Western Christianity faces a dire situation today. The modern, secular World, created largely by the Christian West, has “come of age,” i.e., grown-up enough to take responsibility for itself. Many people confidently believe they can meet their own emotional, physical, and spiritual needs very well without divine assistance. For such a World, the Church is unnecessary at best, useless at worst, and generally disposable as a matter of consumer choice. From where, then, does authentic Christian community come, what holds it together, and what keeps it going?
In truth, God creates the Christian community. So, the answer to these questions must lie with God. This essay makes three points: 1. Authentic Christian community starts with Jesus Christ; 2. The usual quick-fixes will not reverse an increasing separation of American culture from Christianity; 3. Christ in fact brings otherwise self-isolated, unique individuals together.
1. Authentic Christian Community Starts with Jesus Christ
Faced with a “world come of age” in the extreme turbulence of Nazi Germany, 1933–1945, Dietrich Bonhoeffer came to a simple insight: Jesus Christ is the reality of God with us (Matthew 1:23). Living together within this reality, Bonhoeffer says, all Christians take their cues from Christ, through Christ, and in Christ.
a. From Christ
Life with God comes from Jesus Christ, the Word of God incarnate. The Word of God pronounces us guilty and righteous before God even when we do not feel guilty or righteous. God puts this Word of life––truth and salvation—into the mouths of others. “Therefore,” says Bonhoeffer,
Christians need other Christians who speak God’s Word to them. … They need them solely for the sake of Jesus Christ. The Christ in their own hearts is weaker than the Christ in the word of other Christians. Their own hearts are uncertain; those of their brothers and sisters are sure.
“The Christ in [our] own hearts” cannot and does not stand alone. The Christ in us is rooted in the reality of Jesus Christ as his own person. “The Christ in the word of other Christians” is part of the priesthood of all believ-ers that conveys Christ to us tangibly. Bonhoeffer is here blending Christ in us with the larger term, us in Christ.
b. Through Christ
Christians come to one another only through Jesus Christ. Reconciling us with God, Christ also reconciles us to one another. That binds us to forgiving those whom he has forgiven, loving those whom he loves, serving those whom he serves, and living with those who live with him. Christ thus mediates our relationships with others.
Bonhoeffer calls the ideal of unmediated relationships a dream wish. Unmediated relationships present an ideal or goal for us to pursue person-to-person and with all the love, intimacy, and trust we can muster. Such direct relationships, however, are demanding without relief; finding and keeping them at all costs often becomes all-consuming, a hothouse that takes on a life of its own. If we can attain these relationships on our own, God is unnecessary. For this reason, says Bonhoeffer, “God’s grace quickly frustrates all such dreams.” Authentic Christian community is grounded in God’s forgiving love, defined and mediated by Jesus Christ, and energized by the Spirit (1 John 4).
c. In Christ
Our life together takes place in Christ. Jesus Christ defines the Church by his life, death, and resurrection. The Church and Christians do not thus embody Christ, as if we could incarnate either Christ’s divinity or his perfect humanity. Christ lives in us as part of what it means for us to live more fully in Christ. Fellowship in Christ is the aim of salvation. In Christ we fellowship with GOD up to and including eternal life. In Christ we fellowship with all others who are in Christ, past, present, and future. In Christ we participate in a mystical community that is greater than the sum of its parts.
In worship, the life blood of Christian community, Christ stands at the center of the Church. Christ forms, transforms, and re-forms Christians together, wherever the Word is preached and the Sacraments are celebrated ––based on Scripture and empowered by the Spirit. Jesus Christ himself stands there before us and speaks his life-giving Word.
Christ also stands at the center of the World. No matter how undeveloped, disfigured, or depraved humans may be, each person brings us face-to-face with the image of God made by God and re-created in Jesus Christ. God thus makes a claim upon our lives with every person we meet, and the way we deal with them one-by-one is the way we deal with Jesus Christ. We cannot know that everyone we meet is saved, but we do know that God stands before us and around us at every moment of every day.
2. Unworkable Quick Fixes for Culture vs. Christianity
American culture is de facto separating itself from Christianity today. What are we to do as Christians? We seemingly have no ground on which to stand. The easy way out is to take matters into our own hands. Three quick-fixes lie close at hand. None of them is workable in the end.
Quick Fix One
Seeking authenticity without culture supports, one quick-fix might be to dispense with the trappings of organized religion altogether. Why not start with a blank sheet of paper and cultivate a pure, individual, inner spirituality? Then we could dispense with formal worship, organization, rules, doctrine, maybe even one-sided sources of revelation like the Bible. Without the formalities of religion, we could also get rid of the church politics, doctrinal disputes, denominations, and sectarian traditions that divide us from one another. Would it not be great to mingle only with pure, unvarnished truth and authentically spiritual individuals?
The trouble is, we cannot start from scratch. We are dealing with real people, including ourselves, as 21st century American Christians. Starting elsewhere invites false hopes, mistakes, and abuses in the name of what is new and free. “New” and “free,” however, do not guarantee authenticity.
