As I’ve gotten more involved with Disciple Making Movements I’ve thought more critically about the topic of ecclesiology (defn: the nature and structure of the Christian church). Are the ways that we gather as God’s people in Canada actually fulfilling the purpose that Jesus intended for his church? Reflecting on that question has led me to the topic of community.
Before jumping into this blog, I’ll share an observation. It seems to me that the ideas that shape Jesus’ Kingdom are simple but really challenging to live out. Community seems to be one of those ideas. As I read Scripture, community seems to be an expected manifestation of the presence of the Kingdom. I believe the basics of the visible expression of community are simple. Love God, love our neigbhours – especially the other believers in close geographical proximity to us. Meet regularly. Keep the groups small enough that you can respond to each other’s practical needs.
But living in a loving community with others is one of the hardest things we’re called to do. Jesus expected us to form loving communities, and because he is loving I believe that he has made it possible to realize now. Let me encourage you to dream about flourishing Christian community with these thoughts.
In Scripture community begins first with God. God desires to be in community with us. The story of the garden of Eden isn’t just a story of a place, it’s a story of a relationship. The presence of God in the garden is a picture of a relationship where God is sufficient for all of our needs. A place of community with him.
Jesus picks this garden imagery up again in John 15, a chapter that is full of the language and imagery of union with Jesus and through Jesus with God. Jesus is the true vine. A branch that is not connected to the life of the vine is dead. Once again, Jesus is restating the all-sufficiency of life in Him. This is so important that Jesus defines a life well-lived as a life that is fruitful through union with him and obedience to his commands.
The main command given to us in John 15 is “Love each other.” In light of Jesus’ command, an authentic Christian community should first of all be concerned about their love for Jesus. Naturally, what follows is love for each other, and then because of Jesus’ orientation, love for the world. Each love is initiated by God’s love for us. In turn, the demonstration of our love for Jesus is obedience to his commands. These loves mark an authentic Christian community.
Marriage – A basis for community
Stan Grenz in his book Sexual Ethics talks about people being sexual beings. At a very basic level the desire that draws a man and a woman together leads to an openness to another person and forms the basis of community. Grenz makes the powerful point that the “forming of the marital bond and the birth of children ought to serve as reminders that God chose marriage as the context in which to work the miracle of the coming Son into the world. The establishment of a home must occur within the realization that this union is to be a vehicle for the expansion of the fellowship of believers as a dimension of the divine design for bringing about human community.” (Grenz, p56) Marriage and the formation of a family are a powerful reminder of the depth of the bonds that are anticipated in the community of believers. Jesus affirms this frequently in the Gospels.
Community built on action
Our picture of what a community could be, in fact, is made more concrete by the “one another” statements of Scripture (See list on attached pdf). There are over 50 statements that describe the behavior that one believer should have towards another. They apply to all brothers and sisters in Christ, but of course are probably most challenging when we try to apply them to a local community. The reason is, the “one another” statements aren’t just thoughts to think but are actions to take. Scot McKnight in his book One.Life says that “Community is like peace in that it is a result instead of an action. Peace results from acts of justice and behaviours of love. Community also emerges out of loving behaviours – like compassion and an embrace and forgiveness – and out of acts of justice.” (McKnight, p102) The “one another” statements guide our actions if we take them seriously.
Community built on a transformed heart
But are these one-another statements unattainable ideals or can they be realized in living, loving communities today? I’d say that they remain unattainable ideals unless we work towards, as Aaron White calls them, “beatitude communities”. In his book Recovering from Brokenness and Addiction, Aaron sees Jesus’ preaching on the Beatitudes as a framework for overcoming the brokenness and addiction that each of us face. Aaron says, “Beatitude Communities, based on Jesus’s revolutionary blessings in the sermon on the Mount, are the best hope for us to learn how to become fully human. This type of community answers the deep pain, brokenness, and dislocation that lies at the heart of all addictions, chemical or otherwise.” (White, p5)
The story of the Gospel is that Jesus is introducing a new Kingdom, and he has invited us to be its ambassadors, to declare that it has arrived and that all are welcome. This isn’t just a future hope. Scripture makes it clear that we get to start experiencing Kingdom life in us and between us now. The Beatitudes lay the path to Kingdom life because they expose our weakness and realign us with the all-sufficiency of Jesus.
Aaron gives a beautiful, expanded interpretation of the beatitudes. It’s worth taking a minute to meditate on.
Blessed are the poor in spirit, who know their own desperation and their need.
Blessed are those who mourn, who are wrapped in sorrow, either from deep loss or from the recognition of sin and brokenness
Blessed are the meek, who live vulnerably but without compromise in the face of power and aggression.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, who know that without God the world will die of spiritual hunger and dehydration.
Blessed are the merciful, who forgo wrath and embrace compassion in a world that rewards and romanticizes vengeance.
Blessed are the pure in heart, who seek holiness in a profoundly impure world.
Blessed are the peacemakers, who challenge outrageous violence and hatred with the hope of shalom.
Blessed are the persecuted, insulted, slandered, and falsely accused who join Jesus in picking up their cross.
As Jesus’ followers we live in the ‘already, not yet’ of our mixed reality. Reflecting on the Beatitudes acts like a weathervane, ensuring that we’re moving with the wind of the Spirit towards alignment with Jesus and his values for our relationships with others.
I think it’s worth bringing the beginning of our journey in Christianity to the forefront as I attempt a conclusion on this short article on community. Roger E Olson in his essay in Evangelical Ecclesiology reminds us that “The call of the gospel is to individuals; ultimately, only individuals can accept the transforming power of the Holy Spirit and embark on lives of discipleship to Jesus Christ.” (Stackhouse, p174) Our ability to respond to the call of God, is an act of grace. And, as the apostle Paul says in Ephesians 2: 8-9 – “for it is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that no one can boast.” So, when we’re trying to imagine community as a mark of the church, I think that it is most important that we recognize our admission into this community is an act of grace. It’s easy to lose sight of that in Evangelicalism. We “join” churches, often mistaking them for community, looking for a place to belong. We often leave churches because they don’t align strongly enough with our likes and dislikes. Michael Jinkins, challenges believers to consider that, “It is so easy to equate difference with ungodliness, so tempting to confuse diversity with perversity , and so utterly impossible for persons (even for sincere Christians) to know the heart of another that we must count on something other than shared affinities, beliefs, aspirations, morals, values, religious experiences, and commitments to unite us in fellowship and community. We must count on God in Christ for this. Whatever unity means, and whatever it means to belong to the community of Christ, it cannot depend on us. The church is one because the church is, as Paul tells us, the one body of our Lord Jesus Christ (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12).” (Stackhouse, Evangelical Ecclesiology, p186)
What can we learn from these scholarly reflections? I think we need to remember that our focus needs to be on Christ. We need to desire him. The greater our union with him, the better it is for our fellowship and belonging to and with others, and for our mission in the world. We need to embrace the church as a “social organism” rather than “formal organizational structures” as a George Hunsberger points out Evangelical Eccelisiology.
I can’t give you a hard and fast definition of community with explicit guidelines for forming one. All I’ve hoped to do in this article is to raise the bar on your expectations for Christian community.
To further disturb your world, try these two simple exercises.
- When talking about your church in conversation, try not to say: “I go to (name of community).” Hopefully you are part of a community that you more than “go” to.
- Rather than thinking about the church you belong to, instead try to answer the question of who you belong to? Who are you in deep, meaningful, accountable relationships with?