This blog is one in a series of reflections on chapters in the book Called to Community.
In Rufus Jones’ essay Blessed Community, and Gerhard Lohfink’s Embodiment, there is an overlapping message about the centrality of community to the gospel. Social relationships and engagement are a point of contention among modern evangelicals. Ironically, since its inception, an evangelical identity contained a very social component that embodied an outward witness of evangelism and justice that exists cooperatively with a common aim. Yet, over the years, this social component of faith has been lost (mostly among my demographic of white evangelicals) and this distortion of faith has affected how we understand Scripture and community. This shift in evangelical identity is often referred to as the Great Reversal.
During the early 1900’s evangelical Christianity became particularly focused on personal piety and private spirituality. While cultural narratives, influenced by the Enlightenment, shaped American ideals in the early decades of the 20th century, evangelicalism lost a critical part of its identity; namely, the priority of social engagement and justice work.
To recapture this foundational aspect of faith, Jones and Lohfink explain how social engagement is inherent in Christ’s gospel alongside and within personal piety and transformation. To begin with, no person is so individual that they can claim independence from social influences. Every individual is marked by a long molding process of history and the accumulation of other people’s experiences. These influences come from both religious and secular influences. An individual cannot truly know themselves without the influence and aid of others. With this in mind, the characters of an individuals’ communities are significant to their progression as a human and in faith. If the people around us are shaping our understanding of God and ourselves, then we must be very discerning about them.
"As far as its significance is concerned, religion is essentially social. It is an affair of a beloved community."
The authors go on to offer that this is why the church is such a central function and embodiment of the gospel. The mission of the church is sigificant in comprehending the role and essential nature of community. We are an "organic part of the kingdom" or fellowship unfolding the will of God, to "raise human life out of its secular drift,” and "bear witness to the real presence of eternal reality operating in an upon our lives." (8-9) This is done "not by the legal enforcement of ancient commands, or by the formal application of texts and sayings, but by the vital infusion of a new spirit, the propagation of a passion of love like Christ’s." (9)
But ‘faith’ is often lived out as only sixty minutes on a Sunday. It is not embodied. But Christian and Jewish faith is supposed to permeate all of life. How else do we see fruit? The book of James is valuable for this insight. While justification is a gift of God bestowed without effort or merit on His people, the work exhibited in the world is our standard-bearer to show that we are indeed filled with the Holy Spirit and transformed by this indwelling in our lives. Our faith is alive in that it fuses into every area of our life, personal and social. "It demands that social relationships must change and that the material of the world must be molded. Faith desires to incorporate all things so that a ‘new creation’ can come to be." (18) But only in salvation and communion can material be molded and social relationships transformed. It is not merely spiritual or intellectual but must be embodied.
Accepting faith already means desiring the communion of believers. Accordingly, the transformation of world and society is not an obligation that is added to faith as something secondary
Essentially, the Christian life is relational, social, and communal not in addition to anything, but essentially bound up in the very work and message of the gospel. "Accepting faith already means desiring the communion of believers. Accordingly, the transformation of world and society is not an obligation that is added to faith as something secondary. Instead, where faith is a living thing, it transforms the world from the very outset." (19) With this in mind, how can we possible justify isolation or privatized spirituality?
I once thought this way. I loved Jesus but hated Christians and organized religion. So I attempted to justify my rule of life by avoiding gatherings of believers and simply walking in the woods or reading alone. But nothing grows in a room without soil, sun, and air. Growth is a connective experience lived out in an environment of various elements. This is why the church is often described in analogies demonstrating inter-dependent parts of a whole. My faith is reduced to nothing when I isolate myself and think that belief in Jesus is a static orientation. How can I love my neighbor, exercise my gifts, confess my sin, or work out transformation if I do not exist deeply in community?
But like we have said in a previous post, proximity is not the goal. We also have to embody the gospel as Christ calls us to live. "What is decisive, after all, what everything depends on, is that the community knows that God has called it to make the divine plan visible and to be a place of reconciliation in the world as the body of Christ." (21) These are some first steps towards gospel community. We cannot ignore the call to exist in community and we cannot do so without seeking understanding of how this community is called to live.