If you’ve been part of a church community, you may have noticed how some words acquire “churchy” meanings—like “fellowship.” When is the last time you got together with your colleagues after work for “fellowship”? Never. But in church, we have fellowship luncheons that are held in fellowship halls and we get together for fellowship in our fellowship groups. When we overuse a word, it can lose its meaning. Our overuse of “fellowship” makes an important point in 1 John fall flat.
“That which we have seen and heard we proclaim also to you, so that you too may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.… If we say we have fellowship 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 1:3, 6–7).
We can determine the meaning of fellowship in this passage by examining it within a New Testament context. To do that, we have to find the Greek root word behind the English term. Using the ESV English-Greek Reverse Interlinear, we find that the Greek word underlying “fellowship” is koinonia (κοινωνία).
Same Greek Word, Different English Words
Koinonia is translated many different ways in English Bibles. The first appearance of koinonia in the New Testament appears in Acts 2:42: “And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship (koinonia), to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
But koinonia is interpreted with another word in 2 Cor 9:13. “They will glorify God because of your submission flowing from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution (koinonia) for them and for all others.” Paul writes to the believers in Philippi: “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).
Even translations that claim to use close word-for-word consistency, like the ESV, do not always render koinonia as “fellowship.” There’s a reason: Koinonia can be used for a particular aspect of Christianity, or the dynamic whole of Christian living.
These different translations reflect the nature of koinonia: it depicts an interactive relationship between God and believers who are sharing new life through Christ.
The Greek word captures the entirety of this relationship. It involves active participation in Christian community: sharing in spiritual blessings and giving material blessings. Gentile believers in Macedonia had nothing in common with the Jewish believers in Jerusalem except Christ (Rom 15:26–27).
Having no equivalent in English that captures the whole spectrum of meaning, translators focused on a specific aspect of koinonia in each context. Acts 2 focuses on the relationship among believers while 2 Cor 9 uses koinonia to express generosity in community. Paul also uses koinonia to describe the way he identifies with Christ’s sufferings. John, in his first letter, uses koinonia to describe what connects us to God and to each other through Christ.
What Fellowship Really Means
Fellowship is a word we may use too lightly in our churches. The variety of uses in the New Testament reveals that koinonia involves a deeper level of fellowship than an informal social gathering. The essential element of koinonia is participation—Christ is what connects us.
We should value all that we hold in common as followers of Christ regardless of cultural or denominational differences.
The focus is always on what believers have in common. This is the key to understanding koinonia in the New Testament. So the next time you come across “fellowship” used in a churchy way, remember that fellowship should focus on what we all have in common: new life in Jesus Christ.
All biblical references are from the English Standard Version (ESV).