MERE CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY
By Steve Clark
|Essentially, community is a type of relationship, rather than a
People have a variety of notions of Christian
community. Some people picture Christian community. Some people picture
Christian community as 20 or 30 people living together in a large house
or on a farm. Other people consider Christian community to be a group of
Christians who pool their finances, putting their checkbooks and bank accounts
into a common pot. Others think of community as a monastic community or
But to be a Christian community, a group of people
do not have to live in one building or handle all their money in a centralized
way. These are possible forms of Christian community. They may be good
for some Christians and inappropriate for others. Fundamentally, Christian
community means a way that Christians can relate to one another. The Scriptures
regard a community relationship of love, commitment, and interdependence
among Christians as normative, not optional.
I would like to examine three terms in the New
Testament which communicate some of the scriptural vision of Christians'
relationships with each other. These are terms used to describe Christians:
the word brother; the word koinonia, usually translated "fellowship";
and the phrase the body of Christ.
Brothers and sisters
The most common term for Christians in the New
Testament is brothers. We might translate this "brothers and sisters in
the Lord". Brothers was the term Christians used to refer to each other.
The love Christians are to have for each other
flows from this relationship and bears its special mark. "Having purified
your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere love of the brethren,
love one another earnestly from the heart" (1 Pet. 1:22). "Let brotherly
love continue", we read in Hebrews 13:1. A particular Greek word, philadelphia,
is used in such places to mean "brotherly love".
Scripture is talking about a special kind of love
that exists among us because we are brothers and sisters in the Lord. But
in our own culture and language we have lost much of the underlying scriptural
concept of brothers and sisters. On the one hand, the words brother and
sister refer to children of the same parents. On the other hand, the words
are used to refer to some vague kinship among all men, as in the slogan
"the brotherhood of man and the fatherhood of God". Not all brothers
Scripture, of course, uses brother and sister
to refer to children of the same parents. However, scripture never uses
the term brother to refer to all mankind. It consistently uses brother
precisely to describe situations in which there is a definite relationship
among a group of people. In the New Testament, this relationship is the
brotherhood of Christians; we are brothers and sisters because we are joined
to one another in Christ. Non-Christians are "outsiders". For example,
Paul writes, "Conduct yourselves wisely toward outsiders, making the most
of the time" (Col. 4:5).
Scripture teaches that we should love and serve
all men. "Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that
you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise
on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust"
(Matt. 5:44-45). We are to love our enemies because God loves them and
because God wants Christians to be like him. But we are not told to love
them because they are our brothers.
In the early church
The early Christians understood that their faith
gave them a distinctive identity which they shared with all other Christians.
They saw their relationship as Christians as a relationship among members
of a family; they were "born of the Spirit" (John 3:8) — the same spiritual
blood flowed in them.
Everything was affected by the early Christians'
unity in Christ. Oneness with brothers and sisters in the Lord was more
important than relationships with fellow countrymen, with members of the
same social class, with political allies, even with members of the same
family. This was the meaning of the rebuke which Jesus spoke when informed
that his blood relatives had come to visit him (Matt. 12:48-50).
The Jewish background
The early Christians recognized one another as
brothers and sisters in the Lord. Before them, the Jews also had understood
themselves as brothers. Among the Jews, brother meant not only "blood brother",
it also meant the relationship all Jews had with one another because they
were member of the Jewish people.
Jewish law spelled out the responsibilities of
this relationship in some detail. Deuteronomy instructs the Jews: "At the
end of every seven years...every creditor shall release what he has lent
to...his brother, because the Lord's release has been proclaimed. Of a
foreigner you may exact it; but whatever of yours is with your brother
your hand shall release".
"You shall not harden your heart or shut your
hand against your poor brother, but you shall open your hand to him, and
lend him sufficient for his need, whatever it may be".
"You shall not lend upon interest to your brother...To
a foreigner you may lend upon interest, but to your brother you shall not
lend upon interest; that the Lord your God may bless you in all that you
undertake" (Deut. 15:1-3; 15:7-8; 23:19-20).
The Jews of the old covenant understood that their
relationship with each other was different from their relationship with
all men. Their relationship as brothers and sisters was a relationship
of full commitment. To be members of the same people meant that each person
was responsible for the welfare of all others. (See also Lev. 19:18).
The relationship was the same for the early Christians,
and it should be the same among Christians today. But today, few of us
experience a definite relationship with many other Christians. We may be
close to a few Christians, but most are complete strangers to us, even
those who attend and support the same church.
Today, limited commitments
While the early Christians made a total commitment
to each other, our commitments are increasingly fragmented and limited.
When another Christian gets into trouble or incurs a need, we expect him
to seek help from friends, family or from a social welfare agency.
