Koinonia is the anglicisation of a Greek word (κοινωνία) that means communion by intimate participation. The word is used frequently in the New Testament of the Bible to describe the relationship within the early Christian church as well as the act of breaking bread in the manner which Christ prescribed during the Passover meal [John 6:48-69, Matthew 26:26-28, 1 Corinthians 10:16, 1 Corinthians 11:24]. As a result, the word is used within the Christian Church to participate, as Paul says, in the Communion of - in this manner it identifies the idealised state of fellowship and community that should exist - Communion.
New Testament usage of koinonia
The essential meaning of the koinonia embraces concepts conveyed in the English terms community, communion, joint participation, sharing and intimacy. Koinonia can therefore refer in some contexts to a jointly contributed gift. The word appears 19 times in most editions of the Greek New Testament. In the New American Standard Bible, it is translated “fellowship” twelve times, “sharing” three times, and “participation” and “contribution” twice each.
In the New Testament, the basis of communion begins with a mystical joining of Jesus Christ with the community of the faithful. This union is also experienced in practical daily life. The same bonds that link the individual to Jesus also link him or her with other faithful. The New Testament letters describe those bonds as so vital and genuine that a deep level of intimacy can be experienced among the members of a local church.
The first usage of koinonia in the Greek New Testament is found in Acts 2:42-47, where we read a striking description of the common life shared by the early Christian believers in Jerusalem: "They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the communion, to the breaking of bread and to prayer...All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need...They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people.” Communion itself was the breaking of bread and the form of worship and prayer. It was in the breaking of the bread that the Apostles "recognized" Christ and it was in the breaking of bread, called Communion, that they celebrated Christ's Passion, Death and Resurrection in obedience to his Last Supper instruction: "Do this in memory of me."
A special New Testament application of the word koinonia is to describe the Communion that existed at the celebration of the Lord's Supper or sacrament of the Eucharist. For example, 1 Corinthians 10:16 (KJV) use the English word “communion” to represent the Greek word of koinonia. "The cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?" Any common meal certainly could represent a “sharing.” The koinonia is viewed as much deeper, however, when the meal is associated with a spiritual purpose. Joining in the Lord's Supper is uniting oneself with other believers in the objective reality of Christ's death.
The spiritual meaning of koinonia
The word has such a multitude of meanings that no single English word is adequate to express its depth and richness. It is a derivative of "koinos," the word for common. Koinonia is a complex, rich, and thoroughly fascinating Greek approach to building community or teamwork.
Koinonia embraced a strong commitment to Kalos k'agathos meaning "good and good," – an inner goodness toward virtue, and an outer goodness toward social relationships. In the context of outer goodness, translated into English, the meaning of koinonia holds the idea of joint participation in something with someone, such as in a community, or team or an alliance or joint venture. Those who have studied the word find there is always an implication of action included in its meaning. The word is meaning-rich too, since it is used in a variety of related contexts.
Koinonos means 'a sharer' as in to share with one another in a possession held in common. It implies the spirit of generous sharing or the act of giving as contrasted with selfish getting. When koinonia is present, the spirit of sharing and giving becomes tangible. In most contexts, generosity is not an abstract ideal, but a demonstrable action resulting in a tangible and realistic expression of giving.
In classical Greek, koinonein means "to have a share in a thing," as when two or more people hold something, or even all things, in common. It can mean "going shares" with others, thereby having "business dealings,” such as joint ownership of a ship. It can also imply "sharing an opinion" with someone, and therefore agreeing with him, or disagreeing in a congenial way. Only participation as a contributive member allows one to share in what others have. What is shared, received or given becomes the common ground through which Koinonia becomes real.
"Koinonos" in classical Greek means a companion, a partner or a joint-owner. Therefore, koinonia can imply an association, common effort, or a partnership in common." The common ground by which the two parties are joined together creates an aligned relationship, such as a "fellowship" or "partnership". In a papyrus announcement a man speaks of his brother "with whom I have no koinonia", meaning no business connection or common interest. In the New Testament, (Luke 5:10) James, John, and Simon are called “partners” (koinonia ). The joint participation was a shared fishing business.
Two people may enter into marriage in order to have "koinonia of life", that is to say, to live together a life in which everything is shared. Koinonia was used to refer to the marriage bond, and it suggested a powerful common interest that could hold two or more persons together.
