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A Foretaste! Transforming Leadership Practices: Community as Koinonia of the Holy Spirit

April 2, 2015

This post concludes a series of topics on the nature and purpose of Christian community, a key foundation for exploring leadership practices in the church.

The Holy Spirit is God-at-the-end-of-the-world, God reigning over God’s people at the last time, God creating and sustaining a community in whom humanity can be enlightened by faith and return to God in worship and love as the first fruits of a new creation.1

convo2015logoModernity’s emphasis upon the religious freedom of the individual arose in large part in reaction to the strong link between the church and authoritarian societies. Since the time of Emperor Constantine in 311 AD, when Christianity moved from a persecuted minority to the officially sanctioned religion of the empire, the purpose and organization of the church have been intimately bound up with the commitments and structures of the particular culture within which it found itself. Within this context the institutional church has usually been on the side of the status quo. It has therefore resisted new knowledge and those movements which threatened the perspective, power, and control of the current political and religious leaders. The oppressive and chilling effects of this historical experience must be acknowledged and confronted in any endeavor to cultivate faithful and committed, yet open and free, Christian community.

The discussion of community is all too often framed in terms of opposing polarities. At the one extreme, the primacy of the heritage, structure, and purpose of the collective group is assumed. In this “traditional” view, it is believed that individuals are assumed to submit and conform obediently to the community’s preexisting beliefs, ideals, and practices. What is best for the social order is claimed to be best for the individual. At the other extreme, the primacy of the rights, interests, and choices of the individual is assumed. In this “modern” view, it is believed that the community is a voluntary association formed primarily for the protection and enhancement of individual preferences, well-being, and advancement. What is best for the individual is claimed to be best for the community.

relationshipsThe thesis of this blog post is that organic solidarity and contractual association do not exhaust our options. Even though in their polity the dominant church structures have drawn more upon political models of organization than upon theological models of community, Christianity is neither an autocracy nor a democracy. Christian community does not affirm either the sovereignty, unity, and harmony of the social whole or the authority, independence, and self-definition of the isolated individual. Human persons, as the creations of a creative, dynamic, and relational God are understood to be creative, dynamic, and relational beings. Personhood is formed through interaction and relationship with other persons and the wider world around them. Thus primacy is given neither to the group nor to the individual, but to the mutuality of relationships. Within this perspective both the wholeness and interrelatedness of reality and the uniqueness and particularity of each human person can be recognized and appreciated.

To Be or Not To Be In Community.

community3Contemporary social theorists are moving beyond the polarity of collectivism and individualism into categories of community. This perspective emphasizes the social and relational qualities of human life. There is a strong consensus that “individual character and rationality are socially constituted.”2 As discovered by observation and reflection, no human person exists in isolation from communal ties, languages, traditions, and practices. The belief in autonomous individuals who choose, form, and live their lives in complete isolation from the sentiments and standards of others is an illusion. Thus the issue is not whether or not to participate in community, but the nature, quality, and purpose of particular forms of communal life. “If all selves are socially constituted, the real choice is between kinds of community, not between unencumbered individuals and community.”3 Thus the challenge to the church is not to promote community-in-general, but to be clear about the distinct and unique kind of community the church is called to be.

The Koinonia of the Holy Spirit. 

dove2Christian community is theological. That is, it is not formed by human efforts—individual or collective—but by the presence and activity of the Holy Spirit. “The Spirit of God is the dynamic, life-giving power of the Church, the unseen Lord, Master, Guide, and Inspirer of the Christian community.”4 And the purpose of Christian community is not to fulfill individual self-interests nor to further the goals of the group, but to create and sustain “a community in whom humanity can be enlightened by faith and return to God in worship and love as the first fruits of a new creation.”5 Life in the Spirit, inaugurated by the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is manifested in “a radically new kind of community, a new humanity united in Christ and empowered by the Holy Spirit to live according to the standard and character of a new order.”6 The Good News of Jesus Christ is to be embodied concretely within the life and practice of a forgiven people.