Recently, I asked myself a simple question. "What
would I have done if I had gotten into financial difficulty a few years
ago, before the community I belong to began to understand what it means
to be brothers and sisters? If I had a medical bill of several thousand
dollars that I absolutely had to pay, and I had no money in the bank, whom
would I have turned to?" I could never have asked other members of the
parish for the money; probably they would have told me of a bank where
I might get a loan, or of a welfare office where I could get public assistance.
As for the men I was working with to spread the gospel, we simply did not
have that kind of commitment to each other. The person I would have gone
to with my need was my blood brother. Our relationship meant that I could
go to him for every need in my life. I could not think of a single Christian
I could have turned to for help.
Some Christians know other Christians who would
help them in trouble like that. But probably these are close friends who
simply happen to be Christians. But our love for other Christians should
not be limited to those whom we like and can get to know personally. Brotherhood
in Jesus Christ, not friendship or personal intimacy, was the basis of
the brotherly love spoken of in the New Testament. The early Christian
communities — and such are the communities the church needs today — encompassed
all Christians in a particular area. Brotherly care means a total commitment
to those who share our rebirth in Jesus Christ, even to people whom we
may not know at all.
A family relationship
Most Christians today make limited commitments
to other Christians. They can be counted on for a number of carefully specified
activities. The remaining parts of their lives are private. Our commitments
as Christians are usually no different from our other commitments such
as our jobs.
For many of us, the only exception to limited
commitments is our family. A father makes a full commitment to his wife
and children. He is responsible for the things the family does together
and the things its members do alone — for his children while they are at
school, for his wife while she works outside the home.
The Christian community is meant to be like a
properly functioning family. The commitment of all of its members is full,
encompassing all aspects of each person's life. Brothers and sisters place
no limits on their responsibility for each other. We can live out this
commitment because Jesus has changed us. As Christians, we can say, "you
are my brother", because the power that unites us is stronger and more
important than anything else. The same Holy Spirit has poured the same
love into our hearts.
Sharing in Christian community
The New Testament often uses a second term to
describe the body of Christians, koinonia. The common English translation
is "fellowship". "Fellowship" is not a very helpful translation because
it has the connotation of a loose collection of friends. Koinonia holding
things in common; an exact translation would be "community". The Christians
had a community; they were a group of people who shared.
The first thing they shared was the Holy Spirit.
Paul refers to the "fellowship of the Holy Spirit" or the "community of
the Holy Spirit" (2 Cor. 13:14). The Spirit was the basis of the Christians'
But the early Christians shared much more. They
had their whole lives in common. Perhaps the best definition of Christian
community is found in the Acts of the Apostles: "Now the company of those
who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one said that any of the
things which he possessed was his own, but they had everything in common...There
was not a needy person among them, for as many as were possessors of lands
or houses sold them, and brought the proceeds of what was sold and laid
it at the apostles' feet; and distribution was made to each as any had
Having everything in common meant that no one
thought anything he possessed was his own. Everything was at the disposal
of the community for the common good. Christian community, koinonia, means
that our whole lives are in common. Our possessions, our lives, belong
first to the Lord and then to our brothers and sisters in the lord, the
body of Christ. In Christian community, what's mine is yours. We do not
keep parts of our lives for ourselves, unavailable to our brothers' claim
The place to begin
The place to begin sharing, of course, is in our
spiritual lives. Ironically, sometimes Christians are more likely to make
great financial sacrifice to help each other than they are to talk about
their prayer life, their experience of God, or their love for the Lord.
Our spiritual lives are the most important things we have in common. Our
life with God is the reason we share a life together in community. At the
beginning it is hard for many people to open up their inner lives like
this, but in the community I'm a par of we've learned that such sharing
is essential for spiritual growth; it is also the basis for other aspects
of our common life.
An end to hiding
Having our lives in common also means sharing
other personal aspects of our lives. In our culture, if we sin, if we are
plagued by sexual temptations, if we are anxious or depressed, we keep
these problems to ourselves. Victories over difficulties are similarly
private. We might share our personal lives with our spouse or a very close
friend. But most of us grow up with the firm conviction, perhaps arising
from bitter experience, that our personal lives are strictly private.
However, as brothers and sisters in Christian
community nothing in our lives is entirely our own. My life belongs to
my brother. I cannot construct elaborate strategies to keep him from finding
out what I am really like. In fact, opening up our lives to our brothers
and sisters in the Lord is usually necessary to begin overcoming our problems
and experiencing the freedom that the Lord wants us to have.
Most people who belong to Christian communities
where personal sharing is encouraged find quickly that thy can be more
free about their personal lives than they ever imagined. Personal sharing
must be done with discretion and in the appropriate circumstances. But
it should be done, for it is part of sharing our lives in Christian community.
