“Koinonia” is a Greek word meaning “communion by intimate participation” and it has important meaning to Christianity as it was used in the New Testament to describe the relationships between early Christians.
I first learned the word through my upbringing in the United Church of Canada, the country’s largest Protestant denomination. The ideals of the United Church are generally liberal and inclusive, with policies developed from the bottom-up by congregations and regional organizations rather than central leadership. These aspects meshed well with my family’s liberal politics and my early feminist consciousness.
Through church and my parents, I learned that Jesus loves all God’s children, regardless of gender, race, class, nationality, or sexual orientation. I learned that one should be forgiving but also stand up for the oppressed, that someone’s faith and good deeds matter more than the size of their bank account. I learned that we should not judge others for their sins unless we ourselves our blameless.
These are all things I believe today, part of what I see as the philosophy of Jesus Christ, lessons worth promoting even though I now consider myself an atheist.
It wasn’t until I got to university that I began to understand that Koinonia can be political and that discovery led me to leave the church and ultimately Christianity.
Where I got hung up was the loving thine enemy part.
I cannot say enough good things about the amazing people who made up the congregation at University Hill United Church. I was homesick in the big city my first year at UBC and the church community really stepped in.
Each Sunday they held lunches for the students and at exam time they put together and drove around care packages of cookies, highlighters and post-it notes to all the students in the congregation’s houses. When I didn’t make it onto the residence list for second year, a fellow choir member offered to rent me her basement suite for half price – the cost I would’ve paid to share a room in residence. Those were loving, Christian gestures based on an understanding of shared community.
On its website, University Hill defines Koinonia as:
“the mark of a Christian community that is seeking to keep Jesus’ new commandment – to love one another as we have been loved by God in Christ. The word coin comes from the Greek word koinonia because it refers to the common currency of life. In Christian community the common currency of God’s love teaches us to practice love of neighbour, love of stranger, even love of enemy. Here we are learning the ways of mutual respect and compassion, of telling the truth in love, and of seeking forgiveness and reconciliation.”
The problem for our church was that the ban on same-sex marriage in BC was struck down in July of 2003 and due to the “bottom-up” nature of United Church policy-making, each individual congregation was allowed to decide whether or not to perform same-sex unions.
For me it was a no-brainer. We had active members of the congregation who were lesbian or gay. The United Church had a history of supporting same-sex equality and had made official statements in support of same-sex unions since 2000. We were a university congregation dominated by educated, supposedly more liberal students and academics. Most importantly, Christianity was about love and what could be more loving than being part of your fellow community members’ avowal of their own love for whomever they choose?
So it’s fair to say I was shocked when instead of an immediate affirmation of our congregation’s support for same-sex unions, U-Hill decided to hold a series of congregational discussions/debates on the meaning of marriage and same-sex relationships, with a particular grounding in scripture.
Suddenly people I’d been sitting next to, singing songs and drinking coffee with every Sunday were writing submissions to these discussions that included the “love the sinner, hate the sin” idea, that argued that the Bible saw same-sex relationships as an abomination, that somehow claimed Christianity was compatible with inequality.
The discussions happened on weeknights when I was in class and I heard there were passionate submissions on both sides, but the mere fact we were having the discussions offended me. I didn’t think it was fair: it was a scenario in which straight congregation members who opposed same-sex unions could express their feelings and thoughts in these groups with far less personal risk than LGBT members.
In the end the decision of the congregation was that the issue was “too divisive” and that therefore no position would be taken and the status quo maintained (this was in 2005 – it may have changed by today). There was no acknowledgment that taking “no position” was the same as taking a position against same sex marriage
One day in a sermon our Minister, whom I still hold deep respect for, preached that part of Koinonia was “leaving our politics at the door”, but I couldn’t do it and I didn’t believe anyone else should. I felt I was being asked to leave a vital part of my identity and my Christianity – my commitment to equality and love – at the door.
There may be sacrifice inherent in Koinonia, in its request that we seek “mutual respect”. But the ideal of loving your enemy should not be used to chastise those who speak out against real oppression. There is no justice in the status quo. There is no love in exclusion.
Many other congregations have worked hard to confront their prejudices and include everyone in their community, showing that Christian and feminist ideals can be compatible. I decided to pick my battles and didn’t try to change my congregation.
I’m fine with my decision and my ultimate decision to identify as an Athiest who supports most of the philosophies of Christ. But I would like to thank all those Christian feminists who have struggled and continue to struggle to make visible and challenge the underlying politics of Koinonia in their congregations.
(image via Wikimedia Commons)