The Lost Witness of Christian Community and Finding it Again

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There has been much focus on the family in the church.  Popular media commentators (like James Dobson, Michael Pearl, Bill Gothard and Doug Philips) encourage making a high priority of our own immediate families. 

Family is important.  But the “no greater joy” in 3 John 1:4 is not written about a man’s own family or his blood relatives.  Instead the letter is written about the church.  John is describing love for spiritual children and the family of God.  Do we find as much joy in the church family as we do in raising our own children?

Christian community has been watered down over the years.  Yes, we might have more ‘church’ activities than ever and yet, as far as real interdependence, we are lacking.  Those of you from good homes, who are happily married and in your prime, may not notice.  But there is great social need beyond your doorstep.

This blog will explore where we are, where we were and where we need to go from here; it will address the enemies and also the benefits of faith community.  One blog can’t even begin to do the topic justice, but hopefully it will spark thoughts and discussion.  My prayer is that those reading will take faithful steps to restore the Christian community where they are.

Where we are…

The loss of community in the world around us is profound and the results are tragic.  Isolated people are unhealthy people.  The family unit itself has been degraded.  Many children do not have opportunity of dinner time conversations together with their parents at home.  Child care is increasingly outsourced.  More people survive on food cooked by strangers than ever.  The elderly are interned for sake of convenience, out of sight and out of mind.  It is madness.

The church has not fared much better.  People in many churches have very little meaningful interaction with each other during the week.  After the church service is over most go their seperate ways and expect the needs to be taken care of by those appointed to do so.  There is very little difference between the mainstream church and the world in regards to community.  Sure, many churches bustle with activities, and there are many good people who are trying to make a difference, but there are many unmet social needs.

My conservative Mennonite culture has a more distinct history of community.  Other Anabaptist groups, our spiritual (and often biological) cousins, have a stronger community emphasis than our own.  Amish have taken dramatic steps and have rejected technology (starting with the automobile) in an effort to preserve the integrity of their communities.  The Hutterites have a long communal tradition.  But conservative Mennonites lack a clear structure and could lose this strength of community entirely.

I’ve seen changes in my own Mennonite community in my own lifetime that indicate the erosion of our community.  We are following after the mainstream and the world more than we often realize.  The Anabaptist prioritization of brotherhood has been replaced with a more individualistic mindset.  

We do not pursue the concept of Gelassenheit anymore.  Instead we turn to our own biological families for support and our fellowship is growing apart.

Where we were…

The early church example is very clear.  The family language used by early church leaders meant something.  When Paul spoke up for Onesimus (Philemon 1:8-25) he speaks with the urgency of a father speaking for his son.  It is not casual usage of words.  It is not us singing “I’m so glad to I’m a part of the family of God” on Sunday mornings and then doing next to nothing for each other during the week.  The chuch then was a true family in every sense of the word…

“All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”  (Acts 2:44-47)

And repeated again later in the book of Acts…

“All the believers were one in heart and mind. No one claimed that any of their possessions was their own, but they shared everything they had. With great power the apostles continued to testify to the resurrection of the Lord Jesus. And God’s grace was so powerfully at work in them all that there were no needy persons among them. For from time to time those who owned land or houses sold them, brought the money from the sales and put it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to anyone who had need.” (Acts 4:32-35)

Their commitment to each other was clearly not a superficial commitment like our own too often seems to be.  What is described in the passages from Acts above is not coincidence.  No, what is described is what will happen when people commit fully to the teachings of Jesus and love as they ought to love.

Where we need to be…

What we need, first of all, is intention—we need to want to make the ideal of community a greater reality.  We must realize our own weakness alone, confess this to each other and then bear our burdens together… 

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Galatians 6:2)

It is not a meddlesome or controlling spirit, but rather a growing recognition of our own need for community and deepening commitment to the good of our Christian brothers and sisters.  This kind of love is the truest expression of obedience to the law of Christ.  

