The Witness of Christian Community
Admittedly, with our present nature, without God, we humans are incapable of community. Temperamental mood swings, possessive impulses and cravings for physical and emotional satisfaction, powerful currents of ambition and touchiness, the desire for personal influence over others, and human privileges of all kinds—all these place seemingly insurmountable obstacles in the way of true community. But with faith we cannot be deluded into thinking that these realities are decisive: in the ace of the power of God and [God’s] all-conquering love, they are of no significance. God is stronger than these realities. The unifying energy of [God’s] Spirit is stronger than these realities. The unifying energy of [God’s] Spirit overcomes them all.”1
IN THIS POST:
- Living in Community.
- The Servant Community.
- Those who believed were of one heart and soul…”
- Life in the Spirit.
- Questions for Reflection and Discussion.
Living in Community. Eberhard Arnold, who founded a small community of families and singles now known as the Bruderhof (“place of brothers”), identifies both the obstacles and the motivation for community. In the midst of a disconnected and depersonalized society, many persons hunger for community—for a place “where everyone knows your name.” Yet alongside this yearning, there is also widespread apprehension. Living closely with other persons—sharing life, work, worship—brings not only the benefits of companionship and shared values, but also restraints, demands, and responsibilities. Authentic Christian community is not a romantic or idealized dream, but a concrete way of life which has practical and definite consequences. Embracing rather than glossing over the differences, the ambitions, or the conflicts, such community is only possible through the creative power, redemptive love, and transformative presence of the Triune God. Thus, in responding to the question “Why do we live in community?” Arnold declares: “We must live in community because all life created by God exists in a communal order and works toward community.”2 This movement of small intentional communities seeking to live according to the teachings of the Sermon on the Mount, bears witness to the life-giving and community-building power of God.
The church is challenged to pay attention both to the longing for and the resistance to community, while at the same time affirming the relational quality of life within the reign of God. Paying attention to one another within the Christian community not only provides support for the journey of faith, but also offers a testimony to God’s vision for all of humanity. If the gospel of Jesus Christ is to be more than an intriguing idea, it must become visible in a people whose life together is the first fruit of the new social order intended by God for the whole of creation. “God’s reign comes when we can regard all strangers as sisters and brothers; when we can embrace those from whom we are estranged; when we can unite in one congregation diverse racial, social, political, economic, and ethnic groups; when we can seek justice for those who are least deserving or lovable; when we are freed from private life, private property, and private commitment and led into public life, public property, and public commitment; and when the needs and concerns of the world’s outcasts are made our agenda for prayer and service.”3
God’s quiet revolution of love, forgiveness, and unity does not come about through secular power and influence. The world learns about the quality of life within God’s reign through the life, practice, and witness of missional communities. Such communities are shaped by their discernment of and participation in God’s redemptive activity in a broken and alienated world. On the one hand, this seems to be an audacious statement which unduly exalts the church. On the other hand, it is hard to believe that the formation of Christian community can have any influence at all upon the world.
The Servant Community. The biblical witness to Jesus Christ declares “that the central meaning of history is revealed in the person who became one with the poor and vulnerable, who lived in the world as a suffering servant, who rejected the temptations of political and military power, who exercised his kingship by washing his disciples’ feet and giving his life so that others might live.”4 The establishment of God’s reign is not accomplished in the accepted manner of the world—violence, control, and domination—but through suffering service and humble sacrifice.
As the community whose purpose is to make Jesus Christ visible in the world, the church is called and empowered by the Holy Spirit to live as a servant community. The norms and practices which shape the life and ministry of the church are to be those which shaped Jesus’ life and ministry. In this context, the words of Scripture take on new meaning. For example, in John, Jesus gives a new commandment: “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35). Christians are not only to love one another because Jesus loves them, but also in the same way that he loves them. “We are told to love as we have been loved, to forgive as we have been forgiven, to share as we have been shared with, to sacrifice as we have been sacrificed for, to reconcile as we have been reconciled, and to make peace as peace has been made for us.” 5
Those who believed were of one heart and soul…” (Acts 4:32). The picture of community sketched by Acts is one of simplicity and mutuality. The communal attitudes and practices are shaped by a new way of loving, sharing, and forgiving. Rather than continuing the patterns of self-centeredness, with private control of property and material goods (idios), they participate in a new collaborative order of commonality, interdependence, and the sharing of those things that are essential for human life (koinos). Every gift, blessing, and material resource is at the service of the entire community rather than consumed at private discretion.
