Last time, our discussion about training and pastors led us towards a related and very important question: Is the church like a family that is focused on the spiritual welfare and growth of each individual member? Or is the church more like an army or a mission society with a vision and purpose that lies beyond itself in reaching the lost?
In the language of classical sociology, is the church primarily Gemeinschaft (community) or Gesellschaft (society)?
Is the church a family or an enterprise?
They say that death is often a musician’s best career move. Elvis sold more records in the seven years after his death than in his entire earthly career.
But imagine what death by Nazis would do for your career. I can’t help wondering whether Dietrich Bonhoeffer would have become a megastar of 20th century Christian theology had it not been for the noble and tragic manner of his demise at the hands of Hitler.
But a megastar Bonhoeffer certainly is, who managed to pack into his brief life enough different kinds of writing to become beloved by evangelicals (for The Cost of Discipleship and Life Together), by liberals (for his later advocacy of a ‘religionless Christianity’), by social justice types (for his civil disobedience to the Nazis), and by theological academics (for the profundity of his theological and ethical writings).
In one of his early heavy-duty ecclesiological works (Sanctorum Communio), Bonhoeffer enquires into the kind of ‘sociological grouping’ that the church is. How are we to understand it? In the categories of classical German sociology, is the church to be understood as Gemeinschaft or Gesellschaft?
Gemeinschaft (often translated ‘community’) is the kind of social grouping that is glued together by personal ties and relationships. A Gemeinschaft exists because of some permanent bond that glues people together with a lasting commitment to each other that has little or no reference beyond itself—like shared blood or location or personal friendship. The ‘community’ exists for itself and is an end in itself, not the means to some other end.
The family is a prime example. What is the purpose of a family? Simply to be and grow and flourish a family—to love and care for the people that we find ourselves in familial relationship with. We don’t choose our family or its members, and our commitment to one another is not based on the need to achieve some external purpose. When a family member turns up on our doorstep in desperate straights asking for money, we don’t hesitate to help. We don’t pause to consider whether they deserve it, or whether this is a useful or effective use of money, or whether they can pay it back. We just help them, because we are committed to them. If a perfect stranger turns up on our doorstep asking for money, our response will be different.
In this sense, families are like little socialist communes. The old communist adage applies perfectly to families and to most Gemeinschaften: ‘from each according to their ability; to each according to their need’. In fact, as an aside, one of the most perceptive criticisms of socialism is that it seeks to impose the model of community or family on an entire society, when the bonds of unconditional mutual commitment simply cannot be stretched that far. The fact that most people are willing to provide a rent-free room in their house for their 10-year-old daughter, doesn’t mean that they are willing to do so for everyone who needs it.
But I digress.
The counterpart to Gemeinschaft is Gesellschaft—often translated ‘society’. A society is a group of people who decide to get together to pursue a particular external purpose. We choose to be in a Gesellschaft because we share the goals or purposes of the other members of the society. Classic examples would be a commercial business, a lobby group, or a sporting club. ‘Societies’ of this type may indeed care for their members, and develop close relations, but these are subordinate to and shaped by the goal that the society has—to make money, to exert influence, to enjoy football and win games, and so on.
So what is a church? We can immediately see elements of both sociological types. At one level, the church seems very much like a community. It is an end itself, not the means to some other end (unless that be the glory of God). It’s a body in which all the members are valued for themselves, and where the contribution of all the parts of the body—even and especially the ‘dishonourable parts’—is welcomed and celebrated for the welfare and mutual benefit of the whole. The church is a household, in which the communist adage seems quite appropriate: ‘from each according to their ability; to each according to their need’ (this feels like a summary of the New Testament’s teachings about gifts and mutual obligation in the church).
Then again, like a Gesellschaft, the church does have a purpose that is given to it. The church is an enterprise with a mission or goal that comes to it from outside (from God), and provides a rationale for its action. This is the great purpose of God to build his heavenly church; to gather the nations into the kingdom of his Son. And we are all commissioned to be his fellow-workers in this grand project. In fact, we find it normal and uncontroversial for churches to organize themselves to pursue these goals—to evangelize our community, to follow-up newcomers, to manage our structures and ‘trellises’ in the best way possible, and so on. Healthy churches seem more goal-oriented and organized than families are.
What’s the answer then? Is the church more like a ‘family’ or more like an ‘enterprise’?
It’s certainly easy to recognize different churches as being more like one than the other—compare the small, somewhat inward-looking family-centric church to the dynamic, growing, high-efficiency larger church that is seeing many people converted, and new offshoot churches planted.
It’s tricky though.
