Authorial Note: Most of the following proposal comes from my own personal experience of having arrived in Edinburgh and deciding that I would stick to the first church that I attended, Carrubbers Christian Centre. During this experience I learned much about the formation of human community, and the perversion of the notion of Church community within our capitalist and market based society. For more about my own personal experience see: Journey Through Scotland, ep. 4.

            To live and commune with a people whom you like, on a voluntary or involuntary basis, is easy. To live and commune with a people whom you don’t like, on an involuntary basis, is difficult but one could learn the art of toleration and peaceful co-existence. To live and commune with a people whom you don’t like, on a voluntary basis, seems irrational and an experience filled with such agitation it could only make one wonder, ‘Why don’t they just stop living and communing with them? If they dislike it so much, why continue to be a part of that community?’ It is the motive of the last of these situations that needs to be outlined to explain why being part of a Church community is important, for any other basis is not extraordinary enough to merit the attention of the disciple of Christ. The idiom quite common amongst people who settle into a new area, looking for a Church community to be a part of, is ‘Church shopping’. The disgusting assumption built into this idiom is that communities are commodities, from whom we get certain things like ‘spiritual experiences’ or ‘good music’ or ‘inspiring sermons’ in exchange for our tithes, and more often than not, just our very attention span. The community as a place of market exchange is the implicit assumption found throughout various voluntary associations, clubs, sport teams etc… of a capitalist and market-based society. One joins a bowling league because one wants to bowl with people and in exchange you pay some money for a shirt. One goes clubbing because one wishes to ‘hook-up’ and this will probably be in exchange for your money, your phone number, and more often than not your dignity. If one treats various Church communities in and around one’s area in this manner, one has mistaken a family for a union.

         One can see this mistaken form of Church community even in the example of Atheists churches, or ‘godless congregations’. Lee Moore, founder of the Godless Revival, decided to break off from the original Sunday Assembly,mlyn1447l because he feared that the Sunday Assembly was essentially watering down its atheistic overtones in favour of a more “humanistic cult”.* What’s even more interesting is what Sanderson Jones said in response to this split, which was “We are only one flavor of ice cream, and one day we hope there’ll be congregations for every godless palate.” Anyone familiar with protestant church settings especially, knows that the language both Moore and Jones are speaking in is essentially church marketing, something which evangelical have long been masters at. What is disturbing though is that it is clear that the notion of ‘community’ found within these types of settings, is essentially community as a product for individuals, and when the product no longer serves the consumer needs, the consumer can leave. Communities are ice cream to be devoured. The entire centre of community formation is based around the self-interest of individuals, in other words, a union.

            We can see well the contrast between understanding one’s community as a union verses one’s community as a family for instance, in the example of the debate held on Premier Christian Radio’s Program Unbelievable, (May 31st, 2014) between the famous Catholic theologian Hans Küng and a lesser known more conservative Catholic, Peter D. Williams of Catholic Voices.** It is here where, in response to a question concerning why Prof. Küng is not a protestant, that he effectively exhibits what a familial notion of community looks like by effectively arguing that he has been a priest in good standing with the Roman Catholic Church for decades and has no intention of leaving it. Implicitly he argued that one’s membership in the Roman Catholic Church does not depend on one’s particular beliefs, of which millions of Catholics share his, but upon one’s commitment to the community. Prof. Küng, while being a ‘liberal’ Catholic is actually much more orthodox than Williams, who argued that he was part of the Roman Catholic Church because he thought it was the truth. From Williams’ stand-point, one’s commitment to a community depends on whether that community caters to your sense of truth and beliefs, which (while he himself does not acknowledge this) can change and when they do change you separate yourself from such community because it no longer serves your interests. Whereas, from Prof. Küng’s standpoint, while one may disagree with many of the teachings and beliefs of one’s community, to even the point of being asked why one still is committed to the community, one is nevertheless based in the community by love and commitment to the community itself. The entire centre of community formation is based around the self-sacrifice of individuals, in other words, a family.

