This is Part 2 of my three-part study notes on Christian community. Part 1 can be found here.
Signs of God’s community
So, what are the signs of a true Christian community? How is it different from secular human communities? Here are a few things that can be found in the Bible:
- A radically new community serving as an example to outsiders
- Serving each other with spiritual gifts and love (1 Corinthians 12-14, Romans 12:3-8)
- Equality among believers, no competition, jealousy
- Hospitality to strangers (Romans 12:13)
- Financial support to brothers and sisters (Romans 12:13)
- Forgiveness, both to members and outsiders (Romans 12:17-20, Matthew 18:21-35)
- Maintaining sexual purity (1 Corinthians 5, Romans 13:13)
- Being involved with each others’ lives, including discipline (1 Corinthians 5, Matthew 18:15-20)
- Submission to authorities
- No debts to others (Romans 13:7-8)
- Accept each others’ unimportant differences (Romans 14)
However, just stating all the marks of Christian community is not really helpful; many features stated above are also present in many healthy secular communities. For example, no community will survive without hospitality or some form of forgiveness. it would be more useful to highlight the differences between a Christian community and a secular one:
1. It should be a better community than a secular one
Why? Very simple, since God created us, he knows how we work, he knows what’s best for us. Something that adheres to his creation purposes must be better than something that does not. Imagine an engineer building a very sophisticated device. Of course, it might be possible to learn how to operate it. And you might even operate it flawlessly for some time. But ultimately, there will come a time when it will break. So it is even with the best human communities, best-run organizations, schools. Sooner or later they will break. Yet, God’s communities should stand.
2. They might look similar, but yet they should operate on radically different principles. The Christian community must always be built on putting others before yourself. Many secular communities operate on exactly opposite principle.
Secular community may appear doing the same things as the Christian community but for a different (and rather selfish) reasons. For example, submitting to authorities finally pays off – you can be much better off in a well-run country than in a corrupted one. Having many friends may make you feel good about yourself. The Christian community should, instead, be motivated by unselfish love.
Yes, very often the unselfish love will lead to many benefits for its members. And it should, since this is by God’s design. But this is a by-product rather than a goal. As C.S. Lewis has put it, “Aim at heaven and you will get Earth thrown in. Aim at Earth and you will get nothing.
Here are some marks that can distinguish a selfish community from a truly transformed one:
a. Consumer rather than covenantal relationship. Consumer relationships are based on mutual usefulness; once the latter disappears, the relationship breaks down. You might attend a music class and form a community there, but if you lose interest in music you will leave. That community existed only while it was useful to you. You can really like a chicken rice in a nearby stall and go there all the time, but if suddenly you noticed that there is better one, closer to you place and even cheaper, you will stop going to the previous stall. This is a consumer relationship. Christian community should be based on covenantal relationship, where people stay with each other because of commitment, not because of some benefit.
b. While a secular community might appear moral, it never obeys God’s law fully. Consider Hebrews 13:4-5, 16, which demands that we keep away from sexual immorality (we are not to free to decide how to use sex) and keep away from the love of money and share (we are not to freely decide how to use our money). It’s rare to find a US community that does both; conservatives uphold verse 4, but not 5 and 16, while democrats do exactly the opposite.
3. It is very tightly knit together and yet open to outsiders
This idea can be found in Hebrews 13:1-2. Verse 1 mentions philadelphia or brotherly love – a very tightly knit community of believers. But in verse 2 there is a word philoxenia, which means love of strangers. The secular communities are usually one way or another – they are either very close to each other and are not open to strangers or open but not very tight. Christian community is called to be both.
4. Christian communities always have a common goal, while secular ones often do not.
One of such goals is its very special mission, which is to expand itself, through becoming so attractive to the world like a city on a hill that others would want to join, and through direct proclamation and teaching of the gospel. That was Jesus’ command to his disciples – go, proclaim the gospel and make disciples of all nations – build and expand the community of believers.
5. One of the goals of the Christian community is building each other up, help to bring each other closer to God’s intended image. Hence Christians should despise privacy and allow brothers and sisters full access to their lives. Secular communities usually have much narrower goals (music club, workplace) and hence allow only certain points of contact, relevant to their common goal. In a sense, secular communities are like clubs. You may allow your street or apartment neighbors to dictate the amount of noise you make or discuss neighborhood news, but will keep many other aspects of your life private.
In my next post I will talk about our motivation for building a community.