Koinonia in Philemon 6 and 17

κοινωνός in Philemon

In Philemon, κοινωνια (nominative singular feminine noun) is used in verse 6 and κοινωνόν (accusative singular masculine noun/adjective) is used in verse 17. In verse 6 it is modified by the genitive της πιστεως (the faith). Let’s just assume for a second that, following the NIV, ASV, NASB and others, κοινωνια here means “fellowship”. The genitive phrase can be interpreted in a number of ways: “fellowship in the faith” (objective genitive), “fellowship with Christ through faith” (subjective genitive), “fellowship spawned out of faith” (genitive of origin/source), or a more general qualification such as “faith fellowship”. Whatever the interpretation, Paul’s use of κοινωνια here connotes some kind of greater fellowship/communion/unity of which Philemon is apart of beyond his immediate relationship to Paul.

In v17, however, Paul clearly uses the word to describe some aspect of the presumed relationship between the two of them. The context in v6 is Philemon’s effectiveness or ineffectiveness in relation to his ‘fellowship in the faith’ (or, for now, any of the above interpretations). In v7, however, the focus is on the relational standing between Paul and Philemon. Whatever Paul’s conception of κοινωνια was, it must have been able to account for both the similarities and differences between these two contexts. In other words, whatever kind of connection or bond existed between Paul and Philemon has to be close enough to the relationship between Philemon and the faith in order for Paul to have chosen the same word in each situation. In reverse, the meaning of the word has to be flexible enough to make different kinds of sense in the two unique scenarios.

As I will try to show below, I believe this semantic constraint posed by the two uses of κοινωνια in the small letter to Philemon is actually indredibly helpful in determining what Paul meant with each usage.

In both occurrences in Philemon, Paul is trying to exert some force on Philemon. The aim of the letter is to persuade Philemon to release Onesimus. Every word and sentence is carefully crafted to have the best chance at accomplishing just that. Paul uses all the leverage he can muster (and get away with). In the letter’s introduction, where we find verse 6, Paul appears to be playing his first move by the classic tactic of prayer-preaching. As happens all the time in church prayer meetings, Paul shared his prayer aloud not for the sake of prayer but to make a subtle point to his hearer. Paul prays that Philemon’s ‘fellowship in the faith may become effective’, implying either that it isn’t now effective or that it might fail to be effective in the future shall Philemon not do the right thing. The point of highlighting Philemon’s ‘fellowship in the faith’, however we may later re-interpret that phrase, is to call it into question indirectly. It is Paul’s first subtle threat.

In verse 17, Paul makes a different but similar move. Below I will argue that the move here is more complicated than meets the eye, but for now let’s just consider the NIV:

17 So if you consider me a partner, welcome him as you would welcome me. 18 If he has done you any wrong or owes you anything, charge it to me. 19 I, Paul, am writing this with my own hand. I will pay it back—not to mention that you owe me your very self.

In these three verses Paul mixes a subtle threat with a generous plea and then finally a ‘but-you-owe-me-anyway’ jab. He pulls out all the stops. Again, his aim is to move Onesimus to action anyway he can. In v17, he poses a threat akin to that in v6 with the use of the word ‘if’. Paul could have said, ‘You are my partner; Treat him like me.’ But instead he makes it conditional in order to imply the subtle possibility that Philemon might prove he isn’t Paul’s partner or, worse, that he could actually lose Paul as a partner. Either way, the aim is a move of force that threatens a kind of relational loss.

This, I argue, is the commonality between verses 6 and 17 that motivate Paul to use κοινωνια in each. The word describes Philemon’s relational status as belonging both to the Christian Way and to a ministerial partnership with Paul. Both of these forms of κοινωνια are conditional, depending on Philemon’s right action to maintain the membership. Paul wants Philemon to maintain both kinds of κοινωνια, but he wants Philemon to know that the choice is his.

