The story of community
I wonder how you would summarise the gospel message. There is a version which runs something like this: ‘God made you to know Him, but you have rejected God. Your sin cuts you off from God and brings you under His judgement. But God sent His Son to die in your place and reconcile you to God. Now you can know God and look forward to being with Him after death.’
It is the story of an individual out of relationship with God brought back into relationship with God. This version of the story is true. But it is not the whole truth, nor is it how the Bible itself tells the story. At the heart of the Bible story is the story of a community.
The story begins with God making humanity in His image to reflect His glory. God said, ‘Let us make man in our image’ (Gen. 1:26). The plural pronoun ‘Let us make man’ suggests a God who is plural and communal. And we are made in the image of the communal God. We are people in community. When we reject God, this community begins to fragment. We hide from God. There is enmity between God and humanity. But there is enmity between the man and the woman. In Genesis 4 we again see this conflict between people writ large as Cain kills his brother Abel.
God’s plan to restore His broken world begins with the promise to Abraham (Gen. 12:1-3). Paul calls that promise ‘the gospel announced in advance’ (Gal. 3:8). This promise is our promise, our hope, our gospel. And at the heart of that promise is the promise of a people, a nation, a community. God’s plan is not to save isolated individuals, but to redeem a people who will be His people. God’s mission is to glorify His name by graciously recreating a reconciled people in a renewed world under His restored rule.
When we get to the book of Exodus we find the promise of a people has been fulfilled. ‘The Israelites were fruitful and multiplied greatly and became exceedingly numerous, so that the land was filled with them’ (Ex. 1:7). The family has become a nation. But they are a slave community. They are not free and, in particular, they are not free to worship to God. God liberates them so that they might be His people. He does this in fulfilment of the promise to Abraham and He does so in order that ‘I will take you as my own people, and I will be your God’ (Ex. 6:2-7).
In 1 Kings 4:20 the writer says: ‘The people of Judah and Israel were as numerous as the sand on the seashore; they ate, they drank and they were happy’. It’s the language of the promise to Abraham (Gen. 22:17; 32:12). But this highpoint in the fulfilment of the promise is short lived. The nation divides. The community fragments. The people turn from God. These are a people who will not know God. They will not be His people, and so they go into exile.
But through the prophets God again promises a people. God declares through Jeremiah: ‘“This is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after that time,” declares the Lord. “I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people.”’ (Jer. 31:31-33). Zechariah describes a faithful remnant within God’s people who will be God’s people (Zech.13:7-9).
Jesus changes everything
With the coming of Jesus God’s promise is truly fulfilled. He, first of all, is God with us (John 1:18; Col. 2:9-10) – walking among us as God did in Eden. But Jesus is also the people of God being truly faithful. Israel was like a fruitless vine (Is. 5:1-7): Jesus is the true vine. Jesus is God’s faithful remnant. The prophecy of a remnant in Zechariah 13:7-9 is quoted by Jesus on the night of His betrayal (Matt. 26:31). The faithful remnant comes down to one person. But the faithfulness of Jesus to the very end – even to death – means those He represents are counted faithful. We can call on God’s name and become His people. The true children of Abraham are all those who share the faith of Abraham (Gal. 3:27,29).
God has reconciled us to Himself, but at the same time He has reconciled us to one another. That’s the message of Ephesians. Christ has broken down the dividing wall of hostility. ‘In him [Christ] you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit’ (Eph. 2:22). This reconciliation of divided people into one, new humanity is a declaration of ‘the manifold wisdom of God … to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms’ (Eph. 3:10).
The Bible is the story of God saving not individuals, but a people who will be His people. The Christian community is not an add-on. It is integral to the gospel.
Let’s come back to our individualistic version of the gospel – the version in which it is the story of an individual out of relationship with God brought back into relationship with God. This version of the gospel story makes the church a useful, maybe even an essential, help to individual Christians. It is a help, but not an identity. That view can create all sorts of problems as we stress the gracious nature of the gospel by saying we are not saved by attending church and then tell new believers they must attend church!
In contrast, the Bible tells a version of the gospel story with community at the centre. It is the story of God’s plan to create a people who will be His people. The invitation implicit in this story is not simply to an individual relationship with God (though that is one implication). The invitation is to become part of the new people of God, the bride of Christ. You become a Christian when by faith you become part of the people for whom Christ died. Church is not part of the small print. It’s part of the pitch.
Paul says: ‘In Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others’ (Rom. 12:5). By becoming a Christian, I belong to God and I belong to my brothers and sisters. It is not that I belong to God and then make a decision to join a local church. My being in Christ means being in Christ with those others who are in Christ. This is my identity. This is our identity. We belong to one another. We become family together. And the loyalties of the new community supersede even the loyalties of biology (Mark 3:31-35).
In our culture we’re used to making decisions on our own according to what suits us. But if we belong to one another, if we are family, we can’t make decisions without regard for the Christian community. When people are single they typically decide how they spend their time and money without regard to anyone else. When they get married everything changes. When asked to go for a drink after work, they think about the implications for their family. Big decisions get made in consultation with the family. The same is true for members of the Christian family. We’re now members of one body. The family doesn’t make decisions for us. But we make decisions with our family and in the light of our membership of that family.
And this new community is a vital part of Christian mission. Jesus says that mission takes place as people see our love for one another (John 13:35). The church as a network of transformed relationships authenticates the gospel message we proclaim.
Tim Chester is Director of The Porterbrook Institute which provides affordable, non-residential training for church leadership (www.porterbrookinstitute.org).