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    kids and adults at Koinonia playing on a swing set, 1940s or 50s

    Christian Fellowship Isn’t Just Being Nice

    In our hunger for fellowship, we have settled for cheap substitutes. Nowhere in the New Testament does “fellowship” imply pleasant social contacts.

    By Clarence Jordan

    October 19, 2022

    The following excerpt is from The Inconvenient Gospel: A Southern Prophet Tackles War, Wealth, Race, and Religion (October 2022) by Clarence Jordan.

    From populous city and desolate wilderness has gone up the universal cry of lonely hearts for fellowship. We have sought for it in amusement places; we have pursued it through the halls of learning. We have organized it into clubs, lodges, fraternities, and “fellowships.” We have given it thousands of banquets – interracial, international, intereverything. Committees, leagues, and councils have spaded the social order in quest of it. And at times we have gone wistfully and hopefully to church, feeling that we would catch a glimpse there of this elusive pearl of great price.

    Perhaps we haven’t really known what we were searching for. And in our desperate hunger, we have been willing to accept any cheap substitute which offered a measure of relief. These substitutes have been delightful to the taste, but give no nourishment.

    As a matter of fact, nowhere in the New Testament does the word “fellowship” appear in the sense of pleasant social contacts. It is a translation of the Greek word koinonia, which Thayer’s Lexicon defines as “fellowship, association, community, communion, joint participation.” Of these definitions, the most accurate is “community,” or better, “a commune.” The adjective, koine, means “common” and the verb, koinoneo, means “to hold in common.”

    The word occurs several times in the New Testament, one of which is in Acts 2:42: “And they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and in the koinonia (commune), and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.” What koinonia? The one which Luke is about to describe when he continues: “And all that believed were together, and had all things common (koine), and sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to everybody, according as any one had need” (Acts 2:44–45). Careful historian that he was, Luke never used repetition except for decided emphasis. Evidently he attached unusual importance to the koinonia, for he again describes it in Acts 4:32–5:11. “Now the heart and mind of the crowd of believers was one, and nobody said any of his possessions to be his own, but all things were common to them.”

    kids and adults at Koinonia playing on a swing set, 1940s or 50s

    Koinonia Farm, ca. 1950 Photograph courtesy of the Bruderhof Archives

    Such a radical departure from the slave-economy pattern could be attributed to but one thing: the Lord Jesus had been raised and was alive in their midst. Other people looked with surprise but also with favor upon people whose lives were so transformed that “there wasn’t a needy person among them, for whoever had fields or houses sold them and brought the proceeds and turned them in to the apostles. And it was distributed to each according to his need” (Acts 4:34–35).

    This description of the koinonia, or fellowship, or commune, is followed by two examples of how it was received. Barnabas complied fully, for he brought all the proceeds from his sale. But Ananias and Sapphira, desiring the fellowship but unwilling to pay the price, brought “a certain part,” which was probably the tithe required by Jewish law (Acts 5:2). Peter’s severity with them was not due to the desperate need of the disciples for funds but to Ananias’s and Sapphira’s flagrant violation of the spirit of the koinonia. Had they been allowed to come on into the fellowship without passing the acid test, no doubt they would have been first to instigate opposition to the group’s broad views on race. For the mistletoe of prejudice thrives nowhere better than on the economic oak.

    Now where did the disciples get the idea of such a fellowship? Was it a sudden outcropping of the intense spiritual experience of Pentecost? Or was it the natural expression of something they had been familiar with and had had training in?

    So when Jesus called his disciples, he was establishing, in effect, a family upon spiritual rather than blood ties.

    Only the latter could possibly have been the case. It was so completely different from prevailing customs that without an authoritative precedent they could never have been “of one heart and mind,” even at Pentecost (Acts 4:32). And it seems highly improbable that such a profound plan affecting the entire life of everyone could have been the product of little or no thought. Full approval and participation by the apostles, who claimed now as never before to be led by the resurrected Lord, can be explained only by the fact that the originator of the plan was Jesus.

    For three years they had been taught by Jesus to love one another. Upon love – of God and man – hung the law and the prophets. It was to be the distinguishing mark of the Christian. “By this shall people know that you are my disciples, that you love one another” (John 13:35). But Jesus was no philosopher, and he never conceived of abstract love. To him love was definite, positive. Perhaps John was quoting him when he wrote: “Let us put our love not into words or into talk but into deeds, and make it real” (1 John 3:18).

    It was quite natural, then, that for him love should signify a definite relationship. It must lead to “marriage,” so to speak. … In other words, when do we set up the relationship to which real love inevitably leads?

    So when Jesus called his disciples, he was establishing, in effect, a family upon spiritual rather than blood ties. “Who is my brother and my sister? … He that doeth the will of him who sent me” (Mark 3:33–35). And we find that the little koinonia of twelve which he established and which was the nucleus of the Pentecost fellowship embodied the same fundamental principles as the family, the most persistent of human institutions.

    The first requirement for discipleship was common ownership – to “forsake all.” This does not mean that Peter, James, and John abandoned their nets and left them to rot on the seashore. These same nets were probably used frequently to replenish the common treasury, and were in good shape on the night after the crucifixion when Peter and others decided to go fishing. But these nets were not Peter’s. He had forsaken them. They now belonged to the group.