In the New Testament the term koinonia is used to name this new fellowship of holy living, loving concern, and mutual support. Challenging the old competitive order of self-interest and private privilege (idios), Christian community indicates a new collaborative order which is shared, common, and public (koinos). Participating through faith and baptism in the triumph of Jesus Christ over the powers of sin and death, Christians are empowered to move beyond the boundaries of their individual lives into the shared reality of Christian koinonia. Contemporary presuppositions, expectations, and experiences of the church have largely blinded people to the radical nature of the biblical sense of communal life. Within this community, transcending the barriers of race, gender, class, language, creed, and culture, the “consciousness of being God’s beloved sons and daughters made Christians brothers and sisters of one another.”7

Personhood Manifested in Love.

love_oneHere is the core of the Christian understanding of personhood: “brothers and sisters of one another.” No longer separated and isolated individuals, no longer functional units of a larger whole, personal fulfillment, integrity, and freedom are found through deeply mutual relationships of life. As “members of the household of God” (Eph. 2:19), the purpose of life is transformed from self or group advancement to that of loving “the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul and with all your mind…[and] your neighbor as yourself” (Matt. 22:37-39). Liberated from slavery to their own needs and desires, Christians are freed to participate in the wholeness of life. Love of friend and of stranger become possible as believers delight and grow in the redemptive love of God. “To be a perfect human being, a human being the way God intends human beings to be, is to be a fully loving person, loving God, and every bit as important, loving God’s image, the other people who share the world with us.”18

Christian love is not simply a spontaneous warm and positive emotion of comfort, familiarity, and satisfaction. It is a long-term disposition: a whole way of being, feeling, and understanding. As a total orientation, a way of seeing and acting habitually, Christian love is cultivated over a life-time. And it is within the ongoing life of Christian community that believers are to learn and practice the behaviors, attitudes, and habits that enable them to participate in the movement of God’s love. Involvement in the community is not optional. God’s love and the love of one another cannot be separated. To love “the other” is to encounter God, and to love God is to encounter the neighbor, “for those who do not love a brother and sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (1 John 4:20).

The Practice of Christian Community.

Love stands at the heart of Christian community, as its starting point, its motivation, its goal, and its content. Yet wanting to love does not make us loving persons. “Learning the ways of love is a matter of unlearning deep patterns of domination and submission and passivity and violence that we, in our not-always Christian culture, have come to believe are just the way things are or perhaps even the way God wants things to be.”9 While the desire to love and be loved may be a part of human nature, most of the time human beings fail to love or love badly. Christian love is grounded not in our good intentions, good will, or good deeds, but in conversion: profound transformation from alienation to reconciliation. “In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:10).

“The gospel is the proclamation of the presence of freedom, the reality of love, the movement of peace, and the establishment of justice. These are not to be contemplated, debated, or respected, but accepted, appropriated, lived, and manifested.”10 The patterns of life and the practice of the church are to be determined and evaluated by how well they nurture, model, and enable the fullness of Christian love. The church, as the koinonia of the Holy Spirit, is called and empowered to be the social embodiment IN the world of God’s love FOR the world. This is the uniqueness of Christian community: Christians are to be God’s demonstration people, learning to love by “practicing” with one another. In the midst of worship, prayer, study, and service, the purpose of Christian community is to enable Christians to “love as God loves.” Those who “live in the Spirit” are to walk by the Spirit” and thus exhibit the relational fruit of the Spirit: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal. 5:22).

Questions for Reflection and Discussion

  1. What does it mean to say that Christian community is theological?
  2. How are human nature and its fulfillment understood within this model of Christian community?
  3. How does Christian love differ from the modern romantic view of love?
  4. How is Christian community different from community as a contractual association or an organic solidarity?
  5. What within the life of your congregation nurtures, models, or enables Christian love?
  6. In what ways could your congregation more fully embody God’s love for the world?

1 R.P.C. Hanson, “The Divinity of the Holy Spirit,” Church Quarterly, Autumn, 1969, 1:198-299.

2 Bernard Yack, “Liberalism and Communitarian Critics,” in Community in America, Charles Reynolds and Ralph Norman, eds (University of California Press 1988), p. 157.

3  Ibid., p. 158.

4  R.P.C. Hanson, “The Divinity of the Holy Spirit,” Church Quarterly, August 1969, p. 302.

5  Ibid.

6  Jim Wallis, An Agenda for A Biblical People (Harper & Row, 1984), p. 11.

7  Gerhard Lohfink, Jesus and Community: The Social Dimensions of Christian Faith (Fortress Press, 1984), p. 108.

8  Roberta C. Bondi, To Love as God Loves (Fortress Press, 1987), p. 17.

9  Roberta C. Bondi, To Pray and to Love (Fortress Press, 1991), p. 97.

10  Gene L. Davenport, Into the Darkness: Discipleship in the Sermon on the Mount (Abingdon Press, 1988), p. 38.



Inagrace Dietterich

Inagrace Dietterich

The Rev. Inagrace Dietterich, Ph.D. is the Director of Theological Research at the Center for Parish Development.

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