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Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Church as Community

by Art Katz (1929-2007)

The magnitude of the end-time demands upon the Church are going to be of such a kind that a quality of character beyond mere conventional Christianity, as we know it, will be absolutely essential. This again raises the issue of intensive life together as a mode of present living. Community living is not an end in itself, but rather a means to a larger end, namely, "To Him be glory in the church." Paul lets that statement stand. He gives no explanation as to the meaning of the word "church," nor does he even try to explain by what means that glory is going to be induced. Instead, he has us search out the meaning.

In my opinion, the word ‘community’ is synonymous with church or true fellowship. Through years of intensive community experience, I have gained a view of Church that has revised my understanding of the meaning of that word. Church has become a misnomer, not just in fundamental and evangelical Christianity, but even in the finest forms of Pentecostal and Charismatic life. If our church experience is confined essentially to a Sunday service and Wednesday evening bible study, then it is a caricature and distortion of God’s original intention. Church has come to center itself in ‘services,’ and we measure the success of a fellowship by the quality of its service, namely, whether we liked it, whether it was pleasant, whether the music was good, or whether the preaching was good. However much we may applaud any of these aspects of the service, we need to understand that that very standard of measure is the indication of how far we have departed from the Lord’s understanding of the glory of the Church. We can conduct superb styles of Christian services, but we cannot practice and demonstrate the Kingdom of God on the basis of accommodating the desires and tastes of our congregations.

Community suggests a band of souls sharing a common pattern and spirit, seeking as their first motive the manifestation of God’s glory in the earth through the relationships established in intense opportunity together. Community is not some kind of sophomoric attempt to prove anything. When we started, we hardly knew what the word community meant. But in the anguish, the horror, the enormous humiliation of it, the terrible defeat and failure of all of our pet Charismatic and Pentecostal convictions, which burst like a bubble in the reality of the demands of an intensive life, something then began to dawn on us here. Though we did not understand at first, we became, over a process of time, something that could be tentatively called an expression of the Kingdom of God.

I am an enemy of any kind of social experimentation. The Kingdom is too glorious an eternal thing to be marred by men as some kind of a socializing project that they can perform. That is the reason many communities dissolve. Church, or true fellowship, is an organic expression of His life, unfolded in patient waiting by those who are joined together. When we come in complete ignorance of how to do it, that ignorance will be our saving virtue.

If God will not do anything outside His Body, then we need to understand that the Body is not an organization, but an organism, built on relationship by the Spirit, with Him and with each other. Christianity has become so systematized that it has come to be looked upon as an institution rather than as an apostolic organism. The Kingdom of God, however, is the expression of His Life organically administered, through the saints, by His Spirit, and to each other. Fellowship is the organism given of God by which the saints are made perfect, through daily relationship, through encouragement, and often through confrontation:

But encourage one another day after day, as long as it is still called ‘Today,’ lest any one of you be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin (Hebrews 3:13).

In other words, tomorrow is too late.

What we have seen and heard we proclaim to you also, that you also may have fellowship with us; and indeed our fellowship is with the Father, and with His Son Jesus Christ (1 John 1:3).
But if we walk in the light as He Himself is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus His Son cleanses us from all sin (1 John 1:7).

True fellowship, which is to say, authentic fellowship, both with God and man, is eminently a resurrection phenomenon. It takes power to forgive; it takes power to be patient, and it takes power to be compassionate. In fact, community would be impossible except as a resurrection phenomenon. Anything else is religious, pious, fraudulent and imaginary, and in saying that, I am going out on a limb and likely disenfranchising ninety-five percent of Christianity in the world.

Community is the most radical, demanding, excruciating, and yet glorious possibility for this kind of existential fellowship with the saints. We do not have to be on the same property, although that should be preferred, but we do need to be in an intensive, daily, or frequent, honest, open-hearted and committed relationship with God’s people. It will be excruciating before it is blessed, and painful before it is glorious. It is, however, the test of our supposed love for God, and I praise Him for the genius of that, because it saves us from some kind of exclusive, euphoric and separatistic relationship, which is wholly a dream and something imagined. It is because of that joining, and because God is joined with us in that kind of covenant relationship that we see the daily unfolding of His life. This kind living will likely be messy, slow, painful, clumsy, time-consuming and often wasteful, but the end thereof is a glory.

The Revelation of our Hearts

There is nothing more important than destroying romantic illusions and fantasies about community. The idea of entering community lends itself to either total rejection, for fear of becoming a heretical sect that finally leads a whole people to their Jonestown doom, or some kind of romantic illusions of tripping off into fairyland, or out into the rustic wilds. These are terrible distortions, and if there is any romantic idealization of what community is going to confer, or mean for us, we are already in deception. A much more realistic view of community is rather the enjoyment and appreciating of Christian fellowship with all of its failures, inconveniences, wastefulness and disorders, while we are in the process of growing up together.

