The word community was never disputed. When the church I was a part of was undergoing the process of changing their name, nearly every potential word or phrase was scrutinized and debated. There was even disagreement over whether the word church should be included in the new title. Yet, nobody ever questioned the inclusion of the word community. No one had to make an argument for its inclusion, and yet everyone involved in the process was in favor. I believe this was because pretty much all Christians understand the idea of community as good and important. After all, it is nice to be surrounded by friends and people who care about us. Conversely the prospect of not having people around us who care about us, or who share the most important parts of our lives, almost seems like a preternatural fear. Additionally, and most significantly, the Bible is very clear that cultivating a interpersonal relationships with those around us is not only important, it is an essential part of the human experience.
In the second chapter of the Bible’s very first book God makes the proclamation that it is not good for people to be alone. (Genesis 2:18) The most philosophical book of the Bible tells us that having friends is good and that having multiple friends is even better. (Ecclesiastes 4:12) In the New Testament the apostle Paul calls the church to be a tight community, to the extent that the constituents of the community are like minded, love the same things, and are of the same spirit (Philippians 2:2) The notion that community is good is generally not a problem Christians struggle with. While we might not always be the best at engaging in community, or living up to the difficult standards Paul calls us to in Philippians, no one argues against the virtues of community. Yet, because community is so universally extolled in the church, it is worthwhile to take a step back and consider the potential the limits to the goodness of community. What if community is not all that it is cracked up to be?
To begin, while community is good, it is not the ultimate good. Jesus himself tells us that only God is the ultimate good. (Luke 18:19) As our creator and the sovereign Lord over all the universe, God is the only thing that can sustain us and make us perfectly happy. As the apostle Paul told the Athenians, it is only “in Him we live, and move, and have our being.” (Act 17:18) Community is embedded in the DNA of our faith. God uses community to form us into His image. However, one of the ways our human nature is skewed by sin is a disordering of what we love and strive for. This means we can mistake something good like community as the source of ultimate fulfillment, and we can be prone to giving undue attention to it because we expect to find fulfillment from it. Of course, unless we are striving for God Himself, we will only be disappointed. Even more confounding is that as a group of sinners, which is what earthly community is at its core, our disordered loves and misdirected yearnings becoming magnified. In a group of people everyone brings their own sinful nature to the mix which inevitability lays the foundation for conflict. Rather than supporting our own loves and wants, a community of imperfect people will never adequately support us, let alone provide us the ultimate fulfillment we need. The best group of friends we can possibly find in this life will only ever be a shadow of the potential we have for community, that is, the community we will find in heaven.
Yet, if there were such thing as a perfect group of friends, we still would not be completely satisfied. That is because community is not a good itself. In his letter to Roman Christians, the apostle Paul discusses the virtue of community – living in harmony with one another – as a part of worship and personal sacrifice. (Romans 12:1,16) If God truly is the ultimate good in our life, then any other good, including community, is only good insofar as it is ordered to our enjoyment of God. While community can be a source of joy, peace and fulfillment, those should not be our motivations for entering into community. Our yearning should be for God. And again, because the perfect group of friends, nor the perfect church, does not exist on this side of heaven, the only forms of community available to us include fellow sinners. Thus, such groups will always be fraught with personal risk. As the ancient Stoic philosopher Cicero observed,
No treachery is more insidious than that which is hidden under a pretense of loyalty, or under the name of kinship. For against an open adversary you could be on your guard and thus easily avoid him; but this hidden evil, within the house and family, not only arises before you are aware but even overwhelms you before you can catch sight of it and investigate it. (In Verrem, 2.1.13)
Those closest to us have the ability to hurt us the most. For all the potential for good we may find in community, there also exists potential for harm. Because vulnerability is a requisite part of being a member of a community we naturally open ourselves up to much more pain than if we try to maintain a life of solitude. We are never free from the possibility of pain when we are part of a community. In fact, when we are part of a community we are potentially more likely to be let down, to feel taken advantage of, or inadequately appreciated.
When we find hurt in a group of friends or a church family it can be tempting to jump ship, to find a new group of friends, or a new church, or even to move to a new town. This is why the Bible calls us to unity so often. While community is good, it is also difficult. Consider what the apostle John tells us about community. In his gospel he reports that Jesus told the disciples, “love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” (John 13:34) However, we learn later from his first epistle that our injunction to love others is not just because other humans are made in the image of God and therefore inherently valuable and deserving of dignity. Rather, John tells us, “if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin. (1 John 1:17) God uses community to purify us so that we may know him and enjoy him better, and being purified is by nature uncomfortable. The Old Testament prophet Malachi likened God’s purifying work in our lives to a refiner’s purification of silver and gold, which involves exposure to intense heat in order to clear out all the impurities. (Malachi 3:3) When we are in a Christ-centered, loving community God will it them to purify us. There we can expect to find a confluence of joy, sadness, pain, pleasure, victories, losses, edification, feelings of inclusion, and feelings of being let down. However, we also have confidence that God is using this imperfect, uncomfortable, and at times painful, community to form us into the types of people that know and enjoy God. My church was not wrong in wanting to include the word community in their new name, but perhaps it would have been more truthful to describe the church as a place where God will purify us through a sometimes painfully imperfect community.