“The sign of having reached perfection is this: if a man were to be condemned ten times a day to be burned alive for loving his neighbors, and yet not to be content with this.”
—Isaac the Syrian
Unlike the early days of Christianity, there are few local churches today that are true Christian communities. By community, I refer to an interaction of people that goes far beyond just Sunday morning worship services—where people really “dig in” and get involved in each others’ lives, forming deep and caring relationships, and where the individuals do not act like members of an exclusive club for the like-minded.
I was reminded of this recently when reading G. K. Chesterton’s musings on the clan: “The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies, groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique.”
To live in true Christian community is to give up our narrowness. A Christian community is artificial when it is composed of cliques of individuals from the same social or economic class, when everyone is there because of their “sameness” rather than their love for Christ.
This is not to say that a community should be tolerant of new heterodox ideas. Certainly, it should not. Political correctness should not be a concern. True Christian community is built on orthodoxy and held together by a love that transcends individual preferences and styles. And, of course, at its heart is a eucharistic table. Apart from the body and blood of Christ, it is merely a social club.
In the end, the test of a community’s strength lies in its children. If, when confronted with temptation from peers outside of the community, a child replies, “No, my people don’t do that,” then a Christian community has honestly lived up to its calling.
We need to think of ourselves as a people. Our Jewish friends have done a much better job then we have of maintaining a sense of community for this very reason. We are called to be a special people—a people of God who would lay down their lives for their brothers and sisters. It is easy for us to feel smug, thinking, “Yes, in a crisis, I could do that. I could lay down my life for even that person in my church,” without ever thinking about inviting him over for a meal because he isn’t really “our type.”
We need to learn how to love our brothers and sisters in Christ, with a love that goes beyond just a handshake on Sunday mornings. Until we are willing to do the work it takes to go beyond this, we will never know what Christian community should be.
“To live in true Christian community is to give up our narrowness.”
Thomas S. Buchanan is a member of the Orthodox Church and lives in Chester County, Pennsylvania, with his wife and three children. He is a senior editor of Touchstone.