Jesus said the world would know we are his followers by our love for each other (John 13:34-35) and this is expressed in Koinonia (κοινωνία) or our common union as believers.  We are to be intimately involved in fellowship together, and in all things, or we are not fully living the example Jesus taught.  This must be made a reality today in our own time or we cannot claim to be fully living in faith. 

The church should be extending our family to those without.  Our elderly should never be left to a commercially operated nursing facility.  Young single mothers should be able to find a restful place amongst us.  We need to be less focused on our own individual family and more concerned with the family of God.

Enemies of community of faith…

There are many reasons why we do not follow the Acts church example today and it is mostly because we fear that the arrangement will not benefit us as an individual or our own family.  This is a short list of reasons why one may resist a greater expression of Christian community:

1) Individualism: There is no doubt that our American culture centers on ideas of independence and rugged individualism.  Unfortunately this has evolved into a rat race where everyone pursues a dream (unattainable for many) at the expense of real and fulfilling relationship.  We seek independence, and it is good when we are working to support ourselves, yet we have social needs that cannot be fulfilled in ourselves alone.

2) Prosperity: People can create an illusion of their lack of need for other people because they are wealthy.  Our wealth as Americans is used as defense of the status quo.  The argument goes that since everyone has food, shelter and clothing there is no need for a better application of what we read in the book of Acts.  Unfortunately government programs, while keeping people from physical death and complete destitution, do nothing for social or spiritual needs.  Even materially wealthy people can be very isolated and miserable.

3) Pride: Religious people can easily imagine they are better than other people including their own brothers and sisters in the church.  They do not want their children influenced by other children and adults, therefore they remove them, homeschool, etc.  It is the oldest sin in the book.  It was what seperated mankind from God and it is also an enemy of Christian community.  Pride is dangerous, it causes divisions in the church and decieves us into believing we are better off when we are in complete control.

4) Technology: The Amish were right.  The automobile dramatically changed and has aided in the decline of community.  Add to that the television and smartphones.  Children nowadays have more reason to stay inside and isolated.  Adults are not much better by choosing to live in some suburban home with a privacy fence.  We are increasingly buried in technology, addicted to the quick fix of social media and at the expense of true relationship.

5) Fear of commitment: It takes faith and commitment to seek after deeper relationship and many of us are simply avoiding it.  In the conservative Mennnonite church we are afraid to court and adopting the same reluctance towards marraige of the Millennial generation.  Commitment is scary.  The rewards of community (like marriage) are not immediate and the risks loom large.  Unfortunately we miss out on a blessing because of our fear.

The practical arguments in favor of community of faith…

First and formost, there is need.  Again, just because your own needs are met does not mean that there is no need.  The plight of our older singles and elderly people would be a little less severe if they were intergrated into a community rather than the afterthought that they often are.  The church shold be a place where everyone has an equal seat at the table. 

Unfortuantely many of us our too preoccupied with our own families to notice or care about those who are lacking.  That is not the spirit of Christ who told us to leave all (including family) to follow after him.  The irony is that those who actually have by some means found their security in themselves may actually have the most need.  Wealth, whether it be that of material or biological variety, has always hindered commitment to faith.  Our need to repent of our religious individualism and spiritual pride could be our greatest need of all.

Then there is the matter of efficient use of resources.  As most of us currently live there is this ridiculous redundancy.  We all need our own seperate lawn mower, garden tools, pickup truck and would be so much further ahead sharing.  That’s not to mention our reliance on commercial lenders rather than each other.  It is sad that we would rather our brothers pay interest to a bank and struggle to stay ahead than help them as we might our own son.  It is a wasteful use of resources that could otherwise be used to further the gospel of Jesus Christ.

One of the most spurious arguments against a more real expression of Christian community is the idea that it would come at the expense of evangelism.  The reasoning goes that existing groups that practice a community of goods concept have failed in one regard or another and often in sharing the Gospel.  This, of course, is the same argument used by those saying that we should drop other non-mainstream Biblical practices currently practiced by conservative Mennonites.  If we start abandoning practices that can somehow be associated with abuse or neglect we would probably need to join the faithless and stay home.