Practicing such simplicity and mutuality is not simple. Trusting God to provide all that is necessary for abundant lives is not easy. The description of the church in Acts 4 is dependent upon the outpouring of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost (Acts 2). The redistribution of material goods was not the expression of some ideal of “holy poverty,” but a practical way to flesh out the experienced love of God. In other words, the motivating force was not found in human desire or accomplishment, but in the transforming presence of the Holy Spirit. “With the gift of the Spirit comes the gifts of freedom and of genuine hope—freedom from the need to construct our own identity in idolatrous slavery to possessions of every sort, and freedom to bestow ourselves in response to the needs of others; hope not in transitory and illusory security of possessions, but in God’s love poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”6
Marva Dawn describes the distinctive qualities of Spirit formed koinonia: (1) a continual and steadfast commitment to the formation of community; (2) a desire to have their lives guided by the instruction of God’s Word; (3) knowing and sharing deeply in each other’s concerns and carrying one another’s burdens; (4) breaking bread and thereby “discerning the Body of Christ” which transcends all human boundaries; (5) time spent in earnest prayer for one another and for the whole of God’s creation; (6) holding possessions in common and thereby increasing resources to share with those in need; (7) meeting regularly in temple and home to share meals with gladness; (8) experiencing the signs and wonders of God’s transforming presence in their midst. 7
Life in the Spirit. The Apostle Paul indicates the distinctiveness of Christian community by contrasting the “works of the flesh” with the “fruit of the Spirit.” “Flesh” and “Spirit” are not competing forces within the human person, but are “eschatological” realities. That is, they indicate the essential characteristics of two ages, before and after Jesus Christ. Christ and the Spirit mark the turning of the ages. Life “according to the flesh” is lived in accordance with the desires of the present age that has been condemned through the cross and is passing away. Life “according to the Spirit” is lived in keeping with the commitments of God’s promised future inaugurated by the resurrection of Christ and empow-ered by the gift of the Holy Spirit.8 The two ages overlap and thus the church lives “between the times” in the “already” and the “not yet” of eschatological salvation. Having “died with Christ” to the former way of life, and by the power of the Holy Spirit participating in God’s “new creation,” believers do not “carry out the desires of the flesh,” but “walk by the Spirit” and evidence the “fruit of the Spirit.”
Confronting a community in which people are “biting and devouring each other” (Gal. 5:15), Paul concretely illustrates alternative—and incompatible—ways of life. The two lists in Gal. 5 are not meant to be exhaustive but representative. Rather than focusing upon the isolated individual, or characterizing internal warfare within the human breast, the majority are sins of discord—behavior which disrupts and destroys social relationships. Such a way of life is not in accord with the kingdom of God (v. 21); Christ has died to deliver us from the grip of such “works” (v. 24); and the Spirit has come to empower us not to cave into their “desire.”
Communities “walking in the Spirit” and being “led by the Spirit,” will manifest the “fruit of the Spirit.” The very title puts emphasis not upon human endeavor (as with “works”), but upon divine empowerment. It is God’s life-giving Spirit which informs, sustains, and guides communities of “faith working through love” (5:6). Yet believers are not called to passivity but to active obedience as they learn to live the simple life God desires for all people. The “fruit” covers a broad range, indicating that the whole of life is included within the sphere of the Holy Spirit. And as with the “works,” the fruit has to do not with the internal life of the individual believer, but with the corporate life of Christian community. The fruit is both certain evidence that God’s redemptive future has dawned and the absolute guarantee of its final consummation. The Spirit empowers this community to manifest love, to work toward peace, to express patience, kindness, and goodness, and to be characterized by gentleness and self-control. Actualizing that which has been effected by Christ, the Holy Spirit alone is the antidote to the “works of the flesh.”
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- Where do you see evidence of the hunger for community?
- Identify some of the obstacles to community?
- What does community have to do with the reign of God?
- What do we learn from Jesus about community?
- Read Acts 2:1-4, 37-43; 4:32-35. What attracts you about this description? What do you find challenging?
- Describe the qualities of Christian koinonia.
- What does it mean to say that “flesh” and “spirit:” are eschatological realities?
- What does “walking in the Spirit” mean to you?
- How does the witness of Christian community manifest God’s quiet revolution?
- What would need to change so that your congregation more fully manifested the koinonia of the Holy Spirit?
The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.
1 Eberhard Arnold, Why We Live in Community (Plough Publishing House, 3rd English Edition, 1995), p. 4.
2 Ibid., p. 1.
3 John H. Westerhoff, Living the Faith Community: The Church That Makes A Difference (Harper & Row, 1985), p. 21.
4 Jim Wallis, Agenda for Biblical People: A new focus for developing a life-style of discipleship (Harper & Row, 1976), p. 120.
5 Jim Wallis, The Call to Conversion: Recovering the Gospel for These Times (HarperSanFrancisco, 1982), p. 123.
6 Luke Johnson, Sharing Possessions: Mandate and Symbol of Faith (Fortress Press, 1981).
7 Marva Dawn, Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting (Eerdmans, 1999), p. 116.
8 Gordon Fee, God’s Empowering Presence: The Holy Spirit in the Letters of Paul (Hendrickson, 1994), p. 385.