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After the typical litany of obscure and clunky terms at this year’s Scripps National Spelling Bee championships—bewusstseinslagen ousted one top competitor—the final word actually rang familiar to Christian viewers.
Koinonia was the winning word for the bee’s champion, 14-year-old speller Karthik Nemmani. A Greek word defined as “spiritual community,” it’s better known to believers as a term used to refer to Christian fellowship, or communion itself.
Karthik, who beat out more than 500 fellow spellers during the most competitive bee in history, said he knew the spelling of the final word as soon as the official pronouncer read it.
And so did many Christians who recognized the word from church life: It’s been used to name coffee shops, youth groups, worship bands, retreats, summer camps, and other ministries.
“If you grew up evangelical in the 90s you can totally spell koinonia because you had a crush on the drummer for a youth group band by that name,” joked author Rachel Held Evans on Twitter.
Christianity Today has reported on Koinonia Farms, an intentional community in Georgia that went on to launch Habit for Humanity, as well as Koinonia House, an aftercare program for previously incarcerated women.
Christians have adopted the word koinonia from the Greek New Testament, where it is translated as fellowship, communion, or partnership. It’s the word behind verses such as Acts 2:45, where the early church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship,” and Philippians 1:5, when Paul prays with joy of “partnership in the gospel.”
The late evangelical scholar John Stott preached on the term:
That’s the Greek word koinonia. It comes from the adjective koinos that means “common.” Koinonia bears witness to what we have in common and what we share as Christian men and women and young people. It bears witness to two complementary truths.
First, koinonia expresses what we share in together, what we have received together, what we participate in together. That is the grace of God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. So the apostle John, at the beginning of his first letter, says, “Our fellowship [koinonia] is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ”…
But koinonia also bears witness to what we share outward together—not only what we receive together, but what we give together. Koinonia is the word that Paul uses of the collection that he was organizing from the Greek churches for the benefit of the poverty-stricken churches in Judea. And koinonikos, the adjective, means “generous.”
This year’s spelling bee finals also included the word pseudepigrapha, which comes up in Christian scholarly circles to refer to non-canonical writings said to be authored by biblical figures. (The speller aced that one too.)
Koinonia is not the first Christian-tinged term to conclude the annual competition. Back in 2009, the winning word was Laodicean, meaning indifferent or halfhearted. It also shows up in the book of Revelation, which addresses the church of Laodicea.