The word “common” is a very common word, both in English and in Greek, the language in which the New Testament was composed. In fact, the particular form of Greek employed in the Mediterranean world of the first century was Koine (common) Greek because it was “used and understood throughout the civilized world, being spoken freely on the streets of Rome, Alexandria, and Jerusalem as in Athens” (Dana and Mantey 1968, 6-7). It was the common tongue of scholar and laborer alike.
The stem koinos (common) is father to a whole family of words in the New Testament—koinonos (companion, participant), koinoneo (to share in), koinonia (fellowship, participation), synkoinonos (partner), synkoinoneo (to participate, share), koinonikos (generous), and koinoo (to make common).
In this study we will restrict our attention to koinos. The term is found fourteen times in the New Testament and in the King James Version is rendered by the English forms “common,” “unclean,” “defiled,” and “unholy.” Let us briefly note some examples.
(1) The Pharisees, that strictest sect of the Jews (cf. Acts 26:5), were so fearful of being contaminated by Gentiles that they frequently engaged in ceremonial washings to free themselves of any suspected “taint.” The Lord’s disciples were criticized for not following this tradition when they ate with unwashed or “defiled” (koinos) hands (Mark 7:2).
(2) The Jews resisted any familiar association with Gentiles. After all, they (the Hebrews) were “a holy nation” (Exodus 19:6), and they were to maintain a sanctified status (cf. Leviticus 11:44ff; 19:2; 20:7, etc.). The Gentiles were regarded, therefore, as “unclean,” or to use a parallel expression, “common.” When Peter received his vision while on the roof of Simon’s house at Joppa, he was instructed not to henceforth regard the Gentiles as “common” (Acts 10:14,28; 11:8). They were to be admitted into the kingdom of Christ on a status equal with the Jews (Galatians 3:28; Ephesians 2:11ff).
(3) In his letter to the saints in Rome (chapter fourteen), Paul dealt with a sensitive problem. How were well-informed Christians to treat weaker (less-informed) brothers who still regarded certain foods as “unclean,” though those distinctions were required no longer with the abrogation of the Mosaic system? While the controversial foods (certain kinds of meat – cf. Leviticus 11) were not intrinsically “unclean” (koinos – Romans 14:14), the consciences of the immature saints who abstained from such foods were to be respected, as these folks were being educated toward a more mature level of understanding (see A Study of Romans 14).
(4) The book of Hebrews was addressed to Jewish Christians who, under the influence of false teachers, were being tempted to abandon the faith and revert to the Mosaic regime, all the while awaiting the “real” Messiah who supposedly was yet to appear. The inspired writer of this document addressed the matter forcefully in chapter ten. He spoke of those who appeared on the brink of returning to a life of habitual, “willful sin,” while anticipating one who yet would provide a “sacrifice for sins” (v. 26).
The sacred writer rebuked the conduct of those who would even think of abandoning Jesus, which, in a manner of speaking, would be treading “under foot the Son of God” and counting the “blood of the covenant” by which we are “sanctified” as an “unholy [koinos] thing.” At best they would be viewing the sacrifice of Christ as a mere “common” death of no special spiritual value; at worse they would be insulting that offering as something downright “unclean.” What a travesty!
In the balance of this article I want to focus upon two passages in which the term “common” is employed in a very rich sense.
In the salutation of Paul’s letter to Titus, the apostle refers to his co-laborer in the gospel as “my true child after a common [koinos] faith” (1:4). The expression carries several connotations. First, some suggest the phrase merely indicates that the apostle and his Gentile friend (Galatians 2:3) were “one” in Christ (Ephesians 2:14ff). While “oneness” was a reality, the sense goes much further. There also is an affirmation of a “mutually held faith that places them in accord with one another” and with all other Christians (Hiebert 1957, 26).
The “common faith” is the equivalent of Paul’s “one faith” mentioned in his letter to the Ephesians (4:5), and appears similar to Peter’s expression “like precious faith with us” (2 Peter 1:1b). Peter seems to use the term “faith” objectively (i.e., gospel system; cf. Jude 3) as evidenced by the fact that it had been “obtained,” i.e., it was derived from an extraneous source, namely via divine revelation.
While doubtless there is emphasis upon the common value of the faith, the expression also included the idea that their faith system was “common” due to the fact that it was “of the same kind” and therefore of equal quality (Danker et al. 2000, 481; cf. Kittel 1985, 371). Divergent “faiths” scarcely conform to the divine ideal. This, of course, is not meant to overlook the fact that there are different “measures” or “degrees” of faith (Romans 12:3; 14:1; 15:1). Consider a few points of practical application.
(1) A common faith in God eliminates polytheism. The Christians in Thessalonica had turned from idols to serve the living and true God (1 Thessalonians 1:9). Theological pluralism neither was, nor is, orthodox.
(2) Though “false Christs” arose in the first century, they were deceptive, feigning signs to authenticate their subversive missions (cf. 2 Thessalonians 2:9), hence were to be rejected (Matthew 24:23-24). Does the Christian share a “common faith” with those ancient Jews who contended that Jesus was the offspring of an adulterous mother and a Roman soldier (cf. Machen 1930, 10)? Or that of Klausner, who argued that Joseph was the biological father of the Lord (1989, 233)?
