Last fall, I had the privilege of taking a graduate class in theology at our local seminary. The class was comprised of believers from various evangelical traditions. We were asked to break into small groups and respond to this question:
“How would you define community from a Christian perspective?”
Initially, we felt quite self-assured that this was a fairly simple task. Soon, however, it became apparent that this task was not so simple after all. Even within our group of four, we struggled to achieve a common definition.
After achieving no consensus in our small groups, we came together again as a whole class, and another lengthy and unfruitful discussion followed. We finally accepted the following as our joint definition of community: “People who, by God’s grace, are distinct in that they are banded together as one in Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit.”
The discussion reminded me that I had taken for granted a very significant term. Community was a word I had heard and used often, especially within the context of congregational life-without knowing what was really being said.
I was invited by this same professor to share with the class my own faith tradition’s understanding of church as community. In my preparation for this presentation, I was drawn to the Anabaptists of the 16th century, the ancestors of today’s Mennonites. What I discovered in the writings of these 16th-century believers enriched my life and produced gratitude to God for my heritage – the understanding of the church as “community.”
Perhaps the most significant aspect of the Anabaptist concept of the church was that the church was not understood to be a formal institution like the Catholic and Protestant Volkskirche (mass church); rather, it was understood to be a gathering of the faithful, a covenant community of saints, a fellowship, a community of the regenerated in Christ, a voluntary brotherhood. On his deathbed, Menno Simons is said to have claimed that nothing was as precious to him as the church.
The Anabaptist concept of the church as “community” was not simply some abstract theological idea; it had “hands.” The Anabaptists lived out their convictions about the church as a fellowship of believers in tangible ways.
Anabaptist leader Hans Hut, for example, wrote, “A Christian should have all things in common with his brother, that is, not allow him to suffer need…. For a Christian looks more to his neighbour than to himself.”
Anabaptist historian Robert Friedmann wrote that this theology was the “discovery which made Anabaptism so forceful.” It was understood that membership in the church came with the responsibility to care for the needs of fellow believers.
Historian Arnold Snyder wrote, that one of the four marks of the “visible community of saints” was “mutual aid.” Menno Simons identified one of the six signs by which the true church of Christ may be known as unfeigned, brotherly love. To the Anabaptists, the church was a brotherhood banded together by love and practicing mutual aid.
The Anabaptists’ model of church as a community was also reflected in their understanding of salvation. In Catholicism, grace and salvation came from God by way of an intermediary (the institutional church and ordained priest), while in Protestant churches this intermediary was removed and redemption was received directly from God by the individual.
In Anabaptism, the conviction was that salvation came to the believing body as a whole; that is, that the church as a community of the faithful received salvation together. Friedmann wrote that for the Anabaptists, brotherhood was not merely an ethical add-on to salvation but a necessary condition for any genuine restoration of God’s image in humanity.
The idea of community also affected the way Anabaptists went about interpreting Scripture. They contended that this should always be done within the community of faith and not by individuals alone. It was the gathered community of believers who should read, interpret, test, and apply the Scriptures. Such a powerful witness was given by this community approach to the interpretation of Scripture that the Anabaptists became known as “hermeneutical communities – communities in which they read the text and struggled for a common understanding.”
The church as community was to many in the Reformation period a breath of fresh theological air. Sadly, for many believers today, the understanding of the church as community has become somewhat shallow. Yes, we frequently use the word and hear it regularly in our congregations, but is it really a part of us? The church as a “community of faith” was literally in our forefathers’ blood; many of them died for this conviction.
Defining “community” was not in my experience an easy task. I had taken a fundamental principle of the church for granted.
In recent years, as Mennonite Brethren, we have worked hard to revitalize church leadership, to rethink congregational governance, and to expand church growth. All of these are excellent pursuits. Yet, all of these are intimately connected with our understanding of church as community.
Perhaps we as a denomination would be wise to pause and ask ourselves the same question my seminary professor asked me: “How do you define community?”
Philip A. Gunther is senior pastor of Parliament Community Church in Regina.
Interested in “digging” into the Anabaptist understanding of the church?
Check out the following:
William R. Estep, The Anabaptist Story.
Cornelius Krahn, “Menno Simons’ Concept of the Church”, in C.J. Dyck, ed., A Legacy of Faith.
Franklin H. Littell, “The Anabaptist Concept of the Church” in Guy F. Herschberger, ed., The Recovery of the Anabaptist Vision.
Franklin H. Littell, The Anabaptist View of the Church.
Erland Waltner, “The Anabaptist Conception of the Church”, Mennonite Quarterly Review, Vol. XXV, No. 1, 5–16.
Mennonite Brethren Churches stress the importance of belonging to a local church in which every member is accountable to the body and involved in ministry. On the other hand, the body is accountable and responsible to each member in providing opportunities for nurture and service.
Covenant community also expresses itself between the local church and the denomination. Local churches relate to the denomination at its various levels (provincial, national, and North American), and are responsible to uphold its Confession of Faith and polity positions and to support its ministries.
Conversely, the denomination relates to the local church to inform, invite input on major issues, and provide various resources for ministries in the local church.
“Covenant Community” is one of five “core values” defined by the Canadian MB Conference executive board for the Canadian MB conference.
(The others identify the Mennonite Brethren church as a believers’ church, a biblical movement, a missionary church, and a church fostering peace and reconciliation.)