What is fellowship? How does it look in your life, in your church? How do you know if you are doing it right? As we have seen in our study through Philemon verses 1-7, Paul has been giving his friend Philemon feedback on what Philemon has done with his life. Paul has many nice compliments for Philemon (see Parts 1, 2, and 3 for what we have covered previously). We’ve arrived at verse 6, and Paul is far from the end of his encouragement to Philemon. Is Philemon fellowshipping right?
In verse 6 we face a problem, though, as scholars tell us it is difficult to translate. Here’s how the NIV 1984 translates it:
I pray that you may be active in sharing your faith, so that you will have a full understanding of every good thing we have in Christ.Paul, to Philemon (Philemon 6, NIV 1984)
When you read the words, “sharing your faith,” what comes to mind? Evangelism, right? Sharing the Gospel. Some kind of proclamation of the content of the good news of Jesus. But most scholars believe that is not what Paul is talking about.
For the word “sharing,” Paul uses the word koinonia. It is a Greek word that carries the idea of sharing. But more commonly it is translated in the New Testament using the English word: “fellowship”. Paul, therefore, is talking about the fellowship of our faith.
What is fellowship? Churches are sometimes called fellowships. Faith Church has a room in our building called a fellowship hall, and we also have a Fellowship Serve Team, which is responsible for, among many other things, administration of our kitchen and meals. So there seems to be a connection between fellowship and food. Fellowship is not equal with food, but the two concepts are connected because of what so often happens around a table of food. People talk. People open up. They share life. Fellowship is about close relationship.
There are also times in the New Testament when this word is translated as “participation.” In other words, there is no way we can truly have a fellowship of faith by just meeting together on Sunday mornings. Sunday mornings are important, and they should launch us into a life of worship and fellowship. This is why I really encourage you to participate in groups. Place yourself in settings like Sunday School classes, and small groups, and ministry teams where you can develop deeper relationships. But fellowship doesn’t stop there. Fellowship means you invite people in your home, take them out to coffee or lunch, and going deep. It is one reason why I love our informal runner’s group at Faith Church. We train together, talk about how race prep is going, hang out, run races, and more than that, we share life.
So if that is what fellowship is, sharing life together, what is Paul trying to say in verse 6? One bible commentator, NT Wright explains this a lot more clearly. He points us to Paul’s mention of Jesus in verse 6:
“Paul uses ‘Christ’ here, as in some other passages, as a shorthand for the full and mature life of those ‘in Christ’, so that ‘unto Christ’ refers to the growth of the church towards that goal. Paul’s desire is that the fact of mutual participation, enjoyed by Philemon and his fellow Christians, will result in the full blessing of being ‘in Christ’, i.e. the full unity of the body of Christ.”N. T. Wright
What a wonderful picture of what the fellowship of faith can accomplish! Our fellowship motivates us toward discipleship. Again, Paul is setting a stage. He wants Philemon to agree with him that all Christians can enjoy the mutual participation of being in Christ, just like Philemon and the other Christians in Colosse enjoy. Paul is nearly ready to explain why he is talking about this. He is building toward the “therefore” in verse 8. For now, we simply need to see what Paul is saying as really important. Churches should have as their goal that the people in the church grow a more and more mature life in Christ, such that all can mutually participate together in the blessing of being in Christ. Paul is talking about the strong bond of a church family.
How can you strengthen the bonds of your church family? Are you participating in a group? What will it look like for you to be more like Philemon?
 N. T. Wright, Colossians and Philemon: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 12, Tyndale New Testament Commentaries (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1986), 183.