Saturday, June 8, 2013

The Importance of Christian Community to the Christian Life

Christian community used to be taken for granted, but with the dissolution of Christendom, we now wonder if it is even possible or desirable. Does the Christian life consist of private piety unrelated to society and culture, or is it inescapably related to one’s community? The growing discouragement about today’s society has many Christians backing away from the idea of a Christian community. Either they retreat from community altogether, or they decide we can play around in the world’s community without being distinctively Christian. I am taking the word "community" here to mean not merely people who like each other, but an organic system of people who live with each other, sharing a common culture. How we view this kind of system has great impact in how we think and live. As the concept of Christian community is examined, it should be evident that it is thoroughly interwoven into the Christian life.

The Christian life does not happen in a vacuum. A Christian does not arrive on the scene without any background or relations. The fifth commandment is foundational for a successful Christian life and culture. “Honor your father and mother...that it may go well with you and that you may live long in the land” (Eph. 6:2-3). Proverbs is full of exhortations to pay heed to one’s parents’ instruction and training. What a person receives from his parents will form the initial context and position for his life. Our glory and status is our fathers (Prov. 17:6), and some of us have been given more from them than others. What a person receives will determine, in part, his culpability and responsibility. “Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required” (Luke 12:48). Of course, parents are not the only authorities and influences in our lives. The command to honor parents has been traditionally understood to extend to the general principle found throughout the Bible of “preserving the honor, and performing the duties, belonging to everyone in their several places and relations, as superiors, inferiors, or equals” (Westminster Confession of Faith, 305). Our community gives us a context in which to live and a heritage on which to improve. Obedience does not merely require a knowledge of our motivations and God’s revealed will. It also requires an understanding of our situation and who we are. In other words, our obedience to God requires a biblical understanding of our community.

The development of a distinctively Christian community is important since our life and work will often reflect the values of our community. Our formal worship of God is a corporate expression of worship as we gather with His people. Our liturgy, if it is done biblically (1 Cor. 14), will be done in a way understandable to the congregation, and thus will start with their culture. “Good communication will be rendered when the listener's own language is used, when his cultural world is penetrated by the communicator” (Lee, 6). This will likely cause problems because ungodly cultures will have formerly been in rebellion to God, suppressing the truth. A renewal of culture by transforming society will be necessary for a mature liturgy. The same happens with economics and art. An ungodly community will have ungodly values determining its work and commerce. For a Christian to participate in economics, he will need to communicate and interact with this ungodly economy to some extent. Art, as a special kind of communication, generally reflects the cultural values and shared experiences of a community, and it runs into problems when faced by a rebellious culture. With nothing less than a Christian community operating with biblical values will we be able to produce mature worship, economics, and art.

The influence of community can be used for good or evil. While its evil influence in our current culture has often been pointed out, the Bible also teaches its use for good (e.g. Prov. 5:12-14, 6:20-24). The man who seeks to isolate himself from others “breaks out against all sound judgment” (Prov. 18:1). While evil company can lead people astray into death, a Christian community is a vital support for the Christian. For a man to cut himself off from community is to cut off the past and future for the mere enjoyment of the present. This is a proud way of dying. Even to cut one’s self off from weak and young Christians, at least if done on principle, can be a danger because it tends to replace the reality of unity in Christ with a community defined by human qualifications. “The exclusion of the weak and insignificant, the seemingly useless people, from a Christian community may actually mean the exclusion of Christ” (Bonhoeffer, 37-38).

As we pointed out above, God has designed the family to play a large part in the development of Christians, bringing up children in the Lord’s discipline, in His way of life (Eph. 6:4, Prov. 22:6). Individuals and families are also strengthened by the church, where the Spirit has given each person gifts for the benefit of all (1 Cor. 12:7). The ordained preachers of the church are the gifts given by Christ to build up His church so that the members may minister to one another (Eph. 4:16). This close community of believers will give Christians strength to face the task of interacting with the larger community. As we seek to create broader communities that operate on Christian principles, we need to start with a community that does so self-consciously and in opposition to the general culture. We need the church if we are going to lead.
“Deviant subcultures can survive only if they form permanent and effective communities to stand in opposition to the larger society. In sociological terms, they need to have ‘plausibility structures’ that will support their deviance and that can only come from a close community of like-minded deviants” (Schlossberg, 321).