Community of faith is actually the most practical witness of the Gospel we have.  How better to meet the needs in the world around us than to offer them the clearest possible alternative?  There is no choice between missions outreach and Christian community because one can compliment the other.  In fact, one enhances the other and makes it much more effective.  Sure, maybe the commitment would require more of us.  However, there are many people with needs who would benefit greately from a church that truly acted as a family.  

Change comes upon us slowly…

The book of Acts describes a reality quite a bit different from our own today.  Then, unlike now, there was a willingness to give up financial independence and truly be a part in a community of faith.  This is something that must be restored for the church to function as it was supposed to fuction.

I believe that the contrast between then and now is something that must be part of our discussion.  Even in my own lifetime there seems to be a weakening of our commitment to each other.  There was a time it seemed we spent more time together visiting on a Sunday afternoon, when we worked closer together and had a more meaningful impact on each others life.

There needs to be radical steps taken in faith.  We need not recreate the past, but rather we do need to walk in obedience to the same Spirit that caused the early church to want to have a better communion (or common union) together.  We must ask what has changed between our priorities today and theirs then.

Many of us would scoff at the idea of a commune.  However, do we see the absurdity of our own time and way?  Do we see the cost of paying strangers to prepare our coffee in the morning or care for our elderly?  Do we see what the loss of community has done to our neighbors and nation?

There needs to be a vision for community of faith.  We need to take steps to get off the tragectory that the world is on and present something different and better.  My own conservative Mennonite church family can lead the way in this regard.  We have this better prioritization in our Anabaptist history and could use this as a basis for a fresh push in that direction.

We need to be intentional.  We need to challenge the thinking of the world that has crept into our lifestyle and has convinced us that we are better off in our own corners rather than in loving community together.  Jesus said “make disciples of all nations” (Matthew 28:29) not only our own biological progeny.  The church should be our family.  

So my encouragement is that we pursue the true ideal of church community with all sincerity.  We should tune out the radio and internet commentators and commit to love each other more.  I believe we will find God faithful when we do.  

The People Want a King…, Part 1

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I felt like the dog who finally caught the car.  I was perplexed with a question: Now what?

My goal in blogging is to make a difference with the ideas that I share.  I know ideas are powerful.  I want to share good ideas and debunk or discourage destructive ideas.  It has been my goal from the beginning to write things worthwhile in hope of creating dialogue.

It was exciting when Good Men Do Not Blame Women quickly surpassed my previously most viewed blog in a matter of hours.  It was also terrifying that my words were being read by hundreds of people rather than just the usual handful of friends and followers.

But, amid worries about if I had proofread enough and given fair treatment to a complex topic, I enjoyed my new found popularity.  I enjoyed it so much that I worried that I enjoyed it too much.

I worried that maybe I was ‘going negative’ instead of sharing something helpful and constructive.  Just a week or so prior I had remarked to a friend that people who criticize other people (not like them) seemed to build a fan club quicker than those who shared good ideas.

I had to think there’s a danger of becoming a different version of what we preach most passionately against.  I do not want to contribute in an overreaction in the opposite direction and abandon what is good in proper order or at the right priority level.

I had a taste of power that I both liked and that I did not like.  It provoked many questions in my mind about what would happen if I gained a following.  Would I be an example of the ideals in my mind of leadership?  Or would I insulate myself from criticism and become arrogant?

“Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.  Great men are almost always bad men.”  (Lord Action)

The good news is that my blogger stardom was very short lived and—besides a few new friends—I’m back to blogging to my usual small audience.  It means less pressure.  I feel I can share again without worrying as much about my imperfections being amplified over a large audience.