            In addition to the different centres of community formation, i.e. self-interest vs. self-sacrifice, there are many other differences between communities that are unions and communities that are families. Another of these is membership. In unions, one gets to choose one’s members but in families, one does not get to choose one’s family members. Speaking from a Christian theologically standpoint, what this insight means then is that if the church is to be a community based upon self-sacrifice and not the useless-narcissistic basis of self-interest, if the church is to be a family and not a union, is that while ‘liberal’ Christians can proudly proclaim Martin Luther King Jr. as a brother, they must also accept Pat Robertson as one as well.  Likewise, for ‘conservative’ Christians this would mean proclaiming Martin Luther as a brother, but also excepting Brian D. McLaren as one. Let us be clear: this does not mean that we have to agree with all such figures, for our community is not based on shared beliefs and interests, rather it means that we do not get to decide who’s ‘in’ and who’s ‘out’ for ourselves. We do not get to decide who is worthy of our time, attention, and love. Drawing back to the beginning of this essay then, this means that if the familial notion of community means that we do not get to pick our family members, it may often be the case that our particular family members will be people we don’t like or agree with. Most troubling, it means that we might voluntarily be parts of communities whose people we don’t like, or whose beliefs we may not always agree with, because, paradoxically, while from our perspective joining a Church community may appear to be voluntary, we must act and commitment as if we did not actually choose the Church, if the Church is a family whose centre is self-sacrifice and whose membership is not up to our preferences.

            The last aspect of a familial understanding of Church community then, in addition to its centre being self-sacrifice and its membership not open to our choosing, is that the way one then chooses which family members to spend time with, cannot be out of belief agreement or general ‘warm-fuzzies’ with the people you spend time with, rather the way ones chooses which Church community to join oneself too, is by asking, ‘Who needs me most?’ It is for this exact reason that if one believes that a particular Church community has a distorted theology, one has all the more reason to stay with them, for clearly (at least in one’s own thinking) they need some better teachers. It is for this exact reason that someone like Prof. Küng is much more likely to reform the Roman Catholic Church than any of its critics who refuse to be associated with it.  Is it not true that often the effective critics of a tradition are those who are identified with it? Or, to take the situation from a different angle, if the particular Church community is somewhat of a loveless environment, then one should take up the line in the Franciscan prayer that reads, “Where there is hatred, let me sow love”, and even furthermore, “Grant that I may not seek so much as to…be loved as to love.”

            The Christian Church then is not a community of spiritual commodity to be shopped for, rather it is the family whom we are called to love, to whom we have been given, not one that we have chosen, whose centre is self-sacrifical love. At this concluding point we would be remise to not reflect on a passage from the New Testament which shows most exemplary all of that which has been discussed. In the first Epistle of Peter, the author argues, that the Christian Church is “…a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people…” (1 Peter 2:9, NRSV), now while much can be said let us reflect on one of some the most interesting implications of this familial understanding of the Church community. Some of the ‘practical’ implications for what has been discussed then, taken in reverse order, are: (1) when an individual or biological family is looking for a Church community to join in the midst of their area, they should imitate Christ in self-sacrifical love by joining the community, not that best suits their ‘needs’ but rather who needs them most. (2) When one is considering the beliefs of the community, one should not fear the accusation and guilt to be accumulated by association with, for the community is not based on mutual agreement of belief, but love and commitment. Truly if one is to join the family of love, one is called to love even the crazy uncle whom those outside the family hate. (3) If a Church community is seeking to build up its own community, it should not bother with marketing or trying to be better entertainment than sunday night football, for by doing so it has already appealed to people’s self-interests, and not to the people of the self-sacrifical love of Christ. Rather, a Church community should seek not even to build its own interests and numbers, but rather be the one community in the world who intentionally breaks open its body and pours out its blood in love and sacrifice in imitation of its central ritual the Eucharist.

            ‘But what of the implication of the Epistle?’- it is later argued in the Epistle that one should “Honor everyone. Love the family of believers. Fear God. Honor the emperor.” (1 Peter 2:17, NRSV). Most readers only notice the last clause, ‘honor the emperor’, as if to see that in here were the seedbeds of the later corruption of the Church embodied in Roman Catholicism, without reading the first clause, ‘honour everyone’. What has been done here is nothing less than the categorizing of the emperor with everyone else. It is here where we leave to leave with a central question of community formation that could not be written about here in its entirety: Is the Christian Church suppose to love its members before it must love those outside of the community? Or would the privileging of the Church communities over other communities, quench its very spirit? The dualism of ‘Us-vs.-Them’ may be entirely unescapable,*** but now that we have argued that the posture within Us should be self-sacrifical, what the community as a whole’s posture should be toward Them, is another question entirely.

“Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.” Remember this saying. And as for you…go out beyond these walls, but in the world you will abide as a monk.”

– Elder Zosima, The Brother Karamazov

 

Engelhart, Katie. “After a schism, a question: Can atheist churches last?” CNN Belief Blog. CNN Belief Blog, January 4, 2014. http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2014/01/04/after-a-schism-a-question-can-atheist-churches-last/

** To be accessed here: http://www.premier.org.uk/unbelievable

*** Often one hears that a society of tolerance should not tolerate the intolerant, and one has the sneaky suspicion that nothing profound is being utter but only the same rule almost all communities hold- ‘We like us, but we cannot like those who are not us’. 

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