Chapter 20: The Church as the Community of Faith

God in the New World
by Lloyd Geering

Chapter 20: The Church as the Community of Faith

The Christian faith comes to visibility in the world, not primarily in creeds, doctrine, liturgical forms or ecclesiastical organization, but in the lives of those people who are experiencing the faith, hope and love, which have the Christian quality. Now one could imagine a person who had a particular kind of faith, which he preferred to keep to himself, or a particular hope which he saw no point in sharing with others, but when it comes to love, we see that by the very nature of this experience, more than one person is involved. The Christian faith, by virtue of the very life of love to which it leads, is essentially a community affair.

We have already referred to the family setting as the basic human community where each new individual is nurtured in faith, hope and love. Just as the family setting brings to every man the basic ingredients of human existence, so the church brings to the believer the distinctively Christian quality of faith, hope and love. The church is the community of Christian faith. All Christian believers have been nurtured by it, and it has sometimes been given the name of mother. Because every Christian in the past and in the present has been brought to faith in one way or another by this community of faith, it follows that the church is not something created or constructed by Christians themselves. The very existence of this community is a witness to the God, who, in fact, did call it into being.

According to the Bible, the Judeo-Christian faith has always been a community affair. At the Exodus from Egypt it was not an individual, nor a group of individuals, but a community, a people, which was delivered from slavery and led to the promised land. The Old Testament is not primarily concerned with the relationships between YHWH and individual Israelites, but with that between YHWH and Israel. The very work ekklesia which the New Testament uses for ‘church’ comes from the Greek Old Testament where it is used to describe the whole ‘assembly’ of Israel.

The faith of the people of Israel has often been referred to as a national religion, but this is quite misleading. It cannot be labeled national in the sense that it stems from one state or political institution, for only for the comparatively short period of the reigns of David and Solomon was the people of Israel contained within one kingdom. For a somewhat longer period there were two kingdoms. But for by far the longest period, Israel possessed no political institution which gave her an independent national existence. That which enabled Israel to survive as a community, A even though dispersed among the nations, was the common faith. As the community of faith, Israel pioneered the Christian Way.

Neither can Israel’s faith be called a national religion on the grounds that she was one pure ethnic group, for as we have already pointed out, the Israel of David’s kingdom was much more cosmopolitan than is usually realized. It is true that in the course of time it gave the appearance of being a national group, for many generations went by, in which little new blood, if any at all, was brought in to share the faith. But it is salutary for us to remember, that to the Indian and Chinese of the nineteenth century, Christianity had all the appearances of being the religion of the European race.

When the Jewish remnant of Israel became scattered through various nations and cultures which were alien to it, it led to two opposite kinds of reaction. The more dominant trend was to develop self-contained Jewish communities which existed like islands in a sea of alien culture. This concern for self-preservation fostered the inward look, leading to restrictions forbidding marriage outside the community, an emphasis on all customs unique to the Jewish faith, and strict laws of food and hygiene which prevented Jews from having table fellowship with Gentiles.

But there were some men in Judaism who protested against this. They looked outward, and believed that their faith led them to a sense of responsibility for the whole race of mankind. This concern found expression in the late Old Testament books of Ruth and Jonah, though there were seeds of it in Israel’s earliest traditions, such as the divine words spoken to Abraham, "By you all the families of the earth will bless themselves".

A contemporary of Jesus was the great Jewish philosopher Philo (c. 20 BC.- c. AD. 50), who attempted to interpret the Jewish faith to the Gentile world in such a way as to solicit the interest and appreciation of non-Jewish readers. The Pharisees definitely set out to make converts to Judaism. Indeed, not long before, the Idumeans (the descendants of ancient Edom), from whom the Herods came, were induced by force to embrace the Jewish faith and practice. Such examples show that Judaism was not simply an ethnic or national faith, but a community of faith which still occasionally looked outward.

This catholic or universal interest, which meant all the difference between a community of faith and a religion of race or state, was destined to break out in an astounding way as a result of the advent of Christ. But it did not happen straight away. It is widely accepted nowadays that Jesus had no thought of founding a church embodying all the ecclesiastical structure that we associate with the word. He probably never used the word ‘church’, for the only two references found on his lips in the Gospels almost certainly reflect later tradition. We have already noted the probability that Jesus expected the end of the age within a short time. Moreover, not even the Gospels set on the lips of the earthly Jesus any hint of a mission to men outside Jewry, but they record him as saying that he came to the lost sheep of the house of Israel.