The people want a king to lead them…

In the beginning God was sufficient to lead his people.  The patriarchy of Abraham gave way to tribal elders and officers.  Later Moses acted as a prophet and arbitrator in disputes. However, eventually it was too much for Moses, the task was taking all of his time from “morning to evening,” which led to his visiting father-in-law to ask him why:

“Moses answered him, “Because the people come to me to seek God’s will. Whenever they have a dispute, it is brought to me, and I decide between the parties and inform them of God’s decrees and instructions.”  Moses’ father-in-law replied, “What you are doing is not good. You and these people who come to you will only wear yourselves out.  The work is too heavy for you; you cannot handle it alone.  Listen now to me and I will give you some advice, and may God be with you. You must be the people’s representative before God and bring their disputes to him.  Teach them his decrees and instructions, and show them the way they are to live and how they are to behave.  But select capable men from all the people—men who fear God, trustworthy men who hate dishonest gain—and appoint them as officials over thousands, hundreds, fifties and tens.  Have them serve as judges for the people at all times, but have them bring every difficult case to you; the simple cases they can decide themselves.  That will make your load lighter, because they will share it with you.  If you do this and God so commands, you will be able to stand the strain, and all these people will go home satisfied.”  (Exodus 18:15-23)

Moses took the advice, he delegated the task of settling disputes to other capable men and that became the system for hundreds of years. 

It was a sort of anarcho-theocracy.  The prophet was the liaison between God and the people, the messenger of God, but not a ruler per se.  The laws handed down by Moses were the standard for judgment.  Enforcement of the law was carried out by the people rather than delegated to a few people and judges a final arbitrator between parties as needed…

“At that time the Israelites left that place and went home to their tribes and clans, each to his own inheritance.  In those days Israel had no king; everyone did as they saw fit.”  (Judges 21:24-25)

There was a time after the Exodus of freedom from oppression and obligation.  Judges came and went as heroes who did God’s work to save the people from captivity.  Judges were representatives and deliverers of the people, but not rulers like a king.  However, eventually, when a worthy successor could not be found for Samuel amongst his sons, the elders of the people made a fateful demand:

“So all the elders of Israel gathered together and came to Samuel at Ramah. They said to him, “You are old, and your sons do not follow your ways; now appoint a king to lead us, such as all the other nations have.”  But when they said, “Give us a king to lead us,” this displeased Samuel; so he prayed to the Lord . And the Lord told him: “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king. As they have done from the day I brought them up out of Egypt until this day, forsaking me and serving other gods, so they are doing to you. Now listen to them; but warn them solemnly and let them know what the king who will reign over them will claim as his rights.”  (1 Samuel 8:4-9)

Samuel went on to warn how kings would take their sons for wars and daughters as workers.  He spoke of how the future kings would take the best of their possessions for themselves and for their own purposes.  Still, despite the warning, he did not persuade them, the chapter continues:

“But the people refused to listen to Samuel. “No!” they said.  “We want a king over us.  Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”  (1 Samuel 8-19-20)

The people were delusional just like their forefathers who begged Moses for a return to slavery and Egypt.  Despite Samuel’s warning of conscription, they apparently had an idea a king could miraculously do all the fighting for them and they ignored all rational concern.

A couple of the kings were good, David and Solomon notable examples, but a majority were more concerned with themselves, they all took special privileges for themselves and loaded the people down with increased burdens.  The prophecy of Samuel became reality—the people traded their greater freedom for a false security and eventual rule of tyrants.  Instead of protecting against oppression the kings became oppressors themselves.

Consequence #1: Increased Burden

“A government big enough to give you everything you want is a government big enough to take from you everything you have.”  (Gerald R. Ford)

Kings and government leaders promise big things to their people.  But what often is forgotten by the enthusiastic crowds is that nothing is free.  When a Pharaoh promised a pyramid for the glory of Egypt Pharaoh, he wasn’t planning to build it on his own time with godlike powers.  No, the people paid the price of a king’s grandeur with their own backs and we still bear the weight of the audacious promises of our leaders. 

