Spirit Baptism and Koinonia: A New Challenge for Pentecostal Theology

Prof. Frank D. Macchia, Theologian, Vanguard University


When asked about the key text for describing the effect of the Spirit poured out at Pentecost, most Pentecostals will likely point to Acts 1:8: "But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses..." Once this text is read, however, one must still inquire into the theological meaning of this empowered witness in Acts, as well as in the rest of the New Testament. One clue that is often overlooked is that "witness" is something Jesus said his people would "be," referring expansively in my view to a quality of their life together as a communion sanctorum and not just to the nature of their actions toward the outside world. Pentecostals in particular have commonly referred to the inspired speech featured in Acts, especially with extraordinary signs following, as providing the context for a theological understanding of empowerment. Though this understanding of Pentecostal witness has a basis in Acts, the result has been a rather narrow view of the Spirit of Pentecost in general and of Spirit baptism in particular.

I want to suggest a deeper and broader view of Spirit baptism and of empowered witness, one that focuses on witness as something we are as well as on something we do. I will contend that Acts 2 and other New Testament texts describe the field of the Spirit’s energy and power fundamentally as a communal dynamic, the power of koinonia to shape lives and to bear witness to the world of the love of God revealed in Christ. The power at work behind the church’s witness is fundamentally the power of love and of self-transcendence: "Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" (Eph. 5:18-19).1

This broader framework for spiritual empowerment will not be developed so as to deny the presence of prophetic insight and speech but merely to couch such gifts within the rise of a reconciled and reconciling community of faith as well as within a broader charismatic structure of mutually-edifying relationships. Spirit baptism constitutes us as a koinonia and both empowers and enlivens that communion in ways that show forth signs of God’s love to the world. It is from the context of this communal life that the church will bear witness to the world in multiple ways, including that of inspired speech. But the power of the church’s witness resides fundamentally in its communal life. Before I proceed very far in my reflections, let me develop my thesis brick by brick.

The Spirit and Koinonia

The Spirit is the Spirit of love and communion. The Spirit pours forth the love of God into our hearts says Paul in Romans 5:5. Spirit baptism thus implies communion and its enrichment. This is why the outpouring of the Spirit at Pentecost led to a shared love, a shared meal, a shared mission, and the proliferation/enhancement of an interactive charismatic life. Spirit baptism implies an empowerment for witness that is based in the unity and quality of life shared in the Spirit of Christ among believers: "that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (John 17:18-19, 21). Jesus prayed here that the unified fellowship of the church will show the world that the Father has sent the Son to redeem it. This is a witness that is real and concrete, not just spoken about but lived in a way that incarnates it for the world. The church’s empowered witness cannot be restricted to inspired proclamation. Empowered witness must occur in something more concrete and visible, namely, graced communion in God that images God’s love and justice for the world.

Spirit baptism is consequently a profoundly personal but not individualistic experience. The original band of Jewish disciples responded to Spirit baptism in their empowered witness by speaking forth tongues of the nations (Acts 2:4f), symbolizing their reconciliation with people of other cultures and nations. Spirit baptism is also said to bring together male and female, young and old, bond and free (Acts 2:18f). Koinonia implies a differentiated understanding of Spirit baptism as a diverse, relational, and polyphonic dynamic of constitution and renewal by the Spirit of Christ. It happened to Paul as a personal experience but, interestingly, at the laying on of hands by a prophet at a time when the church as a whole was not yet ready to trust him (Acts 9:17). Communal reconciliation and communion was birthed with Spirit baptism even in Paul’s personal experience of it across a gulf of hurt, fear, and suspicion.

Interestingly in this light, Paul’s own use of the Spirit baptismal metaphor can be translated as, "in one Spirit we are all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, bond or free" (1 Cor 12:13). The meaning according to Robertson and Plummer is as follows: "The Spirit is the element in (en) which the baptism takes place, and the one body is the end to (eis) which the act is directed." 2 Thayer also notes that the eis of 1 Cor 12:13 indicates an effect, namely, "we were all baptized in one Spirit with the effect of participating fully in one body." 3 Baptism in the Spirit is an initiation into a reconciled and reconciling communion of persons across cultural boundaries. It is experienced subsequently as the saints are filled with the Spirit and energized through waves of renewal to new expressions of love and self-transcendence as we minister to one another: "Be filled with the Spirit, speaking to one another in Psalms and hymns and spiritual songs" (Eph. 5:18-19). Being filled with God directs us to bless one another. It is also an empowerment by which this communion is renewed, grows, and launches prophetic witness into the world. The goal is "that the world may believe."

