Life in the community of faith

Gathering for All Saints

People gathering for All Saints Day (Wikimedia Commons).

American Christianity tends to be very individualistic. “God doesn’t save people in six packs,” as I once heard it put. But then again, God saved Moses and Israel. God redeemed Peter and the Church.

You get a glimpse of this in Hebrews 11, in which the apostle Paul underlines the lives and deeds of Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and others. These were all holy and God-fearing people, but as St. Paul says, “apart from us they should not be made perfect.”

There is no such thing as an individual Christian. In a sense, each Christian needs every other Christian for our salvation to be complete. That was true for the saints of the Old and New Testaments, and it’s true of us right now. God’s people are in it together, a point St. Paul also drives home in his first letter to the Corinthians where he speaks of individuals as members of the Body of Christ.

I ran across two passages that reminded me of this reality, our mutual togetherness as the Body. First this from T.S. Eliot’s “Choruses from ‘The Rock’”:

What life have you if you have not life together?
There is no life that is not in community
And no community not lived in praise of GOD.
Even the anchorite who meditates alone,
For whom the days and nights repeat the praise of GOD,
Prays for the Church, the Body of Christ incarnate.

The Body of Christ is not an individual affair, but Eliot laments that we live “dispersed on ribbon roads” and only care about our neighbors if they make “too much disturbance. . . .” We are, he says, “Familiar with the roads and settled nowhere.” Our lack of community is lamentable; we become members unto ourselves, not each other.

Then there’s this from one of John Donne’s most beloved meditations (No. 17 from “Devotions upon Emergent Occasions”; I’ve taken the liberty of modernizing his spelling):

The Church is Catholic, universal, so are all her actions; all that she does belongs to all. When she baptizes a child, that action concerns me; for that child is thereby connected to that Head which is my Head too, and engrafted into that body, whereof I am a member. And when she buries a man, that action concerns me: all mankind is of one Author, and is one volume. . . .

Following Donne’s lead, think of another action of the church, celebrating the Eucharist. When we take communion it is not only communion with our Lord and Savior, but also our neighbors, our fellow members of the Body. That is why the creed is typically recited before partaking. The church fathers called the creed the “symbol of faith.” The etymology implies “joining together.” Standing and reciting the creed is a mutual expression of togetherness around certain beliefs. It’s a collective statement of belonging and unity. We are never so much the Church as when we gather around the cup. And we are likely never the Church if we do not.

When we are tempted to run away, to seek our own convenience, to go it alone, we should remember that we are called to community and our lives are only fully and really lived with each other in the Body.

About Joel J. Miller

I'm the author of Lifted by Angels, a look at angels through the eyes of the early church. Click here for more about me or subscribe to my RSS here.

  • http://www.paulspite.com Paul Spite

    I think the reason we are uncomfortable with this message is that conformity, even to the body of Christ, requires us to give up a pieces of ourselves and our free will. This is especially difficult in America, where we seem to believe we can exist solely for self, that we have a “right” to do that, but still be able to enjoy the benefits of community.

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      I think that’s really true. We think community is just another product that we can purchase to suit our needs.

  • http://www.brandjournalists.com Thomas Scott

    Great post – We in America do have such a hard problem letting go of our own wants and needs. Selfishness is the mark of being human and ultimately I believe what separates us from God.

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      When I think of the selfless love that God shows for us, pouring himself out for us in the person of Christ, his voluntary self-emptying on our behalf, I find myself humbled and ashamed about how selfish and self-concerned I can be. Lord have mercy. One thing the Church provides is a community in which we are confronted with regular opportunities to sacrifice on behalf of others. That’s a mercy.

  • http://www.scottcheatham.com Scott Cheatham

    Hi Joel. Was sent here through Twitter. Very interesting article. I think the process of sanctification can be made better through community. I think that’s really your focus here. As to salvation itself, I believe that HAS to be an individual decision and nobody else can make it for me. A group is not responsible for my personal decisions and I don’t think that’s your point. In my own church, I stress community as a means of growth, else we are tempted to “fall away” as Hebrews warns.

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      I agree that you have to make the decision. But we don’t come to Christ on our own or stay in Christ on our own. Our families or friends witness to the Gospel in our lives, and we cultivate our faith within the Church.