The burdens never seems to be lightened either. Consider when Rehoboam took over after his father Solomon and was confronted by the people:

“Your father put a heavy yoke on us, but now lighten the harsh labor and the heavy yoke he put on us, and we will serve you.” … The king answered the people harshly. Rejecting the advice given him by the elders, he followed the advice of the young men and said, “My father made your yoke heavy; I will make it even heavier.  My father scourged you with whips; I will scourge you with scorpions.”  (1 King 12:4-14)

King Reheboam was more concerned with pleasing his young peers than he was in listening to the people or the elders.  As a result some did not accept his rule over them and the nation was divided.  It is interesting to see this same pattern play out today.  Leaders pursue their own vision, they increase the burden on the people without ever easing up, which leads to division and eventual rebellion.

Consequence # 2: Increased Corruption

“Our country is now taking so steady a course as to show by what road it will pass to destruction, to wit: by consolidation [of power] first, and then corruption, its necessary consequence.”  (Thomas Jefferson)

Kings and government leaders represent a consolidation of power and with consolidation of power comes increased opportunity for corruption.  Many leaders rise to power on their idealistic vision, but once they have power the vision fades and the desire to hold or increase power becomes the bigger priority.  We may call it “special interests” and political pandering today, but here’s how the Bible describes it:

“See how the faithful city has become a prostitute!  She once was full of justice; righteousness used to dwell in her—but now murderers!   Your silver has become dross, your choice wine is diluted with water.  Your rulers are rebels, partners with thieves; they all love bribes and chase after gifts.  They do not defend the cause of the fatherless; the widow’s case does not come before them.”  (Isaiah 1:21-23)

Described above is the chipping away of principles.  Many institutions of men are founded with good intentions but become corrupted over time.  Corruption is a natural product of consolidation of power.  When power is given to one person (or a small body of people) they seem to inevitably try to use that power to secure more power for themselves.  There is no system of external controls that seems to be able to keep it in check.  Those in power have the tools to manipulate the rules for their own gain.

Consequence #3 Loss Without Gain

“If the people cannot trust their government to do the job for which it exists – to protect them and to promote their common welfare – all else is lost.”  (Barack Obama)

Kings and government leaders are established to protect the people against harm.  But, not only do they fail to be able to protect a people from harm, they themselves often another source of harm.

The strength of a king is not in themselves as much as it is in the strength of their people.  As Samuel had warned, a king takes and can only give back what is taken and thus a corrupted people produce corrupt leaders:

“You are destroyed, Israel, because you are against me, against your helper.  Where is your king, that he may save you?  Where are your rulers in all your towns, of whom you said, ‘Give me a king and princes’?  So in my anger I gave you a king, and in my wrath I took him away.”  (Hosea 13:9-11)

Installing a king ultimately did not solve anything.  The people still ended up taken captive by other nations as they had before, they also endured the abuses of power hungry and corrupt leaders when not in captivity.  They gave away freedom for security and got captivity because they were corrupted themselves.

People want a king to blame…

The paradox of kings is that kings need strong people to maintain power—but strong people don’t need kings.  Weak people turn to leaders to do their work for them, but a man wearing a fancy crown and holding a scepter is only empowered by those who do his bidding.

It feeds a vicious cycle.  When things go wrong people blame the king.  As a result the king is driven to take more power upon themselves or risk losing power they already have.  Of course, since their power is derived from other people this means taking more from the people who are able to give.  It can only last so long as their are enough strong people to take from—when the weight of dependents comes closer to outweighing those able (or willing) to provide there is nothing a king can do but manage the decline.

Only, it is worse than that, because as already mentioned, consolidation of power is like a petri dish for corruption.  So, not only do these kings give a convenient scapegoat, they also are too often the goats among the sheep and motivated by their own gain rather the good of all in the herd.  In other words, if a couple sheep get thrown to the wolves and it saves a goat from an undesirable outcome and nobody notices, what sheep, right?

It is exactly what king David did to Uriah.  David goofed, he got Uriah’s wife (Bathsheba) pregnant.  He evidently didn’t want to suffer the political repercussions and attempted to hide the adultery.  So plan ‘A’ was urge Uriah to spend some quality time with Bathsheba and thus disguise the origin of the pregnancy.  Unfortunately Uriah, a true warrior, would not go home to his wife while his comrades were still fighting and David needed another plan.  Plan ‘B’ was to deliberately set Uriah up to be killed in battle.  It worked, except the prophet Nathan knew and he confronted the king with a story about a wealthy man who killed a neighbor’s pet sheep.

