Saturday, April 06, 2013

Don't Abandon the Biblical Metaphors for the Church: It Is Not a Community, It is Much More

This is an updated and rewritten compilation of several posts from 2007, which was caused by my reading a new book on church life.

One of the new buzz words in the church in the new millenium is community, and the use of this metaphor to describe the church has bothered and concerned me for quite some time.  This has been brought to a head by my reading a book on the church by a prominent and popular pastor.  His emphasis on the life of the church and how the church functions and disciples, is couched in the term community.  In the church's attempt to contextualize all that we do, we have started abandoning Biblical terms and metaphors, and we see this in the church now being called a community of believers.

Webster's Dictionary defines community as a body of people living near one another and in social relationship. It can also be defined as body of people with a faith, profession, or way of life in common. Even though I think that many times, not every time, when community is used in church speak the latter definition is meant, it still winds up way short of how the Bible refers to the church. And since it has become such a buzz word in our church speak, have we really stopped to think about what we are saying, and how what we are saying affects people's perception of what church is to be? We talk of the church as being a community of believers, having community groups, creating a sense of community, or being community oriented. Why doesn't the Bible use that word?  How come the Lord did not use the community metaphor to describe the church, and its members?  Maybe because the Lord had better metaphors that more accurately and more succinctly picture what the church is, how it should function, and how its members should relate to each other.  For example,  the Bible uses the word brethren 188 times in the New Testament, the words brother or brothers are used to describe believers, believers are called the household of God or the household of faith. God is our Father, Abba. We are His children, we are joint-heirs, and have an inheritance. All of these are familial terms. Family indicates a closer bond, a shared lineage, a shared future/inheritance, a relationship, and a responsibility; community does not.

Communities are places where people live and hang out while they are pursuing their own interests. All of us live in communities of one sort or another and most of us don't know our neighbors, and they don't know us and could care less. Community is a nice, safe, generic term that does not require intimacy or commitment. You can come and go at will and take what you need. Community describes how the world lives and relates, and, unfortunately, how so many in the church now live as it is all about them and their pursuits.

So church has become another place to hang out, chat with your friends, and leave with no more sense of belonging, acceptance, and commitment than being gathered together at Starbucks or sitting on the stool at the local watering hole. Is it any wonder why people are church hopping/shopping because underneath it all they are looking for somewhere to belong, like a family, not just some place to be.

The Church is more than a community. As I said, it is family. We all are God's children. We are brethren, joint heirs with Jesus who is the first born of many brethren. We are all born from above, born of God, and therefore we all have the same inheritance. The phrase one another is used 61 times in the NT as it refers to those who are part of the church, the household of the living God. As you read through the verses you see the rights, privileges, accountability, responsibility, and affection that family members are to have. This is no accident that it is portrayed in this manner. Let's take a look a few examples:

John 13:34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.
John 13:35 By this all men know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.
I Thessalonians 4:9 Now as to the love of the brethren, you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves are taught by God to love one another;
I Peter 4:8 Above all keep fervent in your love for one another, because love covers a multitude of sins.
I John 4:21 And this commandment we have from Him, that the one who loves God should love his brother also.

I Peter 4:9 Be hospitable to one another without complaint.
I Peter 4:10 As each one have received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God.
Hebrews 3:13 But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called "Today," so that none of you will be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.
James 4:11 Do not speak against one another, brethren.
Galatians 6:2 Bear one another's burdens, and thereby fulfill the law of Christ.
Ephesians 4:25 Therefore, laying aside falsehood, SPEAK THE TRUTH EACH ONE OF YOU WITH HIS NEIGHBOR, for we are members of one another.

