The Mosman Anglican Church. Qld. Australia
Christian CommunityThe pattern of Christian community outlined by Jesus was, to say the least, radical. He called on his followers to adopt a communal life-style of simplicity, humility, purity, spirituality and love.
With the founding of the Jerusalem church, after the coming of the Holy Spirit, the apostles organized a Christian community enshrining Jesus' principles of discipleship. "They devoted themselves to the apostles' teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayers". "And all who believed were together and had all things in common. They gave to those in need and day by day attended the temple together, and breaking bread in their homes they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their number day by day." "Now the company of those who believed were of one heart and soul". They held all things in common, the apostles spoke with great power and God's grace was upon them. Because of their mutual care there was no needy among them.
Since that time Christians struggled to live the apostolic life and in so doing, two main patterns have emerged.
i] The secular life. Discipleship lived in the world.
ii] The religious life. Discipleship lived apart from the world.
This paper examines the religious life. It is usually a life-style that expresses itself in some form of communalism, ie., the formation of a small community of Christians living independent of the wider dominant society. In most cases a commune of consumption (sharing all things in common), and also, in some cases, a commune of production. (a self-sufficient community where production of life's necessities is shared by community members.)
Up until the Roman emperor Constantine, the secular life was the dominant life-style of Christians. This doesn't mean that the church wasn't a strong serving community. In truth, persecution had welded the Christian community together. The fact that Christianity was an illegal religion may well explain why communalism was never developed in the first centuries.
Once Christianity was adopted as the established church of the empire, the sense of community in the once struggling and persecuted Christian church was lost. So, monasticism was a response to the secularization of the church. St.Pachomius, a soldier under Constantine, was the founder of the Monastic movement. At his life's end, there were 7,000 living in communities. His order was based on prayer and work. The monasteries soon became self-sufficient and withdrawn from society.
With the fall of the Roman Empire, the monasteries soon became bastions for the preservation of society within disintegrating civilization. They soon took on the role of converting and humanizing society.
Although the monasteries were reorganized under the Benedictine order, during the Middle Ages they become worldly centers of power. In response to this, small sectarian biblical communal groups were formed, especially from the tenth to the twelfth centuries. For example, in 1170 Peter Waldo led his followers, " the poor men of Lyons", into a communal life of cooperation, spiritual unity, poverty, good works and evangelism. They were excommunicated and persecuted.
St. Francis in the 1200's was to have a marked effect with his community based on the rule of poverty for the purpose of preaching and good works. His followers were soon to water down this rule and so a small group called the Fraticelli broke away to re-establish his rule of poverty. They believed in total poverty and self-sacrifice, opposing power, property and wealth. They were evangelistic, apocalyptic (they believed Jesus was soon to come to set up his kingdom), mystical (they sought to experience union with Jesus) and communal.
During the late middle ages, especially the 1300's, mysticism flourished and stimulated the formation of simple communal groups throughout Europe. Mysticism tended to be affected by neoplatonic thought and therefore, was not always Biblical. Echart was one of the foremost leaders of this movement. He taught that each soul is a spark of the uncreated light from which all reality stems. The way to that light is through contemplation. Small groups of his followers developed simple household communes for the purpose of prayer, Bible study and good works to facilitate the inner light. The Quakers and Mennonites have their roots here.
In the 1400's, feudal society was beginning to break down, while the church wallowed in power, wealth and corruption. Innumerable small household / village communities sprung up as a result. In some places, even outright rebellion occurred. In England in 1381 Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Ball, led the peasants rebellion. "Matters goeth not well to pass in England, nor shall not do until everything be common, and that there be no villagers nor gentlemen, but that we may be united together". As one would expect, it was put down violently. In Bohemia (Czechoslovakia) in 1419, the common people revolted against the church. Jan Zizka led the people in defense against the Papal Crusades and founded Tabor and Oreb as communal cities. A communism of consumption, simple life-style and religious fundamentalism was adopted by all. The rebellion was finally put down in 1434.
In the 1500's feudal society collapsed with the onslaught of the Reformation. It was replaced by free enterprise capitalism which evolved from the reformer's work-ethic. Although this became the dominant social structure, there were many fundamentalist reformers who wished to establish an apostolic order for society. They represented the radical reformation and called for a communalist society where all things would be held in common. They were usually apocalyptic (in some cases violent millennialists, ie., Christ's 1000 year reign had begun), Pentecostal, pacifists, fundamentalists (literal interpretation of the Bible), evangelistic, pietists, practicing a simple life-style (poverty). They proposed an apostolic community of sacrifice moulded in Christ's image - a community of the elect living in the world but not of the world.
