The New Creation Christian Community began in 1974 – over 40 years ago. We are taking a careful look at our life together. What needs to change? What needs to stay? After all, society is so different these days – and we, too, have matured in our understanding and have the benefit, not only of hindsight, but of many years’ experience. Perhaps, most importantly, we need to ask: “What is God saying to us about what He wants us to be and do today?” There’s no better place to start than taking a fresh look at how the early Christians went about ‘community’.
At first glance it looks as though Paul founded and fostered church plantings that were quite distinct from the early Jerusalem church. There is no evidence of structured community of goods in any of the churches he planted or wrote to. In its entirety, the Jerusalem church was not copied.
So what, if anything, was Paul’s vision of community? The starting point of Paul’s thinking about our life together as believers is, simply: what God has shown and done in Jesus. Jesus’ great love, death, resurrection and the coming of the Holy Spirit. Our life together stems from this most excellent good news – the gospel of Christ. The freedom Christ brings leads to a life worked out together – to interdependence. The Holy Spirit is shared. The gospel binds believers to God and to each other.
Paul would say that salvation is an individual offer but it must lead into this life of togetherness. Paul believed Christ brought freedom – a freedom to serve and love. The voluntary giving of oneself is at the heart of that freedom. A new relationship with God automatically leads believers into relationships with others.
In his letters, Paul sets out a vision of a common life. He uses various metaphors to illustrate this life marked by love, mutual support and interdependence: the body of Christ, the new man, a building, the temple, living stones. However, family is by far Paul’s favourite metaphor for the church – we are so familiar with it that we easily overlook it! Paul’s favourite way of addressing Christians is adelphoi (brethren). This expression means brothers and sisters. (Indeed, he breaks existing convention by addressing women as sisters as well as brothers – Romans 16:1). He addresses individuals as my/our ‘brother’ and ‘sister’; he speaks intimately of his sons. Christians are members of the divine family; the head of the family is God the father. We relate to God, our ‘Abba’, in an intimate fashion. We have received adoption as children and are heirs of God, fellow heirs with Christ. Christians of local groupings were to understand and treat each other as members of the same family and members of the household of God.
Paul’s rewriting of the traditional Roman household codes of the time would have been quite shocking to a Roman reader (Ephesians 5:22-6:9; Colossians 3:18-4:1). Paul was keen to uphold traditional Roman family values and follows the pattern of contemporary secular household codes BUT what a difference! The great divides of the Roman world were broken down: yes, slavery remained and yet how different would relationships have been between Christian master and slave now that Christ was received and both were brothers! Gender divides too; the lives of wives were transformed by a Christian husband commanded to love his wife as Christ loved the church. The household head of traditional Roman household codes, an autocrat in his own household, was included in the simple command: ‘Submit (everyone) to one another out of reverence for Christ.’ (Ephesians 5:21).
The churches Paul founded were communities in the broad sense of the word. However, these communities were not institutionalised and systematised. Giving is voluntary; sharing is voluntary – but how it is encouraged! Like Jesus, like James, Paul warns of the dangers of riches and money love. Paul emphasises love, not rules; his theology is not codified; it is not a set of obligations – but broad principles and above all, ‘the most excellent way’ – agape love.
Love is central to Paul’s theology: he spells out the most excellent way of love (1 Corinthians 13) to the Corinthians; he shows the difference between philia (the Greek ideal of friendship in which reciprocity is so important) and Christian love – agape. Love for Paul is bearing one another’s’ burdens and suffering with others; love is poured into believers’ lives through the Spirit (Romans 5:5); it is expressed in a depth of relationships; it is divine, it is sacrificial, Christ-like.
Paul’s use of the body of Christ metaphor in his letters illustrates his vision that each member has a unique role to play yet is dependent on everyone else. There are such close ties of relationship that what affects one affects all. Together, there is a journey towards corporate maturity.
Both the Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters give us direct glimpses into these first century communities nurtured by Paul. Paul’s vision for these communities is lofty in the extreme and quite unparalleled in the ancient world. In the first century Jewish Qumran community, love of members is demanded though only within the framework of a highly regulated life. For Paul, relationships not regulation, love and not laws, are the key. This is voluntary community, birthed in the Holy Spirit, a common life of love. It is inclusive, involving everyone, a place where all are valued and social inequalities are seen as unimportant in the oneness that Christ brings.
Paul’s churches did not follow the Jerusalem community in its outworking. But the vision stemming from the words of Jesus to, “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34) was identical. Diluted? No! Flexible, suited to a very different setting? Yes!
For most of Paul’s ministry, the church communities’ enemies were the Jews or ‘the mob’ – not the Roman authorities. This would change shortly before Paul’s death during the persecution instigated by the Emperor Nero. The church communities would be battered – but for those who had embraced Paul’s vision of community – well prepared.
What can we learn today from Paul? We can meditate on Paul’s principles and make them our own, particularly his vision of all-encompassing love. We can learn from his approach – he did not enforce systems; he did not seek to regulate. Each church community would undoubtedly have had their own way of working out ‘community’. Perhaps, most of all, we can learn from his very genuine love, his utter commitment, his all-embracing passion (which no amount of suffering could quench) to see the communities both expand and mature into Christ-likeness – “My little children, of whom I travail in birth again until Christ be formed in you!” (Galatians 4:19).
Robert J. Banks: Paul’s Idea of Community, Baker Academic,1994, USA
New Bible Dictionary, Church, IVP
A Dictionary of Paul and his letters, Households and Household Codes, Man and Woman, IVP