What of Islam’s claim that Jesus did not die upon the cross, nor was he raised from the dead (Qur’an 4:157-159)? The “diverse-unity” heresy is echoed today, of course, by a noisy gaggle of modernists whose only claim to fame is their outrageous antagonism to the Son of God. Can we identify with the Watchtower Witnesses who state that Christ was “nothing more that a perfect man” (Let God Be True 1952, 87)? With such the child of God may hardly be “yoked” in a “common faith” (2 Corinthians 6:14).
(3) The writers of the Bible considered the Scriptures to be a collection of “sacred writings” (2 Timothy 3:15), “inspired of God” (v. 16). Jesus himself endorsed the written Scriptures as that “spoken by God” (Matthew 22:29-32). The Holy Writings were composed by men who spoke/wrote on behalf of God, who were “borne along by the Holy Spirit” (2 Peter 1:21). Are we to acknowledge a “common faith” with those who dismiss the miracles of Scripture, make the claim that the Bible contains contradictions and multiple errors of various kinds, and who allege that certain books of the New Testament are pseudonymous (i.e., not written by the authors whose names are appended)? This writer has no commonality with those of such persuasion!
(4) And what of the “church”? How can the devout student of the New Testament share common ground with those who allege that the “church” was unknown to the Old Testament prophets, was a mere “afterthought” in the divine scheme of things, and bears no relationship to whether or not one is “saved” (cf. Ephesians 5:26)? This is an issue of fundamental importance.
In his brief letter, Jude spoke of our “common salvation” (v. 3). As with Titus 1:4, some are inclined to limit the “common salvation” merely to the salvation shared by Jew and Gentile alike. But this view radically limits the significance of the expression. The phrase also has to do with “those things that pertain to the salvation of us all” (Plummer 1959, 509). The “common salvation” implies a common Savior (1 Corinthians 8:6), a common necessity of submitting to him (John 14:6; Acts 4:12), and a common body into which the saved are gathered (John 10:16; 11:52; Ephesians 4:4; 5:26; cf. Hillyer 1992, 237).
The prevailing practice within “Christendom” is to celebrate the various sects that wear different names, subscribe to diverse creeds, practice conflicting forms of church government, endorse discordant liturgy (e.g., baptism), and engage in self-prescribed worship modes. Such practices are overt violations of the numerous apostolic admonitions to be united (Romans 16:17; 1 Corinthians 1:10; Ephesians 4:1-6; Philippians 2:2), not to mention the prayer of the Son of God himself (John 17:20-21), and the model of the apostolic church in its pristine period (Acts 4:32).
How can conflicting denominations share a “common salvation” when they cannot even agree upon the fundamental components of the plan of salvation? For example, the most frequent point of controversy relating to God’s plan of salvation for the unsaved person relates to the rite of baptism. The noun form “baptism” (found twenty times in the New Testament), and the verb form (“baptize”) (seventy-seven times) are employed frequently enough for the conscientious student to grasp clearly the significance of the ritual.
- The subjects amenable to the command (cf. Acts 10:48) are sinners who have, through teaching, arrived at a point of believing in Christ as the Son of God and Savior, and who are willing to repent of their sins (Mark 16:16; Acts 2:38; 22:16; 1 Peter 3:21). This, of course, excludes infants who have no sins, thus no need for repentance, and who, in the nature of the case, are incapable of rational faith.
- Baptism is a rite performed in water (Matthew 3:6; John 3:3-5; 3:23; Acts 8:38; 10:47; Ephesians 5:26; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 3:20-21). This excludes the mystical “dry baptism” advocated by many clerics—a phenomenon unknown to the New Testament.
- Redemptive baptism (from the Greek bapto, “to dip, submerge”) involves an immersion in water. Mounce says that “baptizo literally means ‘to put or go under water’” (2007, 52). The action, “immersion,” is inherent in the verb; the “water,” as an element into which the subject is dipped, is supplied by various related contexts (see above). Paul refers to the act as a “burial” that unites one with Christ (Romans 6:4; Colossians 2:12).
- The goal of baptism is the salvation of one’s soul from all past sins (Mark 16:16; Titus 3:5; 1 Peter 3:21), or, to say the same thing in another way, to “cleanse” (Ephesians 5:26), or to receive the “forgiveness of sins” (Acts 2:38; 22:16). While the ultimate cleansing agent is the blood of Christ (Hebrews 9:14), the divinely appointed means of accessing that cleansing is in the obedience of submitting to baptism.
It is absolutely amazing at the number of writers who avoid the conclusion, or who deny outright, that such matters discussed above fall into the categories of “common faith” or “common salvation” (Salmond 1962, 4)—as if God were preoccupied with ethnic concord, but is wholly unconcerned with gospel truth and unity in belief and practice (see 1 Corinthians 1:10). Men will close their eyes to the entire world of theological confusion in an effort to avoid confronting the evil of religious divisiveness.
There can be a “common faith” and a “common salvation” when conscientious people yield to the divinely prescribed conditions of pardon, and diligently seek to serve the Lord according to his plan, rather than capitulating to human desire (“will-worship” – Colossians 2:23). Partial “obedience” is not obedience (1 Samuel 15:17-23). True commonality is found in contrition before God and conformity to truth—not in the celebration of plurality, or in diversity of doctrine that ignores the teaching of Christ.