Throughout Europe, small groups evolved under the leadership of charismatic men and women. Brethren, Anabaptists, Mennonites, Hutterites, Moravians, Rakovians.... All had their particular warp, eg,. the Hutterites believed that unless you sold all your possessions and gave it to the community, you remained unsaved. Yet, they all upheld communalism as a more perfect expression of the apostolic life. In general, they developed village communes based on agriculture and crafts. They were communalists in both production and consumption, running their own schools and health services.
Because of the activities of some of the more hotheaded radical Anabaptist reformers, such as Thomas Munzer, Bernt, and Rothmann, opposition to the radical reformation grew into violence. Some of these men advocated polygamy, violent conquest and rebellion, to bring in Christ's Kingdom. Therefore, both the reformers and the Catholics sought their extermination. Wholesale slaughter was the result.
In England during the Commonwealth period (1600's), social disorder prompted the development of many radical groups. All sought to develop a communal society within the anarchy of the wider society. Some even attempted to persuade Cromwell to develop a new communal Commonwealth eg., the Diggers led by Winstanley. Groups such as the Ranters, Family of Love, Seekers, Quakers, and Baptists, formed apostolic communities practicing community of goods, pacifism and fundamentalism. With the restoration of the monarchy, they were persecuted and so most emigrated to America.
The formative years of the American Nation were greatly affected by the presence of the Dissenters who had escaped the persecution of the old world. In 1682 Pennsylvania was given to William Penn for colonization with the guarantee of religious freedom. Within a few years, all the English Quakers were to migrate there, plus Mennonites, Moravian Brethren, and German Anabaptists. The Shakers arrives in 1770 and Hutterites in 1864. All these groups practised communalism.
It is only natural, therefore, that literally thousands of communal enterprises have emerged in the U.S.A. over the intervening years. These range from fundamental bible-based groups to weird and wonderful sectarian groups. The following are just some of the many American communal groups: Ephrata 1720, Rappites 1803, Zoar 1817, Aurora and Bethel 1835, Bishops Hill 1846, and Amana 1842. Actually, this pentecostal colony owned 26,000 acres in Iowa. They developed a simplistic life-style, living in small cottages with a central meeting house. They shared and rotated jobs, ran their own school, farm and manufacturing industries (Amana fridges). In 1933 the colony returned to free enterprise. St. Nazianz 1854. Oneida 1848. Oneida, founded by John Noyes out from New York, was of the more radical vein. They were vegetarian, millenialists, pentecostal, political radicals and fundamentalist. They practiced a simple communal life-style. They emphasized confession and a democratic government where all had to agree with management decisions. The list of American communal groups is ever expanding.
In Europe, especially after the Second World War, there was a revival in community. Most communes were established to serve a special purpose rather than just to live in community. It was community as a means to an end. Taize served to unite all Christians. Then there was the sisterhood of Neuchatel. The sisters of Casteller Ring 1950, advocated the joy and adventure of the Christian life. The charismatic evangelical sisterhood of Mary experimented in drama. L"Abri, founded by Francis Schaeffer in Switzerland, aimed at reaching youth. Iona 1930, a retreat for Christians aimed at promoting social action. Agape in Sicily aimed at humanizing depressed socialized regions.... and so on.
America too, since the Second World War, has experienced new experiments in Christian community. Koinonia Farm 1950 - a self sufficient family community devoted to aiding the poor and oppressed. Reba Fellowship - a family community for spiritual growth. Atlanta Avenue 507 - a suburban house commune with the aim of bringing stability and healing (physical and spiritual) to a socially disadvantaged community. Church of the Redeemer - a church based group of interrelated suburban communes made up of extended families with the purpose of increasing the effectiveness of the church's evangelistic and social aid programmes. etc.
In Australia, there were some experiments in Christian communes. Caloola Farm 1970's - a small farming community sharing the basic activities of human life for the purpose of developing real personhood. A number of small suburban communes catering for young people were established. These came out of the Jesus Movement. Some farming communities were established to help rehabilitate drug addicts, although these really don't fall into the category of a Christian commune. Numerous home communities (more properly defined as House Church) have continued to develop through the 1990's, while from the 1980's, the number of actual communes have constricted.
