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The Next Faithful Step

Church as Community

Linda Peacore :: September 29, 2010

What does it mean to say the church is a community?


We say the church is a community, but what does that mean? How can a group of distinct individuals be one community? What binds them together? These are the questions that arise when we speak of the church as community.

Historical Background

Talk of community in the church is rooted in various concepts, primary among these is the notion of fellowship or koinonia. In Scripture Paul presents the relationship of believers to one another as a shared experience of salvation. This is often referred to in the Greek as koinonia.  Within the Greek cultural context the concept had wide-ranging meanings related to various types of common enterprises. However, the New Testament emphasis is upon the participation “in something,” particularly realities outside one’s existence, rather than association “with someone” which is often the emphasis in contemporary notions of “fellowship.”

In Paul’s writing we regularly see this idea of participation in spiritual realities, such as in the description of the Lord’s Supper to the Corinthians. Here, the Lord’s Supper signifies fellowship with Jesus Christ where the sharing of a common meal is a sharing in the body and blood of Christ. The Philippians are another instance of fellowship in terms of participation, but this time it is in reference to sharing in the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (Phil 1:7). Both of these examples speak more about participation in the Holy Spirit rather than the fellowship created by the Holy Spirit. Sharing in the Spirit is the decisive factor in their life together.

Scripture shows us that believers are formed into a community, but in what sense do we “belong to one another” in Christ (Rom 12:5)? From a Trinitarian perspective, we might think of it in three terms:

  1. God’s rule--from the rule of God comes membership in a community that consents to that rule. This implies taking up discipleship, a discipleship that is shaped by conversion and baptism, nourished in the life of Christ through participation in the Lord’s Supper.
  2. The centrality of Christ--through the centrality of Christ emerges a community of faith defined by the story of Jesus Christ. The church is bound to the faith of its members, since faith is not an individual human accomplishment, and shares a mutual commitment to Jesus Christ as Lord. It is a fellowship shaped by the crucified and risen Christ.
  3. The power of the Holy Spirit--by the work of the Holy Spirit believing and confessing human beings are constituted into the church. It is not that each person fashions himself or herself into a member of the church, but rather through their pluriform confessing the Spirit makes them into one body.

It is clear in Scripture that this concept of community has both an individual and a corporate aspect and that the role of the Holy Spirit is integral. Throughout the Old and New Testaments, the primary work of the Holy Spirit is to bestow shared life on the people of God. There are many stories in the Old Testament about the ruach (Spirit) enlivening certain people. There is also Israel’s longing for a corporate bestowal of the life of the Spirit on God’s people. The New Testament maintains the concept of bestowal of life, power, and vitality on individuals. The Spirit gives life (2 Cor. 3:6; Jn. 6:63). Alongside this there is a corporate bestowal of the Spirit. The narrative of the Day of Pentecost is notable for its corporate emphasis where we see the outpouring of the Spirit which results in a life of community (Acts 2:42-47). The Holy Spirit constitutes the unity of the body of Christ (Eph. 4:1-4) and supplies the koinonia or fellowship that keeps us one (Phil. 2:1-2). In terms of the creeds of the church we refer to this as oneness or unity which is a gift to the church by the Spirit.

Theological Implications For Christian Life

When we speak of the church as a community or fellowship of believers there is a tension. Is community the goal of Christian practice or is it something that is practicedKoinonia is the source and end of the church’s existence. In a sense Christian community is provisional--something we experience in the present while we await the fullness of Christian fellowship at Christ’s return. Genuine community or koinonia is a blessing of divine origin beyond all human powers to create. What is first perceived as God’s gift is subsequently a human task or spiritual practices. We cannot create community out of our mere willing it, but we can nurture it once we are blessed with its presence. We are aware, however, that the koinonia of the saints is full of problems. How are we to witness to the communion of saints when we are in regular conflict with one another? That is when it is helpful to keep in mind the eschatological aspect of our koinonia and that the complete living out of this fellowship will come at the fullness of time when all of creation will live in communion together.

In addition to the tension between Christian community as goal and practice, there is a tension between the place of the individual believer and the whole fellowship of believers--is one primary over the other? The work of the Holy Spirit in the church is to initiate, sustain, renew, and shape the shared life of the community so that the bestowal of life on individual believers is instrumental to that end. The whole biblical drama is moving not toward the salvation of unrelated individuals, like beads in a box, but toward the Kingdom of God. The role of the Holy Spirit is to impart koinonia, the shared life, on the people of God. The bestowal of new life on individuals is necessary for that. There is an active sense in which, although koinonia is a gift from God through the Spirit, it also involves the idea of “sharing with.” This will result in particular actions, for instance, generosity in terms of financial help is a case of this active cooperation (Acts 4:32) or struggling for justice out of love for the world.

The depth of Christian fellowship is one of the Spirit’s most precious gifts. The Spirit binds Jesus to the church, the members of the church to each other, and the church to the world. Our relationships with each other become a means through which God cares for us and through which we grow in faith, hope, and love. The Spirit mediates Christ’s presence to us and by it we participate in Christ’s life and ministry as a community joined together in love. And in all this, the fellowship of the church is a sign of grace to the world.

Tell Me A Story…

Let us return to the story of the Day of Pentecost and the events that followed. We begin with a scene where a crowd is gathered, there is wind, loud noise, and a bunch of fishermen speaking in various languages as though they are drunk. One of them, Peter, comes forward, claiming that they are not drunk, but that the Spirit has come upon them as was foretold in their prophetic tradition. He goes on to talk about Jesus and how he has been raised from the dead and is Lord over all creation. Peter then invites those listening to be converted and baptized. Acts tells us that three thousand became followers of Christ that day. A community formed in which everything was shared together, including property, and many more who were impressed with this kind of fellowship were also converted and the community grew in number day by day. We see in the early days of the church’s life that the Spirit is a gift which came upon those first disciples in such a way that a fellowship of faith grew into a community that witnessed to the lordship of Christ and resulted in ethical action. Their practices of benevolence and generosity did not create the community, but were a sign of these believers’ life in Christ and his Kingdom. So too can contemporary Christian communities of faith witness to Christ’s reign, acknowledging the movement of the Holy Spirit and participating in God’s purposes through a distinct fellowship of mutual disciples practicing acts of service, justice, and love.