Ask three different people what they mean by the terms “Christianity”, “Community” or “Communion” and you’ll get four different answers. In fairness, all three of these terms are complex terms with a vast array of complex meanings and usages. The purpose of this article will be to address them succinctly and biblically. My hope is that by the end of this article you will see all three not necessarily in a new light, but rather that you will see how they are intertwined around Christ, and that properly defining some basic terms will help us see not only the deeper meaning but the very often missed straightforward meaning.
I believe it is safe to say that we will all probably agree Christianity is a religion or religious system built around the person and work of Jesus Christ. Some will prefer not to use the term “religion” but that is a sermon for another time. Even those who prefer to say Christianity is a “relationship” rather than a religion will probably see what I am getting at here with my basic definition. Thus, let us move on to the next two which I think for us is where the hazy definitions lay.
Our next term community is defined in the dictionary in three basic ways. Ecologically it is defined as “a group of interdependent organisms of different species growing or living together in a specified habitat.” The next definition is governmental “a body of nations or states unified by common interests.” Lastly, community is defined socially as “a social, religious, occupational, or other group sharing common characteristics or interests and perceived or perceiving itself as distinct in some respect from the larger society within which it exists socially and communally.” This final term is most relevant to the discussion in this article but ultimately addressing the biblical context and usage of the term will be most important.
Finally, Communion can also have few basic meanings. It can refer to the Lord’s Supper in which we partake of bread and wine to remember Christ’s sacrifice for us but this is a metaphorical usage of the term. Next, communion can be defined broadly and socially as an act of sharing or to those with whom we have an “intimate fellowship or rapport with.” This could be religious or non-religious in nature. However, the final definition can only be seen as religious in nature and is defined by Merriam Webster’s as “a body of Christians having a common faith and discipline.”
Now that we have defined our terms, let us turn and see how we may view and use them within a biblical worldview and framework. But before we continue, there is one more definition that I think is relevant to the discussion at hand. This time the Greek term, ekklesia or ecclesia. This term is a term applied to the local community of believers and in the Old Testament applied to the gathering in the synagogues. It was used in ancient Greece to declare an assembly of citizens or even a political gathering similar to a congress. As one author notes:
“What, then, did the writers of the New Testament mean when they used the word “ecclesia” to describe a Christian body of people? We can assume that they intended to convey the original Greek meaning of the word: a body of Christians called out of the Roman and Judean system to come together into a separate civil community. It meant a politically autonomous body of Christians under no king but Jesus; under no other jurisdiction but that of Jesus. No man ruled them! Only Christ. And that was the reason these same Christians ran into trouble with kings and rulers; were arrested, crucified and martyred. They dropped Caesar as their King and took up Christ.”
We see then the biblical definition of community or ecclesia is one in which a common core of belief and common rule of law is binding upon those in mutual submission under the rule of Christ. This definition, however, challenges our popular notion of community. We usually hear people refer to community in the sense of outreach to those who live in a certain proximity of where the church gathers. As if the community is outside of the church. It’s very common to hear things expressed like “we need to do more outside the four walls of the church” or “we need to do more for the community.”
While these statements hold a real issue that each church may need to address, we need to be careful about our wording since the improper use of terms is what has led to many false doctrines or false practices. In this instance, it’s not that doing things outside of the church walls is bad or even not needed; but rather, it’s the referring to the community as though it is something “out there.”
The community properly defined is within the group or gathering of believers. We are the community. We have a common unity in Christ. This is what makes our community, and it’s out of this community that we have communion. We are the church, the bride of Christ, the body of Christ, the elect, his royal people and whatever other biblical metaphor you would like to use. We must realize this lest we fall into the trap of the naysayers, often the skeptics and critics of the church. “Why are there so many churches and yet so many homeless?” “Why are there so many people on drugs or so much crime with so many churches?” Not to make light of our societal obligation for justice, which I believe is a biblical concern of the church, but the answers to these questions above are simple.
The answer is: these people are in this state because they’re not part of the church community. If a homeless person were part of that community he would find food, clothing and shelter. This is not to say the church’s main concern is handouts, it is not. But I’ve never met a church whose people didn’t want to help those in need. I’ve never met a church who turned away a drug addict who wanted help. I’ve never met a church whose members tolerated crime amongst its people. The foundations of homelessness, drug use and crime are the topic of countless sermons. If any of these issues are to be addressed it has to start within the four walls of the church and work its way out.
The church affects change by modeling a difference. This is in part what I think Jesus means when he says “you are the salt of the earth and the light of the world.” We give outward testimony to a hurt and dying world by living a life in which we “do it right.” As Peter says “Conduct yourselves with such honor among the Gentiles that, though they slander you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day He visits us.” While our behavior may never silence all critics because of their hardened heart, we can live as we are called to live within our own community, knowing we answer to God, not man.
Now if what I am saying is true we must then ask where did this mis-definition of community come from? The answer to this is vast but for our immediate context I think the current trend can be found in what economist Murray Rothbard referred to as “Postmillennial Piety” around the turn of the century. This is not to be confused with either the Puritan or modern Evangelical postmillennialism of today. Rather the postmillennialism of the late 19th century was theologically liberal in nature. It began to see the church’s task as social, rather than spiritual in nature.
