They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching, to the koinōnia, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer (Acts 2:42).
Loneliness is a major social problem—even a health risk. We want to make lasting friendships. We crave love. One of the main reasons people meet in small groups is for fellowship.
The word koinōnia is often translated as fellowship. Still, I wanted to avoid that English word in Acts 2:42 because people assume they already know what it means—something like “hanging out,” such as watching a basketball game with the guys or having brunch with the girls. When Luke says the first believers devoted themselves to koinōnia he mean they hung out? Not quite.
The Lexham Theological Wordbook defines koinōnia this way:
“fellowship, communion, sharing, participation. A term that conveys a sense of commonality, solidarity, and shared responsibility among households or individuals. The most general sense of this term refers to a shared conviction that manifests itself as mutual responsibility and status. Most often, koinōnia refers to the sharing of resources, monetary or otherwise” (emphasis original).
You can see several possibilities, but the emphasis is on communal life and the practical sharing of resources. David Bentley Hart’s translation reads: “And they devoted themselves steadfastly to the Apostles’ teachings and communal life…” Significantly, Luke goes on to mention how the believers shared material resources:
Now all the believers were together and held all things in common. They sold their possessions and property and distributed the proceeds to all, as any had need (Acts 2:44-45).
Hence, several commentators think koinonia in v 42 refers to the “sharing of resources” within the community as they took care of one another.
The first Christians took Jesus’ command to love one another very seriously and cared for each other. And their needs were significant.
The poverty of the ancient world is hard for us to imagine. The vast majority of people would have lived in what we consider to be subsistence-level poverty. Most people didn’t have enough to eat, decent places to live, or even a regular job with a dependable income. They were day laborers, living in conditions that health and safety inspectors would condemn, constantly on the verge of hunger and death. In the face of such needs, Christians didn’t merely offer “thoughts and prayers” but got together to take care of their own, such as establishing a system to keep the widows fed (cf. Acts 6:1-7; James 1:27). It was hard to do, and there were problems that needed to be overcome, but Christians persisted to give sacrificially. As Luke says, they sold what they had. “Their resources do not become community property,” Craig Keener clarified, “but are designated for the poor; they were not against property, but valued people altogether more” (Keener, Acts, p. 175). In other words, believers sold their excess to meet the needs as they arose (i.e., “as any had need”).
Christians took care of their own both within the local church and between churches, such as when Paul collected money from the churches in Corinth and Macedonia to give to the suffering saints in Jerusalem.
To our credit, Christians have been very active in caring for the needs of others. Historically, Christians have built hospitals to care for the sick, schools to educate children, and soup kitchens to feed the hungry. We still do today (for an inspiring modern example, watch this movie about Charles Mully).
At the same time, over the last century, Christians have also ceded those duties of care to the State, which assumed responsibility for education, welfare, and healthcare. Christians were (perhaps foolishly) at the forefront of promoting the idea that the State should take over these concerns. That’s a much bigger issue than I can address in a simple blog, but suffice it to say, that the church should recapture its moral mission to be a new kind of community where we care for our own.
If your small group wants to function as a New Testament church, you should be ready to engage in koinonia and care for each other with your finances. “Share with the saints in their needs,” Paul wrote (Rom 12:13, using the verb koinōneō). Don’t think of serving your brothers and sisters in those ways as an extraordinary demand but as a regular part of loving your Christian brethren. Love is practical. It gets its hands dirty, makes sacrifices, and serves the needy neighbor.
What does that mean for your small group? Look at the needs your group may have. Does someone have a medical bill to pay? Are they behind on their rent or utilities? Does someone need a car? Do they need a temporary place to stay? Do they need a meal train to help get them through a time of suffering? Those examples come to mind because I have seen first-hand how the Christian community can meet needs like that by sharing resources. I have seen people pay bills, give away cars, give people places to stay both short-term and long-term, and make meals for bereaved families. I’m sure you have seen other examples.
But even more radically, consider adopting a house church somewhere in the developing world. The Corinthians shared with Jerusalem. You can help Christians elsewhere on the globe. I know of one man who took it upon himself to buy cattle for a rural church on the other side of the world, which transformed the economy of that village. I only have limited experience with this, but to avoid abuse (people taking the money and running), you must make those overseas connections yourself. That’s easier than you might imagine. If you know a missionary, they can point you in the right direction.
In sum, Ben Witherington says that “fellowship” is not a helpful translation in Acts 2:42 because our sense of “fellowship” is the result of the activity of sharing (koinonia) (The Acts of the Apostles, p. 160). It’s the act of caring for each other that creates deeper bonds. If your small group wants to function as a New Testament church, choose to do hard things together, and practice life-changing love-in-action, just as the first Christians did.
Send your questions or comments to Shawn.