What is Christian community? That is the subject of this series of articles. My aim with this blog is not to write long articles, and those rarely, but to write shorter articles more often. So this will be an episodic exploration of what community, from a Christian understanding, might look like.
Let’s dive right in!
I want to begin by looking, not first at what community might be, but rather, how we might arrive at a definition of community. To do this I want to look at what two influential theologians of the 20th Century had to say about how we might arrive at such a definition. The first is a man named Dietrich Bonhoeffer, who was a Lutheran pastor in Nazi Germany – he lost his life for his willingness to stand up against the rulers of his day – he writes in his doctoral dissertation:
In recognising that we can understand what a community is only from a study of the concrete religious form, we are thrown back upon the problem of the church. It is possible to discern certain communal intentions from a study of the actual contents of Christian faith, as these are found in empirical groupings… This can only be done when the Christian revelation is believed, that is, taken seriously. The Christian concept of the church is reached only by of the concept of revelation.
Here Bonhoeffer makes the point that if we want to understand what the Church is (I use the capital ‘C’ to denote the worldwide church of all believers everywhere) then we have to have this revealed to us. We cannot arrive at a true understanding of exactly what the Church is simply by looking at it – it would then look like many other types of communities that we see around us. The Church is not something that is easily studied like a remote tribe in the middle of nowhere, it’s true nature must be reached through revelation.
But what does Bonhoeffer mean when he talks about revelation?
What he means is the same thing that another theologian once said. Karl Barth once famously said” “One cannot speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice.”
He also said in his Gifford Lectures that:
“True knowledge of the one and only God, is based on the fact that the one and only God makes himself known.”
What he is talking about here is the concept of revelation. The fact that we cannot arrive at a true knowledge of God, or any of the things that he has called into being – like the Church – unless he reveals it to us. True understanding requires that God speak to us, for He is so other, so unlike – more unlike than like, in fact – that we cannot comprehend Him without His grace working to help us to understand who He is. In this way, because we require His very assistance to hear and understand what He is saying, we can say that every speech of God’s is an act of His Grace towards us.
But we must come back to the original question, how can we know what Christian community looks like? The answer:
It looks like what God tells us it looks like.
This is not very helpful, at this stage, but come back and read part two of this series where we explore how what God tells us about Himself reveals to us the very nature of our community.