    Before the rich young ruler was invited to follow Jesus, he was commanded to get rid of all his private property. When Zacchaeus committed himself to voluntary poverty, Jesus said, “This day has salvation come to this house” (Luke 19:9). The poor widow was commended because she cast in “all her living” (Luke 21:1–4). Matthew gave up a lucrative job and all that went with it. In fact, could we imagine the disciples attaining their high degree of fellowship without absolute economic equality?

    Now this need not be an occasion of stumbling for us. Upon every hand there is abundant illustration that this is a natural expression of intense love. A man will gladly or willingly vow: “With all my goods I thee endow.” When my three-year-old son crawls up in my lap and says, “Put down your book, daddy,” I must confess I am no longer a rugged individualist, mumbling something about private property. I say with the Loving Father of the elder brother, “Son … all that I have is thine” (Luke 15:31). A man will say the same thing to a brother whom he truly loves. And if love will cause a man to lay down his life for a friend, will it not lead him to cheerfully lay down his goods?

    Here are the seeds of a world revolution, which must come sooner or later. When and how it comes depends upon Christians, who have the keys of the kingdom.

    It is evident that this is by no means the philosophy of Russian communism. While communism is the result in both cases, the motivation is vastly different. One is the voluntary product of love, the other the involuntary product of force.

    But are people capable of such complete, voluntary fellowship? The illustrations given above prove that they are not only capable but actually practice it. … Among the Kachin tribes of Burma there are no capitalists. All land is owned by the tribe. It is pathetic how we Christians faint before attaining even pagan heights. And in our stupor we pat ourselves on the back for our fine spirit of fellowship when we attend a meeting where a person of another race might be present!

    The second principle of the koinonia, or spiritual family, was distribution according to need. There was nothing particularly new about this, for it was described as the method of distributing manna in the wilderness. “This is the thing which the Lord hath commanded, gather of it every man according to his eating, an omer for every man, according to the number of your persons; take ye every man for them which are in his tents” (Exod. 16:16). It was then measured out to every man according to his dependents regardless of how much he had gathered, or how educated he was, or how responsible his position, or how great his influence, or how insatiable his greed. On this basis, “he that gathered much had nothing over, and he that gathered little had no lack.” There were some hoarders then as now, but by the next morning the manna was spoiled. Here was an airtight ration system.

    Surely Jesus was thoroughly familiar with this system, and no doubt practiced it with the twelve. That is why it became a very natural part of the larger koinonia after Pentecost. It so happened, however, that this was the occasion for the first quarrel among the early Christians. All had agreed that distribution should be made on the basis of need, but soon it was being made according to culture. The Grecians were given less than the Hebrews, who no doubt were the administrators. When this was called to the attention of the apostles, there was immediately set up a board of deacons, all of whom had Greek names, to see that distribution was impartially done. The original function of a deacon, then, was not to call a preacher nor to dictate his message, but simply to serve as a member of a scrupulously honest ration board.

    folk dancing at Koinonia today

    Koinonia Farm today, Friday afternoon fellowship on the lawn. Photo by Tim Clement

    That the principle is a sound one is proved by the fact that practically the whole civilized world adopted it during the war emergency, and while there was much complaining, no thinking person condemned the system as basically unfair. The flaws were in people and methods, not in the principle.

    So then, the pressure of circumstances forced the pagan world to a measure that love should have been constraining Christians to practice all along.

    The third principle of the Christian fellowship was complete equality and freedom of every believer, regardless of racial background. Here again they got the idea from Jesus. When John wrote, “He must needs go through Samaria” (John 4:4), it was not a geographical but a moral necessity. Jesus couldn’t Jim Crow the Samaritans. To a proud, aristocratic, blue-blooded Jewish lawyer, he told the story of the Good Samaritan, with more emphasis on Samaritan than on good. When publicans and sinners were drawing near to him and he was rebuked by the Pharisees for keeping such company, he told the story of the Loving Father and his two sons.

    Twice, with fiery zeal, he cleansed the Temple. Was such anger kindled because of a bazaar in the basement? He explains his wrath by quoting Isaiah: … my house shall be called a house of prayer for all people” (Isa. 56:7). We may be certain that the Court of the Jews was in good shape, as was the Holy of Holies, but into the Court of the Gentiles, where people at prayer should have been, prejudice and greed had brought animals. By his act, Jesus restored the evacuated Gentiles to their lawful place in the “house of prayer for all people.”

    From these, as well as many other experiences, the disciples learned the full significance of the command to “preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15). And the whole Book of Acts is simply the unfolding story of Christianity overflowing racial boundaries – from Jew to Samaritan to Gentile. It could well be the Christian’s handbook on race relations.

    Such, then, was the meaning of Christian fellowship for the early disciples. Whether or not we can have it depends largely upon our willingness to pay the price.

    Perhaps the time is ripe for some rather bold experimentation along this line. Of course, it would call for a measure of devotion and courage far beyond that which Christians generally are accustomed to and, in many respects, it would be equivalent to a new birth. But here are the seeds of a world revolution, which must come sooner or later. When and how it comes depends upon Christians, who have the keys of the kingdom. If they fail to use the keys, humanity will batter down the door, for it knows that it must get in or die.

    This article appeared in the Spring 1946 issue of Prophetic Religion: A Journal of Christian Faith and Action, published by the Fellowship of Southern Churchmen.

    Contributed By Clarence Jordan Clarence Jordan

    A farmer, preacher, and bible scholar, Clarence Jordan founded Koinonia Farm, a pacifist interracial Christian community in Georgia. He is the author of the Cotton Patch Gospel, a translation of the New Testament into the vernacular of the American South.

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