Lesson 2: Church Community in History

Let’s take a quick look at various kinds of Christian community that have been practiced in our history. Most forms that served well in one period no longer worked in later ones, at least not in their original shapes. Even though I am only capable of offering a rough account, I hope to supply some insights for building possible new models. At the least, the account should counter arguments claiming a certain type of organization is part of the mysteries that God has given us, whether that be male and clergy control or ideological and ceremonial requirements.

In the first centuries the communities were very small groups that tried to follow Jesus’ lifestyle. For all intents and purposes, they were an alternative and often competitive culture wherever they appeared. This provoked persecution at times. However, their nonviolent, caring, and sharing practices also attracted admiration and led to growth.

These qualities eventually led the collapsing Roman Empire to turn to the Church for help in maintaining civilization around the fourth century. This brought significant changes in the community. Political demands meant more uniformity in organization and rigid standards for doctrine. Apostolic teaching came to be centered on clergy and canon, the fellowship took a more hierarchical structure, the ritual meal assumed the form of an authorized liturgy, and the increase of prayer was formalized.

Another kind of Christian community appeared in the monastic movement. Building on individual hermits who tried more perfectly to practice Jesus’ lifestyle, it developed a communal form especially associated with St. Benedict in the 6th century. His Rule is still regarded along with the 4 marks of the Church in Acts 2 as fundamental principles for Christian community. A number of 21st century Christians think the Rule, written in reaction to the immorality of Roman society, offers guidelines for contemporary believers attempting to follow Jesus in our valueless society.

During this period the Church maintained, to some degree, her role as a counter-cultural community. Infant baptism was still infrequent and membership requirements were demanding. A historian friend reports many recognizing the requirements delayed their baptisms until they were on their deathbeds.

This changed during the medieval years when Church and government worked together to provide social order. By the end of the period, often designated as Christendom, it was pretty much taken for granted that a citizen was a Christian. Infant baptism was the norm. As a consequence, Christian community was associated with monasteries and clerical society. The common lay Christian participated by attendance at worship and receiving the sacraments to nourish, enrich, and inspire their everyday lives. The emphasis was placed increasingly on preparation for life after death rather than transforming society. Many scholars argue Christian community was reduced to an institution at this point.

In response, reformation took place in the old and new forms of the Church in the 16th century. In varying degrees, separation of Church and State took place. Even though some state churches remained, there was increasing recognition that the Church is a separate community. This was especially evident in the following waves of reformation when various piety movements sought the purity of Christian life. Even in the more established church people spoke of real church communities in the midst of the organized Church.

The reformation communities are breaking down in our modern society. This is evident in the lack of denominational loyalty all around us. All sorts of new Christian communities that consciously speak of themselves as restorative rather than reformation churches have sprung up and enjoyed speedy growth. Attempts to find a pure community that follows Jesus have appeared in fundamentalism and Pentecostal groups. Maintaining membership in a Church is no longer necessary for success in our secular society.

These changes have led many to claim we have returned to the kind of community practiced in the Church’s first centuries. Of course, there is a great difference nowadays as we have to deal with fragments of church life left from Christendom as we attempt to build new kinds of community. We’ll take at look at this situation in the next lesson.

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3 Enlightened Replies

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  1. Derek Halverson says:

    To an extent I think the institutional church model we have now worked better in the past because the community part tended to handle itself.

    For example in a country church I went to in the rural Midwest there were paintings and black and white pictures of people hanging out on the lawn in front of the old building, mostly on blankets. It sounds like back then it took a lot longer to get to church than it does now with modern cars and paved roads, and after putting in that time it only made sense to stay around after for lunch and a long period of socializing. For those farm families, church was the largest if not the only social event of the week. It was threatened as a punishment to children to be left behind on Sunday, because then they’d miss out on all that.

    In one form or another I think Christian community just happened, you didn’t need your pastor to be an event organizer or to make arrangements for small groups or Shepherding groups.

    Those groups were just called “friends.”

    However now, if I see a new family or someone who hasn’t been around for a while that I want to talk to, I’ve found I have to make a conscious effort to get out of my seat at the end of service and zip past the pastor trying to shake hands in order to intercept them. Community doesn’t just happen naturally. I’m quite interested in ways it might flourish.

    • Fritz Foltz says:

      And sadly, your congregation has much, much more fellowship after services than most
      Others. I am always amazed at how many people stand around talking in your vestibule.

  2. Paul Wildman says:

    . In addition to your Lesson below I posit that the type of community one seeks depends on the type of Jesus one follows. For instance Townsend (2012) argues there are three Jesus’s: Jesus | Jesus Christ | Christ – the Historical Person | the Theological construct built up by the church with a cash register in it | the Mystic Christos which links with other esoteric methods eg Sophia, Sufi wisdom, indigenous religions etc.

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