Koinonia: The DNA of Gospel Partnership

It was a humbling moment for me. I was leading a small mission organization in East Asia at the time and was preparing to give a talk at a missions conference on the theme of “Partnering in Mission.” Our organization was known among certain mission circles for doing partnership well, with co-workers from more than 20 different countries serving side-by-side on various ministry teams on the ground.

The text that I had chosen for my conference talk was a favorite of mine from Paul’s letter to the Philippians: “In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (1:4-5). That one phrase in particular—partnership in the gospel—seemed to express much of what I and my co-workers, as well as the hundreds of prayer and financial supporters that were behind our organization, were engaged in doing together: gospel partnership. I had often found myself quoting all or a portion of those two verses when writing a prayer letter or a thank-you note to our own supporters and friends back in the US. My wife and I even chose those verses for the back of our first prayer card when doing support development before moving to Asia in the 90s. After all, those hundreds of prayer and financial supporters who were standing behind us were “partners in the gospel” with us, and we (like Paul in his letter) were deeply grateful to God for the partnership that we had with them.

Which is why it was so humbling for me to discover, while preparing for that conference talk a decade ago, that that type of human partnership in mission, important as it is, was not at all what Paul was talking about when he scribbled those lines to a small group of Christians in Philippi nearly two thousand years ago. Paul was instead talking about their life-giving vertical relationship with God through the gospel, not a horizontal relationship of partnering with Paul to advance the gospel. As the full force of that dawned on me during my message preparation time, I was deeply mortified that I had been inadvertently misquoting and misusing Paul on partnership throughout my entire ministry career.

Here’s where I had gone wrong in my basic understanding of partnership in mission: The Greek word Paul uses when describing the Philippian believers’ “partnership” in the gospel is koinonia, which can also be translated as fellowship, sharing together with, or participating in. Paul was pointing to a much more enduring, foundational, and abundant “partnership in the gospel” than mere human teamwork. He was talking about the fellowship with God that all of us enter into the moment we receive the gospel of Jesus and are brought into restored relationship with God. The word “partnership” found in many English translations is, in fact, far too weak to describe the depth and intimacy of the relationship that God is inviting us into through faith in Jesus. In essence, Paul is joyful because the Philippian believers have been drawn into life-giving fellowship with God himself from the day they first came to faith in Christ. That is indeed real cause for rejoicing.

My entire understanding of what partnering in mission is all about has (thankfully!) been transformed through viewing partnership through the lens of koinonia. Because God first invites us into the fellowship that Father, Son, and Spirit have continuously enjoyed within the Trinity through all eternity, the abundant fruitfulness of that divine partnership spills over into all our earthbound relationships as well.

What is particularly crucial for us to realize here is that “gospel partnership” in this fuller sense of divine overflow is not just limited to business-like partnerships between various Christian congregations and organizations. Our koinonia with God extends into and can transform all our human relationships and institutions, as the New Testament writers are continually reminding us. We are, by means of the intimate participation we experience with God in Christ, both called upon and empowered to bring good news into our marriages, our homes, our friendships, our government and economic structures, our educational institutions, and the communities in which we live. We are invited, by means of that divine partnership, to see his life-giving goodness, grace, and abundance flowing into and transforming all our relationships and social structures along the way.

What did this look like in practice in the first-century Church as it began to spread outward from Jerusalem across the Mediterranean world? In Jerusalem, it meant that the believers

…were continually devoting themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer… All those who had believed were together and had all things in common… selling their property and possessions and… sharing them with all, as anyone might have need (Acts 2:42-45, NASB).

In Antioch, it meant that “the disciples, as each one was able, decided to provide help for the brothers and sisters living in Judea… sending their gift to the elders by Barnabas and Saul” (Acts 11:29-30). In Philippi, it meant that the believers, from the earliest days of receiving the gospel, “shared with [Paul] in the matter of giving and receiving” to meet tangible physical needs (Philippians 4:15-16). In short, all those who are in Christ enter into redemptive horizontal gospel partnership with him, because that is what koinonia with God always yearns toward and makes possible.

I find it remarkable that the concept of koinonia with God is largely missing from the Old Testament narratives. The primary understanding of koinonia in the Old Testament (as reflected in the Greek Septuagint) is one of associations of a legal or semi-legal nature between human beings. Even in God’s relationship with Israel, his chosen people, there is often a sense of respectful distance and formality. The horizontal koinonia that is on display between the twelve tribes is often hopelessly strained and fractured as well, characterized by tribalism, jealousy, and infighting. They are still awaiting a Messiah to unite them as a faith community.

I wonder if we might still be operating under a tribalistic Old Testament understanding of partnership at times today. We joyfully enter into intimacy and fellowship with God in Christ and with other brothers and sisters in our particular congregation, but it is often difficult for us to grasp either the privilege or the blessing of also allowing that transformational grace to flow freely from “my church” toward other people. We essentially remain law-bound in our understanding of Christian partnership, and the whole body of Christ—indeed, the whole world—misses out on the fuller abundance and deeper blessing of grace-based koinonia as a result.

We are a graced people, with vital gifts to offer as individuals and congregations in Christ for the life of the world. May we enter fully and unreservedly into the koinonia-infused gospel partnerships that God has redeemed us expressly to inhabit. To this we have been called and for this we have been chosen.

Dr. Joel Christenson is Professor of Mission and Evangelism at Lutheran Brethren Seminary in Fergus Falls, Minnesota.

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