To start with then, κοινωνια in the letter to Philemon means a kind of relational status or sense of connectedness that Philemon previously maintained by his right Christian action. And, secondarily, it entails a kind of connectedness precious enough to Philemon that to lose it would pose a great threat.


Comparing English Bible Translations

            Philemon 6         Philemon 17

NIV     partnership          partner

ESV     sharing                partner

NASB  fellowship           partner

KJV     communication   partner

NKJV  sharing                partner

NRSV  sharing                partner

ASV    fellowship           partner

NLT    generosity            partner

HCSB participation         partner

TLB    you share              friend

YLT   fellowship          fellowship


As this list shows, there is much greater diversity of interpretation in verse 6 than in verse 7. The only two translations on the list to choose other than ‘partner’ in v6 are two outliers in terms of translation theory. The Living Bible valued a dynamic, common-language translation and so preferred friend to partner. Young’s Literal Translation so valued translating consistently with the same word that they duplicated fellowship in both occurrences.

There is relative diversity in translations of verse 6, however. Though they all pertain to sharing/fellowship, there are two interpretations that I deem flawed outliers: ‘Generosity’ and the evangelism interpretation. I will highlight predominant usage below, but it suffices here to say that the Biblical precedent for either usage is small. And neither fits this context. The enagelism interpretation has a larger following, likely because of the massive influence of the King James on all modern English translations. As the word ‘communicate’ clearly shows, the KJV interpreted ἡ κοινωνία τῆς πίστεώς σου as ‘the communication of thy faith’. Below I will show the scant precedent for such a reading, but let’s look now at a few more likely alternates Paul would have used to enlist such a meaning.

Here are a few of the most likely candidates:

1. Κηρυσσω (Strong’s Greek 2784): to proclaim, herald, preach

Used 61 times in the New Testament, 19 in Paul

Ex: 2 Timothy 4:2 (‘preach the word’), Rom 10:8 (‘of faith which we proclaim’)

2. καταγγελλω (Strong’s Greek 2605): to declare openly, preach, laud, celebrate

Used 18 times in the New Testament, 7 in Paul

Ex: Rom 1:8 (‘your faith is spoken of’), 1 Cor 2:1 (‘I proclaimed to you the testimony about God’)

3. ευαγγελιζω (Strong’s Greek 2097): to announce good news, preach good tidings

Used 54 times in the New Testament, 21 in Paul

Ex: Eph 2:17 (‘he preached peace to you’), Gal 1:23 (‘preaching the faith he once tried to destroy’)


Certainly more words could be added to this list. These three should suffice to make the point that Paul had numerous other words in his repertoire to communicate the idea of evangelism. Indeed all three of these are used at least once in reference to faith specifically. Each of them could have been used instead of κοινωνια in Philemon 6. And because of the possibility of confusion with his later use of κοινωνόν in v17, it is logical that Paul would have preferred any of these words instead if he had evangelism in mind. This should serve as ample evidence against the evangelism interpretation.

Additionally though, as we previosuly noted, our interpretation of κοινωνόν must account for both the semantic constraint as well as semantic flexibility of the two uses in Philemon. In other word, it must account for both the commonality between the two contexts that justifies the dual usage as well as account for the unique meaning required by the contextual differences between verses. Neither the evangelism interpretation, nor the generosity translation, appear to have enough in common semantically with the use of ‘partner’ in v17. The other predominant interpretations of fellowship/partnership/participation, however, carry the commonality of relational connectedness and status.

At this point then we can further establish that any interpretation of κοινωνόν in Philemon does and should entail a sense of relational connectedness and common sharing or participation.  



