Few questions continue to perplex the thoughtful believer of present-day Christendom as much as the age-old inquiry into the relationship between faith and works. This perplexity seems to be augmented by the tendency of one segment of Christendom to divorce the Christian life from the “fundamentals” of salvation, and by the inclination of another to become so preoccupied in the search for the ethical implications of the Christian faith that its proclamation of the Gospel has often degenerated to the extreme minimum of a bland humanitarianism. Both tendencies are highly unfortunate departures from the historic Christian faith and both betray a misconception of the relationship between the divine and human aspects of the Christian life. The former position does not sufficiently take into account the spiritual character of the horizontal Christian fellowship and the value of Christian actions in witnessing to divine truth. The latter tends to lose sight of the vertical divine fellowship and the foundational truths upon which ethical experience is based.

A theological study and interpretation of the biblical Greek term koinonia offers a corrective for the erroneous tendencies already cited; for this word, by definition and usage, has both divine and human implications. The term koinonia in the various New Testament versions and translations is rendered primarily as fellowship, communion, and participation. A brief review of the koinonia concept will help us gain greater clarity on the issues involved in the relationship between the divine and human aspects of the life in Christ.

The Divine Aspect

Koinonia is the God-initiated and God-effected participation of the Christian believer in the divine nature, through his sharing in Christ’s life, death, and resurrecton by the power of the Holy Spirit. The koinonia concept assumes a highly significant role in New Testament doctrine because it is one of the ways used by the Spirit of God to express the relationship between the believer and God. This interrelationship is possible because of the historical participation of the divine in the human: God sent his Son to earth to take part in all things human, sin excepted.

The koinonia concept includes a certain unique emphasis upon the identification of the participant with the object of participation. The Christian believes, trusts, and obeys God from “without,” from a sphere external to God, as it were. However, when the Christian experiences koinonia with God, or participates in God, the relationship takes place “within” the divine sphere itself. In the koinonia concept, the divine is both the object and the sphere of the Christian’s koinonia. The Christian participates in the divine nature only because, and only when he is located “in” God, “in” the Son, and “in” the Spirit.

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This emphasis upon identification is seen most clearly where the koinonia terminology is associated with the doctrines of the suffering and death of Christ, and where the believer actually shares his suffering and death. In apostolic teaching such topics as the Body of Christ, baptism, and the Lord’s supper are relevant to the koinonia concept because of their “identification” symbolism. However, let us not conclude that the koinonia idea is purely symbolic. The Christian’s participation in the divine nature is a fact of experience; it is not an unenlightened mystical adventure. Koinonia is the result of an act of God, introducing man to the realm of spiritual truth and reality. This fellowship is personalistic, because only God’s attitude toward the individual person can make possible the koinonia experience. True Christian fellowship is of God’s creation and not of man’s initiation.

The Human Aspect

In 1 John 1:3 the human aspect of koinonia is expressed in the terms “fellowship with us”—fellowship with the apostolic witnesses, represented by John. Notice however that the human aspect of koinonia is significant only when the Christian takes into account its divine aspect, which the remainer of 1 John 1:3 proceeds to explain: “and truly our fellowship is with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ.”

Albert Schweitzer believes that koinonia is based upon a work of divine energy which man has within himself. Human beings already have something in common. They learn about this common possession, respond to it, and thus create koinonia. Aristotle taught that two persons naturally have some things in common; therefore, friendship is based on those things held in common. Such friendship might be thought of as koinonia. L. S. Thornton, however, interprets differently the koinonia experience among Christians:

All human forms of partnership presuppose in the first place the sharing of a common human nature. This, in turn, provides a basis for the sharing of other things, material or spiritual, or both together. But what differentiates the common life of the Church is neither human nature as such, nor things ordinarily shared on the basis of our common humanity. Christians are specifically united neither by material goods, nor by cultural interest nor even by rational ideas. All of these forms of sharing enter into the common life of the Church. But none of them determines its special character.

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We have to consider, therefore, what are the objects shared in the common life of the Church, the objects which make that life to be distinctively what it is (The Common Life In the Body of Christ, Dacre Press, 1942, p. 31).

These objects of participation are the divine life of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. We dare not lose sight of the fact that the fellowship of men with one another is based upon their individual fellowship with the divine.

In the opening chapters of Acts we note that something new has come to pass, something which has affected even the external order of things: “And all that believed were together, and had all things common; and they sold their possessions and goods, and parted them to all, according as any man had need” (Acts 2:44, 45, ASV). This community of goods (a voluntary movement, cf. Acts 4:34–5:11), which was probably practiced for a time, is represented as the result of the experience of “one heart and soul” (Acts 4:32). A new unity pervaded the community, and of this new unity community of goods was but a symbol. In the Christian Body, the outward order of life always indicates the inner unity (or lack of it). A sharing of earthly goods may or may not symbolize a sharing in divine things. It may be prompted only by human sympathy or by studied reasoning. In such instances, sharing of earthly goods loses its symbolic character and becomes no more than a social gesture.

Koinonia in the divine always results in a transformation of the whole of life, including our relationship with those about us who are in need. Menno Simons wrote:

The whole Scripture speaks of mercifulness and love, and it is the only sign whereby a true Christian may be known. As the Lord says, “By this shall all men know that ye are my disciples [that is, that ye are Christians], if ye have love one to another” (John 13:35).

Beloved reader, it is not customary that an intelligent person clothes and cares for one part of his body and leaves the rest destitute and naked. Oh, no. The intelligent person is solicitous for all his members. Thus it should be with those who are the Lord’s church and body. All those who are born of God, who are gifted with the Spirit of the Lord, who are, according to the Scriptures, called into one body and love in Christ Jesus, are prepared by such love to serve their neighbors, not only with money and goods, but also after the example of their Lord and Head, Jesus Christ, in an evangelical manner, with life and blood (The Complete Writings of Menno Simons, translated from the Dutch by Leonard Verduin and edited by John Christian Wenger, Herald Press, 1956, p. 558).

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The great needs of the hour are Christian faith and expression which are relevant to practical life situations—faith-and-life harmony. Would not part of the answer lie in a renewed and vigorous application of the koinonia concept—the human-divine participation and the resulting human-human interaction? Would not this add depth and meaning both to the Christian’s inner experience and his outward expression of the new life in Christ, and would it not provide the new dimension which modern Christians need—real fellowship with God and with one another?


After serving from 1953–59 as President of Hesston College, Kansas, Roy D. Roth has gone to the pastorate of Logsden Mennonite Church, a rural mission in an Oregon community where many are Siletz Indians. He holds the B.A. and B.D. from Goshen College, and Th.M. from Princeton Seminary. He has been Secretary of the Mennonite Board of Education.

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