The Battleground of Community
There are so many dynamics at play today when it comes to church community. And while it seems like these dynamics are all very legitimate, and many may be, it’s important to think deeply about what else is at play. In order to know what factors exist in reality, we must look at what factors exist biblically. So, what does the Bible have to say about church community?
Throughout the New Testament there is a theme of Christians being together, of Christian love, and of Christian longing. The theme is prevalent, even though we may not find specific exhortations to “be in community”. These exhortations are abundantly present in different terms (Romans 12:10, Romans 13:8, 2 Corinthians 12:14-15, Hebrews 3:12-13, Hebrews 10:24-25), but in addition to these are the obvious snapshots of the church living life together, loving one another, and longing for fellowship with one another. It seems that we see just as many historical accounts of Christians living life together as we do exhortations to Christians that they do this.
As we look at the context of the historical accounts of Christians living in community with deep love for one another, there are clues to the causes of the community. Acts 1-4 contains the earliest descriptions of Christian community: “They all joined together constantly in prayer” (Acts 1:14); “When the day of Pentecost came, they were all together in one place” (Acts 2:1); “All the believers were together and had everything in common” (Acts 2:44); “All the believers were one in heart and mind” (Acts 4:32). The formation of this community in these early chapters of Acts was the natural response of believers to what they were experiencing. It was the work of God such that reminders and exhortations were not needed. Acts 4:33-34 says that “God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them.”
One significant thing to note in these early accounts is that church community “just was”. In other words, there was no other appropriate response to what the first Christians had experienced. God had changed them and the Holy Spirit was moving among them. Their identity and their priorities had become irrevocably marked by what they had seen and heard. They were, as the apostle Paul would later write, “new creations” (2 Corinthians 5:17).
In 1 Thessalonians 2, we see one of the fullest passages of Christian love in the New Testament. By this time, many churches had been planted and Paul was writing to the believers in Thessalonica to remind them of his love for them. These believers weren’t on their return journey from the Mount of Olives, shocked by having just witnessed Jesus’ ascension. They weren’t in the house where the Holy Spirit had come and rested on the first believers, still awe-stricken by what God had just accomplished. No, they were in need of reminders, as we so often are. And so Paul encouraged and reminded them about how the gospel came to them, in the midst of strong opposition. He reminded them of how his missionary team had loved them so much that they were delighted to share not only the gospel, but their own lives as well. He praised God for these believers, that they had accepted the gospel, not as a human word, but as it actually is, the word of God. He shared how much he had longed to come to them and that these believers were his joy and crown.
This common love for one another and for the Savior, as the hymn goes, is the anchor of Christian community. As we have been loved by God first in Christ (1 John 4:9-10, 19), so we now in natural response love him back. As our love for our Savior shapes our lives more and more, our natural affections will be for those shaped by the same love.
If your desire for Christian community is lacking, remember that this should not be so. If subtly, “doing your own thing” has become more appealing than being with Christians, this should be concerning. “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8). God is a good shepherd and he leads us to places of peace, beside still waters. He goes after us when we wander. He guides us and protects us. May we walk with him and within his protection, not being unaware that we have an adversary. May we know that Christian community, the church, was and is God’s good gift to us.