The most noticeable feature of communes, established since the New Testament times, is that they only last a short time. The vast majority come and go in two generations. The main reason probably has to do with the tendency of communes to base their existence on an unrealistic utopian dream.
i] Back to Mother Earth - an idealized farming village life.. a "back to the land" syndrome. In many cases, modern farming techniques were rejected in favor of natural (back breaking) manual labour. Oppressively hard work and ignorance soon caused disaster.
ii] False theology - a fundamentalist apocalyptic pseudo theology bearing little relationship to the teachings of the Bible. The gullible are very easily led away by weird and wonderful ideas, but are quickly disheartened when their unrealistic expectations fail to eventuate.
iii] Happiness in community - the false view that when given the right structure in society mankind can live in a loving relationship. This idealized view of brotherly love soon founders on mankind's natural selfishness (original sin). True relationships are not achieved by structural change, but by inward renewal.
iv] Attracts cranks. Communes tend toward the "crack pot" fringe of Christianity. Very few fall into the conservative evangelical mould.
v] Isolated. The majority of communities have tended to alienate themselves from the wider community. Little meaningful contact has been the result. The view has prevailed that the world is evil and doomed to destruction and that they, the "remnant", must abandon it.
Communes that have survived for at least a generation have the following in common:
i] A strong unifying spiritual ideal. This is expressed in a particular form of worship that gives a sense of belonging.
ii] Self sustaining. Greater cohesion resulted when commune members work together to provide the basic needs of their community (a commune of production).
iii] Strong leadership. A sound charismatic leader is a common characteristic of surviving communes.
iv] Some form of tension release. Tensions caused by interpersonal relationships, personality etc., are given some form of release, eg. exuberant dancing by the Shakers.
v] Role sharing. Sharing the "not so nice" jobs, along with the regular swapping of normal communal jobs.
vi] Financial security. No debts or repayments, along with sound financial management.
vii] Cottage dwelling. Communal guest house or dormitory style dwellings tend to increase personal tensions.
viii] Most surviving communes have their own school. A community school of love and learning keeps the children of the commune in the group and fires them with their parents vision.
When Jesus called his disciples to himself he gave them an ideal to push toward. Ideals can never be reached, other than in identification with Jesus who is the only person to have reached God's ideals. None-the-less, ideals can be pressed toward. Jesus' discipleship ideal was simple and to the point, leave all and "follow me and I will make you fishers of men", Mark1:17. First and foremost, Jesus pointed toward total commitment, Matt.8:21-22, Lk.14:25-33. He called on his disciples to follow him, become like him, take on his character.
1. We are called to a Christ-like life
i] Simplicity. When they crucified Jesus, the soldiers divided his possessions among themselves. The only thing of value was his cloak. "Teacher, I will follow you wherever you go, and Jesus said to him: 'Foxes have holes, and the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head'", Matt.8:19-20. Jesus didn't own a house, let alone rent one. Of his followers he pointed to a complete leaving of the things of this world, Matt.6:19-24. Such a life demands incredible faith, yet "look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they?" Matt.6:26.
ii] Humility. "Take my yoke upon you and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and you shall find rest in your souls", Matt.11:29.
iii] Love. "As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you: continue in my love". John 15:9
iv] Purity. "For he has made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him", 2Cor.5:21.
v] Spirituality. Jesus' intimate relationship with Father was a reality of his life and was only broken on the cross. In quietness he sought the Father's face in prayer, Mk.1:35. We too are to seek union with him, Jn14:15-17.
2. We are called into fellowship
Disciples are called to join with Jesus and fellow believers in community, that we serve as he served by giving ourselves in love one to another, Jn.13:1-17. Jesus and his disciples lived a truly communal life: They moved around Palestine together, went on mission together, went on retreat together, Mk.6:30-32; They had a common purse to fund their basic needs, Jn.12:4-6; They lived together. Paul, in later years, was to describe the church as "the body of Christ", a group of believers united to each other in and through Christ, 1Cor.10:16-17.
The church community, indwelt by the Spirit of Christ, is a foretaste of the heavenly gathering with Jesus which enriches, strengthens, preserves and upbuilds us in our Christian life and shines the reality of God's kingdom to all earthly and heavenly powers, Eph.1:15-23; 2:4-7; 2:19-22; 3:7-12.
3. We are called to be fishers of men
Like the master, a disciple must seek to heal God's broken world - to give sight to the blind, life to the dead, freedom to those in bondage. Jesus gave his life to save the world and his disciples must similarly take up their cross and follow Christ, Mk.8:34-38. We must walk the road to Calvary in the footsteps of our master. We must go into all the world, make whatever sacrifice is necessary, to see that the good news of life in Jesus is proclaimed to all, Matt.28:18-20.
After Pentecost, the disciples set about applying what it means to be a follower of Jesus. The book of Acts describes the apostolic community as: simplistic, 4:34-37; worshipping, 2:46; communal, 2:43-47, 6:1-6; and evangelistic, 2:37-42. They certainly represented their master.
