participate together” is clumsy English, but this gets us back to the initial problem of what English words best render the verb κοινωνέω, and by extension the nouns and adjective derived from it. The verb “participate” captures many elements of the verb κοινωνέω. However, “participate” is frequently used in contexts where the “participation” of the “participant” is minimal, and the connection to other participants is tenuous. For example, if I “participate” in a national survey, my connection to the other participants is only via the short phone call during which the survey was taken. There is no sense of my connection to the other participants, except as a statistic. “Participate,” therefore does not correspond at all well with κοινωνέω, nor “participation” with κοινωνία. Hence, the NIV and ESV translation of 1 Corinthians 10:16 as “participation in the blood of Christ” is unclear, if not misleading; “participation together (or “co-participant”) in the blood of Christ” is clumsy, but makes clear the corporate nature of the participation being described by the apostle. More on this below.
Now we can move from the verb κοινωνέω on to the nouns that are based on the same root, κοιν-. The adjective κοινός labels the “common thing” in which one participates together with another. Like the verb on which it is based, this “common thing” may be either positive (Ti 1:4 κατὰ κοινὴν πίστιν “according to the common faith”) or negative (Prv 1:14 LXX κοινὸν βαλλάντιον “shared coin purse”). The noun κοινωνός, then, labels a person who “participates together with another” in the “common thing.” Just as one, by definition, cannot κοινωνέω alone, so also one, by definition, cannot be a κοινωνός unless there is at least one other κοινωνός who is also “participating together.”
A diagram may be helpful at this point.
At the center is the κοινός, the thing that is shared together in common. The κοινωνόι, circled around the center, are those who are “participating together” in the “common thing.” The action of “participating together” is the arrow in the diagram; this is what the verb κοινωνέω indicates. Using this diagram, one may analyze individual NT examples of this word group. First, κοινός. In Titus 1:4, the “common faith” is that which Paul and Titus both have in common, or participate together in. This is “the thing in common” at the center of the diagram, and Paul and Titus, as the actors in the event, could be called “co-participants” in that common faith. Second, κοινωνέω. At 1 Timothy 5:22, Timothy is not to “participate together in the sins of others” (κοινώνει ἁμαρτίαις ἀλλοτρίαις). The “sins of others” is “the thing in common” (always in the dative case with this verb) at the center of the diagram—the “common thing” in which Timothy should not participate together with others. If he did commit the sins, then he would be “participating together” (κοινώνει) in them with others. The verb κοινωνέω is the arrow in the diagram. It is the action of participating—and thereby connecting to, the “common thing” with others. Third, κοινωνός. In the “Woe Unto You” passages in Matthew 23, Jesus rebukes the Pharisees for claiming, “If we had lived in the days of our fathers, we would not have taken part with them in shedding the blood of the prophets” (23:30 ESV). The phrase “have taken part with them” in this translation renders the noun κοινωνόι; this rather cumbersome rendering demonstrates the difficulty of clearly conveying κοινωνός in English. However, reference to the diagram may again be helpful. The “thing in common” in the center of the diagram that the Pharisees claim that they would not have done is “shedding the blood of the prophets.” Had they done so, they would have been part of the circle of κοινωνόι who participated with other κοινωνόι in the murders.
To summarize, each word in the κοιν- root is used in the NT to describe persons—always more than one person—and the things and actions that these people share in common. Now we can begin to discuss the actors and activities entailed in the NT examples of κοινωνία, or “life together.”
Κοινωνία, like the other words in the κοιν- group, is a rather difficult word to bring into English. An excellent summary of the issues is provided in Anthony Thiselton’s commentary on 1 Corinthians. Most translations use “fellowship” to render the word (e.g., KJV, ESV, NIV, NASB at 1 Cor 1:9). However, as Thiselton notes, “the use of fellowship in church circles may convey an impression quite foreign to Paul’s distinctive emphasis. He does not refer to a group of like-minded people, such as a Greco-Roman societas.” Turning again to our diagram may be helpful at this point: “Participating together” (κοινωνέω), “the thing in common” (κοινωνός), and “those who participate together” (κοινωνός) in that set of situations and relationships, is κοινωνία. Put another way, κοινωνία is used in the NT to describe the entire event, the totality of all the elements in the diagram—it is the entire diagram:
κοινωνία is, therefore, that event that occurs when all the elements are in place; it is the manifestation of the relationships that exist between people who share together in a common thing. Using this understanding helps clarify individual examples of the word in the NT. For example, the offering for the saints in Jerusalem is very frequently described simply as a κοινωνία (Rom 15:26; 2 Cor 8:4; 2 Cor 9:13). Most translations use the word “collection” or “offering” in these passages. However, κοινωνία is not the offering itself, nor the act of giving itself. It is the entire event, everything from the “thing in common” (the cold, hard cash), the “participating together” (the action of making the cash contributions) and the people of the church who participate together in the giving, collecting, and delivering of the gift to the saints in Jerusalem; all this is the κοινωνία event. In these passages, rather than describe the entire process, Paul simply uses the word κοινωνία to encompass all these people and activities; it is the “event word” that encompasses all these elements. It seems to be used the same way also in Acts 2:42, where κοινωνία is used to describe an aspect of “life together” in which the newly baptized in Jerusalem participated together. The use of κοινωνία in 2:42 highlights that together they participated in a “thing in common,” the κοινά (again, dative case) of 2:44. The κοινά are the funds generated from “selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.” So along with the teaching, breaking bread, and prayers among the early baptized, physical support for one another is in evidence. A new set of relationships is created, which results in a kind of new life together. Nevertheless, as with other words derived from the κοιν- stem, κοινωνία is not always a positive thing; it is to be avoided when it is between two things that, in God’s eyes, cannot share in a common thing. For example, in 2 Corinthians 6:14 there cannot be κοινωνία when “righteousness and lawlessness” and, metaphorically, “light and dark” are, so to speak, in the same diagram.
