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Koinonia, Culture and Theology

Written by: on June 9, 2018

As a part of my doctoral research, I have been studying the theology of Koinonia- fellowship, participation and community.  Fellowship and community sit at the core of the Christian Faith.  Fellowship and community are a part of the human condition. Within the creation narrative it is evident that communion with God and others was foundational to God’s purpose and divine plan for humanity. From the early church to the 21st century church, the understanding of fellowship and community is integral to our spiritual formation throughout our Christian life. This understanding is based on the discussion of fellowship that is expressed in the New Testament. The Greek origins of the New Testament express fellowship as the Greek word koinōnia. Secular Greek understanding of koinōnia had many uses and derivatives. Some of which translate into various forms. Aristotle used to term koinōnia to relate to human connection in marriage.[1] Greek Stoics would use the term to express friendship and marriage. Plato asserted that there can be no friendship without koinōnia as it relates to commonality in the context of human society.[2] The multiple variances of the use of term in Greek society when translated gives way to other English terms as previously noted. In conjunction with the meaning of fellowship, another meaning of the Greek translation of koinōnia is the word participation. In this manner, Κοινωνία can also be expressed as κοινωνéω. This definition of the term affirms participation in a common sharing and engagement with someone. It is a willing and faithful devotion to share in the practice of doing life together. It is also with this notion of koinōnia that the witness of Christ is affirmed. As we share in communion with Christ, we share in the community of faith with others which according to scripture bestows a blessing.[3]

This notion of church being a place where the community expressed above is witnessed can be seen as primarily as a western Christian understanding. In our reading this week, we were able to explore looking theologically from the ground up when understanding the formulation and spiritual formation of the church in Asia. Within this context, the affirmation of doctrine and spiritual practices are expressed through a sense of culture, life and faith. Simon Chan in his book Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground Up discusses the differences of how faith is practiced in countries within the Asia pacific region. In his discussion on Christ-centered fellowship, he highlighted two alternatives to the idea of institutional Christianity-Churchless Christianity and Pentecostal Churches. Chan gives an example of a group In Chennai India known as the Non baptized believers in Christ (NBBC’s). By 1980’s there were known to be two hundred thousand who identified in this fellowship. He writes:

These NBBCs are mostly educated but poor. The majority are women, for whom, not surprisingly, the place of greatest significance is the home. They have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ but do not belong to any Christian church. Many have come to experience Jesus personally through answered prayer and miraculous healing but they want to remain within a Hindu or Muslim cultural setting. Baptism for them means entering into a different cultural community—a step they are not prepared to take. It is perhaps worth noting that some reject baptism over issues that could be considered adiaphora: holiness taboos such as cinema-going and wearing jewelry. Others do so over certain ritual practices such as the covering of the head for women in church. For Hindu women the rite conveys a very different meaning: heads are covered when one is going to a funeral. Since in Hinduism one is free to worship a god of one’s choice, for the NBBCs, Jesus is their chosen God. Usually the God who answers prayer is the God to be served.[4]

 

Another movement in Japan founded by Kanzō Uchimura is No-Church (Mukyokai) movement. Chan writes:

The No-Church movement should be better termed the “nonchurchism” movement since Mukyokai is not opposed to church as such, but to church being dominated by its organizational life, formal assent to doctrines and so on. Joining a church often means being isolated from family and community. Mukyokai seeks to cultivate in the individual what Uchimura believes to be the essence of Christianity without isolating him or her from the community: “Christianity is God’s grace appropriated by man’s faith,” which provides the inner power to enable a person to keep the law—something that heathen religion cannot do. “Christianity is Christ, and Christ is a living person”; more precisely, it is Christ crucified: When, as at present, many things pass for Christianity, which are not Christianity—such for instance as Social Service, Ethical Evangelism and International Thinking—it is very desirable that we should call Christianity by a new name. I propose Crucifixianity as such; and when it too shall have been abused and vulgarized by new theologians, I will coin another. Mukyokai is decidedly nonsacramental in its worship since it is institutional Christianity expressed in certain rites in a church that is seen as opposed to Japanese religion and its rituals found in the home.[5]