You cannot believe what is in God’s people, including ourselves, until we live with one another on a daily basis! Tensions are guaranteed to arise through misunderstandings, individual subjectivities, struggles and differences of opinion because of this issue or that. Disrespect, rebelliousness, selfishness and self-justification are all revealed, and it is a revelation that is painful, but nevertheless true and necessary. We have to pass through a veil of disillusionment and romantic notions of what we think fellowship is, what God’s people are, and not the least, who we ourselves are. The most painful revelation we need to face is the truth of our own condition. True fellowship is the courage and the willingness to be with, and bear with, one another in all of the above conditions.

There is an ideal and there is a reality, and poison is injected when someone comes to community on the basis of ideal rather than on the basis of reality. If we seek anything more than Christian fellowship and that ‘more’ is a projection of our own imagining and romantic hopes, then we introduce a poison into the whole corporate lump, and the seeds of destruction have been sown. We are all dreamers and idealists to one degree or another. We elaborate out of our own imagining something as we think it ought to be, rather than see things in the reality of what God intends. We bring some wishful fantasy into what we think it ought to be, and if it does not become that, then we are disillusioned with others and ultimately with ourselves.

We will, however, have our illusions quickly shattered. But disillusionment is a grace, and the only way to be disillusioned is unhappily a painful way, but far more painful and far more disastrous is to continue in an illusion that is unreal and which one day must be revealed as false. The disillusionment is not just with others; it is recognizing things about yourself and in yourself that you could not have otherwise been forced to experience or to see. When it does reveal itself, can we then bear the pain of watching the unraveling of the illusions of another, knowing that we are not to falsely comfort them or intervene, thus interrupting the process of God? Can we let it have its full work and bear the stink of it while we are alongside the suffering member?

The Church is the "ground and pillar of truth" (1 Tim. 3:15), and if it is not that, then it is not the Church. Truth has got to be unsparing and total. We cannot allow the latitude of any illusion, any romanticism, or any idealism. Idealism is the last hiding place of humanism; to have an ideal is yet to be humanistic. God has so ordered it that the one place with the most potential for putting those things to death is community. If community served no other purpose than that, it would be purpose enough. More than one community has been dissolved because the people could not survive the disillusionment. They were unprepared for it, and when it came, it took them by surprise and became the end for them. They had wanted to hold on to their illusions.

Perhaps community should be looked upon more as a ‘battleground’ than a playground! If we come apart at the seams among ourselves, and cannot endure a look of indifference, or a seeming rejection, how then are we going to be overcomers in the trauma of the Last Days? If we have protective little egotisms underlying an outward appearance of spirituality, we will find ourselves constantly hurt. And if we think we are being ignored and find ourselves reacting in a touchy and hypersensitive manner, then how are we going to make it when the wrath of the powers of darkness, who know that their time is short, is ventilated against the saints? Community is God’s end-time provision. It is not that we are malicious, but even in our well-meaning intentions, inadvertently and often in the heat of the moment, we are to each other a pain!

We Simply Come

We cannot come into community with our own game plan or agenda. We simply come in obedience. It was the same call to Abraham, "Follow me to the land that I will show you." We come as the broken people of God, who have no strength in themselves, and look to Him for the unfolding of the life, day by day, as it pleases Him to mete it out. The things that have their origin in God must have their outworking by the impartation of His life, given to the people who are called together, and who respond in obedience to the direction of God in the daily outworking of their life together

The issue of privacy and the violation of it will test us to the depths of our being. In community our privacy will be invaded; we never know when someone is going to come to the door for some requirement. One of the great tensions is in discerning how much time belongs to the family and how much to the community. How much do we enjoy ourselves apart from the community and how much do we give ourselves to the purposes of the community? It is not stated as some written credo, but something that needs to be worked out in the wash. We should profoundly desire the autonomy of families with the father at the head and the integrity of the family, but "family" can become an enclave of selfishness. The deepest forms of selfishness have been hidden under the supposed sanctity of family and children, for example, "Well, I cannot come to the meeting because of the children." How much has that been used as an excuse for people who really do not want to assemble together, and are employing the sanctity of family, as well as other values, as a cover behind which to hide?

Let God make community in His own image¾not what we think it should be. It may well be that His image for each of us is unique to ourselves, and the thing that most deters it from fulfillment is our insistence on our image. May God give us such a heart for truth and authenticity, and to be made corporately in His image¾for that is the thing that glorifies Him.

