The Biblical Concept Of Fellowship

John Wimber, founder of the Vineyard Movement, writes on living out the biblical concept of fellowship.

John Wimber

Founder, Association of Vineyard Churches

The Greek word commonly translated “fellowship” (koinonia–see Acts 4:42 and 1 John 1:3) has no exact English equivalent. Koinonia implies more than just socializing at church parties or chatting on the church’s front lawn after Sunday service. The word means “holding our lives in common.” First-century Christians demonstrated that meaning through spiritual, social, and material generosity toward one another. I will use fellowship in this article to mean a “common sharing of the grace and of the blessings of God,” a definition that comes close to the biblical idea of koinonia.

The Biblical Concept Of Fellowship

The biblical concept of fellowship is important to understand and live out. In the early church there was a relationship between the warmth of heart toward God and generosity toward each other. So close were these relationships that the early Christians did not see themselves as isolated individuals but as “members one of another,” in “communities” where individuals grew to spiritual maturity and cooperated with each other in advancing God’s kingdom. Within these communities, they gained strength, support, and protection from the corroding influences of the world. Thus they were well prepared to face anything the devil might throw at them when they went out into the world.

This quality of relationship contrasts sharply with the faith of many modern Christians, who narrow their relationship with God to individualistic concerns like repentance and conversion, prayer and Scripture study, personal righteousness and evangelism. But God has called us to grow to maturity in the body of Christ. We are called to “attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God,” growing up “in every way into him who is the head, into God, from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by every joint with which it is supplied, when each part is working properly, makes bodily growth and upbuilds itself in love” (Eph 4:13, 15-16).

It Begins With A Relationship With Christ

Fellowship begins with a relationship with Jesus Christ. In John 14:6-15, Jesus says to the apostles, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father, but through me.” Most Christians, even baby Christians, are familiar with this passage of Scripture. In many instances this passage led them to put their faith in Christ! “If you want to know the Father,” Jesus says, “you must know me.”

But few Christians realize this truth also informs us about the basis for our relationship with brothers and sisters. Jesus’ words confused Philip. “Lord,” Philip asks, “show us the Father and that will be enough for us.” Jesus answers, “Don’t you know me, Philip? …Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.”

This is one of the most profound and important teachings in Scripture. Jesus and the Father are one and always have been one. Theologians would say they are one in nature, though they are two distinct persons. Jesus said only words that the Father told him to say, he did only deeds the Father told him to do, he performed only works that the Father performed.

The Father was so pleased with him. Even before Jesus began his public ministry, at his baptism, he split the heavens and spoke, saying, “This is my kid, and I really like him. I really approve of him. I am pleased with him.”

And Jesus has invited us into this quality of relationship with the Father. So the basis for knowing and experiencing fellowship with brothers and sisters is entering a relationship with the Father through the Son. Fellowship with brothers and sisters for early Christians was a result and an expression of their fellowship with God in Christ and in the Holy Spirit (see 1 Cor 1:9; Phil 2:1; 1 John 1:3).

Commitment to Christ is commitment to Christ’s body. Years ago as a new Christian, I thought my personal pilgrimage with God was the essence of Christianity. I used to evaluate my maturity repeatedly. “Am I growing, Lord?” I remember when I was memorizing Scripture, eventually memorizing about a thousand verses. “Boy,” I thought, “I must really be mature. I must really be growing. Look at all these verses I have memorized.” That was how the Bible memory course motivated me: You want to grow in Christ? Memorize his word. But in fact I was growing little. I was still biting my wife’s head off, yelling at my kids, and damaging my relationships in a thousand ways.

Commitment to Christ is commitment to Christ’s body. - John Wimber Click To Tweet

I had memorized many verses, but few were worked out in my life.

Loving The Whole Church

When we make a commitment to Christ we make a commitment to his purpose in the world, which is to have a healthy, unified body, the people of God.   A few years ago God showed me I had sinned many times: against the body of Christ. I had become judgmental of the larger body of Christ. I publicly repented of my divisive attitude. God spoke to me about loving the things he loves: he loves his church, he loves the whole church – Protestant and Catholic, Orthodox and Anabaptist.

I don’t mean he loves all the things different Christians believe and do. But in his heart Jesus deeply loves his body, those people who are born of the Spirit of God and who know the Father. We have been called to love the things Jesus loves, so we have no choice but to love the whole church – even denominations whose beliefs we may not agree with or those parts we do not understand.

We are also called to community, a sharing of help, gifts, resources, and problems. The early Christians often met in one another’s homes, ate together, and took a practical concern for each others’ material needs (Acts 4:32). They helped each other with life’s many difficulties, “bearing each other’s burdens and… fulfilling the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2).

Because of this closeness the early church was careful about conversational patterns like slander and gossip, recognizing how dangerous out of control tongues can be. They also knew how to keep confidences and protect each other.

Small Groups

How were they able to live out this type of closeness? It appears they facilitated a common life through small groups, such as the churches that met in homes (Rom 15:5, 1 -15; 1 Thes 5:27; Col 4:15). Small groups are also the basis for Christian community today. Over the years I have observed that growing churches usually have well developed small groups.

Paul, in Ephesians 4:2 says, “Be completely humble and gentle with one another in love.” I have often thought, ‘How can people love each other if they never relate personally?’ That is the point of small groups. They are where people can relate, can actually live out the gospel. I believe everything you learn in the Bible is tested by being in a group of people that rub you raw. In small groups we learn how to love the unlovely, thus fulfilling the command of Christ.

Sometimes we are the ones in need of special love and support to get us through difficult times. Loving one another is not just another good idea; it is one of Christ’s great blessings. Fellowship is the garden in which the fruits of the Spirit multiply, the place in which eternal life is lived out here on earth.