One of the most striking things about Jesus’s earthly ministry is the repeated theme of his pulling people together. This is the case as he calls his disciples. It is also the case when he appears as an honored guest in various homes, or when he preaches, or even when he feeds those who have gathered to be with him and hear his message. In this sense, one of the characteristics of Christ is that he creates community; in both short-term gatherings and long-lived relationships. Jesus’s way of teaching his disciples is not as a one-on-one teacher. We see no evidence in scripture of what in university we refer to as an “independent study.” And when he knows his time on earth is coming to a close he bequeaths his disciples to each other, under the inspiration and guidance of the Holy Spirit.
Why does he do this?
Looking at his choices through my eyes as a teacher, I see a continuation of his teaching method. All along in scripture the disciples have been learning from Jesus in the context of the rivalries, challenges, mutual support, and interdependence practiced as they lived in community together. The dynamics of interaction between and among each other was an integral part of the experience of discipleship.
Some will see the importance of Christian community differently. They may see Christian community as an “accountable relationship” between the individual and the collective body of Christians where they live. In this understanding, one’s fellow Christians watch over one another and encourage good behavior and discourage bad behavior. We live out our lives as Christians knowing that our peers are keeping an eye on us to make sure that we do not stray into ways of living, or ways of thinking and believing, that are at odds with Jesus’s teachings. Others still will look at the importance of Christian community as being the context in which the authoritative teaching of the church takes place. Christian truths are cultivated and nurtured in the community and the lives of the faithful are given shape under the guidance of its ministers. Still others will place their emphasis upon sharing the sacraments together in community; on the ability of the sacred rites to reach beyond the limits of words and transform hearts and minds. All three of these, and that of the community of disciples as learning together mentioned above, are models of Christian community that can be mutually compatible; although there may be a preference in some traditions for specific “proportions of ingredients” to be mixed.1
There is also an added ecumenical dimension to Christian community as a part of Christian discipleship; in that it helps particular groups of Christians to encounter one another in larger communities of Christians from different backgrounds, regions, and perspectives. Conceived on a larger scale, as a deliberate reach from the local to the regional or even the global, Christian community can be experienced in such a way as to challenge the comfortable habits of smaller groups and the over-reaching generalizations of larger groups.
One of the things the world ecumenical movement offers is a practice of relationship-building as Christians together. Each possible level of Christian community — local, regional, and global — across boundaries of culture, tradition, and theological outlook — brings Christians in contact with different sorts of challenges and opportunities. In a sense it gives Christians a variety of ways of seeing each other, and being seen by others, that multiply the possibilities of spiritual insights and understandings.
Christian community is also important as the exercise-ground of love. Living out the commandment that we love our neighbors as ourselves takes practice. It is not something that is done well without preparation and trial and error. Like a family that share particular ties of relations, the Christian community offers both the best and the worst of what it is to be together with others. Sometimes the strongest challenges to loving others come when we try to love those closest to us. And sometimes the greatest disappointments come when we are not loved by our relations in the manner that we feel we need. These are the kinds of experiences we can have in Christian community and, in the bond of our kinship as Christ’s disciples, we can work out the struggles of learning how to love well together. This can build us up for the challenge of loving those outside our communities who feel no bond of loyalty to us; who do not necessarily care whether we are loved and accepted by them. Christian community is a setting in which Christians learn how to love all of God’s children — those who are Christians and those who are not.
It is important to note here that life in Christian community is not necessarily about feeling “safe” or “at ease.” Sometimes it is just the opposite. Like a school, the process of learning together can be painful and a struggle. Here I would draw our attention to the disciples in Mark’s gospel. They quarrel among themselves and are often in discord. But they are learning from one another under the teachings of Jesus. They draw their sense of identity as disciples from him and they struggle to grow in the midst of conflict. This eventually gave them the strength and insights to be able to testify to the teachings and love of God in Christ after his earthly ministry had come to pass.2
Most of two decades ago, I was a student pastor at a church in Boston. The congregation and the other pastoral staff were made up of strong personalities who often found it difficult to be in agreement with one another. Sermons were openly critiqued, every activity of every person there was commented upon by someone — sometimes positively and sometimes not. We had debates about almost everything. There was a joke made once (although there were probably few who thought it was funny) that one couldn’t change a light bulb in the place without sparking debate in the church council.
