Publications: Articles - Biblical
The Church as Koinonia (Gift and Goal) in the New Testament:
A Case Study from the Church in Corinth
Without doubt, the New Testament vision of the Church is fundamentally a gathering of believers called from above to be in communion with Christ leading them to the Father by the Holy Spirit. Far from being depicted as a merely human institution, the New Testament Church marked an entirely new reality whose nature was indeed defined not only by its communion with God but also by its communion between its members. Rooted in the solidarity that found its communion with Christ and the finality of His work, the early Christian community was not a gathering simply coming together in a casual or passing manner sharing, for example common religious ideas. Rather the Church gathered in a radically 'new' way transformed from being a group of detached individuals into a single harmoniously united organism. Life in the Church was now realized as communion and not autonomous self-existence. Therefore in calling themselves Church, the first Christians were expressing their belief that their coming together was the result of a concrete historical invitation given by Christ, the Son of God who, in joining Himself with humanity opened up the way for the entire world the possibility of a filial relationship with God. This paper will examine the communal mode of the Church's existence as it is portrayed in the New Testament Church of Corinth.
Identification of Church and Koinonia
Writing to the Corinthian community, which was deeply divided, St Paul articulated his understanding of ekklesia in terms of communion (koinonia) already in the opening section of his letter:
To the Church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours. (1 Cor 1:2).
That the Church's very being was communal is evidenced by the apostle Paul's explanation of 'the Church of God which is at Corinth' with the appositional explanatory clause that follows, 'to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together….' (1Cor 1:2). In this case Paul's opening greeting denotes an understanding of the Church which could be characterized as a community of saints whose holiness was manifested not individually but within a communal context – the word 'together' [suvn pa'sin] in this verse is significant as it points to the ecclesial community. For this reason biblical scholars noted that the word 'holiness' was never used in the singular for an individual person but always for the assembled people of God. Now, the reference to the faithful within the Church as 'saints' – a mode of existence that all Christians look towards with the Parousia of Christ – has rightly led many biblical scholars today, to the conclusion that an eschatological community was meant by the apostle Paul. Yet it has to be stated that holiness was not only a description of the future vocation of the Christian Church but signified also its present status.
The sanctity of the assembled community was not only a future hope but also a present reality within the life of the Church. In this sense, the eschatological gift of the holiness of the community, as a whole, was bestowed upon the Corinthian Church already in their historical context as a sign of God's fidelity when they would assemble together. Incidentally, such a communal understanding of 'holiness' removes the term from any individual ethical goodness since, in this case, its primary meaning signified those people of God already gathered in Corinth. Already in the fourth century, St John Chrysostom, in his commentary on Corinthians also made the connection between those assembled holy people of God – i.e. the ekklesia - and koinonia when he wrote:
"…. ekklesia means assembly. It is not a name of separation but a name of unity and concord".
And so it was only in communion with one another in the person of Jesus Christ that the faithful at Corinth were called 'holy' by Paul. That the koinonia, expressed by Paul for the Corinthian Church was a gift from God is evidenced in that it was God who initiated this relationship by 'calling' the faithful to assemble together. Therefore the communal sharing in the life of the Father through the Son was seen by Paul to be a divine and accomplished act yet, as we shall see, one which still had to be fully realised within the concrete life of the community.
Koinonia – Gift and Goal
Not only did Paul show that God's gift of communion to the Church had been realized through his Son, but also emphasised the necessary response required by the faithful. And in so far as it required a response by the Church of Corinth, the gift of koinonia was not only a gift from God but also a postulate still to be fully realised. Having greeted his audience in the opening part of the letter, Paul offered thanks to God not only for the divine gift of grace given (doqei'sh/) (1 Cor 1:4) to the community thereby enriching it (ejploutivsqhte) (1 Cor 1:5) so that it did not lack in anything, but also for the certitude of God's ongoing sustenance (bebaiw'sei) (1 Cor 1:8) regarding this gift until the end (ew tevlou). And it was God's continual providence over the Church in Corinth that provided the opportunity for the community to respond to this gift by seeking to exist communally, that is lovingly, in their daily lives. Indeed the three key notions – i.e. the grace given, its enrichment and the certitude of God's ongoing sustenance - are important in explaining the dynamic character of God's communion with the Church in that they betray not only God's intimate involvement in terms of an accomplished act but one which will continue until the Parousia. It was this continued connection of God with the Church that provided the endless opportunities for the faithful to respond to this by firstly accepting it and also assimilating to it.
