“And they devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers.”
-Acts 2:42 (RSV)
According to Acts 2:42, the primitive church dedicated itself to four practices: apostolic teaching, fellowship (koinonia), breaking of bread (Eucharist), and prayer. In some way or another, most Christian traditions maintain these practices despite disagreements concerning their meaning and shape. Yet, of the four, koinonia is the least understood. Is it a mutual association flowing from affinity? Is it just “doing life together?” Koinonia is deeper than that; it is a theological reality before it is a pragmatic one.
In his significant book Christ, the Christian, and the Church, E.L. Mascall invites us to contemplate which comes first: the Church or the Christian. The assumption made by many moderns would no doubt be that the individual Christian comes first; the Church comes into being through a network of relationships with like-minded people who also identify as Christian. Mascall points out that the reality is actually the opposite: individuals cannot precede the Church. As the domain of grace, the Church is where the individual becomes a Christian. It begs the question: if the Church is not dependent on individuals, what is its basis for existence? The answer is Christ himself, the head of the Body (Rom 12:5; 1 Cor 12:12-27; Eph 3:6, 5:23; Col 1:18, 24). Further, he is the one who appointed the apostles and gave them their authority (John 20:23). The Church, then, is divinely instituted.
Within modernity, our conceptualization of community has become warped. In his article “Authenticity, Community, and Modernity,” Kenneth C. Bessant discusses how, in social theory, the forces of urbanization, industrialization, and rationalism are credited with creating a shift away from the village as an authentic expression of community towards a more fragmented, impersonal, and artificial understanding of how we are to live together. The Church has mirrored the larger culture in this shift. Parish life was, at one time, a microcosm of the rural village, but has undergone changes as modernity has progressed. Robust community life has been replaced by the shallow “worship-industrial complex” and a program-driven church mentality. Worshippers are treated as consumers to be satiated, rather than as humans to be formed. Authentic koinonia in such a system is only ever an abstract ideal to which lip service is paid, rather than a lived reality.
The remedy to our modern malaise and return to a biblical and traditional sense of koinonia, we must return to the starting point that the Church is the divine organism “in Christ,” with him at its head. According to L.S. Thornton, “Christians are specifically united neither by material good, nor by cultural interests, nor even by rational ideas.” Koinonia, rather than being merely affinity-based, is derived from and energized by the Sacraments. Properly understood, it is the self-sacrificial participation of redeemed persons with each other and God on the basis of the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Christ. What is common to the members of the Church is cruciformity. This is true from the moment of Baptism where one dies with Christ (Rom 6:3-4) to weekly celebrations of the Eucharist where we present ourselves as “living sacrifices” at the altar (Rom 12:1). Christ’s work is the basis for koinonia. Thornton observes that, as a result of the suffering and glory which characterized the messianic life, the messianic community can expect the same pattern to compose our common life. Further, as we become who we are called to be, we must be keenly aware that we are becoming in mutuality with the other members of the body. The Church, far from being a place for individuals to voluntarily associate is a place where its members are increasingly conformed to the Messiah through cruciformity.
Colossians 1:18 reminds Christians that “He [Christ] is the head of the body, the church.” Thornton observes, “Partnership in the Gospel creates a common mind.” What is this “common mind?” The answer can be found in what Michael J. Gorman calls his “master story,” Philippians 2:5-11:
Have the mind among yourselves, which was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
The Christian koinonia is the domain whereby we live out Romans 12:1-2 by becoming living sacrifices and are transformed as a result of offering ourselves on the altar. Koinonia is the place where the sacramental benefits bestowed in Baptism and the Eucharist come to fruition.
The Church is in desperate need of recovering its purpose. We need sacraments, preaching, and prayer, but without recovering a robust conception of koinonia we will remain stuck in the doldrums of a world where fragmented community is the norm. By recovering the true koinonia of the Church, we can recover an ecclesiology that is thoroughly cruciform and engage in a space where we become what we are supposed to be.