In modern society it’s normal to observe a spirit of individualism, egocentricity, and discord. Unfortunately, the same spirit can damage the church, causing it to fall into superficiality, detachment, indifference, isolation, and suspicion.
Nevertheless, despite these threatening and negative aspects, there is hope for our churches. Without a doubt, that hope is to return to the pattern of the early church recorded in Acts and, following that pattern, continue within the parameters of the communion characterized by the early Christians.
Acts describes the development of the Jerusalem church and the Spirit’s coming on the day of Pentecost (chapter 2), as well as Paul’s dauntless preaching of the gospel and making converts all the way to Rome (chapter 28). The community of believers born of these “acts” had a penetrating influence across the world because of their formation by the Spirit from the beginning. The result could be seen:
Those who accepted his message were baptized, and about three thousand were added to their number that day. They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. . . . All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had (2:41, 42; 4:32).
The identity and increasing success of the early church relate to how believers lived together in authentic communion. Understanding and practicing what communion expressed in Acts and in the New Testament should be the goal of our congregations today.
In Greek, the term koinonia best describes the spiritual and social unity of the church, because the word can be translated different ways: communion, association, fellowship, participation. This shared status creates communication and community. Growing Christians lived within this framework from conversion. It was both a social and spiritual fellowship, recorded in the words of John: “We proclaim to you what we have seen and heard, so that you also may have fellowship with us. And our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ” (1 John 1:3).
Even today, this koinonia, within the life of the church depends on communion with God and His Son as the source of our shared truth and purity.
The variety of words in the koinonia family (koinonos, koinoneo, koinos, koinonikos) expresses an abundance of related ideas that build on Christian koinonia: sharing things in common, companionship in society, participation, having a common faith, communicating with one another, and contributing to the needs of others. Obviously, using the koinonia word group represents an involvement without reservation in the body of Christ. Believers have real communion as lives are shared with each other through God and His Son.
The old Latin phrase communio sanctorum (“communion of saints”) speaks of this shared life, identifying the church as a body of members in full communion one with the other. That is, the body, whose head is Christ, communicates with all its members so that they perform all kinds of activities: internal or external, for preservation or growth, for spiritual or social development.
Characteristics of communion
The early chapters in Acts relate basic characteristics of the church as communion:
intimate friendship and fellowship with one another;
continuous study of apostolic teaching and doctrine;
sharing bread with joy and simplicity of heart;
encouraging one another to love and good works;
labor in the community to meet its physical needs;
prayer and worship of God in unity and sincerity.
These distinguishing characteristics remind us that to be fervent like the early church, every believer must be influenced by the Holy Spirit. As Acts shows, with this interrelated fellowship completed through the Spirit, the early church influenced the wider world with its message and lifestyle, practicing and projecting spiritual and social communion in such a way that “the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved” (Acts 2:47).
The church is supposed to be a place of true communion formed by the love of the Spirit. All are part of it, sustained by prayer and worship, and energized by studying the Word of God. It is where communion is actual society, community, a vision of brotherhood and family — life shared by the Spirit. This church makes its mark in history only with our submission to the Spirit.
After almost two thousand years since the church’s extraordinary birth on the day of Pentecost, its influence continues, invading lives and transforming hearts. In the middle of our chaotic world, the church does this best when it follows the example of the early church. The distinctive features described in Acts that made it so vibrant need to be emphasized today. The church will continue to influence the world if our communion is defined by the love of God and friendship in Christ Jesus.
Let us be kind and compassionate to each other. Let us take practical steps to share needs. Let us pray and work together, fulfilling the will of God. If we do this, surely we will be a model of community that attracts anyone seeking true communion with Christ Jesus. The church has a mandate to influence others by making God’s love known. We will meet this challenge only in koinonia, as the community of saints.
Hector M. Alvarenga pastors the CoG7 Houston Avenue church in Houston, TX. Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.