If you're a Christian (or have been around Christians), you've probably heard the word "fellowship" a lot. If you ask someone unfamiliar with church what it means, they'll likely tell you that a fellowship is a type of scholarship focused on people pursuing a graduate degree—but that's not how the New Testament uses it.
For Christians, fellowship means participation. People often define it as "community," but it's so much more than that. Community describes several individuals who choose to be together. But people who have aligned themselves with Jesus become members of the same structure. Paul explains it this way:
Don't you know that you yourselves are God's temple and that God's Spirit dwells in your midst? If anyone destroys God's temple, God will destroy that person; for God's temple is sacred, and you together are that temple (1 Corinthians 3:16–17).
While it's true that the Spirit dwells in each one of us, Paul is speaking to the church. Together, we are the dwelling place of God. Unlike a community, we don't simply choose to be part of God's family. When we place our trust in Jesus, we become participants in the life of the church.
Paul reiterates this point later in the same letter.
Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many (1 Corinthians 12:12–14).
Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it (1 Corinthians 12:27).
The image of the church as the body of Christ is a beautiful metaphor, but it represents a significant reality. Jesus is present in and expresses Himself through the church. Every Christian becomes a participant in the body of Christ.
Fellowship in the New Testament
To better understand what fellowship is and how it works, let's examine how the term is occasionally used in Scripture. The word that often gets translated as "fellowship" is koinonia.
1. Committed to fellowship
They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and to fellowship (koinonia), to the breaking of bread and to prayer. Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved. (Acts 2:42-47, Greek added).
Luke tells us what the church looked like in its infancy. One of the things they dedicated themselves to was fellowship. In this passage, Luke breaks down what that looks like. For one thing, being committed to fellowship meant that they were committed to being in one another's presence.
We see that "all the believers were together" and "every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts." But more than that, they then gathered together for meals in their homes. But we also see that fellowship went farther than simply being around each other. Luke tells us that part of that commitment was they had everything in common. In fact, this included selling off both property and possessions to share with those in need.
Their commitment to fellowship went so much deeper than devotion to being together. They saw it as a responsibility to share their lives.
2. Pleased to make fellowship
For Macedonia and Achaia were pleased to make a contribution (koinonian) for the poor among the Lord's people in Jerusalem. They were pleased to do it, and indeed they owe it to them. For if the Gentiles have shared in the Jews' spiritual blessings, they owe it to the Jews to share with them their material blessings (Romans 15:26–27, Greek added).
As Paul's letter to the church at Rome winds down, he informs them that he hopes to visit them soon, but first, he's on his way to Jerusalem to distribute gifts donated by the church in Macedonia and Achaia.
A form of koinonia makes it into this passage, but most English Bibles translate it as "contribution." In context, this translation makes a lot of sense. But in modern culture, a contribution isn't something someone needs to be personally invested in. Sometimes we make contributions out of obligation or even to get a tax break.
The use of koinonian here tells us that when these churches heard about the rough time their brethren in Jerusalem were experiencing, they wanted to participate. Even though they couldn't be with them physically, they saw it as their responsibility as part of the body of Christ.
3. Called into fellowship
God is faithful, who has called you into fellowship (koinonia) with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought (1 Corinthians 1:9–10, Greek added).
A lot of Bibles put a break after the first sentence here and then add a section header above the rest. But it really should be read together because it forms a complete thought. Paul's addressing some discord in Corinth, and he believes that a proper understanding of fellowship will make all the difference.
He reminds the Corinthians that their faithful God has called them all into fellowship with Jesus. This means that they participate in His mercy, grace, power, and destiny. With that being the case, divisions and disunity don’t make any sense. They belong to Jesus—and to one another.
4. Fellowship in the blood of Jesus
Therefore, my dear friends, flee from idolatry. I speak to sensible people; judge for yourselves what I say. Is not the cup of thanksgiving for which we give thanks a participation (koinonia) in the blood of Christ? And is not the bread that we break a participation (koinonia) in the body of Christ? Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all share the one loaf (1 Corinthians 10:14–17, Greek added).
Paul encourages the Corinthians to steer clear of idolatry. To help them understand why, he appeals to communion. When we drink the cup and eat the bread, we participate in Christ’s suffering. When believers all around the world partake of communion, they're not sharing the same loaf of bread, but they are sharing with the one Loaf. The Lord who has made us one body.
Fellowship isn't about building community around common interests. It's not like a bowling league or an improv group. It's the common life shared among all the followers of Jesus. And our fellowship isn't just with one another, but it's our shared participation in the life of Christ.