κοινωνός in the New Testament and Septuagint

Various forms of the root word κοινος appear in the New Testament 73 times. There are 51 such occurrences in the Septuagint. As a verb, it typically means ‘to defile’. See such clear examples as Mark 7:5-23 or Acts 21:28. As an adjective, it typically means impure or unclean (i.e. describing something that has been defiled) such as in Romans 14:14 and Acts 11:8-9. When used as a singular noun, as it is both times in Philemon, it commonly refers to a ‘partner’. Consider these examples:

Malachi 2:14

καὶ εἴπατε Ἕνεκεν τίνος; ὅτι Κύριος διεμαρτύρατο ἀνὰ μέσον σοῦ καὶ ἀνὰ μέσον γυναικὸς νεότητός σου, ἣν ἐνκατέλιπες· καὶ αὕτη κοινωνός σου καὶ γυνὴ διαθήκης σου.

You ask, “Why?” It is because the Lord is the witness between you and the wife of your youth. You have been unfaithful to her, though she is your partner, the wife of your marriage covenant. (NIV)

Isaiah 1:23

οἱ ἄρχοντές σου ἀπειθοῦσιν κοινωνοὶ κλεπτῶν, ἀγαπῶντες δῶρα, διώκοντες ἀνταπόδομα, ὀρφανοῖς οὐ κρίνοντες καὶ κρίσιν χηρῶν οὐ προσέχοντες.

Your rulers are rebels,

partners with thieves;

they all love bribes

and chase after gifts.

They do not defend the cause of the fatherless;

the widow’s case does not come before them. (NIV)


Luke 5:10a

ὁμοίως δὲ καὶ Ἰάκωβον καὶ Ἰωάννην υἱοὺς Ζεβεδαίου, οἳ ἦσαν κοινωνοὶ τῷ Σίμωνι.

and so were James and John, the sons of Zebedee, Simon’s partners.


Interestingly, these final three examples are all genitive phrases consisting in a noun-form of κοινωνός followed directly by a genitive modifier. In each example, ‘partner’ makes perfect sense. Additionally, the function of the genitive is the same in each, connoting connection via belonging. In Malachi, ‘your wife’ is the ‘partner of you’. In Isaiah, the rebellious and corrupt rulers are ‘partners with (of/to) thieves’. In Luke, Simon’s fellow fishermen are ‘partners of Simon’. Also, according to Balz and Schneider, “The obj. gen. indicates that in which one shares or how or whose partner one is (1 Cor 10:18, 20; 2 Cor 1:7; 1 Pet 5:1; Heb 10:33: “partners of those who so conducted themselves”). ”[1]


Following this pattern, we should perhaps interpret Philemon 6 as: ‘That your partnership in the faith may become effective...’ In this reading, Paul would be referring to Philemon’s self-ascribed partnership in the community of Christ-followers, praying that through his obedience response to Paul’s request on behalf of Onesimus his membership in The Way would manifest itself tangibly.


In the New Testament specifically, κοινος becomes increasingly used as a verb to entail not ‘defiling’ but ‘sharing’ or ‘participating with’. The relationship between these meanings is logical as defilement occurs by participating with the wrong things. In addition, the noun often refers not only to ‘a partner’ or ‘partners’ but to the idea of ‘partnership’ or ‘fellowship’ or ‘sharing’. This is especially true in Paul’s letters.



κοινωνός in Paul’s Letters

Paul uses some form of κοινος thirty times, far more often than the rest of the Scriptures. It was a key term and theme for him. Indeed, it shows up in all but three of his shortest letters (Colossians and 1 & 2 Thessalonians, perhaps not coincidentally two of which are hotly contested as to being authentically Pauline). Paul speaks often not of specific people who are partners but of ideas such as ‘partnership in the gospel’ (Phil 1:5, NIV), ‘fellowship of the Holy Spirit’ (2 Cor 13:13, ESV), and ‘a sharing in the blood of Christ’ (1 Cor 10:16, NASB). Paul is well known for centering his letters upon the concept of being ‘in Christ’, partaking in ‘union’ with Jesus. This focus is undoubtedly why he so regularly utilized κοινωνια in order to discuss the relationship between Jesus and his followers as well as the followers to one another. In Paul’s Christian cosmology, believers were those who got to share in the fellowship of the Holy Ones by participating in the life and death of Christ, their head.