Feeding the homeless, setting up homeless shelters, advocating for voting rights and better working conditions, etc., became the work of the church and even the call of the gospel in many of these mainline denominations. To them the millennium was something that would be brought about through Christian social action rather than a literal coming of Christ to earth. In one sense you could say they saw this as not just a social outreach but as a social gospel or social justice, as it is now commonly called, but you could actually say they saw it as their spiritual duty.
Now again this is not to say that all of these societal interventions weren’t good things. Much of this as I said earlier should be done by the church but the problem is when we confuse the action itself as the totality of the gospel. These “Postmillennial Pietists” would see such things as the eradication of poverty being the true spiritual work of the church and would work tirelessly to see that the church was involved in the society at large, (especially in the inner cities).
With this view of a Christian community separate and distinct from the society at large, biblical doctrine began to be blurred. Later this would lead to political action in government seeking to bring about the solution of these ills through government policies rather than local churches. The Great Depression put a damper on the hope that the church through social action could solve all these problems on their own. If the Postmillennial hope of a utopian society was to be realized, it would have to be through not only the church but the government.
The New Deal of FDR was seen by many Christians (and Roman Catholics) as a kind of godly government. Father Charles Rice said, “A victory for labor in its struggles for decent conditions is a victory for Americanism and Christianity.” This is in part where the Roman Catholic church began to lean heavily democratic (even until this day despite the left’s overtly anti-Catholic positions such as abortion, birth control and same sex marriage). To this day the psyche of many Catholics and Christians are loyal to the left because of the Christian notion of loving your neighbor and helping the poor.
The fact that many of the policies of the left are anti-Christian are largely overlooked since the social gospel is preeminent. Also, since many now don’t go to church services on Sunday, the focus of their Christianity becomes doing good to their neighbors (or at least not doing bad to their neighbors). Many of these people self-identify as Christian, even if they are not involved in a local church or any type of ministry. Thus for them community involvement is giving blood at the Red Cross or perhaps coaching a little league team. Rather than being called out to repentance for their lack of reverence and worship towards God, these people tend to look at themselves as better Christians than those who just go to church and in their minds do nothing.
Communion is at the heart of the Christian life. When we say we are going to partake in communion, we are not just doing an act of remembrance or a spiritual activity by which grace is imparted to us through faith in Christ (there are many nuances of the Lord’s Supper in each tradition which may differ, but the application by which I’m addressing will be relevant to all). When we partake in church communion or the Lord’s Supper, we are not just practicing a spiritual exercise in faith or just simply proclaiming his dying for our sins. We also proclaim his return for his people: “For whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, you proclaim the Lord’s death until he comes” (1 Cor 11:26).
So we know the Lord will keep us as a people until the Second Advent. Until that time, we are to commune with him and his people (i.e., it is often by means of his people that we commune with God). The worship and praise of God is not usually an individual thing in scripture, but rather corporate. We proclaim our unity with Christ through communion and also we recognize our communion with each other during this time. Paul’s main concern in the epistle to the Corinthians wasn’t that the believers were walking up to take communion without saying a prayer of confession first — his concern was that the communion was supposed to represent their unity with each other because they were united in Christ.
However, because they were not communing in common unity, but rather the rich were eating and drinking without the poor, they were thus partaking in a worthless act by taking the Lord’s Supper. This is why Paul says,
“So then, when you come together, it is not the Lord’s Supper you eat, for when you are eating, some of you go ahead with your own private suppers. As a result, one person remains hungry and another gets drunk. Don’t you have homes to eat and drink in? Or do you despise the church of God by humiliating those who have nothing?” (1 Cor 11:21,22).
Paul then goes on to say what has unfortunately been largely missed or misinterpreted over the years. He says in verse 29 “For anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself.”
Usually people interpret that to mean if you take the bread or loafer which represents the body of Christ in an unworthy manner (having sin in your life) that you are bringing judgment on yourself. But Paul here is not referring to the bread or wafer but rather to the church. We as the church (ecclesia) make up the body of Christ and those there in Corinth who were neglecting and mistreating their local church community were partaking of the Lord’s supper in an unworthy manner. He asks us to judge our conduct towards our neighbors before we take communion, because if we aren’t in communion with them, then we are proclaiming a lie at Communion (The Lord’s table). Thus, we cannot have a right relationship with God if our relationships are not right with each other.
Finally, we must conclude that our Christianity is largely defined by how we define both communion and community. If we see either communion or community in the incorrect way as I have shown above, the church in the 21st century will continue to be stifled by the world and hopelessly frustrated with our lack of progress. Progress shouldn’t be defined by just how many homeless are or aren’t on the streets, as Jesus says “The poor you will have with you always.” Rather the church must once again focus on the gospel community and the proclamation of the gospel message — knowing only that message can bring revival.
Only the gospel can bring repentance. We don’t truncate the gospel but we must remember to keep the main thing the main thing. Good works and social action should follow as a godly response to our faith. Usually though, this will be modeled for us through our communities where we learn, grow, challenge, equip, exhort and commune with each other in the faith.
We are all busy. You all have jobs, families and social media accounts to tend too. But if we are going to move forward as a local body of believers and if the church is going to move forward as a universal body of believers, we must put our Christianity first. Which means we put our Christian community first. Which means we must commune together and worship and praise God together as often as possible. We need each other because we need God. And God is present here with us, to his glory and in the praises of his people.