Our money, our time
Quite often, the real test of our commitment to
our brothers and sisters in Christian community lies in our willingness
to give up time and money. Time and money are not among the things we can
keep while we give them away. We can talk about our spiritual life, and
still hang onto it. If we share about a victory over a personal problem,
the victory is still ours. However, if our money goes to our brother's
purpose, we cannot spend it on our own purpose. If we give up our time
to our brothers and sisters, we cannot use it for ourselves.
When we read in Scripture about taking up the
cross and laying down our lives, we can ask ourselves, if these words have
affected the way we make decisions about time and money. This is where
we have to love as Jesus did, who gave up his life for love of men.
Scripture makes an explicit connection between
the gospel and our use of material goods. "By this we know love, that he
laid down his life for us; and we ought to lay down our lives for the brethren.
But if any one has the wolds' goods and sees his brother in need, yet closes
his heart against him, how does God's love abide in him? Little children,
let us not love in word or speech but in deed and in truth" (1 John 3:16-18).
Our love for each other does not consist of words
— even honest, holy, spiritual words. It is something that gets expressed
in material terms. It is practical, concrete, and sometimes painful.
This does not mean that we can produce Christian
community by giving away all our money to needy Christians. A relationship
with one another as brothers and sisters must come first. When that is
established, then there should be koinonia, community among those brothers
and sisters. Many Christian groups have found themselves in serious difficulties
because they have started by developing community in material terms.
The body of Christ
The phrase the body of Christ is found in the
letters of Paul. In Ephesians, one of his later letters, he uses the term
to refer to the universal church. However, in his earlier letters he applies
the term to a local Christian assembly. He tells the Christians in Corinth
that they should function as a body because they are the body of Christ.
"Just as the [human] body is one and has many members, and all the members
of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ" (1 Cor. 12:12).
The members of the Christian body have different
gifts, but they are to function in unity. "Now you are the body of Christ
and individually members of it. And God has appointed in the church first
apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then workers of miracles, then
healers, helpers, administrators, speakers in various kinds of tongues...Are
all teachers? Do all work miracles? Do all possess gifts of healing? Do
all speak with tongues? Do all interpret?" (1 Cor. 12:27-30)
Being the body of Christ means much more than
running orderly worship services or establishing proper procedures to make
decisions and resolves disputes. It is a daily, living relationship that
embraces our whole lives. We are members of the same body all the time.
The relationship goes beyond the things we do in common. On the job, alone
in a secular environment, we are still parts of the body of Christ. Together,
we are Jesus in the world today because we are members of his body. Through
us, his body, he proclaims the good news of salvation; he heals, feeds,
teaches, and confronts men with the truth about God.
An important implication for the church and for
all of us as individuals is that we must begin to give up our hard-won
independence and become interdependent; we must become people who depend
on each other. This does not mean becoming weak or less capable of doing
things. We become interdependent in order to become stronger — to do even
greater things than Jesus did.
Interdependence sounds nice. However, it is much
easier to acknowledge our interdependence than it is to act as though our
very lives hinge on others. We experience this as difficult largely because
in our culture, growing to maturity means cutting the ties that bind us
to others. We learn to make our decisions and chart our own course. Acting
as a member of an interdependent body involves unlearning the habits of
Only the body is whole
God's plan for our maturity is not individualistic.
The only complete Christian is the body of Christ. Jesus is the only individual
who is complete in himself. Today he is present in the world in the body
of believers. Only the body can be whole. Anyone who wants to be a complete
Christian must realize that he is part of a body, dependent on others,
and must begin to act accordingly.
The interdependence and total commitment of Christians
to one another is not possible without authority and submission. To be
unified, a Christian body must have recognized headship. To function as
a body Christians must make themselves subordinate to one another. When
we put our lives and resources in common, we need to establish some person
or group to take responsibility for the common life to see that it functions
in good order. When Christians love one another and are one in the Lord,
authority takes on the character of service. It changes from something
fearful into a personal relationship we can trust.
Sometimes Christians use the term Christian community
vaguely to refer to any group in which everyone is a Christian. In reality,
Christian community is Christians who have a brotherly commitment to one
another, who share their lives, and who live interdependently as members
of a body. People working for church renewal who want to know what Christian
community is and how to build it should begin by studying the depth of
the relationship among Christians that the Scriptures envision.
(c) 1976, The Alliance for Faith and
Renewal. Reprinted with permission from Faith and Renewal (formerly
Pastoral Renewal), P.O. Box 7354, Ann Arbor, Michigan 48107.
[For other articles by Steve Clark, see: Words
of Life ]