Randy S. Woodley is distinguished associate professor of faith and culture and director of indigenous and intercultural studies at George Fox Seminary, Portland, Oregon. He is also author of Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision, the second book in our recently launched theology series Prophetic Christianity.
In this post, he addresses the question, “Is there any such thing as Christianity without community?”
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“A person standing alone can be attacked and defeated, but two can stand back-to-back and conquer. Three are even better, for a triple-braided cord is not easily broken.” Ecclesiastes 4:12 (NLT)
The question was raised recently in my Early Church History Class, “Dr. Woodley, is there any such thing as Christianity without community?” Several things went though my mind before I answered the question. In particular, I wondered if the student was equating community and church together? I asked my student, “By church, do you mean a community of believers committed together to encourage each other to follow Jesus and to love the people around them, especially people who have been marginalized by society?” “Yes,” he answered. I was glad to know his understanding of church didn’t just mean attending a service inside a building. I’ll share with you how I answered my student in just a minute.
The question my student asked me is not a new one. The early church struggled with this same question, as have many others.
When I think about a community of believers I first think of Trinity. It is the three in the Community of God that gives the construct transformative power. God as one is a benevolent dictator; God as two is an intimate partnership; but God as three in one — now that’s a divine community of persons living out their existence in complete deference to one another. The economy of the Trinity — “God’s DNA” if you will — is shalom: that biblical system of love and grace, of wellbeing and wholeness. Shalom is God’s original intention for all creation, living on the earth in harmony together.
Shalom is a greater concept than simply “peace,” the first word that usually comes to our minds. Shalom also includes words and concepts like: completeness, wholeness, health, welfare, safety soundness, tranquility, prosperity, perfectness, fullness, rest, harmony, the absence of agitation or discord, and many others. Mostly, though, we should understand shalom as relating to community. The rhythm of shalom is present in the creation stories in Genesis 1 and 2, and it is the atmosphere intended for all creation in the Garden of Eden. The Old Testament prophets paint with word pictures what shalom is like:
He will judge between the nations
and will settle disputes for many peoples.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks.
Nation will not take up sword against nation,
nor will they train for war anymore. —Isaiah 2:4 (NLT)
The New Testament is full of ways of describing shalom as well:
Since God chose you to be the holy people he loves, you must clothe yourselves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience. Make allowance for each other’s faults, and forgive anyone who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others. Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds us all together in perfect harmony. And let the shalom [sic] that comes from Christ rule in your hearts. For as members of one body you are called to live in shalom [sic]. And always be thankful. —Colossians 3:12-15 (NLT)
Other New Testament imagery includes descriptions of shalom as: a body, with each part serving the other; a building, with each brick fitting with the other; and a new peaceable kingdom, in which Jesus is the fulfillment of former images, even to the point of being named not only the shalom bringer but shalom itself: “For he himself is our peace [shalom].” —Ephesians 2:14a (NIV).
The Good News for us all is that Jesus left the shalom community of heaven, in order to bring us into shalom relationship with God, with one another and with all of creation. Christ is the fulfillment of all God’s shalom intentions for our world. Jesus built community from among the poor and marginalized. He inferred shalom in the majority of his teaching, including in Luke 18:29-30 (NLT): “Everyone who has given up house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the Kingdom of God, will be repaid many times over in this life, and will have eternal life in the world to come.” Shalom creates new family in Christ and understands hospitality as the norm.
Perhaps the most descriptive example that Jesus gave us concerning God’s shalom community involves three parables he told in a row in Luke 15. All three spring out of the context of religious leaders complaining about Jesus’ association with people they considered ritually and morally unclean.
In each of the three parables, the invitation is stressed to join shalom community. When the lost sheep is found, the shepherd calls his friends and neighbors — his community — to celebrate. When the widow finds her lost coin she also gathers her community for a party. In the parable of the lost son we actually get even more of the dynamics of the community. Jesus here portrays the Kingdom as a shalom community of restoration and celebration.
In this final story, we get to see inside the party just a bit. In the celebration we can observe a form of restoration, not just in words, but manifested in physical markers of that re-establishment — the robe, the ring and the fatted calf — all signifying acceptance into the community. Luke concludes the parable with the oldest son (who represents the Pharisees, the religious Teachers) standing outside the party while the father, who was feeding the whole community, including servants and the poor, entreats him to come in. Sadly, the story ends with the elder brother outside and unconnected to the community. But regardless, the party that is shalom community continues.
How, then, did I answer my student?
I simply said, “Relationship with God may be possible outside of shalom community, but why would anyone prefer anything less than God’s full intention for us all?”