It was largely due to Paul that the Christian movement began to move outside the boundaries of Jewry, and this partly derived from the discovery that, whereas there was considerable resistance among the Jews to the new form of the faith, some of the Gentile adherents of the various synagogue centers were quickly attracted to the Christian Gospel. When Jewish resistance turned to fierce opposition on the missionary journey to the synagogues of Asia Minor, Paul and Barnabas finally announced to their Jewish compatriots the following decision, which had such momentous results: "It was necessary that the word of God should be spoken first to you. Since you thrust it from you, and judge yourselves unworthy of eternal life, behold, we turn to the Gentiles".

The earliest Christians, being themselves Jews and centered in Jerusalem, were not a little alarmed when they found that the Gentile converts were not being made to conform to orthodox Jewish practice, and the Christian movement almost split in two over the issue. Eventually an agreement was reached that Paul and Barnabas should be free to take the Gospel to the Gentiles, and that the original apostles James, Peter and John should preach to the Jews. The famous missionary injunctions in the Gospels and Acts, such as, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations . . ." are all placed on the lips of the risen Jesus, the Christ of faith, and reflect what began to happen only ten to twenty years after the death of Jesus.

It was this dramatic move, initiated by Paul in obedience to what he believed to be divine direction, which was crucial for the future of Christianity, and without which the world may never have heard of the Christian faith. It was crucial because it allowed to come to the fore the heart and essence of the Judeo-Christian faith. For Christianity is essentially a faith to be lived. It expresses itself in the lives of those who embrace it and in the community of faith which together they constitute. From this point onwards Christianity left behind the security of the institutional structures of temple and synagogue. It went out into the world to sink or swim. It had so little framework or organization to hold it together that it could easily have faded out (and perhaps it did in some places), but on the whole it did just the opposite. It spread with the vitality of fire.

We have already noted earlier that when compared with the commonly accepted religious practices of the day, the Christian community of faith took on an everyday, almost secular appearance, not unlike such a contemporary movement as the Rotarians. There were no priests, no paid officials, no uniformity of practice and the bare minimum of organization. But the vital things were found there unencumbered -- a common faith, a living hope and a new level of love. Honesty, purity, gentleness, patience, love were fostered in the whole of life, not simply to make a good impression upon others, but because these were the only proper expression of the faith they had embraced. They were the fruits of what they found to be the power of God in the community of faith.

Jesus had founded no church of the kind that we know. But he had spoken consistently of the Kingdom of God, or the rule of God in the lives of men. Much of the original teaching of Jesus seems to have consisted of the parables of the Kingdom, which highlighted various aspects of the life of the community of faith. Let us take, for example, the parable in which Jesus likened the Kingdom of God to the leaven which a housewife puts into the flour to make bread. The leaven has to lose its independent identity in the flour, but by spreading throughout the whole, it slowly turns the flour into the living, fermenting dough ready to be baked into bread.

In the first place this describes how faith works in the life of the believer. When a man embraces the faith, there may be nothing at first that is very obvious to an outside observer, but Christian faith, like leaven, spreads through a man’s whole being, influencing in the end all his thinking and action. In the second place, the community of faith is not a separatist closed circle of self-satisfied members living to themselves, but a community which is again and again prepared to lose its own identity, that, like leaven, it may come to influence the whole of human society in which it lives.

Of course, we look back to the first Christian century through spectacles which have been ground and colored by some sixteen hundred years of the history of the church as an institution coextensive with the state. Until the beginning of the fourth century the Christian movement had been forced from time to time to live an underground existence, owing to the imperial persecutions, but Constantine the Great, partly in the belief that the Christian God had given him the victory over his rival contestants for the Empire, not only gave complete freedom to Christians for the practice of the faith, but he united the Christian church to the secular state by quite close ties.

In the course of time the church developed an ever stronger framework of organization, a more formal expression of doctrine, and an intricate liturgical cultus. This reached a climax in the Middle Ages, by which time the church had in her hands social power stronger than that of kings and emperors. On the one hand we can be strongly attracted by the magnificent features of the Middle Ages, as an inspiring expression of the Christian faith in a certain age and place. On the other hand, it is all too easy from our vantage point to behold those faults in the edifice of medieval Christendom which were destined in the long run to bring the whole intricate structure into increasing decay. There is no more telling commentary on this, than a visit to one of the medieval cathedrals, usually empty, with the all too obvious signs of decay, and the inevitable appeal for funds to help restore it.

