The good news of community
God likes community.
How do I know this? Well, it is written all over the place. In Genesis, God creates everything from nothing, and as the pinnacle of that creation he makes man in his image. As soon as he does, God creates woman because it is not good that man be alone.
In Abraham, God promises to create a nation. In Exodus, God rescues that same nation out of Egypt, saves them from bondage, and makes them a people. The rest of the Old Testament deals with this people and their attempts, or lack thereof, at community.
In that critical moment of history, truly the moment by which all others are to be measured, God moved. God moved in such a way that all our wrongs were corrected. Our failed attempts at the community God desired were turned on their head. And out of the ashes left in humanity’s destructive path, the seeds of real community began to sprout. As is true with so many other things, what man could not accomplish, God did.
God created true community. As in the Exodus, in Christ God saved us from slavery and created a people. The dividing walls of hostility were broken down and those who were once not a people are now unified under one head. It is Christ’s bride and it is his body, and it is powerful. This community is granted authority over things on earth and in heaven. What it binds on earth is bound in heaven. It is the church, and the creation of this community is the great purpose of the gospel.
But for many of you, that may sound a little weird. Those of us who grew up in church, or have somehow made it a part of our lives, have heard the gospel. We have heard about Christ’s work, but if you are like me, it has never really been put in the words I used in the above paragraph. We hear things like, “Jesus saves,” “Christ died for your sins,” or “Accept Jesus into your heart, because he died for you on the cross.” However, I imagine most have never heard the gospel presented as God building a community.
Nevertheless, it is every bit as true to say that Christ is creating a community as it is to say that he died for your sins. As a matter of fact, the grand story of the Bible seems to make this one of the major themes. I have already noted the emphasis that Scripture places on the people of God. The thread traces all the way through the canon.
Furthermore, it was God’s plan all along. In Ephesians, Paul makes this clear by pointing to the cosmic scope of Christ’s death and resurrection, saying it was the purpose all along. It was God’s mysterious will that he would unite all things in heaven and on earth in Christ (Eph. 1:7-10).
That sounds like big stuff.
And it is. According to Paul, this “plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God,” is to reveal the great wisdom of God through the church (Eph. 3:9-10). So, the whole purpose of this great plan of God is to create a community that will reveal his wisdom to the world, and not just the world, but the rulers and authorities of the spiritual domain as well. In other words, this community, the church, stands at the very center of God’s massive plan in creation!
If you have ever asked if the church really matters, then that is your answer. Not only does it matter, it is at the core of God’s plan. Which brings me to my next point. If the center of God’s plan is the church… then it is not you.
For so long, at least in the United States, Christianity has taken an increasingly individualistic path. We have emphasized our individual relationship with God. We have placed so much emphasis on how Christ died for you and saved you out of your mess, that we forgot to mention that you are pulled out of a mess and placed into a community. The trend has swung so far into individualistic expressions of faith that people can say they are “spiritual,” but not “religious.” But, honestly, what does that even mean? It is nothing more than a clever way to claim Christianity without claiming the community it creates. They want to say they are a Christian without any connection to Christ’s body. Unfortunately, that is not even an option as far as Scripture is concerned.
Now, before I am bludgeoned over the head by some well-meaning reader of this post, I must make it clear that I have no desire to negate the truth that Christ saves individuals. He does so, and he is the only one who can do so. A saving faith in Christ is certainly personal. Is it certainly determined between the individual and God and cannot be attained through any other means. It cannot be decided for someone or earned based on one’s affiliation to a group of people.
However, I fear, in order to reach the individual, we have overlooked the significance of the community. We talk so much about being saved out of something, and we spend no time at all talking about the fact that we are saved into something. This deficient understanding of the gospel has dire consequences.
Individuals are saved for the purpose of creating this community. The goal is the community, and the means is the individual salvation. It is not the other way around. When we leave off this vital aspect of the gospel, it affects our expectations of the Christian life and how we live it. It also shapes the community it creates.
In my next post, we will examine this unhealthy emphasis on the individual in our gospel presentation, and take a look at how a deficient understanding of the gospel creates a deficient community of faith.