So to Paul, other ministers such as Titus and indeed Philemon (barring his disobedience) were his κοινωνος, partners (see 2 Corinthians 8:23). Logically then Paul could and did also speak not just of particular partners but of the partnership itself, or of various aspects of their common sharing relationship. The sharing includes ungodly participation with darkness and demons (1 Cor 10:18, 20, 2 Cor 6:14, Eph 5:11), generous financial support (Rom 12:13, 15:26, 2 Cor 8:4, 9:13, Gal 6:6), cosmic connection to the Holy Spirit (2 Cor 13:13, Phil 2:1), fellowship in similar sufferings (Phil 3:10, 4:14), and more.


It is clear that to Paul κοινωνια meant both the key action of sharing or participation as well as the individual partners who were on the other end of such fellowship. This serves as rational justification for my assertion, which is that in Philemon 6 and 17, Paul uses the word in precisely these two different ways. In Philemon 6, Paul aims to highlight and perhaps even threaten Philemon’s membership in the Christian fellowship and says therefore, “that your partnership in the faith may become effective.” His focus is Philemon’s obedience to the Way of Jesus and so he uses κοινωνια to describe this membership which entails the responsibility. Then later, he makes a final petition based on Philemon’s responsibility not just to the greater Christian ethos but specifically to Paul himself: “If you have me (as) a partner, accept him as me.” Read this way the line poses adds a double meaning: If I am your partner, then accept him like me (as a partner as well, not as a slave), but also if you do not accept him, then (likely) you do not have me as a partner. Read as ‘participation with me’ rather than ‘me as a partner’, we lose these forceful layers of communication.


This interpretation fits with the overall Biblical usage of the word κοινωνος, precisely matches Paul’s usage throughout his letters, makes room for the differences in context between verse 6 and 17, and allows for a rich and cohesive reading of the letter to Philemon.


Other Words in the Same Semantic Domain as κοινωνός


1.     Συγκοινωνεω: verb; associate with, share with, be connected with

Συγκοινωνος: noun; partner, companion, sharer


Ephesians 5:11

καὶ μὴ συγκοινωνεῖτε τοῖς ἔργοις τοῖς ἀκάρποις τοῦ σκότους, μᾶλλον δὲ καὶ ἐλέγχετε,

Have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather expose them. (NIV)

Philippians 4:14

πλὴν καλῶς ἐποιήσατε συγκοινωνήσαντές μου τῇ θλίψει.

Yet it was good of you to share in my troubles. (NIV)

Also see Revelation 18:4.


2.     Προσφορα: noun; Sacrifice, an offering, a presentation


3.     Ελεημοσυνη: noun; acts of charity, actions of mercy to the poor, alms; also donation, charitable gift


Acts 24:17

After an absence of several years, I came to Jerusalem to bring my people gifts for the poor (ελεημοσυνας) and to present offerings (προσφορας). (NIV)

See also Rom 15:16, Eph 5:2, Heb 10:5, 8, 10, 14, 18


4.     Συνεργεω: verb; work together with, be a fellow-worker

Συνεργος: noun; fellow worker, fellow labourer, co-worker


Colossians 4:11

Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings. These are the only Jews among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me. (NIV)

See also Rom 8:28, 16:3, 1 Cor 3:9, 16:16, 2 Cor 1:24, 6:1, 8:23, Phil 2:25, 4:3, 1 Thes 3:2, and significantly, Philemon 1.