It is difficult to overestimate the importance of the communion of saints to a theology of Spirit baptism and its impact in furthering the mission of God in the world. Interestingly, social historian, Rodney Stark, suggested the thesis that early Christianity spread rapidly and impacted its world effectively in the first few decades of the Christian era (approximating a 40% growth rate per decade) due largely to the quality of its communal life. Stark theorizes that the "basis for successful conversionist movements is growth through social networks, through a structure of direct and intimate interpersonal attachments." 4

Of course, the church as a communio is deeper in significance than a social network of personal attachments. The church is constituted as a koinonia which then involves its network of social attachments. But Stark is on the right path in pointing to the church’s communal life as key to its effective missionary outreach. The church did not just proclaim the gospel, it participated in and embodied this gospel in its communal life. We can say that the church’s depth of communion and "graced" relationships based on charity and hope made the gospel attractive to a population starved for community. Luke seems to have agreed, reporting that, as a result of Pentecost,

They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayer…All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved (Acts 2:44-46).

Notice that Luke does not focus on evangelistic activity as leading to the church’s growth. The church is said to have grown due to the impression made from the quality of its communal life. As Jesus prayed: "that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me" (John 17:18-19, 21).

Note how in Jesus’ prayer the church’s empowered witness involves a dynamic unity that has intimate communion (being "in" one another) at its core. In Ancient-Future Evangelism: Making Your Church a Faith-Forming Community, Robert Webber noted insightfully that Evangelical understandings of evangelism (and, more broadly, mission) tend to be individualistic and disconnected from the people of God as a faith-forming community. He attempts to reconnect the Evangelical churches to the ancient church’s understanding of evangelism as a socialization into the community of faith, or as a process of discipleship in which people are brought into the language, worldview, and practices of the faith community. 5 Responding to Webber, we can say that empowered mission rises up from the richness of the koinonia, charismatic life, and practices of the people of God. This mission then seeks through diverse giftings to help the church to function as the salt of the earth and to draw people through living witness into the koinonia, charismatic life, and faith practices from which the process began. The church engages in social witness first by being the church, by faithfulness to its center in Jesus Christ and in the shared koinonia of God. The church can and must seek to facilitate justice and peace in the world but only from the context of its prior faithfulness to its own graced life together in Christ. Otherwise, the church loses its own soul in its effort to win the world for Jesus.

It is indeed interesting that Spirit baptism would be described by Luke in relational terms, as a divine "clothing" (Luke 24:49) or "infilling" (Acts 2:4) with the divine presence. It is not a "baptism" as something external to us but as something intimately participatory and interactive, involving God in us and us in God. The Spirit embraces us or fills us with the divine presence in order to sanctify us and empower us to be living witnesses to Christ in loving communion with others as well as through external deeds of love and words of grace. When God surrounds and fills us with the divine presence it is so that we can give of ourselves back to God in worship and witness. There is a relational dynamic at play in Spirit baptism: God pours God’s presence into us in order to receive it back along with the fullness of our renewed spirits in flaming tongues of praise and witness (Acts 2:4). We are then to pour ourselves into one another: "speaking to one another in Psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs" (Eph 5:18-19). Speaking in tongues then symbolizes in Acts the specific breaking down of barriers among people groups. God is in us; we are in God, and we are for one another. We are also for the world. Let us develop this dynamic a bit further in the light of its trinitatarian context.

Trinitarian Context of Koinonia and Witness

Through Spirit-enabled communion, the church images the life of the triune God for the world. Miroslav Volf advocates a social doctrine of the Trinity as a fitting analogy to a church that is a fellowship of faith, gifted to minister the Word of God to one another. 6 Regardless how convincing or unconvincing this analogy may seem to Pentecostals (especially difficult for our Oneness brothers and sisters), it at the very least seems fruitful to start with the agency of the Spirit in mediating the love and devotion between the Father and the Son as revealed in the story of Jesus. At Jesus’ baptism, the Father bestowed the Spirit upon the Son as an expression of his love and devotion (Matt 3:16-17). The Son is then led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where in the power of the Spirit he returns devotion to the Father, an obedient devotion that takes him to the cross (Matthew 4:1; Phil 2:8). The Father then raises him "according to the Spirit of holiness" in order to declare him with power as the favored Son of the Father (Rom 1:4). The person of the Spirit that functions as the agency in the love and communion between the Father and the Son is poured out from the Father through the Son in order to open communion to the people of God and, ultimately, to the world. The empowered witness of the church through Spirit baptism is no addendum to ecclesiology or super additum but is rather that which enables the people of God to be the people of God by imaging the love of God for the world.