The Acts model
It's not wise to draw imperatives from historical events recorded in the Bible, but the form of community developed by the Jerusalem church, as recorded in Acts, may well serve as an effective model for a suburban Christian community.
i] They were a community that held private property. They retained their own homes, Act.2:46. Peter reminded Ananias that he had been under no compulsion to sell his property and give the money to the church, Act.5:4. John Mark's mother, Mary, still owned her own home, Act.12:12. The ten Commandments imply private ownership, coveting the house etc. of another. Simon Peter owned his own home and Jesus regularly frequented it, Mk.1:29. Possibly John too, Jn19:27 (cf. Jn.20:10). Jesus commanded his disciples to lend money, even when there was little hope of repayment - you have to have money to lend it. The private ownership of property is not necessarily a problem. (see also Act.10:6, 21:8, Rom.16:5, 1Cor.11:34, 14:35, 1Tim.5:4). A Christian group owning their own homes, within a suburban locale, can still develop an effective Christian fellowship. Living in the world increases our opportunity to reach out to the world.
ii] They were a home based community. They used their homes for fellowship. Their renewed life-style released time for intimate fellowship, Act.2:42-47, 16:15 - "breaking bread from house to house." A Christian group dedicated to release time, so they can use their homes as centers of intimate fellowship, will soon experience a heightened sense of oneness. Regular small group meetings, teas, coffee mornings, intimate prayer times, occasional visits, etc., all help to develop a sense of community.
iii] They were a meeting community. They met each day for teaching, fellowship, and prayer, Act.2:42, 46. Most urban Christians would find it difficult to meet daily, due to work commitments, yet for a group to develop community it is obviously necessary to meet more than just once a week. It is easy in a commune of consumption and production to schedule a time in the morning for worship, but not so easy in a complex urban society. A dedicated group determined to release time to this end can succeed in scheduling more than just one gathering of the fellowship per week. It may well require changing our job to reduce traveling time, blowing up the television so we can get to bed earlier, etc.
iv] They were a sharing community. They shared their resources, Act.2:43-47, 4:32-37, 5:1-11, 6:1-7. They didn't just give of their surplus income, in fact, they dipped into capital reserves, selling property to aid the needy. This doesn't mean that everyone donated everything. Private property was still owned by church members (homes, businesses...) - sharing was voluntary. Yet, the church members freely gave to meet any need. They happily gave up their rights to private property for the kingdom - "no one said that any of the things which he possessed was his own." The Jerusalem church was doing nothing more than continuing the pattern of economic sharing practiced by Jesus. Jesus and his disciples had a common purse, Jn.13:29; they shared financial resources, Lk.8:1-3. The economic resources of the entire Christian community was available to any disciple in a time of need, or in their service to the Lord, Mk.10:29-30. A Christian group today, enthusiastically living out a simple life-style, is well able to release substantial funds for the common use of the fellowship in the service of the Lord.
v] They were a fellowshipping community. They ate their meals together "with glad and generous hearts", Act.2:46, and thus truly "were of one heart and soul", Act.4:32. A dedicated group can easily devise a program to enhance Christian fellowship.
vi] They were a spiritual community. "They devoted themselves to the apostles teaching, and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread, and to prayers"... "Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts... praising God", Acts 2. Again, a dedicated group can develop effective patterns of prayer, Bible study, worship....
vii] They were a caring community. "There was not a needy person among them," cf. Act.6:11. They used whatever resources were necessary to meet the needs of their church community. A committed people of God, even within an institutional church fellowship, will find themselves well able to meet the needs of fellow church members, e.g. establishing a Christian school to counter the secularizing influences of Public Education upon the children of the church family, Rom.12:2. Unemployment relief for a church member. Practical aid to widows, etc........
viii] They were an evangelistic community. Indirectly by life-style ("and having favor with all the people. And the Lord added to their numbers day by day", Act.2:46-47), and directly by proclamation ("And with great power the apostles gave their testimony to the resurrection of the Lord." Act.4:33), they communicated the gospel far and wide. A Christian group, faithfully living out the teachings of Jesus, cannot help but have a marked effect upon the wider community. Such a group will also see evangelists raised up in their midst to give powerful testimony to Jesus.
To live in a closed Christian commune can only be for the gifted few. Although an effective means of developing Christian community and maximizing resources for the kingdom, it is a specialized life-style suited only to a few. Yet, Jesus calls us all into community and so every Christian group should strive to apply communal principles. A house church, or even the local denominational Christian church, is well able to apply, at least to some degree, the principles from the Acts model above. Fellowship / community should be our aim whatever the nature of the Christian group that we are part of.
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