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Christianity: about community?

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Last week, I wrote a post in which I highlighted the shift, in terms of focus, from nations to individuals between Old and New Testaments; in order to stress the importance of individual relationships rather than merely corporate ones. This week, I’m looking at the community aspect of Christianity.


Background: adapted from GreatPaperWolf, reused under CC license.

No better way to start than quoting a comment from last week:

The reformation, while rightly seeking to distance itself from the then overtly controlling religiosity of the Catholic church may have taken a step too far in their emphasis of individual salvation and personal faith.

As it is eloquently put, matters of individual/corporate nature of faith are matters of emphasis. Individual salvation and personal faith are Biblical. In fact, the picture painted in Luke 17 goes a long way to show that simply being with those who are saved is no guarantee of salvation. But this is “only” an eschatological matter.

Practice of faith is an altogether different matter. Have you ever noticed the following verse:

For when two or three gather in my name, there I am with them.

Matthew 18:20 (NIV)

It is usually read as “there is no need for massive congregations to worship”, but it is two or three – not one: there is no talk of individual worship. Of course, there are other moments where, say, individual prayer is commended; but it is clear that community is important.

After all, all-consuming, all-pervasive relationships are at the heart of the Trinity. On top of that, Peter was anointed to build a church – and though the meaning of church may have evolved over the centuries; originally, it seems to me that this all-consuming, all-pervasiveness was present: ἐκκλησία, generally translated as church or assembly, but which etymology could mean “called out of”, is used in the singular. Out of the many who are called, the church of Christ is, in its very substance one. That alone should be enough to ignite our passion for ecumenism (although ecumenism in itself is another subject).

The early church modelled this community way of life by pooling all their resources, and by remaining inextricably linked even when they were not geographically co-present. There is an incredibly powerful sense of acting congregationally whenever Paul exhorts us to pray for all the saints (something that might be missed out because of the power of what comes before it!).

These elements, I feel, are far more powerful than the practical ones. The advantages of communal prayer, or the description of the Church as one body are helpful to convince oneself that it is worth doing; but let us not forget in this description that the Church is not just one body: it is the body of Christ.

From the perspective of the in-up-out triangle (1), then, the sense of community coming before the individual is very strong in the in and the up vertices of the triangle. Very importantly, these all-pervasive links between individuals which form the assembly are involving us: we are part of them. It isn’t like a different organisation we can distance ourselves from: we are intrinsically in the church.

But we haven’t seen that happen in the out vertex. Of course, the vertices of the triangle are not independent; so there will be elements of community shining through in our outreach. And we will do it with the support of our community. But the other whom we are reaching out to is not a community nearly as much as it is individuals; and this should not be forgotten.

(1) Yes, I have used Lifeshapes. I feel dirty now. But for those of you who don’t know it, it is about the direction of growth both for local churches and for individuals: in (fellowship, discipleship, etc.), up (looking towards God, worship, etc.) and out (outreach, evangelism, social justice, etc.)

Christianity: about individuals?


Much of the Old Testament is about the nation of Israel as a whole. Israel is God’s chosen people: it is as a people that it is led to the promised land, is exiled, chooses a king, etc. When individuals start misbehaving, the whole nation gets the stick jointly. It works the other way around, too, although there is far less of an emphasis on the link between joint, congregational behaviour and return to grace (I can think of one explicit, though academic, instance).


Background: GreatPaperWolf, reused under CC license

The Old Testament is, then, mostly the story of the Israelites as a people and of a few heroes whose actions are directly linked with that of the people (the judges and kings, in particular). It is particularly revealing of the mindset of the Israelites to notice that the names listed in the early genealogies include those of nations we still know today, or that they are used as bywords for the whole nation (in particular, Jacob/Israel in the Psalms). Job is, admittedly, an exception (1).

The luxury afforded in the Old Covenant, of being able to say “us and them”, is now gone. The parables and the beatitudes are not generally linked with nations; and when nations get mentioned, it is in a culturally challenging fashion: the Samaritan’s behaviour surprises, and Jesus’ behaviour towards the Samaritan does to. What I consider to be one of the most powerful verses of the Epistles spells it out with no escape left to us: the New Covenant is available not simply to all nations, but to each individual. This is not to say that nations stop being relevant; but that they stop being sufficient.

This shift is twofold: “us” is no longer sufficient. We can no longer leave to the Levites the duty of prayer and worship; we can no longer leave to others the duties of care, even if we support them. And whilst we do not have to go it alone, we should not let the need for congregate action become an excuse for not doing stuff individually. To spell it out, if someone comes knocking asking for help, we should not reject them, merely sending them off to whatever organisation, justifying ourselves by the fact we financially or practically support said organisation sometimes – i.e. by the fact that we are “citizens” of that nation/organisation. We have a duty to love our neighbour, and that goes through listening. I’m not saying we should ignore the work done by organisations, or that we should do all the work they’re doing as individuals – just that we cannot use them as excuses.

“Them” is no longer sufficient either. We are no longer allowed to lump all homeless people together into a nation of homeless. We are no longer allowed to lump all drug addicts into their own nation. We are no longer allowed to lump all Catholics together. We are no longer allowed to lump all middle-class people together. Even so for coffee drinkers: they may be in the wrong, but that should not stop us from connecting with them as individuals; rather than as people who merely need to discover tea.

This is a difficult task to which we all fail. I’ll be the first to raise my hand and say I don’t quite live by these values. I sometimes walk past homeless people and fail to care for the individual; and I sometimes justify it in my head thinking either about how busy I am (commitments to my nation) or that there are plenty of ways for these people to find help (dumping responsibility onto my nation). While I don’t tend to assume they will use whatever I would give for alcohol or drugs (which would be lumping them together into one nation), I sometimes still think that they might (I just say, well, if they do, there’s nothing I can do about it) and fail to engage with the individual. Which, again, is treating them as a nation.

But the command is clear: love your neighbour as yourself. Not the nation of your neighbours: your neighbour. And that is a great challenge.

(1) Isn’t it interesting that it also happens to be, as far as I can recall, the only place in the Old Testament where the Devil is seen undeniably as an external entity rather than as a mere tempter?