Space does not permit an analysis of every example of κοινωνία in the NT. However, recognizing that κοινωνία is an “event” fleshes out some problematic examples. At Galatians 2:9, James and Cephas “gave the right hand of fellowship” (δεξιὰς ἔδωκαν…κοινωνίας) to Paul and Barnabas. The handshake symbolized the new set of relationships and activities to which the apostles committed: mission work among different peoples and financial support of the suffering baptized in Jerusalem. Κοινωνία is not some vague agreement but actual, concrete events and activities—things in common—in which the apostles participate together. Using this external entailments method to sort out κοινωνία helps to clarify and read in their proper context the individual examples of the word in 1 Corinthians, where the Apostle uses κοινωνία three times and κοινωνός twice. Indeed, among the most difficult examples of the κοιν- root are found in this letter, which are critical for understanding the nature of “life together.”
In 1 Corinthians 10, Paul is warning some of the baptized in Corinth who are over-confident in their “knowledge” and their ability to be faithful (cf. 10:13) in their religiously pluralistic environs. Some even seem to have thought that it would not harm them if they participated in the worship of what Paul calls “demons” – what other people worship as gods but are in fact not gods. But Paul argues that if the baptized participate in what “they (the non-baptized) sacrifice,” then even the baptized become κοινωνούς (“participants together”; 10:18, 20) with the non-baptized gathered around that table of sacrifice. To lay out the entailments using our diagram, the baptized Corinthian thereby becomes a “participant together” with those who are worshipping the idol because that person is “participating together” in the “common thing,” i.e., the table at which the sacrifice is being made and shared. Therefore, even though he has “knowledge” that the idol is not a real god and that the prayers made at the table of idols in fact are not heard because the idol is “nothing,” nevertheless it is not his “knowledge” that defines what his participation in that table counts as. Rather, his participation is undeniably a κοινωνία with others who are worshipping the demon; he is defined by the κοινωνία he keeps. As noted above, not every κοινωνία in the NT is a good one, and one may indeed be a κοινωνός of the wrong thing with the wrong people.
These examples of κοινωνός in 10:18, 20 help to clarify a grammatical conundrum: the use of the genitive case of a noun that modifies κοινωνία. 1 Corinthians 10:18 reads: οὐχ οἱ ἐσθίοντες τὰς θυσίας κοινωνοὶ τοῦ θυσιαστηρίου εἰσίν / “are not those who eat the sacrifices participants in the altar?” (ESV). The genitive case of τοῦ θυσιαστηρίου is to be understood as an objective genitive, that is to say, the “altar” is the object of the verbal root (κοινωνέω) which is implied in the noun κοινωνός. By going to the place where the altar is set up, and being present when the sacrifices are offered, the baptized Corinthian (sinfully) participates together with others in the altar and everything that is happening there—the entire event—most problematically in the worship of other gods. The same use of the genitive is found two verses later at 10:20, though here the modern English translations are not consistent. The best rendering of οὐ θέλω δὲ ὑμᾶς κοινωνοὺς τῶν δαιμονίων γίνεσθαι is “And I do not want you to be sharers [together with others] in demons ” (NASB). As at 10:18, the genitive case is used to denote the object of the sentence implied in the verbal noun κοινωνός: some Corinthians, by eating at that table with those who are not in Christ are in fact participants together with them in the event of worshipping demons. Therefore, these Corinthians, in spite of their “knowledge” that there is only “one God” (1 Cor 8:4–7), are in fact breaking the first commandment.