And David was one of the good kings and probably mostly because he could admit his sins…

This post is about faith, not kings…

My point here is not purely political or just historical.  I am using kings and government leaders as a metaphor for anything (be it an institution, a system of philosophy or theology, a man, etc) that replaces our own obedience to God. 

We cannot expect the world to be good if we continually delegate the tasks of our own conscience to others.  Faith is about being the solution ourselves and not sending others (who we can conveniently blame for the eventual failure) to do what is impossible for them to do alone.  We cannot expect the fullness of God’s blessing when we look to men to lead us.  If God is alive in us then we must be the agents of good in the world with our own abilities and be faithful to our calling.

This is not a call for a return to anarcho-theocracy and judges either.  Kings and governments rise in prominence because the people aren’t doing their jobs.  Therefore, the solution is not to reform government, the solution is to reform people and make government irrelevant.  If we were taking care of the widows and fatherless as we ought, for example, what need would there be for corrupt welfare programs?  If fathers weren’t leaving their sons to be raised by the brutal streets, what need would their be for police as brutal?

“Every country has the government it deserves.”  (Joseph de Maistre)

It is a collective problem when the people demand a king.  It becomes an individual problem when the people finally empower a man to do their dirty work.  There is always someone all too willing to seize power—those with an appetite for power—who will take the glory for themselves and then delegate responsibility for failure to others, exploits position, etc. 

It is a spiritual problem.  It is often only our own sloth, envy, pride, mistrust, fears, poor judgments and overreactions that are reflected back to us in the immoral whims of our leaders.  We delude ourselves when we abandon accountability to God for kings that are no better than us.

Now, enough said for now, back to chasing cars for me…

A time to weep…

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“Jesus wept.”  (John 11:35)

Life can leave us feeling dry.  As one of deep emotions I have felt distressed lately and yet seemingly too exhausted for tears.  It is the feeling of being crushed under a heavy weight unable to move it.

Sunday morning a brother shared his own struggle coping with all the broken lives around him.  He spoke of children who appear to be given no chance in life and are neglected.  I thought of the countless masses of humanity, the millions hurting, the millions helpless and those still looking for a day of salvation, where will they find God’s love?

I came home to my beautiful family.  I shared dinner with my parents and sister.  I was sad, struggling and thinking over the lyrics of a hymn sung at the end of the service.  The final stanza on my mind:

“Going forth with weeping, sowing for the Master, though the loss sustained our spirit often grieves; When our weeping’s over, He will bid us welcome, we shall come rejoicing, bringing in the sheaves.”

After the meal mom and I discussed her mother’s mental health since undergoing multiple chemotherapy treatments.  Her mom was always a strong and sharp woman, but now is having difficulty with simple routine tasks. 

Alzheimer’s took my great-grandma.  It is an undignifying end for a loved one who was once independent and strong.  I pondered the loss of my grandma that way, then I thought about my own mother who I love so deeply, who is always there for me, and wondered if I would see her thinking and abilities fade too.

Was this the fate that would befall me as well?

I only wanted one thing in that moment and that was to hold onto mom never letting go.  I gave mom a hug then the floodgates opened.  I wept for my weakness, I wept for mom’s mortality, I wept for grandpa’s fears and grandma’s confusion, I wept for all those in this sick and dying world.

Faith is not impervious to emotion.  Our sorrow is as much of an expression of faith as our joy.  Men of faith weep because they love deeply and share the pain of those hurting.  Tears soften the hard ground of cruelty and judgment of this world. 

“Carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”  (Galatians 6:2)

Tears are the waters of spiritual healing.  Tears lift and carry away burdens too heavy for our own strength to bear.  May we fulfill the law of Christ and share our tears of joy, sorrow and love.  May our love be poured out to all people. 

God bless.