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Gospel Partnership (i): Philippian koinonia

Posted by George Crowder, 29 Apr 2020

George Crowder continues his occasional series on gospel ministry with a look at gospel partnership.

When church leaders meet together, two things happen.  One, sadly, is sinful comparison.  The other is usually some kind of spiritual encouragement not possible in any other context.  Most Anglican clergy, and even many independent church ministers, would acknowledge some benefit of inter-church relationships, even if only at leadership level.  Meetings, chapters, fraternals and conferences, nevertheless, are characteristically ad-hoc, inconsistently attended and variable in format.  There is a need for a clearer focus and rationale.

Meaningful partnership between faithful local churches poses pragmatic advantages.  Churches can club together to increase fruitfulness and express faithfulness.  Those objectives – fruitfulness and faithfulness – are transparently derived from the New Testament.  Yet when we distill the definitions of these ecclesial virtues in the teaching of the apostles, and then chart their application in the early church, we are led into a more coherent understanding of church partnership.

Paul’s mission from Antioch in Acts 14 gives an excellent and varied account of gospel fruit.  Gospel fruit is the fruit of faithfulness in preaching, contending, standing firm, winning disciples, strengthening churches, patient endurance and appointing elders.  It is not simply a numbers game.  Only brief reference is made to thousands of new converts in a city plant in Derbe (v.21), compared with a rich narrative of a few souls won through a tiny fellowship in Philippi in Acts 16.

In Acts 15, elders and apostles from across the region gathered at Jerusalem to address a serious doctrinal matter with significant pastoral implications.  In the discussion and actions that follow, gospel faithfulness is driven by gospel calling and gospel mission and is principally concerned with the strengthening of local churches.  As such, it is inextricably linked to an accountable fellowship in the gospel between churches, and particularly between church leaders.

A desire for genuine gospel fruitfulness leads to a concern for doctrinal and pastoral faithfulness.  In turn, a concern for faithfulness raises the bar for active and accountable gospel partnership. 
As Paul travelled on, and then wrote back, partnership between new and growing churches gathered increasing valency and expediency.  Acts 16:4 finds him moving from town to town delivering the decisions reached by the elders and apostles in Jerusalem.  He revisits Derbe, Lystra and Iconium for the third time.  Timothy is with him observing, learning and assimilating this active, accountable relationship between churches. 

With the Holy Spirit actively leading them, Paul and his companions passed through Galatia into Troas, where he had a now famous vision of a man of Macedonia asking for help.  Thus, they set sail to Philippi to break new ground with the gospel.  Far from being the end of a partnership-building tour, this venture would extend and strengthen the bonds between churches as the gospel spread.  Indeed, the Macedonian churches become a shining example of gospel partnership, especially Philippi.

So small was the fellowship at Philippi, that they had no official place to meet.  Though diminutive, however, the Holy Spirit engages the Philippian church as a powerful, enduring paradigm.  It is a paradigm for the inclusivity of the gospel when a woman, a slave and a Gentile are welcomed into the kingdom on equal footing.  Inclusivity didn’t stop at the diversity of membership of a small local church, however.  Macedonian churches are clearly identified together as a tightly knit unit and so are an inspiring paradigm for partnership.

Small churches are keener and more engaged in partnership than larger churches.  They get it more.  They sense their need and feel their weakness.  They look for strengthening and support.  There are more attendees at gospel partnership conferences from small churches than from larger churches.

Paul opens his letter to the saints in Philippi by complementing them for their “partnership in the gospel from the first day until now” (Philippians 1:5).  Being such a pithy statement, it is often quoted in isolation as a vague but positive slogan to encourage churches to work together more.  In its immediate context, it is an expression of a shared dependence on God’s sustaining providence and mutual assurance of joyful perseverance.  These commodities of grace unite scattered local churches in a single economy – a fellowship of Word and Spirit.  Whilst bridging across towns, cities and nations, Paul demonstrates that this connection is intensely personal and charged with empathy and affection, vv.7-8.

The word koinonia, translated ‘partnership’ here, is not only used to describe inter-church solidarity in the letter to the Philippians.  In many translations, it is translated three different ways in its three occurrences in the same book. 

As Paul warmly draws out self-giving love and humility in 2:1-4, he calls on koinonia in, or with, the Spirit, v.1.  Translated variously as ‘common sharing’, or ‘participation’ or ‘fellowship’, it captures the deep familial bond in the local church.  When the Holy Spirit fills the hearts of believers, they are moved to commit to one another in openness, compassion and deference.  Interdependence flows from their unity with Christ, which, though it fills Paul with joy from afar, is definitely a local expression of connectedness.

Finally, Paul engages koinonia in his impassioned outpouring of faith, hope and love in 3:10.  It is, here, an intimate expression of personal commitment to Christ.  Salvation is secured through our unity with Christ by faith.  Our unity with him in his death lays our sins on him, so they are washed away.  As Paul clings to Christ in love and faith at the loss of everything else, he holds on in certain hope of that same bond carrying him through death to resurrection.  Koinonia here is the personal connection between the believer and the saviour. 

Now we have something quite beautiful to behold.  That personal salvific connection of faith, hope and love between the individual believer and Christ also binds the local church together in fellowship. Further, it exerts the same unifying force between local churches, bringing them together in partnership.  Partnership is not simply a nice idea, or a vague, woolly concept, it is a decisive administration of the Spirit in the mission of Christ.  Partnership is not a cold, bureaucratic institution, or even a warm-hearted, pragmatic agenda, it is forged in the same fire as our salvation.

George Crowder is Regional Director of Church Society for the north, and vicar of St John's, Over.

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