Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Christian Community —the right question about Church?

For some months now, the Benefice where I work has been in an interregnum, following the departure of my old friend and colleague, Dick Farr, for pastures new. My role since July has thus been supervisory but intense, involving, amongst other things, overseeing the drawing up of the parish profile and currently chairing three PCCs as well as trying to ensure nothing goes obviously wrong. (Please don’t e-mail your ‘three PCCs —luxury!’ anecdotes. Anything above two is, I agree, a challenge.)
Although I haven’t applied for the incumbent’s post myself, the experience of the last few months has inevitably made me ask ‘incumbent-type’ questions about the strategy we should be following. This is particularly so since we are earmarked as an area for substantial new housing —anything from 500 to 3,000 dwellings.
Just the other day, therefore, I was musing on what this would mean for our strategic planning and on what it would look like if the church were successful in its outreach to new arrivals. “What,” I asked myself, “Would a whole community look like if it were significantly influenced by the presence of the local churches?”
And then I found myself asking if this were actually the question we ought to ask about church itself. A lot of our own time and energy is put into working out what we should do —specifically, what kinds of programmes we should run, whether that be applied to youth work, Bible studies or ‘Sunday church’ itself.
Recently I have received a complimentary book (as yet unread) which seems to be suggesting that our focus should rather be on individual people. But would a more useful starting point be to ask ourselves what a Christian community should look like, and then to seek to apply this to the church and, through the church, to the wider community within which it is set?
To some people, this might seem an obvious question with straightforward answers. Surely, they will reply, all our efforts within the church are aimed at building a Christian community, and surely such a community will be, first and foremost, one of Christ-like love and acceptance? Those are the Christian ‘trademark’ qualities, and the only problem is in seeing them developed and applied.
But in fact I do not think the answers are anything like that straightforward. For a start, ‘love and acceptance’ are surely not uniquely, or even specifically, Christian qualities. It is like the person who sums up Jesus’ teaching as ‘love your neighbour as yourself’. All well and good —but as most readers of this blog will know, the sentiment is from the Old Testament, quoted, but by no means invented, by Jesus.
In fact, working out a Christian ethic is quite a challenge! Obviously it must, in some way, engage with the ethical framework of the Old Testament. Yet, as the Sermon on the Mount shows, it consists neither in slavishly following, nor outrightly rejecting, the Law. Nor does the life of Jesus provide a Christian ‘sunnah’, to be learned and applied by his followers, like Muslims following the example of Mohammed. The question, “What Would Jesus Do?” is hardly helpful if the answer is, “Walk on the water,” or “Raise the dead man to life.”
A Christian ethic is not a regurgitated Old Testament ethic, nor is it a blanket adoption of Jesus’ ‘example’. Rather, I suspect, it derives from engaging with who Jesus is and what Jesus has done for us. And this would produce rather radically different answers from those usually offered when we think of the life of the ‘community’, particularly when it comes to the influence of the church within the wider, mixed, community.
One of the most crucial —and least explored in my view —points of Christian uniqueness is the relationship of Christian ethics with the law. Almost the entire assumption of social thinking is that the law is fundamental to community life. By contrast, the New Testament is quite clear that the law, far from being central, is a practical irrelevance. The ‘law’ to which it refers is, of course, the law of Moses, but as is increasingly recognized, this cannot be simply and arbitrarily divided into ‘moral’ and ‘ceremonial’ aspects and then partitioned between the bits we keep and the bits we don’t.
When Paul writes in Romans 7 of the law to which we have died and from which we are therefore freed, he uses as his example, the tenth commandment against covetousness. Now this is clearly a moral, not a ‘ceremonial’ command. The Christian is clearly not thereby entitled to covet. But equally the Christian is not under the ‘law’ against covetousness. Time and space preclude elaborating this further, but my conclusion would be that a Christian community would be marked by a minimalist resort to law. (It would also, incidentally, be one where suing one another was almost entirely unknown —1 Cor 6.)
This abrogation of the law as an instrument of personal control is precisely one of those ‘community consequences’ which I would argue flows from the ‘person and work’ of Christ, who fulfilled the law and is the ‘end of the law’ (Romans 10:4) for those who have faith.
However, there must surely be much more. In a Christian community, for example, divorce would also be unknown. But what about care for others? How and why is a failure to care for one’s relatives a ‘denial of the faith’ (1 Tim 5:8), and what are the communal consequences?
One of the challenges to the church is that it is very difficult to live as a Christian community —much easier just to ‘go to church’ on Sundays and to keep your distance from one another the rest of the time. Yet it is also difficult to know what a Christian ‘community’ means. I’m therefore inviting readers of this blog to contribute their own suggestions and comments. Remember, though, if you have ideas about community you need to show why they are specifically Christian.
Revd John P Richardson
20 January 2010
Anonymous users wishing to paste in the comments box need first to select 'preview', then close the preview box. When posting your comments please give a full name and location. Comments without this information may be deleted.