Summary: Doubtless there are other words that could be added to this list. This limited list serves to show, however, that there were alternate words common in Paul’s repertoire for each individual meaning contained in the semantic range of κοινωνια. We should be encouraged then, when Paul does indeed use a form of κοινωνια to consider the possibility that he intends to import some or most of the semantic field related to it. This semantic field centers on relational connectedness and communal sharing. In other words, when Paul uses κοινωνός (partner0 in Philemon 17 rather than συνεργος (co-worker), which he used in verse 1, then we should assume that Paul meant to insinuate a kind of connectedness or shared bond that goes beyond that of being co-workers. 




In agreement with the Blaz and Schneider excerpt above, I believe that there is a specificallyt Pauline usage of κοινωνια that plays a significant role not only in his letters but in the rest of the New Testament epistles. κοινωνια was a key idea for Paul. And I further suggest that the fact of its centrality to Paul helps to elucidate what it meant to him and his audience. The key question is, why was it so central for Paul? And connected to this is a second: Why did Paul use it in the way that he did?


I suggest that the answer is Jesus. Paul’s epistles, such as Philemon, represent some of the earliest and of course the most historically influential attempts at construing a Christian theology. What did it mean to proclaim allegiance to a crucified Messiah? What did it mean to be the Holy Ones of God in this new gentile-friendly community? In this new post-resurrection community, what was the relationship between a man such as Philemon and a slave like Onesimus? Most importantly, what was the relationship between new Christian converts and  their deceased and resurrected Lord? I suggest that it was these huge and complicated questions that led Paul to repurpose κοινωνια and then rely heavily upon it in his theological discourse. To put it too short and too simply, Paul’s answer was a kind of real but mystical sharing or shared participation, a spiritual bond of connection. This was a way to make sense of a Christian’s relationship to Jesus and to the other Spirit-saturated Christians. In κοινωνια, Paul adapted for himself a kind of theological shorthand.


There has been a resurgence of foucs lately in Protestant theology on Paul’s theology of being ‘in Christ’ or ‘in union with Christ’. This has largely been to push up against the dominance of Luther’s interpretation of Paul as anti-legalism grace-based forgiveness. I am thankful for this resurgence and believe that a more robust understanding of the word κοινωνια would have kept the Western church on track in the first place. I don’t believe Paul ever positioned hard spiritual work up against the grace of God’s redeeming work. Christian faith and discipleship is active and costly. The idea of participation or sharing is large enough to hold this all together. It makes space, as mentioned before, for doing what Christ did and suffering similarly for it (participating in the gospel and sharing in his sufferings) as well as for recognizing our common indebtedness for the free gift of Christ (fellowship in the blood and body of Christ). Put differently, to share in Christ and his body entails both works and grace. Such a theology prevents a one-sided or lazy Christianity.


A study of Paul’s thirthy uses of κοινωνια would serve any Christian greatly as a starting place for answering some of the central questions pertaining to Christian faith. It would aslo, specifically, help serve as a much needed antidote to the lazy and cheap charicature of Christianity so prevalent in the West.


Specifically in Philemon, we should understand κοινωνια as both ‘sharing/fellowship/participation’ in the abstract as well as the more concrete ‘partner’. Conveniently, Paul’s two uses in Philemon construe these two different meanings. Paul uses both to throw two different subtle threats at Philemon, which both entail a loss of relational connectedness or membership. To deny Onesimus a truly Christian liberation would be to risk removing himself from the fold of Christian faithfulness and fellowship. Similarly, to deny Paul’s request would be to refuse to honor their partnership and thereby risk losing his status as Paul’s κοινωνός. When we allow the relational connectedness embedded in κοινωνός to guide our interpretation, we get a better grasp of what Paul is trying to do in his calculated message to Philemon. We also get a snapshot into Paul’s cosmology and ecclesiology, which further aids in our interpretation of this letter as well as others. Let us, therefore, share in a common careful consideration of κοινωνός in the New Testament epistles and thereby serve as partners to Paul in his theology and ministry.






[1] Balz, H. R., & Schneider, G. (1990–). Exegetical dictionary of the New Testament (Vol. 2, p. 303). Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eerdmans.