There are similarities in how both groups incorporated aspects of Christianity that did not take away from their cultural values of family, home and community. In Chan’s assessments of these fellowships he addresses the theology issues surrounding these forms of churchless communities. He states that “the church is not only a new community of the Spirit, it is also a community of the incarnation, finding expression in a visible structure. Churchless Christians may relish a spiritual experience with Jesus, but in repudiating the incarnational dimension of the Christian faith, they fall short of its fullness.”[6]

As stated in the beginning of my post, both fellowship and community are a part of our human condition. It is innate to who we are as human beings. God created us to live in community with one another. There is something to be said about we participate with each other in cooperation with God as the Church of Jesus Christ throughout the world. I appreciate Chan for bringing this discussion forward to challenge us to reconsider our way current theological framework. In his own words he says “As a tradition, the Christian faith is something given and received, and in the process of being historically transmitted it finds new cultural expressions. But it is not something we create according to our cultural experience. Local cultures do shape the way the faith is received and expressed, but for a local theology to be authentically Christian, it must have substantial continuity with the larger Christian tradition.[7]

 

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Ilaria L. E. Ramelli, “Koinōnia, The Greek Antiquity” Encyclopedia of the Bible and Its Reception, vol. 15 (Berlin: De Gruyter, 2017), 432.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Psalms 133:1-3 New International Version (NIV)

[4] Simon Chan, Grassroots Asian Theology: Thinking the Faith from the Ground up (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2014), 167.

[5] Ibid, 168.

[6] Ibid, 170.

[7] Ibid, 11

About the Author

Christal Jenkins Tanks

9 responses to “Koinonia, Culture and Theology”

  1. mm Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Very true Christal- “both fellowship and community are a part of our human condition.” This is also psychologically proven and so fascinating to understand biologically, neurologically, and relationally what happens when we reject one another or become involved in a toxic community. We truly are designed to be in community with God and one another. Thanks for bringing this out in your post. Your dissertation sounds very interesting. Look forward to reading it.

    • Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

      Jen I appreciate your response and you raise such a great point about abusive communties. It makes me want to explore how people re-engage in community or recultivate a community. Thank you!

  2. Mary says:

    Christal, thanks for highlighting those aspects of Chan’s book (NBBC’s and No Church). I agree – something beautiful and significant is missing when folks (even here in the US with anti-clerical movements are gaining ground) don’t meet and fellowship with other believers. We need each other.
    I do appreciate though that in some places (Communist China) meeting in groups is forbidden. So I just rejoice that God is at work in Asia!
    BTW – the first time I ever heard a woman preach was at the 3Self Church in Beijing when I went to visit Angie. God is good!

    • Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

      What a cool experience Mary! I agree that there are places where churchless christianity can be necessary for survival in a counter culture to Christianity in its institutional forms.

  3. Jim Sabella says:

    Christal, thank you for your thoughts and Chan’s book. I appreciate your highlight the process of theological development with cultural values of family, home and community help to formulate a theology that is both biblical and cultural. You study on fellowship and community sounds so interesting. I can’t wait to hear more about it. Great post, Christal!

    • Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

      Jim, I am wondering why the way Christianity is being conveyed appears to not be in alignment with home, family and community within the Asian pacific theological context. I would hope that by being Christ centric we do not portray a faith that does not hold these values in tandem.

  4. mm Katy Drage Lines says:

    Excellent capture of Chan’s thesis, Christal. I, too, greatly appreciated his reflection on the incompleteness of “churchless Christianity” in Asia, especially as my dissertation, too, looks to the richness of belonging in the faith community as reflected in the Eucharist. What you and I are both expressing is the need within the West for the richness of community faith as well.

    • Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

      Katy when I read their take on the sacraments you were the first person I thought of. I was intrigued by their reasoning futhermore, I believe that out of all sacraments the breaking of bread was something more acceptable than baptism.

  5. Kristin Hamilton says:

    Excellent review, Christal. You said, “God created us to live in community with one another.” I have been thinking about how hard it must be to convert to Christianity in a culture where that means losing your community and having to learn to navigate an entirely new one. Depending on our lifestyles, we may never really have to make that choice in the United States. I can see why some, especially women, would choose to remain NBBC.

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