Similarly, the genitives that modify κοινωνία at 1 Corinthians 10:16 (τοῦ αἵματος τοῦ Χριστοῦ and οῦ σώματος τοῦ Χριστοῦ) are objective genitives, indicating the object in the sentence implied by the verbal noun κοινωνία: all the κοινωνόι who co-participate in that eating and drinking participate together “in the blood and body of Christ.” That is to say, this manifestation of κοινωνία entails the entire event: when “we bless” and “we break” it is a participating together in Christ’s blood and body in which all together receive the benefits of his work of death and resurrection. There is no individual blessing and breaking, there is no individual eating and drinking, there is no individual receiving. It is, through and through, a very real manifestation of the body of Christ in action, a God-pleasing κοινωνία, because it is in Christ’s own blood and body.
The other example of κοινωνία in 1 Corinthians comes at the letter’s opening (1:9). This passage concludes the proömium to the letter, the opening unit that sets up the rest of the discourse. Paul begins by addressing the Corinthian church as part of the larger “church of God,” which he further defines as, “all those in every place who call upon the name of the Lord” (1:2). The basis for incorporation into the church is, as always in Paul, the Gospel “call.” God’s external call is decisive for their identity and life together. The adjective κλητός at 1:2 and the related verb κάλεω at 1:9 frame the proömium, for without God’s “call” the Corinthians would not be church. From the Corinthians’ perspective, however, their experience of life in Christ as church has not been satisfactory. They seek after captivating leaders (1:12–4:21) who speak wise and persuasive words; indeed they seek to become “kings” and to “rule” (4:8). The obvious problem is that there is only one ruler and Lord, Jesus Christ. The Corinthians, by seeking after human leaders, wisdom, and power, demonstrate a complete misunderstanding of the gospel message. Rather than the “foolishness of the cross” they had “boasted” in what is merely human (1:12–31). This centering on human leaders and human teaching inevitably creates division, for “jealousy and strife” (3:3–4) result when the one Lord’s reign and message is replaced with human leaders and their teaching. This is made most clear in the verse that immediately follows the proömium, the theme verse for the entire letter: “I exhort you, brothers, by the name of our Lord, Jesus Christ, that you (all) say the same thing and that there be no divisions among you (all), but that you (all) be made whole again with the same mind and the same way of thinking” (1:10). The problem in Corinth is that there are divisions or “tears” (σχίσματα) in the church, which can only be “mended” (ἦτε κατηρτισμένοι) through the one Lord, Jesus Christ.
This goal for the entire letter, this exhortation to unity, is precisely where Paul ends the proömium with κοινωνία (1:9): “God is faithful, through whom you were called into participation together in his Son, Jesus Christ.” I chose “participation together” as the translation of κοινωνία in order to emphasize the entire event: the co-participants, the action of participating, and the sharing in the common thing, Jesus Christ. As in the previously discussed examples of κοινωνία modified by a genitive noun, Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ is the “thing which is shared in common” by all who participate together. The ESV, following the KJV, leaves the genitive Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ untranslated (“the fellowship of Jesus Christ”), implying that the κοινωνία is a possession “of Jesus Christ,” a kind of static entity. However, recalling that κοινωνία is an event noun confirms that this translation is insufficient; Jesus Christ is that which is shared in, thereby shaping and defining the identity of the church in Corinth. As church (1:2), they have been incorporated into Christ (1:2, 4) and are now called upon to attest to the unity that they share by living in κοινωνία, sharing life together in him. They have been “called,” that is, placed into the church in which κοινωνία in Christ is expressed.
This language of “manifestated” or, in the last sentence, “expressed” best describes what happens in κοινωνία. Clarifying the “event word” entailments of each occurrence of κοινωνία results in an important implication: κοινωνία is not created by the participants, nor by the act of participating. It is the inevitable result of the collocation—one might even say the collision—of people, actions, and a common thing. In the context of 1 Corinthians, the church does not create κοινωνία when she participates together in Christ, but κοινωνία is thrust upon her because all are in Christ. This is seen most clearly by looking closely at the subjects of the verb in 1:9: God called you (all), all who have been called are brought into relationship with Christ, and in this collision of people and the Christ in whom all participate, there is κοινωνία. Christ does not create κοινωνία, we do not create κοινωνία, God does, by connecting us all to Christ. Identical language to this way of understanding κοινωνία is seen at 1 Corinthians 1:29–30. There, at the end of the unit of thought, Paul writes that no one has a boast before God, and “from him you (all) are in Christ Jesus.” That virtual restatement of 1:9 clarifies that the κοινωνία of 1:9 is indeed “in” (not “of”) Christ, and that it is God the Father’s doing.