    • http://www.davidlermy.com David Lermy

      Scott, I agree with both of you. But Joel is right in saying that we do not come to Christ simply on our own and we sure cannot make it without community as you say. But salvation is much more a robust process than we sometimes make it. One factor is that the Holy Spirit is wooing us as Augustine teaches. Another factor is the Gospel that is being preached to us. Another factor is the lives that are living examples of the Gospel around us, through friends, family, and church. We may hold the final decision in the process, but the process is far more complex than the individualistic promotion of Western mindsets.

      I am so glad you stress community as a means of growth, but it is far more robust than that as far as the Bible is concerned. Keep stressing community in your church, for as you rightly mention, it keeps people from “falling away” from the community of God and chasing again their individualistic concerns.

  • http://anam-cara.typepad.com Shelia

    Great post, Joel! I agree wholeheartedly. C.S. Lewis said the Church rescues us from our “individual conceit”. And Jesus said that it was our oneness that would testify to the world that HE was the Son of God. (John 17) Glad to be living in community with you.

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      Ditto. The importance of Christ’s statement is profound. How often do our actions testify to something else?

  • Kurt

    Great post Joel! Nothing to add other than I’m glad to be a part of the Body of Christ and in community with you and your wonderful wife.

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      Glad as well.

  • http://www.davidlermy.com David Lermy

    Joel,

    More and more people need to here what you said in these two simple sentences:

    “There is no such thing as an individual Christian. In a sense, each Christian needs every other Christian for our salvation to be complete. That was true for the saints of the Old and New Testaments, and it’s true of us right now.”

    The power of the church is found in how well her people connect to each other, as well as, to God.

    You also explained:

    “The church fathers called the creed the “symbol of faith.” The etymology implies “joining together.” Standing and reciting the creed is a mutual expression of togetherness around certain beliefs. It’s a collective statement of belonging and unity.”

    I long for the day when churches remember the early father’s and the early creeds. I have had the privilege of studying them in my MDiv on a deeper level, but I realize not everyone has that opportunity. To confess together is a powerful form of community and connection.

    I remember reading years ago, Randy Frazee’s The Connecting Church, Will Miller’s Refrigerator Rights, and Gilbert Belizikian’s Community 101. Those three books I believe lead me back to do a Master’s Degree and shaped the role I lead in at the church I work for as the Connections and Community Life Pastor. These Christian Living type books lead me to deeper works by early church fathers and the great Christian thinkers of yesterday.

    Reading your post brought all these thoughts back and so thank you for your thoughts. I am right there with you.

    Happy New Year!

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      A recovery of the early fathers — their doctrine, perspective, practice, etc. — is something to pray for. It seems to me that the biggest obstacle is simply exposure. So many believers don’t know anything about them.

  • C. Tobias

    A very necessary and important concept to grasp, especially in America where we pride ourselves in our rugged individualism. The idea of needing others in any capacity (esp. in our Christianity) can be an affront to our sensitivities. Yet, we are bound together by Christ, which in fact makes us a community, whether we realize it or not.

    The Westminster Confession of Faith expresses it this way:

    Chapter XXVI, I. All saints that are united to Jesus Christ their head, by his Spirit and by faith, have fellowship with him in his graces, sufferings, death, resurrection, and glory: and, being united to one another in love, they have communion in each other’s gifts and graces, and are obliged to the performance of such duties, public and private, as to conduce to their mutual good, both in the inward and outward man.”

    Thanks for a great post.

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      I like how that’s put. Thanks for sharing it.

  • http://www.churchleaders.com Melissa Riddle Chalos

    Hey Joel,
    I’m the editor of the Worship channel at churchleaders.com. Would love to be able to use some of your blog entries on our site from time to time. Would you be interested in syndicating your content this way? There’s no money, of course, but a lot of exposure via the site and its weekly newsletters. And we provide links with each piece back to your blog site.

    Check it out and let me know what you think.

    Melissa

  • http://therevcasey.wordpress.com Casey

    Great quote, Joel! It reminds me of Bonhoeffer’s statement in his lectures called “Christ the Center”, when he says that the church is not the body of Christ as an analogy or metaphor but a reality. Glad to be in the body with you, keep up the good work!

    Casey


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