We, the church, are the family of God. Why then don't we talk about or portray it in this way? Would not most of us want to be part of a family instead of a community? Is not being part of a family richer, deeper, and better than just being part of a community? Are not our best and most fulfilling relationships our family relationships, not the social or civic relationships that we have through our community involvement? Words are important because words communicate, words portray, words create images in our mind, and words define. The words of Scripture were picked by God Himself to convey exactly what He wants, and, therefore, to achieve specific intended results. God uses the family metaphor for a reason and in the church's rush to be relevant and use new and hip terminology, and rename and reinvent the church, it has missed what God was intending to communicate. Therefore the result is a church where involvement and commitment and the resulting benefits are seen no differently than being involved civically, which for most people is just not meaningful. Yet, you hear the concerns/complaints at how uninvolved and uncommited church members are today. Maybe the reason is that the pastors and leaders in the churches, through renaming what the church is, have communicated to the people that the church is no different than the Lions Club, or the United Way, or the Little League Association.

To me, using the word community to describe the church is hard and shallow and does not really convey the full sense of what a church is. It misses the mark in describing what the church is all about.  Could it be that the reason the Lord does not use the community metaphor (and He certainly could have) is because a community does not have the closeness, the caring, the accountability, the support, the sharing, the concern, the forgiveness, the camaraderie, the committment to each other's welfare, the watching each other's back, the standing up for each other, and the relational ties that bind that a family has? All of these things promote the good of the whole at the expense of the individual.

Also, in addition to family, the Lord uses another metaphor to describe the church, and that is the metaphor of a body. The word body is used 31 times in the NT to describe the church and its companion adjective, member(s), is used 21 times. If you will give some thought to what is being conveyed by these terms you will see that community does not even come close. Let's look at a few more examples:

I Corinthians 12:27 Now you are Christ's body, and individually members of it.
Romans 12:5 so we, who are many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.
Ephesians 1:22 And He put all things in subjection under His feet, and gave Him as head over all things to the church, 23 which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.
Colossians 1:18 He is also the head of the body, the church;.....
Colossians 2:19 and not holding fast to the head, from whom the entire body, being supplied and held together by the joints and ligaments, grows with a growth which is from God.
I Corthians 12:8 But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired.
Ephesians 4:12 for the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ;
Ephesians 4:15 but speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in all aspects into Him who is the head, even Christ 16 from whom the whole body, being fitted and held together by what every joint supplies, according to the proper working of each individual part, causes the growth of the body for the building up of itself in love.

I Corinthians 12:22 On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; 23 and those members of the body which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor, and our less presentable members become much more presentable, 24 whereas our more presentable members have no need of it. But God has so composed the body, giving more abundant honor to that member which lacked, 25 so that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.

I Peter 2:5 you also, as living stones, are being built up as a spiritual house for a holy priesthood, to offer up spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.

When thinking about a body and its members you see the interconnectedness, the interdependence. You see a living organism, you see purpose and function, you see life, you see personality, you see softness, and you see strength. This body that is the church is not just any body, it happens to be the body of Christ. The world does not see Christ through a community, it sees Christ through His body, the church; it sees Christ through His family, the church. As a body and a family we hurt together, rejoice together, cry together, and celebrate together. We are not spectators, but participants. We don't just live together, but live for each other. What benefits one benefits all. What is detrimental to one is detrimental to all.

Maybe, just maybe, if this was taught in its fullness, we would see a change in the church. Maybe we would see a vibrancy. Maybe we would see that we are truly all in this together. Being a Christian is not about becoming a better community member, it is about becoming more like Christ. It is not about overcoming your shortcomings, it is about having the fullness of Him who fills all in all. It takes all of us, being in the body just where He put us, properly working as He designed us, to build each other up to the fullness of the stature of Christ. A community can't do that, but a living organism can.

Let's don't rename the body of Christ.  Let's don't call the family of God other than what it is.  Let's don't make the church less than what God has intended for it to be known and portrayed as.  Let us stop abandoning the Biblical terms to make the church more appealing, and less foreign to the world.  Let's don't think that somehow we know better. So let us use the same metaphors and same terminology the Lord has chosen, and trust the Word to do its intended work, and trust Him with the results.  Let us not be ashamed to be called the family of God and the body of Christ.

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