But when Christianity takes to itself the forms and organization of the kingdoms of this world, it must expect that these structures will suffer the same fate as those of man-made empires, even if they are Christian in intention. The Reformation was the first great crack in the structure, though it had already been preceded by the break between East and West. In some respects at least, the Reformers were making a move in the right direction. They were challenging the rigid structure of the church, in which decay had already set in, in order to give breathing space to the essentially living thing that the Christian faith is. But it was no more than a temporary burst forward, for the Reformers only partially diagnosed what was happening. The various churches of Protestantism quickly set up their own rigid counterparts of the ecclesiastical structure centered on Rome, and were still intent, though sometimes unconsciously, on preserving as much of the institutional form of Christendom as they could.

But the door that the Reformers opened, let in more things than they bargained for. The new world began to emerge, though at first very few, if any at all, had any inkling of this. The leaven of the Christian heritage now began to penetrate further than either Protestant or Catholic realized , and in forms which could not readily be evaluated by the traditional canons of Christian orthodoxy. The emergence of the new world, which in fact owed so much to the Christian heritage, began to appear more and more in the eyes of the authorities of Christendom as an evil spirit from some Pandora’s box.

Steadily over the last two hundred years, and with increasing acceleration during this century, the remnants of eastern and western Christianity, of both Protestant and Catholic forms, have been forced back into themselves. Churchmen of various traditions are making strenuous efforts to prevent the once magnificent edifice of Christendom from falling into further ruin. The churches have become island organizations living within a sea of increasingly secular society. It is not the first time that the community of faith has become inward looking. Some, like the ancient Sadducees, are content to carry on with their priestly tasks regardless. Others, like the ancient Pharisees, prompted by equally noble motives, are making valiant efforts to keep the church structures buoyant and active by winning converts from the lost world as occasion offers.

Within the last hundred years the rise of the ecumenical movement has brought new hope to many, and much that it seeks to do deserves the fullest support. But what appears to be the ecumenical diagnosis, namely, that the trouble with the church lies in her divisions, does not go far enough. Lurking behind most ecumenical endeavors there seems to lie the vision of restoring the magnificence of European Christendom, though this time on a global scale. But the Middle Ages have gone for ever. There can be no restoring of the edifice by plastering over the cracks in the masonry. The medieval cathedrals are destined to become museum-pieces, just as much in Europe, as they are in Russia. The whole ecclesiastical structure is destined to undergo a much greater shaking yet.

In fact, the church as it has been known to us through European Christendom is destined to die, and we must let it die. For only then can there be a resurrection of the community of faith in a form relevant to the new world. It was the death of the Davidic kingdom which forced the Jewish community of faith out into the world. It was the death of Christ which led to the renewal of the community of faith. It was the dying to the old social structure of temple and synagogue which gave a freedom to the Christian community to spread out into the Roman world. The present decay of traditional Christendom is a challenge to our faith in death and resurrection.

We are unwilling and afraid to let the outworn organization, doctrine, and forms of the church die, lest we find in the end that we have nothing left. Herein we reveal our lack of faith. That which is permanent in the church is not its structure, its doctrinal confessions and its liturgies, but its faith, and the hope and love associated with it. The more faith becomes a present experience, the more we are willing to let the outward forms of past generations die, that the living church may show itself for what it is -- the community of faith.

Of course every human community must assume some kind of form, however loose and impermanent the framework may be. At the moment we cannot see clearly what form the community of faith will take in the new world, say by next century, any more than Paul could have foreseen the great church of Christendom which was destined to develop from the church of his time. But because the church must learn to be the community of faith, we must abandon the idea of the church as an institution of power. How often we are still tempted to bring influence to bear upon secular powers by calling on the church to speak with some kind of authority through its leaders and councils. The church is not called to be an institution within society, but to be the leaven of society. The real influence of the community of faith will not be through the power of the institution but through the lives of its members, and there will never be any easy way of evaluating this influence.

The recovery of the church as the community of faith will not come out of the blue, but out of the existing, fragmented and outwardly dying ecclesiastical institutions of Christendom. The denominational barriers are collapsing. Men of faith from all traditions are entering into honest dialogue not only with one another, but also with those who have abandoned traditional Christianity of any form. New life is breaking out from the churches in unexpected ways. These are the encouraging signs, that from the decaying structure of medieval Christendom there is beginning to emerge the new form of the church as the community of faith, whose role it is to serve all mankind by being the leaven of faith, hope and love in a distressed world.