The more intentional, managerial and efficiently goal-oriented we become, the less we’re like a Gemeinschaft—and something important seems to be lost. But the opposite is also true—the more family-oriented we become, the less we are likely to make difficult but necessary choices about how to work together for the common goal.
Two possible solutions suggest themselves.
One would be to suggest that the church is indeed more like a family (Gemeinschaft), and that we therefore need to form other ‘societies’ to pursue particular purposes within the overarching goals of the Great Commission. This view has quite a pedigree in Christian history—as seen in the proliferation of parachurch societies of many kinds that have sprung up to pursue particular missions or purposes, particularly over the past 250 years. But are we prepared to say that the church should entirely outsource its role in the Great Commission to external Christian ‘societies’? That doesn’t sound right.
Another approach would be to view church as a ‘family business’—that is, a kind of blended social grouping that mixes together characteristics of both ‘community’ and ‘society’. We’re a family, but we have a project we’re working on together. Or perhaps, we’re a mission society, but we love and care for each other as family.
This second solution is similar to Bonhoeffer’s own approach, although he gives it his own unique twist.
For a start, Bonhoeffer rejects the idea that the church could be understood with reference to existing sociological categories. The church may seem similar in some respects to various social groupings—indeed the New Testament uses various metaphors (like ‘household’) to describe the church. But in essence, the church is not an example of something that already exists—it is a completely new reality, created by the grace of God through the new thing he has done in our world in Jesus Christ.
This seems right. Sociology is analytical. It’s an insightful description of social groupings that exist in our world. But all of those social groupings are unavoidably compromised by the sinfulness of humanity. All human social forms are fragmented, fractured and generally plagued by the inwardly-curved hearts of sinful humanity.
Through Jesus Christ, however, we are set free by the Spirit from our inwardness and sin, and enabled to relate to each other properly—for the first time—through Jesus.
Jesus thus creates a new sociological possibility—one that doesn’t fit existing classifications. It’s a community of people not based on shared blood or family or location or history or personal friendship, but based on Jesus Christ. There is no Jew or Gentile, slave or free, man or woman, but all are one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:28). Our common bond is not an unmediated commitment to one another based on something we share as humans. He is what we have in common. Unlike earthly Gemeinschaften, we have something outside ourselves that binds us together as community: Jesus Christ. (As others have pointed out, this should moderate the trend towards homogeneous churches. But that’s another and also complicated question!)
To take Bonhoeffer’s idea further, the person of Christ who binds us together and makes us a community, is also the person who makes us a society—who provides our community with a purpose and mission beyond itself. Church is not a voluntary society that we choose to belong to, because we want to pursue a particular goal. Church is a society of people who are chosen by Jesus Christ to be part of his purpose—which is to build his body; to gather his disciples from all nations and see them grow to maturity in him.
And so we have this new thing that is quite unlike anything else in our world. It’s a community, but its rationale and point of unity is not itself, or any earthly affiliation or factor, but Jesus Christ. And so it is a community that looks beyond itself in love to others, because that is the nature of the Person who gathers and forms it. And church is also a kind of society, but one that has its purpose built into its very fabric by the One who gathers it together, and gives it its mission—to bring glory to Christ by working with him to build his church.
Like no human family, the church’s unity comes from outside itself; and like no human enterprise, the church’s purpose comes from within itself.
As Bonhoeffer was very fond of saying, Christ is the centre. He stands in the middle, between us and God, between us and each other, and between us and the world. We see everything only through him, and relate to everyone and everything only through him.
And this creates the church as a new thing that has intertwined elements of community and society, but can never be identified completely with either one, nor should fall into the sinful problems of either one.
If we see each other ‘with the eyes of Jesus’ (as Bonhoeffer puts it), we won’t ever be tempted to become an inward-looking church-club, or to think that the welfare of other people in the family can ever be separated from their growth in Christ.
And if we see our purposes and vision together also through the eyes of Jesus, as the aims to which Jesus himself calls us and which he himself achieves, we will never sacrifice the welfare and growth of individuals on the altar of organisational success. We won’t treat people as resources towards some larger end.
Perhaps like Jesus himself, our churches should set their faces resolutely on the goal that is before them, and casting off all hindrances run the race with perseverance. But also like Jesus, our churches will be gentle and lowly in heart towards the weary and heavy laden, and build a community in which they find rest for their souls.
I’m interested as always in your reactions to this week’s reflection. Does your personality gravitate to one side or other of this dichotomy? Do you more instinctively see church as a family to wrap your arms around, or a business to organize and lead? And is it possible to give full expression to both instincts by having Jesus at the centre?
This is a partner-only post but feel free to share, and even freer to invite your friends on board …
This week’s random image is ‘The Village Fete’ by Peter Paul Rubens, showing in typical Rubens style the vibrancy and strife of human communities.