In the individualistic Western Church, we find it radical that the first Christians lived in community when for them it was the norm.

It’s almost impossible to imagine the mindset of the early Christians and the way they would have viewed the world 2,000 years ago.

Community

Communal life? PICTURE: James Baldwin/Unsplash.

 

"In our culture we try to find our identity on the basis of our individuality. In Middle Eastern culture (and it is still the same today), identity is found on the basis of your place in a larger group. The individual is not paramount; the group is."

In our culture we try to find our identity on the basis of our individuality. In Middle Eastern culture (and it is still the same today), identity is found on the basis of your place in a larger group. The individual is not paramount; the group is.

I have noticed this on my travels to Israel, the West Bank and Gaza. On two of my last three trips I have enjoyed the hospitality of lovely people who would be offended if we declined their invitation to have dinner with them. Hospitality is just what they do; it’s part of who they are.

When we look at the church in Australia, the situation is no different. Our understanding of faith is taken from the norms of our culture. Being Christian is primarily about me and my relationship with God. The church, being a product of its culture, hasn’t been transformed enough into the image of Christ to see the importance of community like the first Christians did.

If you read Acts 2:43-47 and 4:32-37 and didn’t know it was talking about the first Christians, you would be forgiven for thinking it was describing some sort of hippie commune or people who were trying an experiment in a type of socialism.

Acts 2 says the believers were united and shared all their possessions. That’s radical on its own, but Acts 4 takes it further by saying there was no private ownership among them of any of their property. How’s that for a critique of modern capitalism from a Christian perspective? They shared everything they had, including their money. And what this sharing produced was a complete lack of poverty in their community. We are specifically told that there were no needy persons among them. In fact, anyone who was needy when they first joined the community was quickly given what they needed to ensure that everyone had enough.

How often do we see that in our churches today? Are there even any examples of Christians living like those very first followers of Jesus did? 

We need to remember that these Christians were the ones who spent three years with Jesus Himself, and when He leaves, they decide to live in community, sharing everything. Clearly there was something about Jesus that rubbed off on them in terms of how they decided to live their lives. 

It’s very confronting for us in the West to see how the very first people who followed Jesus lived. They got their cue from Him who gave freely of Himself to any who had need, who did not come to be served but to serve.

Thankfully there are many Christians around the world who are living like the first Christians did. The Bruderhof are one such community. They started about 100 years ago and now have almost 3,000 members in different parts of the world. They share everything in common and live in the spirit of the first Christians in Acts 2 and 4.

In Australia there is also the Community of the Holy Transfiguration, a Baptist community of monks who also dedicate their lives to sharing everything in common. 

In the Catholic tradition there are the Cistercians, the Jesuits and the Franciscans. They have different lifestyles (mainly involving a deep commitment to prayer), but they generally live together and care for each other. 

In the US, Shane Claiborne and others set up the Simple Way community in the late 1990s to care for the poor and marginalised in Philadelphia.

I find it quite sad that communities like this are often called ‘radical’. If they are all trying to live out they way of Jesus and the early church, shouldn’t what they are doing be the norm? You would think that an individualist style of church would be radical as that is so different to how the early church was.

The common denominator in these intentional Christian communities is that they are all committed to God’s vision of justice and everyone being treated with their full human dignity. In our affluent, consumerist culture where the individual is idolised, intentional Christian communities provide a prophetic critique of the status quo. We are called to be an alternative community in the world, and these communities are doing just that. Just like the prophets, they are sometimes seen as a bit odd or a bit eccentric. The question I want to ask is whether or not they point us to Jesus.

It has been well documented that loneliness, depression and anxiety are the diseases of our age. It’s no wonder when our culture is the way it is. We are a culture with everything materially but lacking connection and meaning. Living in community has been known to be a wonderful antidote for addiction and both mental and physical health. 

"[T]here is something attractive about living in intentional community with other followers of Christ. While it is easy to romanticise this way of life, the benefits are known to be immense."

Communities like the Bruderhof are the first to say that living like they do is not the only way to be Christian. They are certainly not a cult. Groups like them involve themselves in the world by caring for the outsider, the prisoner, the lonely and the poor. And they certainly recognise that not everyone is called to their way of life.

Nevertheless, there is something attractive about living in intentional community with other followers of Christ. While it is easy to romanticise this way of life, the benefits are known to be immense. 

It is no wonder that Jesus said that life does not consist in the abundance of possessions, and that those who have left everything for him would receive much more in the way of houses, family and fields. At first glance, such a statement like that from the Son of God might sound like a decent argument for the prosperity Gospel, but that would only reveal our ignorance of the communal way of living that Jesus envisaged. When we live in community, we do receive houses and the rest, because what is yours is mine and what is mine is yours. Everything is shared and joy is more complete.

The early church certainly had their problems; they are well documented in the New Testament. But they provide a radical and prophetic example for us in our lonely and self-centred age, and the prophetic Christian communities today who are imperfectly following in their footsteps are also showing the way for the rest of us who may just still be too much a product of our culture rather than a people transformed into the image of our communal God who is Parent, Son and Holy Spirit. If more of us followed the example of the early church, I wonder if more people might be added to our number, just like we read in Acts 2 and 4.