Following the lead of theologians like Hans Urs Balthasar7 (Catholic) and Jűrgen Moltmann8 (Protestant), Jesus’ inauguration of the Kingdom of God is viewed as not only a work external to God but is a Trinitarian act played out between the divine persons involving Christ’s very person as well as his work. Participation in the Kingdom is thus not just received from Jesus as a gift external to him but takes place through incorporation into Christ by the Spirit and, through Christ, into the divine koinonia. Spirit baptism takes place as the richness and expanse of the divine koinonia is opened to us and, through our witness, to the world.

The relational dynamic of Spirit baptism is not merely between us as individuals and God, it is also a shared reality among us in God. When Christ poured out the Spirit, he gave interactive gifts to his people so that they could build each other up in the love discovered in Christ (Eph 4:7-16; cf. Rom 5:5). The Spirit is the "go-between God," so that starting with the third article of the Creed, the Spirit-baptized church is constituted by the Spirit according to the substance and pattern of the trinitarian life. Spirit baptism as a relational experience explains how Spirit baptism birthed the church and continues to renew and empower the church in its diverse and vibrant charismatic life. Koinonia is at the very substance of Spirit baptism.

Koinonia is an ancient category rediscovered among those interested in an ecumenical ecclesiology. In mediating the Spirit, Jesus draws believers into the communion enjoyed between the Father and the Son and expands the circle of this love in the process so as to include the "other." Baptized in the Spirit, the church seeks out the other as well in missionary outreach. The Spirit baptized church mimics the Spirit baptizing God. Jesus came on behalf of the Father to seek and to save the lost (Luke 15). Jesus bestows the Sprit so that we might in witness to Jesus seek the lost as well. Evangelism and missions flow out from koinonia and seek to expand its circle in the world.

It is important to note that Pentecostals would not typically formulate their ecclesiology through a concept of trinitarian koinonia. Trinitarian koinonia is not generally a concept used in their teaching or preaching. As Miroslav Volf has noted more generally, "The idea of correspondence between church and Trinity has remained largely alien to the Free Church tradition." 9 Though koinonia is a New Testament concept, it is naturally not explicitly used in the biblical text as a description of the inner life of God or of the Church’s participation in its self-disclosure in history. The Gospel of John implies a correspondence between our fellowship with Christ and Christ’s fellowship with the Father (14:11, 20; 17:21), but the elaborate analogy (or participatory relationship) between the trinitarian life of God and the fellowship of the church is a theological insight drawn from later trinitarian theology.

On the other hand, Spirit baptism has a trinitarian structure. It thus has koinonia at its essence. Though koinonia is explicitly a pneumatological concept in the New Testament, it implies a connection to Jesus’ relationship with the Father, a relationship that is of ultimate significance for our understanding of God’s very life as God (John 17:21). Thus, koinonia can still be a useful concept for Pentecostals. Interestingly, the Pentecostal team concluded in the Final Report of the international Catholic/Pentecostal dialogue that "Pentecostals have been reminded of the importance of the communitarian dimension of the New Testament understanding of koinonia." 10 Since koinonia can be said to occur "in the Spirit" as the bond of love (both within God, between God and humanity, and within creation), this accent of the ecumenical movement is not necessarily in tension with Pentecostal worship and theology.

Volf has attempted to show that koinonia can enrich a free church ecclesiology by deepening its understanding of ecclesial communion. In fact, he characterized the basic intention of his book, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity, as making "a contribution to the trinitarian reshaping of free church ecclesiology." 11 The church is not just an association of individual believers but a participation in the Spirit in the loving communion enjoyed within God’s triune life. As the Faith and Order paper, the Nature and Purpose of the Church, confirms, "The Church is not the sum of individual believers in communion with God. It is not primarily a communion of believers with each other. It is a common partaking together in God’s own life whose innermost being is communion." 12

Perhaps the way forward for Pentecostals in response to this ecumenical focus on koinonia would be to follow the advice of Walter Kasper by striving for "[a]n ecclesiology devised under the influence of pneumatology according to the archetype of the Trinity." 13 The challenge for Pentecostals, of course, is in how Kasper’s suggestion will relate Trinitarian with Oneness Pentecostals, who reject an ontological Trinity. If, as it seems agreeable to all Pentecostals, we can say that Jesus as the incarnation of God and the man of the Spirit communed with the heavenly Father, certainly an invocation of his name in baptism implies our entry in his image into the fellowship of love and devotion enjoyed between him and the Father. The Oneness Pentecostals will not want to regard this relationship between Jesus and the Father as transferable to the inner life of God. But that does not in my view necessarily omit the possibility that the communion between Jesus as the man of the Spirit and the Father in the story of Jesus cannot have significance for the Oneness understanding of the new life available in Spirit baptism.