Very few members of that congregation came to meetings of the church to rest. Everyone knew that coming together was going to mean discussions, disagreements, and challenges. More than once, I had people I barely knew come up to me and inquire into my spiritual life. They’d known a lot of seminarians over the years and they had no desire to see another one go into ministry who did not have a solid prayer life, for instance. This was a combination of people who always “had fizz” when they were together. When I went home from a day spent with them I was usually exhausted. But, as I look back on it, it was an exhaustion that came from exercise and not from spiritual depletion. They were serious about growing in Christ. They were serious about becoming “real Christians.” Many among them were leaders in the community outside the church. Many of them worked tirelessly to care for people throughout the Boston area (whether those people were Christians or not). To do that, they built up their spiritual muscle in sparring matches with each other. Church was their spiritual gym.
In some ways, I think of Christian community as containing the “aggravation factor” that forces us to decide whether or not we are going to put theory into practice. It is easier, perhaps, to sit alone in one’s own home and safely love the world from behind our familiar walls. We can love even the most disagreeable people if we do not have to deal with them in our day-to-day life. Differences can be easy to accept when they are accepted as a matter of abstract principle. But they become almost intolerable, sometimes, when they have to be grappled with in the life of a community of relationships.
Gatherings of Christians across boundaries of tradition and/or geography can function in a similar way. I remember one gathering of representatives of several denominations that met in California a few years back. We were discussing a group response to a document that had been sent to us for comment. Much of the content of such discussions is made up of questions to clarify the language expressing a theological idea — or, discussing the grammatical construction of a sentence. Every now and then, however, the conversation gets “fizz” when someone throws out a question like, “Is this really a faithful way of responding to this question? Or are we just trying to write something that sounds nice?” At that particular meeting, several questions and statements were made that added fizz to the discussions. The group members became far more uncomfortable. We had to add more energy to the conversations to hear what was said by others and to try to express ourselves as effectively as possible. In the afternoon heat some of us got headaches because of this. And we were being challenged to truly love one another in our struggles to understand each other and to face the fact that we sometimes were far from being in agreement. What stood out in that gathering (and many others I’ve experienced since) was that the many Christians from different backgrounds and with very different ways of seeing the world and matters of faith came together and stayed together because they felt they had been called by Jesus to embrace one another as sisters and brothers.
At that particular meeting, when the day’s work was done, I saw the people who had been arguing with each other meet for dinner and socializing. Many hugged one another. There was laughter where an hour or so earlier there had been tension. I was taking it in from the side of the room when one of the group’s life-long ecumenists came up to me. He stood next to me and focused his eyes to see what I was seeing. Smiles. One person hugging another and saying how much they loved them. “This is the good stuff,” he told me. “This is when you can see how the Holy Spirit works. We think it’s about working through statements and agreements. It’s really about getting to know people you wouldn’t know otherwise — and finding out you love each other.”
For myself, I can say that some of the deepest feelings of intimate Christ-like love I have experienced have been felt in settings where I was with Christians who were largely strangers and strange to one another — but who took the command to love one another seriously. In living up to that challenge, I see many of these same people reaching beyond the bounds of the Christian community to love God’s whole world; even when some in the world respond in hate. Ecumenical fellowship in Christian community has made stronger and more able disciples by means of the challenges confronted when coming together.
It is not a matter of philosophy that has convinced me that Christian community builds up the Christian. For me, it is a matter of the evidence of experience. It gives me confidence in the model I see in scripture — in Jesus’s constantly calling people together and inviting them into relationship with him and with each other.
1The notion of church as setting for accountable relationship is common to many pietistic Christian groups and is a historical hallmark of Methodism. The emphasis upon authoritative teaching is frequently associated with Roman Catholicism and Orthodoxy. Emphasis upon the community as the setting for the sharing of the sacraments is a strong emphasis in many traditions, including Roman Catholicism, Orthodoxy, and early (and increasingly present-day) Methodism.
2For excellent commentary on the Gospel of Mark, please see Joel Marcus, Mark 1-8, Anchor Bible Series (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2002). and Mark 8-16, Anchor Bible Series (New York, NY: Doubleday, 2009).