Such an understanding of communion both as genuine gift yet to be fully realised is further implied in 1 Cor 1:9:
God is faithful; by him you were called into the fellowship (koinwnivan) of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord. (1 Cor 1:9).
The identification of the Church with God's gift of koinonia is clear from the above verse. That the above verse is addressed to the community of Christ, that is, the Church in Corinth, and not to individual Christians is evidenced by the plural form of verb for ''you were called (ejklhvqhte) in the Greek. And following on from this, it is also clear that it was because of God's founding and continued commitment to bring his gift of communion to the Church to its perfected end that the Corinthian Church was assured of God's communion with it. The fact that the verb 'calling' is in the aorist tense highlights that the gift of koinonia was already bestowed upon the Church. That is to say, the communal mode of the Church's existence was the result of God's effective calling in the first place since it was God who had initiated the salvific plan (divine economy) by having called the Church into communion with Him through his Son, Jesus Christ. Yet, when seen in its connection with the previous verses, this passage highlights also the community's future communal participation in the life of God made possible by God's Son, Jesus Christ. The consummation of the Church's koinonia with God would be fully realized in the end times since 'God is faithful' (1 Cor 1:9) and therefore his word-acts would be carried through to completion. And even though God had already granted the gift of koinonia to the Church and would continue to do so until the end of time, this did not imply, in any way that the Church had to cease to make God's promise a daily goal striving to make this koinonia more real throughout its historical life. The dialectical or paradoxical nature of the Church's koinonia with God thereby becomes apparent.
Unlike God's association with the people of Israel which was external, now, as the same verse goes on to explain, God's gift of communion to the Church would be none other than God's own Son, Jesus Christ, thereby highlighting the indwelling of Christ with the Church. According to St Paul, it was precisely this initiative of God to identify Himself entirely with the world by giving the Church a common share in His very life which required the Church's response for its concrete realisation. Therefore what Paul thereby expressed about the nature of this gift of communion was also its eschatological dimension beyond its present reality. The profound mystery of God's communion with His Church was a present reality – a gift – but one whose total actualisation was founded on a sure promise on the part of God and the human response. Simply put, koinonia with the Son not only had a present (an 'already') reality, but also an eschatological ('not-yet') implication. Not only was it a present reality because the call to koinonia had already begun to grow with this life, but the final consummation of it was yet to come. It is immediately striking that the Pauline understanding of communion in this case is to be understood in such a paradoxical manner, that is both as a present reality and a goal to be attained.
It is indisputable that our recourse to such an understanding of communion is firmly based on Paul''s vision of the communion of the body of faithful as both gift and task. In reconciling the world through his Son, God made possible his communion with the world. And yet, insofar as the calling of God necessitated a free response on the part of the body of faithful, God's initial gift of communion was a goal towards which the Church would continually move to be fully realized. It follows then, that it is entirely impossible to conceive of the New Testament event of the Church apart from the experience of communion in its dynamic character.
Academic Secretary and Associate Lecturer
St Andrew’s Greek Orthodox Theological College
1. 1Jn 1:3 is explicitly clear in this regard: "we declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have fellowship (koinwnivan) with us; and truly our fellowship (koinwniva) is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ."
2. Cf Hans Conzelmann, 1 Corinthians, Hermeneia – A Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible, 11, trans. James W. Leitch (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1975), 23).
3. That holiness is not only an eschatological calling but a present reality is also betrayed in the tense of the verb ''kalevw'' in 1 Cor 1:9. Its aorist passive indicative form signifies a past action initiated by God collectively to his people to make them a ''holy nation'' which Paul understood as already having taken place in Christ. Cf Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, 103.
4. John Chrysostom, Homilies on the Epistles of Paul to the Corinthians 1.1.
5. Cf George Panikulam, Koinonia in the New Testament (Rome: Biblical Institute Press, 1979), 12.