Of course, Trinitarian Pentecostals would recognize the significance of koinonia as having absolute significance for our understanding of the essential life of God. As The Nature and Purpose of the Church proposes, Koinonia helps us understand why the church is vital to God’s redemptive plan: "Communion is the gift of God whereby God draws humanity into the orbit of the generous, divine, self-giving love which flows between the persons of the Trinity." 14 One could also maintain that the God of koinonia "hard-wired" the creation for communion. Koinonia thus connects the church with humanity and creation itself, for there is a "natural bond between human beings and between humanity and creation which the new life of communion builds upon and transforms but never wholly replaces." 15 Koinonia is thus also an eschatological hope: "The final destiny of the Church is to be caught up in the intimate relation of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to praise and to enjoy God forever." 16

Koinonia grants Spirit baptism its relational dynamic and helps us to understand how the outpouring of the Spirit constitutes the church and involves the diversely-interactive charismatic structure of the church in the church’s living witness to the Kingdom. The trinitarian and eschatological nature of Spirit baptism gives us the theological foundation for understanding the role of koinonia in redemption. Since redemption by the liberating impact of the Kingdom of the Father in and through the Son as the Spirit Baptizer involves koinonia, we cannot view the rise of the church as incidental or supplementary to redemption. It is Christ and not the church that saves us, but the church is the ordained sign and instrument of salvation in the world.

When one is born again, one is born in the context of a family, the church. It is the family named by the Father (Eph 3:14), in solidarity with the Son (Rom 8:29), and born of the Spirit by the grace of God (John 1:12-13). It is a family that is elect by the Father, redeemed by the Son, and sanctified in the Spirit (1 Peter 1:2; Eph 1:4-14). The new life of the Spirit allows us to "abide" in Christ and he in us as the Father abides in Christ and Christ in the Father (John 14:20; 17:21). The Father draws us to the Son by the agency of the Spirit (John 6:44) so that we can pray "Abba" to the heavenly Father in Christ (Rom 8:15-16).


  1. This essay is a development of a theme introduced throughout my recent, Baptized in the Spirit: A Global Pentecostal Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2006). 

  2. A. T. Robertson and Alfred Plummer, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the First Epistle of St. Paul to the Corinthians, The International Critical Commentary, second edition, Samuel Rolles Driver, Alfred Plummer, and Charles Augustus Briggs, eds (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1963), 272. I am grateful to Howard M. Ervin for this reference: These Are Not Drunken as Ye Suppose (Plainfield, NJ: Logos, 1968), 45. 

  3. J. H. Thayer, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament (NY: American Book Co., 1889), 94. Also These Are Not Drunken, 45. 

  4. Rodney Stark, The Rise of Christianity (Harper SanFrancisco, 1996), 20. 

  5. Robert Webber, Ancient-Future Evangelism: Making Your Church a Faith-Forming Community (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2003). 

  6. Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness: The Church as the Image of the Trinity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1998). 

  7. See his, Mysterium Paschale (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1990). 

  8. See his, The Trinity and the Kingdom: The Doctrine of God (Minneapolis: Fortress/Augsburg Press, 1993). 

  9. Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness, 195. 

  10. "Perspectives on Koinonia: Final Report of the International Roman Catholic/Pentecostal Dialogue (1985-1989)," #31, #32, Pneuma: The Journal of the Society for Pentecostal Studies 12:1 (1990), 119. 

  11. Miroslav Volf, After Our Likeness, 198-199. 

  12. The Nature and Purpose of the Church: A Stage on the Way to a Common Statement, Faith and Order Paper No. 181 (Geneva: WCC Faith and Order, 1998), #13, #10. 

  13. Walter Cardinal Kasper, "Present Day Problems in Ecumenical Theology," Reflections 6 (Spring 2003), 80. 

  14. The Nature and Purpose of the Church, #54, 25. 

  15. The Nature and Purpose of the Church, #60, 27. 

  16. The Nature and Purpose of the Church, #59, 26.