I’ve been reading a fascinating series of blog posts on the interplay between our thinking about church and the New Testament presentation of Christ. It’s kind of heavy going, but also incredibly stimulating. And few things are more important than making sure our thinking about and practice of church travels in a tight orbit around the Lord Jesus Christ. Right?
For my part, I want to address another of temptation lurking behind our contemporary emphasis on community. The temptation to treat community as something free floating, whereas in reality ‘community’ or perhaps ‘communication’ — koinonia, sharing, partnership — is something you do with (or in) something else. It’s tethered to concrete particulars.
O’Donovan’s appropriation of the seventeenth century thinker, Johannes Althusius, is characteristically insightful (Ways of Judgement, p 250):
In its earliest sense “communication” was a broad enough term to encompass every kind of good that might be held in common by two or more people: “things, services, and common rights (iura), by which the numerous and various needs of each and every symbiote are supplied, the self-sufficiency and mutuality of life and human society are achieved, and social life is established and conserved.”
To communicate anything, material or spiritual, is to give it meaning.
On this account, the heart of community is meaningful sharing. Which makes a lot of sense, when you think about the dynamics of romantic relationships (to pluck an example at random out of the air). What you need is, as my wife so wisely puts it, both quantity time and quality time. Or (ideally) quantity time that unfolds in a context of — painstakingly built and tested — mutual understanding and trust that transforms it qualitatively.
Conversely, two sure fire ways to stifle a relationship are (1) spending so much time doing things together, building up a common stock of experiences, that you never actually relate meaningfully around the things you’re sharing, and (2) never doing anything together because you spend all your (probably frighteningly intense) time ‘working at your relationship’.
So what has all this got to do with the currently fashionable emphasis on community in our thinking about church?
Simply this: By improperly emphasising community it’s not only that we’re in danger of obscuring the gift-character or divinising church, it’s that we can end up overlooking the concrete activities and materials out of which community is built: working, truth-telling, praying, eating together, supporting each other financially, etc…