Not only does the church support each individual in his or her life, but the whole body is on a unified mission: the global dominion of Christ (Matt. 28:18-20). Christ ascended on high and gave His gifts to His church that “that he might fill all things” (Eph. 4:10). To live the Christian life apart from the church and her mission is inconceivable. We have been saved into an organically connected body and given gifts for her benefit. This is not just so that each member (e.g. eye, ear, hand, etc...) is healthy, but so that the whole body works together to accomplish its job. This mission given in Matthew 28:18-20 is to make the nations Christ’s disciples. Thus, the church’s mission is to create Christian communities. We create Christian communities through the Christian community of the church.

Christian community, then, is not only a context and support, but is a goal of the Christian life. This all gets back to the two greatest commandments: to love the Lord our God and to love our neighbor. There is a reason that visiting widows and orphans in their affliction is one of the highest expressions of the Christian life (James 1:27). We love because God first loved us. Love is the mark of the Christian. We cannot love God and hate our brother–that is a contradiction (1 John 4:20-21). We are to constantly exhort our brothers (Heb. 3:13), building unity and love between us and worshipping God together. Even beyond our Christian brothers, we are to do good to all men (Gal. 6:10) and love our enemies (Matt. 5:44). We are to let our lights shine before men, bearing witness to the gospel to all those around us. As peace is made between us and God through Christ’s sacrifice, peace should follow between men, uniting what Adam’s fall into sin broke apart.

The church’s mission is to make the nations Christ’s disciples by baptizing and teaching them. As members of these nations being discipled, we must apply what is taught. The church has a comprehensive mission, but it is not comprehensive itself. The church is not in the business of the actual economic production, political administration, etc... per se, but the members of the church are to live the Christian life in all areas, according to all that Christ commanded. These cultural activities would then form the basis of the broader Christian community and nation. “As the number of converts increase, this providentially leads to the subsuming under the authority of Christ whole institutions, cultures, societies, and governments” (Gentry, Jr., 54). Even non-Christians, by the fact of their participation in the same community, would begin to take on the habits and assumed cultural values of the Christians. Christianity would become the primary reference point and shared experience by which people would communicate and think.

And not only would the community be more Christian, but Christians would become more communal. People who see one another for a few hours once a week will not be able to love each other very deeply compared to those who also work together six days a week. People who sing, eat, dress, dance, and play together will have relationships sealed with the beauty of art. The shared reference point of the Bible will give culture stability and meaning, enabling it to flourish. The culture will in turn reenforce the community as a means of fellowship. This will not work without the love of Christ in believers to hold people together, but this is where the love of Christ leads.

In short, the Christian life aims at nothing less than the reign of Christ over the nations, and that is nothing less than Christendom. We should never lose sight of the origin of this reign: the Spirit’s work in the heart of the individual. However, we must not stop there. Christ has called us to a life which is shaped by our relations to people and things around us. He has given us our families and churches to provide mutual support and a unified force. He has given us a task of creating Christian communities by the right of His kingly authority. This is both a grand and an eminently practical mission. It gets down to the simple decisions of everyday life. This vision, though, does not occur naturally. It will take a self-conscious love for others that breaks out of the anti-Christian trends of society. It may feel awkward because it will challenge the premises of modern society. It may feel dangerous because it will deal with real human relationships. It may feel insignificant because it will start like a mustard seed, hidden in local communities and neighborhoods. Nevertheless, this is the life to which we were called by Christ, and so let us joyfully pursue it.

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Bonhoeffer, Dietrich Life Together. New York, NY: HarperOne, 1954.
Gentry, Jr., Kenneth L. The Greatness of the Great Commission. Tyler, TX: Institutes for Christian Economics, 1990.
Holy Bible (ESV), The. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2003.
Lee, F. Nigel “Lecture 6: Language, Folklore, and Communication” SOC208 Sociology. Lakeland, FL: Whitefield, 2008.
Schlossberg, Herbert Idols for Destruction. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 1990.
Westminster Confession of Faith. Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1994.

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