Further, do we really want to separate ourselves from our forebears in the faith? Surely they were not totally ignorant, misled, corrupt, or unfaithful. Even in their ambiguities and mistakes, they bear witness to Jesus Christ, and for that we can be thankful (Phil. 1:15–18). In the name of authentic Christian community it makes no sense to isolate ourselves from the “great cloud of witnesses” (Hebrews 12:1), try to be Christian alone, or otherwise separate ourselves from God.
Quick Fix Two
Another quick-fix might be to re-establish ourselves as useful instruments to the world around us, restoring our relevance and mission. Western culture already adapts the Gospel for its own purposes of meeting human needs as in modern psychology, medicine, technology, and the marketplace. So, why not redouble our efforts to be useful, like a wrench whose instrumental purpose lies in turning nuts and bolts? Then we can go on making “useful” contributions to people’s lives and infusing culture with our religious vision.
The trouble is, as the World also knows, making the Gospel or the Church “useful” merely turns the Gospel into a commodity and secularizes the Church. Is that not already a problem for the Church?
Furthermore, instruments used to fix things make no real claims upon us and may be self-justifying. On their face they appear clean, pure, and self-contained. A wrench is simple and clear in its purpose, to turn nuts and bolts. We may argue over how the wrench is designed and used, but not over its inherent usefulness. To be a wrench in the hands of God seems to give us a free pass, a justification of ourselves as we are, a declaration of some kind of innate goodness.
The wrench, of course, is not immune to either defects or misuse. More importantly, the Christian Church cannot justify itself in terms of its inherent usefulness to God any more than through good works. Authenticity for the Christian Church comes from connecting to its source, to God alone. In Christ God sets the Church in motion, makes it unique and precious, and sustains it beyond all usefulness.
Quick Fix Three
A third quick-fix could come from casting our nets more widely to include an endless diversity of different people in the Christian community. With maximum inclusiveness, maybe we can grow the Church to the far reaches of creation itself. Isn’t everything and everyone good just as God made them? Would not such openness re-establish our place in the World?
The trouble is, radical diversity––different individuals utterly unique in their person, story, and present circumstances––in fact presses the very questions of authentic Christian community with which we are wrestling. What makes our differences an asset instead of a liability? How can we communicate and collaborate across our differences? What draws us together? What holds us together?
The Church cannot be concerned only for itself, its own kind, the “saved.” Nor can we limit the “saved” to our view of who is in and who is out, nor confine the people of God to those whom we think God loves or serves. Diversity for its own sake, however, does not guarantee authenticity. The novelty of major differences wears off quickly unless our relationships are mediated through Christ and we are centered in something other than ourselves.
Furthermore, a community cannot long survive merely on a loving disposition, unspecified openness, or tolerance secured by the lowest common denominator. Real diversity entails an equal concern for what unites us. The only solid basis for an authentic Christian community lies with the God Who––in Christ––brings and holds together very different, unique individuals.
3. Christ Brings Self-isolated, Unique Individuals Together
The alternative to these quick-fixes for Bonhoeffer is Jesus Christ “existing as community.” The words of the Gospel remind us constantly that we are from Christ, through Christ, and in Christ. We belong to God by God’s own action, from Christ. Our relationships to God, the World, and all others are mediated through Christ. Being in Christ together encompasses all our relationships with others and the World around us. From Christ, through Christ, and in Christ we become something we could never be, left to our own devices. The Church, on the other hand, participates fully in Christ, and through his uniqueness overcomes the inherent isolation of diverse individuals.
Above all, focusing on Christ gives us an openness to fellow Christians that doesn’t rely on either self-limiting sameness or unlimited diversity. Only in Christ can we recognize the authenticity of one another’s Christian experience of God. Only in and through Christ can we bridge unique, individual differences rendered infinitely diverse.
The following list is only a beginning for what goes into our individual, unique life experiences with God:
- Life Situation
- Time in History
- Socio-Economic Standing
- And More.
On our own, we struggle to communicate across such differences. With authenticity on the line, how, indeed, can we be a Christian community?
Tolerance and mutual acceptance have their breaking points, so merely striving for these ideas in our common life is not enough. Christian community operates at another whole level when we value, celebrate, carefully listen to, and learn from another person’s life experiences in Christ. Notice the ascending engagement in that sentence. We venture there only when each person we meet presents us with God’s claim upon us, as the image of God restored—from Christ, through Christ, and in Christ. Authentic Christian community comes from sharing the depth and range of one another’s unique life experiences with God, in Christ.
The face of Christ is not limited to members of the Christian community. We will look for Christ beyond the Church as well. By grace alone God leads us, sinners that we are, to take seriously the image of God on the face of every human we meet. We do not thus baptize people outside the Church as anonymous Christians. We do, however, seek their well-being, peace, and justice as fellow humans for whom Christ died and rose again. Christ mediates these relationships as well, and the Gos-pel itself leads us to them. In Christ, then, we also share authentic community with those outside the Church.
Is authentic Christian community even possible today? I believe it is. The Christian community––including my own church and others—has indeed found authenticity in the past. I also believe such authenticity will be found going forward, because in Christ God’s grace to us is new every morning (Lam. 3:23).
This essay is from Bedrock for a Church on the Move (2019). Used with permission from In Christ Supporting Ministries.