Community as Organism

The worst thing that we could do is establish community as a system¾pre-packaged, i.e. this is how you do it: "step one, step two, step three." In that, we will have contradicted the very spirit of community. The whole world, in the sense of a world system, is predicated upon business, pleasure, gratification and lust, and therefore, as a system, it is antithetical to God in every point and particular. The word "system" suggests something man makes in his own wisdom, mentality and organizational ability, based on his own values for the purposes of his own efficiency and success. In antithesis to this, God has a purpose for the Church that completely eclipses this mindset. He totally ignores the wisdom of the world, considering it foolish, and establishes a set of values, which in the eyes of mankind seem totally threatening, offensive, and will likely rub them raw.

The world values efficiency and utility, but in the Kingdom, as it is expressed through community, the values are not expediency, but the obtainment of godly character by whatever the cost. If you want someone efficient, then hire someone, but do not have God’s people come and live with you! God’s purpose is character growth, corporate life, the relationship by the Spirit, bearing the sufferings of one another and the instructions that comes through all of this. There is nothing ‘messier’ than community. It is naive to think, or expect, that everyone walks fully in the Spirit. If you want efficiency you will need rules and regulations to enforce it, thereby making it a legal system of telling people what to do and how. There is a tension of needing to have some measure of order and coherence, and yet not enforcing or requiring it, or else we would have robots. It is that terrible tension of suffering the inconvenience while patiently waiting for the saints to grow up to a place of maturity and responsibility, while yet resisting the temptation to try to have that measure of order by imposition.

The world’s mindset wants efficiency because efficiency is what makes for profit. That mentality is visibly demonstrated even in the "best" expressions of Christianity, for example, as denominationalism, which is religion as "system." It operates through a hierarchy of men and officers who have charge over this and that. There are also secular and utopian models of community. But in the community of God’s people, Christ is the Lord and center of all. It is He who mediates the life. He is King, and His Lordship is pervasive over all. His Lordship is not a body of rules that He sets down; but rather, we learn in the walking out of the life of faith. Needless to say, we will experience many times of missing His mind and failing Him.

Optimum efficiency is not something that concerns God. He is after optimum character, which cannot be compelled, defined or structured. Structure in that way negates character. What men will do freely before God, unobserved by man, is where the real foundations of character are laid. God is interested in what is wrought in the interaction with the saints when selfishness, vanity and pride surface in the working out of issues that come up. We have a God who is interested in our going beyond convenience and comfort, namely, the character that we shall wear throughout all eternity. This can only be established, formed and shaped in this lifetime, not just in our conflict with the world, but especially through the abrasive dealings that we have with each other as saints.

"Sunday Church" can easily become a mere convenience, but community is profoundly inconvenient. This is the going from "house to house daily breaking bread" and working through issues, tensions, difficulties and misunderstandings, and it is amazing how easily they pop up and how quickly they can bring to nothing a relationship that has been years in the making. It requires, therefore, daily vigilance, investment of time, prayer and dependency upon God.

We begin where we are, and when the commitment is made, and there are souls who are earnest about being joined, the life begins to unfold, and this is the thing that needs to be mediated from Heaven by the Holy Spirit. That is why the one commandment by which the Church began was the word of Jesus,

And behold, I am sending forth the promise of My Father upon you; but you are to stay in the city [Jerusalem] until you are clothed with power from on high (Luke 24:49).

The Spirit was never given for us to do great, individual, Pentecostal acts that would distinguish us. He is rather the power and the enablement for the life together out of which those acts flow, for example, Peter "rising with the eleven" on the Day of Pentecost (Acts 2:14). In coming into community, it takes only a few weeks before you realize that you are not the nice guy you thought you were. We need that revelation. We are going to make it only on the basis of His life, which is His power, and yet there are so few who are actually desire or who are living in that realm. There is presently no requirement to do so, because our present Christianity¾however well meaning and disciplined¾rarely requires us to cross over into the realm and dimension of actual resurrection life. Our lives are too conventional, and we are not required to come to the end of ourselves. But as soon as we come into a demanding relationship with each other, we will find that, unless we existentially know His life, we are as good as dead!

What we are describing is the difference between an organizational system and the organic, Spirit-work of God; it is the realm of Spirit in contrast to man-made systems¾two different forms of wisdom. One is foolishness in the eyes of the world and much more painful and difficult to obtain, while the other is predicated on efficiency. We will be tempted continually to systematize our church life and bring it under human arrangement. And though it began rightly, it can harden and stiffen in its forms and become an institution with a life unto itself, and thereafter, the whole issue becomes the perpetuation of the institution. It takes on its own identity, its own being as "such-and-such" a ministry, "such-and-such" a denomination, and the necessity now is to preserve what has been raised up as being the thing in itself.