  1. John - have you read any Hauerwas? This is one of his main areas and I think what he writes is tremendously helpful. I'd start with Resident Aliens if you're not familiar with it.

  2. Often it is not the behaviour as such that is specifically Christian as the motivation behind it. Thus I love my wife selflessly because this is how Christ loved the Church. I do a good day's work not to please others or promote me but to please Christ. I submit and defer to others out of fear of Christ. I live with a contentment and without anxiety knowing my God will supply all my need out of his riches in Christ Jesus. I rejoice in the Lord even in the difficulties of life and overflow with thanksgiving for gospel grace. I am content to be faceless because I know I am accepted in Christ and stand before God holy and beloved etc.

  3. Great post John.

    One fruitful place for exploration of what a distinctively Christian community would/ should look like is surely the doctrine of the Trinity?

    What does it mean for a community to acknowledge the equal ultimacy of the one and the many? For unity and diversity to be mutually informing? For order and differentiation of roles not to undermine equality? For human beings to be considered as fundamentally relational?

    The incarnation, salvation by grace alone, are also uniquely Christian doctrines (in that, they're not ones we find cropping up in other places so readily as the 'love thy neighbour' stuff - though I think I'd eventually want to argue that ultimately and truly that is a uniquely Christian doctrine if you really push it) - perhaps they would also be fruitful places for thinking this one through.

    Sorry, not much concrete, I'm just a beginner on this one.

  4. Love & & & acceptance (though not the acceptance of sin obviously) are at the heart of our behaviour as Christians. If we do it right we let others see Jesus, if we don't we destroy His image.

    Exactly as you say - we have someone in our congregation who will not accept another's freindship with someone else in the congregation and it is proving to be extremely damaging - spreading throughout the body like cancer. I suppose that in that we reflect the world instead of exampling for the world.

  5. Absolutely..When Christ entreats us to 'Love one another' it is an absolute', not a 'negotiable' or dependent on the likeability of the other. Christ died on the cross for our sins,and forgives so that we can forgive. Furthermore, if we do not accept, and love others, especially others with differing views to ours, we profoundly mar our relationship with him.

    Alison R

  6. John,

    In my mind being a disciple of Christ and being a member of a Christian community are inseperably linked. In helping members of a congregation and newcomers to the congregation to mature as followers of Christ, we must also help them to grow as members of a particular Church fellowship. As far as reaching and evangelizing the residents of a new housing estate established in your area, I see this as something that must be done both individually and as a community. Members of the congregation need to actively form relationships with the residents of the new housing estate and invest in them, inviting them to church services and other church activites, and engaging them in spiritual conversations. The entire congregation as a community of faith also needs to establish bridges with the residents of the new housing estate in form of specific outreach projects and ongoing outreach ministeries and to create an environment on Sunday morning and at other times that is genuinely welcoming to residents of the new housing estate.

    Robin G. Jordan,
    Murray, Kentucky USA