The term can also relate to a spiritual relationship. In this sense, the meaning something that is held and shared jointly with others for God, speaking to man's "relationship with God". Epictetus talks of religion as ‘aiming to have koinonia with Zeus". The early Christian community saw this as a relationship with the Holy Spirit. In this context, koinonia highlights a higher purpose or mission that benefits the greater good of the members as a whole. The term "enthusiasm" is connected to this meaning of koinonia for it signifies “to be imbued with the Spirit of God in Us."
To create a bond between comrades is the meaning of koinonia when people are recognized, share their joy and pains together, and are united because of their common experiences, interests and goals. Fellowship creates a mutual bond which overrides each individual's pride, vanity, and individualism, fulfilling the human yearning with fraternity, belonging, and companionship. This meaning of koinonia accounts for the ease by which sharing and generosity flow. When combined with the spiritual implications of koinonia, fellowship provides a joint participation in God's graces and denotes that common possession of spiritual values.
Thus early Greco-Roman Christians had a fellowship God, sharing the common experience of joys, fears, tears, and divine glory. In this manner, those who shared believed their true wealth lay not in what they had, but in what they gave to others. Fellowship is never passive in the meaning of koinonia, it is always linked to action, not just being together, but also doing together. With fellowship comes a close and intimate relationship embracing ideas, communication, and frankness, as in a true, blessed interdependent friendship among multiple group members.
The idea of community denotes a “common unity” of purpose and interests. By engaging in this united relationship a new level of consciousness and conscience emerges that spurs the group to higher order thinking and action, thus empowering and encouraging its members to exist in a mutually beneficial relationship. Thus community and family become closely intertwined, because aiming at a common unity strives to overcome brokenness, divisiveness, and, ultimately gaining wholeness with each of the members, with their environment, and with their God. By giving mutual support, friendship and family merge. Both fellowship and community imply an inner and outer unity. No where in the framework of community is their implied a hierarchy of command and control. While there is leadership, the leader's task is to focus energy, and align interests, not impose control.
Koinonia creates a brethren bond which builds trust and, especially when combined with the values of Wisdom, Virtue and Honor, overcomes two of humanity's deepest fears and insecurities: being betrayed and being demeaned.
Whether working collectively or individually, the innovators of ancient Greece worked for the greater good of the whole – to propel their community forward, to share their understanding with others so that all ships would rise on a rising tide. Thus loftier goals and dreams are more easily manifested in the mind and achieved in reality. The team's sense of Purpose became manifest.
The sacramental meaning of koinonia
The Eucharist is the sacrament of communion with one another in the one body of Christ. This was the full meaning of eucharistic koinonia in the early Church. St. Thomas Aquinas wrote, "the Eucharist is the sacrament of the unity of the Church, which results from the fact that many are one in Christ."
- Thayer, Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament, p. 352
- NAS Exhaustive Concordance
- Richards, Expository Dictionary of Bible Words,p. 275-276
- Robinson, “Communion; Fellowship,” pp. 752-753 in Bromiley, The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia.
- Lynch, "How the Greeks created the First Golden Age of Innovation"
- Hertling, L. Communion, Church and Papacy in Early Christianity Chicago: Loyola University, 1972.
- ST III, 82. 2 ad 3; cf. 82. 9 ad 2.
- Verna Lewis-Elgidely Koinonia in the Three Great Abrahamic Faiths: Acclaiming the Mystery and Diversity of Faiths Cloverdale Books (2007) ISBN 978-1-929569-37-3 
NAS Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible with Hebrew-Aramaic and Greek Dictionaries. The Lockman Foundation. 1981, 1998.
Bromiley, Geoffrey W. (1979). The International Standard Bible Encyclopedia. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co..
Robert Porter Lynch; Ninon Prozonic (2006). "How the Greeks created the First Golden Age of Innovation" (in English) (Word document). pp. 14. http://www.enginesofinnovation.com/html/publications.html. Retrieved 2007-04-08.
Richards, Lawrence O. (1985). Expository Dictionary of Bible Words. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Corporation.
Thayer, Joseph H. (1885). Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.
- Lexicon entry for koinonia, common domain
- New Georgia Encyclopedia Entry on "Koinonia Farm" in Georgia
- Healthy Devotion, free download from non-commercial site
- Koinonia Foundation was at this site from 1945-1985
- For the Christian conference grounds located in Santa Cruz, CA, (USA), see Koinonia