Godly Community — Part 2
Last week we examined the idea that humans are a herd species. We have an innate need to be part of a group. In fact, we derive our identity from groups.
But community groups have existed in every culture and among every belief system for all of time. So what, if anything, should be different about Christian community? What should set us apart from, say, Sunday Assembly — the church for atheists?
Here’s a hint: it’s not our music or buildings or gifted preachers. Unbelievers can catch a concert where they can experience that sweat-and-fanatisim-fueled community that comes from a common appreciation of good music. They can choose from thousands of compelling TED-talks and join the community of learners and commenters online. They can join the cheering, face-painted throngs on any stadium in America to shout their common support for a team. Community is available everywhere, Jesus-free. Sometimes even in church.
No, our community must be different not in quality, but in kind. Christian community should be in a category of its own. It has been in the past. Joseph Hellerman's book When the Church Was a Family, includes an extensive examination of community values in the early church. Here’s an excerpt that sees first-century Christian community from the eyes of unbelievers.
For the most part, however, it was not Christian theology that encouraged thousands to endure social ostracization and to risk state persecution by joining the Jesus movement as the church proceeded to spread like a holy fire throughout the Roman world. It was Christian behavior that did this. At least that is how pagan intellectuals explained the rise of Christianity. It was patently clear to Julian the Apostate—the emperor who wanted to revive pagan religion—that the expansion of the Jesus movement had a whole lot to do with Christian social solidarity. And Julian could hardly suppress his exasperation over the connection:
Why do we not observe that it is their [the Christians’] benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done the most to increase atheism? [Here, Julian uses atheism to mean Christianity. Since Christians insisted there was only one God, and denied the existence of many pagan gods, they were branded atheists — those who denied the existence of gods.] . . . When . . . the impious Galileans support not only their own poor, but ours as well, all men see that our people lack aid from us.
Lucian of Samosata, another elite opponent of the Jesus movement, readily acknowledged that the Christians’ “first lawgiver [Jesus] persuaded them that they are all brothers of one another.”
And it was self-evident to Lucian that this family orientation accounted for the movement’s social solidarity:
“Therefore they despise all things indiscriminately and consider them common property”
Affective solidarity, the sharing of material resources, primary loyalty to Jesus’ group—all of these now-familiar traits of the Mediterranean family continued to mark community life among Jesus’ followers during the second and third centuries of Christian history. The ancient church lived out Jesus’ vision for authentic Christian community, and they attracted converts in droves.
— Hellerman, Joseph H., When the Church Was a Family: Recapturing Jesus' Vision for Authentic Christian Community, B&H Publishing
Hellerman has written a tremendously important book that can help us recapture our vision of Biblical community. But I think he narrows his focus to what worked then. I’d like to suggest that there is a reason that solidarity, interdependence and loyalty worked in the Roman age and in any age — a reason that is related to the Ageless One.
Every aspect of our Christian morality flows from some aspect of God’s character. So we teach that murder is wrong because the Bible says so. But the Bible says so because murder is an affront to the character of God. God is life. Therefore life is better than death. So murder is wrong, death is an intrusion onto God’s good plan, and we are meant to live forever.
We teach that you should tell the truth and not lie because the Bible says lying is a sin. But lying is a sin because it’s inconsistent with the character of God. God is truth; in him is no falsehood. So truth is better than lies.
We teach that adultery is bad because the Bible says it’s sin. But the Bible says it’s sin because it’s inconsistent with the character of God. God is always faithful. Therefore faithfulness is better than betrayal.
The Bible teaches us to love one another. Even, in fact, to love our enemies. But the Bible teaches us that because God is love. Therefore love is better than hate.
Every element of Christian morality flows from some element of God’s character. And we understand that, for this reason, our morality should be different from the pagans'. We behave differently because we’re worshiping a different God. That’s what it means to be holy, called out. What I’m suggesting is that it’s not only our morality, but our community that should be different than the pagans’. And the difference will only be meaningful to the extent that it reflects the character of God.