These observations have profound implications for how we understand and seek to live out κοινωνία. First, we do not create κοινωνία. It is an event that God creates, including all the elements: the individuals called to participate, the actions by which the κοινωνία is expressed, and to the “common thing” in which all share; all of it is God’s doing. A practical implication may be seen in the way that we celebrate the Lord’s Supper. “Participation together in the blood and body of Christ” (10:16) is not up to the individual, for it is God who calls us into this κοινωνία. The Lord’s Supper is not a means to create κοινωνία, it is an expression or manifestation of the already existing unity (the church) that has been created by God, through faith in Christ. The necessary corollary to this is that it is impossible for an individual who is not called by God to “participate together in the blood and body of Christ.”
A second implication we may draw is that κοινωνία is not a vague, abstract notion. Because it is a concrete crashing together of people, actions, and a thing in common, several manifestations of κοινωνία are possible. We’ve seen this already in some of the examples cited: κοινωνία is manifest when the church sees to the needs of its members (Acts 2:42-45; Rom 15:26; 2 Cor 8:4; 2 Cor 9:13); it is manifest when members of the body work together in support of the proclamation of the Gospel (Phil 1:5); it is manifest even when members of the body are persecuted (Phil 3:10). But it extends even further, as the entire letter of 1 Corinthians demonstrates. “Participating together in Jesus Christ” (1:9) concludes the proömium and sets up the letter’s thematic call unity in 1:10. The rest of the letter describes the various ways that κοινωνία is expressed among the people and situations in Corinth: avoiding factionalism (chaps. 1–4); exercising discipline in cases of gross sin (5); settling disputes without going to court (6); showing love when handling matters of Christian freedom (8–9); avoiding participating with those who worship idols (10); living as Christ’s eschatological community in the church’s worship, meals, and the Lord’s Supper (11); being a body, with Christ as the head (12); doing all things for the building up of that body in worship (12–14); and, ultimately, living today in the hope of the resurrection on the Last Day (15). As the church does all this, they demonstrate the “participation together in Jesus Christ” of 1 Corinthians 1:9 and live out the call to unity in thinking, speaking, and judgment. Our struggles will revolve around different issues, but the same Lord reigns in his same body, the church, into which we also have been called to live in κοινωνία with those who, like us, have been called into Christ’s church.
Third, “church” and κοινωνία must be kept distinct. “Church” is a “thing,” an entity; κοινωνία is an event. The church exists even when it is not gathered together in one place, but the church expresses κοινωνία properly only when God gathers his people together to share in a common thing under one Lord, Jesus Christ. A key question that the church faces today is how to faithfully evidence God-pleasing κοινωνία: What “events” gather the right people doing the right actions around the right thing? What kinds of κοινωνία can occur among all the baptized? When is κοινωνία to be an expression only of the life together that exists only among groups who share the same confession?
Fourth, κοινωνία is not fellowship between people; it is fellowship between people through sharing together in the same thing. In sharp contrast to a sociologically derived understanding of “fellowship” in which individuals relate directly to one another, in biblical κοινωνία individuals are connected to one another only through the common thing. Notice that in the diagrams of κοινωνία used earlier the arrows are not directly connecting one κοινωνός to another. Instead, the arrows are connecting each κοινωνός to the common thing and then through that common thing to the others. So also in the Body of Christ our relationships to each other are defined not socially, economically, racially, or on any other basis than Christ. As a result, the individuals who live in κοινωνία relate to one another through Christ. Hence the Apostle will describe his relationship to the Corinthians as one of “father” in Christ (1 Cor 4:15), not on any other basis. The Gentiles have now been brought near to the Jews into one body in Christ (Eph 2:13). In Christ (Phil 2:1, 5) the members of church relate to one another in a completely new way: by “being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Phil 2:2–4). Faithful κοινωνία in the church, therefore, will always be expressed with humility and self-sacrifice toward one another. “Strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy” (Gal 5:19) will never be in evidence in Christ-centered κοινωνία.
And so we are called to life together in the church. “Church” is a given—it is one, holy, καθολική, apostolic. But Christ-centered, God-pleasing κοινωνία is not a given, for not all κοινωνία will reflect the unity in Christ that we have been given. God-pleasing κοινωνία is an event—any number of events and expressions of the unity that God’s people share in Christ. It is to be strived for constantly in all aspects of the church’s life together. Kοινωνία happens when we worship, share goods and resources, teach one another, carry out mission activity, and myriad other events carried out by the living Body. It happens when we demonstrate love to those whom we do not like. It happens when we gather for meals, and for the Lord’s Supper. Every genuine expression of κοινωνία in the church is God’s creation. When it happens among us, we praise the God who makes us one. If it is not happening among us, the first question each of us must ask is this: What am I doing that is preventing me from living in κοινωνία with those whom God has called into this life together with me?