Christians, the Church, and the Community
Even in the twenty-first century there remains truth in the mantra that “all politics is local.” Nation-states attempt to impose their authority as they will, yet it is really in local communities where actions and change can happen.
People jointly participate in communities in order to manifest some form of relational unity for the betterment of those involved. Those who live in a similar geographic area must cooperate with one another in some way if they would enjoy some level of security in life.
Communities are right, good, and appropriate in the sight of God. One can even understand the local church as a kind of community: a group of people in a given time and place who jointly participate in the faith that is in Christ (e.g. 1 Timothy 3:14-16). The Lord Jesus Himself grew up in Nazareth of Galilee and was well-known there: too well-known, in fact, to be able to accomplish much (cf. Matthew 13:53-58, Luke 4:16-30). Ever since all Christians and all local churches have existed within communities and were expected to engage with the members of their local communities in ways which would glorify God in Christ.
The Apostle Peter exhorted the Christians of Asia Minor to see themselves as exiles or sojourners within framework of Israel during the Babylonian exile (1 Peter 1:1-2, 17, 2:11-12, 5:13). A sojourner is a person who has voluntarily left his homeland to live somewhere else; an exile lives somewhere else but involuntarily so. We can profitably consider this as a Jewish Christian giving valuable insight into the experience of the people of God to Gentile Christians who have entered unfamiliar territory spiritually (cf. 1 Peter 2:1-10): most of them live in the midst of their family and people of their tribes and ethnicities, and the only thing now distinguishing them from their fellow community members is their confession of Jesus as Lord and Christ, the Son of God. Jewish Christians were used to constant pressure, intolerance, and times of outright persecution from Gentiles because of their faith in God and adherence to the Law of Moses; religious persecution and pressure was new to Gentile Christians. Thus it remains important for Christians to remember they are as sojourners and exiles, even though they may remain in their “home country” among people of their same nation and ethnicity. Their commitment to Jesus will, at times, invariably sit at odds with the prevailing customs and practices of their culture. Their hesitance to support the grandiosity of the claims of the nation-state will lead to questioning regarding their loyalty. Likewise, local churches ought to be marked in the greater community for their commitment to uphold and affirm the truths of what God has made known in Jesus (cf. 1 Timothy 3:15); to this end they should be seen as distinctive and not just another local social club, fraternity, or harmless cultural artifact. As Israel in Babylon, so Christians and local churches ought to be distinct from the community at large because of their confession of Jesus and commitment to the faith, and accept the likelihood of ostracization, marginalization, and persecution because of it (1 Peter 4:1-19).
At the same time, Christians have no ground upon which to remain distant and aloof from the community because they reckon themselves as sojourners and exiles. Just as Jeremiah exhorted the Israelite exiles in Babylon to seek the welfare of the city in which they are exiled, so Christians ought to seek the welfare of their communities (cf. Jeremiah 29:1-7). Christians ought to do good to all people (Galatians 6:10); it should be taken for granted that they are already feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, and visiting the sick and imprisoned among them, and they should display yet greater love and care for their fellow humans by doing the same for those in the community who are not Christians (cf. Matthew 5:43-48, 25:31-46, 1 John 4:7-21). If members of the local community remain hostile to the faith and those who confess it, they should at least be put to shame by the good conduct of Christians (cf. 1 Peter 2:12, 15). Elders of the church ought to have a good reputation even among non-Christians in the community (1 Timothy 3:7); Christians should give the members of their local communities reasons to glorify God (Matthew 5:14-16).
Thus Christians and local churches do well to consider how well or poorly they embody and reflect Jesus to their local communities. It might well be that Christians and local churches are seen as “peculiar” and experience difficulties because they seek to embody those parts of the Christian faith which members of the local community find offensive; such Christians do well to absorb the shame and humiliation and continue to embody the Lord Jesus. Unfortunately all too often Christians and local churches develop less stellar reputations in a local community for the ways in which they fail to embody the Lord Jesus: internal divisions from scandalous or less substantive disagreements; practicing or tolerating sin; aggressively condemning others in uncharitable and unmerciful ways; and so on. The name of God is blasphemed because of such, just as it is written (Isaiah 52:5, Romans 2:24). Communities do not necessarily expect perfection from Christians and local churches, but they do expect humility and some kind of reflection of Jesus, and they have every right to maintain that expectation.
Christians confess the Gospel as God’s power unto salvation; the local church exists not to serve as a local community resource center but as the community of people nourishing and sustaining the embodiment and proclamation of God in Christ in that area (Romans 1:16, Ephesians 4:11-16, 1 Timothy 3:15). Christians understand the authorities, both local and national, to be empowered by God to uphold justice and condemn unrighteousness (Romans 13:1-7). It is not for the government to impose or proclaim the Gospel; nevertheless, Christians have the most effective chance at encouraging real change toward greater justice and righteousness on a local level rather than at a national level. The Apostle Paul counted friends among the Asiarchs in Ephesus (Acts 19:31); Erastus, a Christian in Corinth, served as the aedile, or city treasurer, a prominent civic position (Romans 16:23). It is a good thing for Christians to provide materially for those in need, as in Matthew 25:31-46 and Galatians 6:10; Christians also do well to use whatever advocacy or influence they have to nonviolently resist the powers and principalities that be when they perpetuate injustice and oppression (cf. Matthew 5:38-42, Luke 6:27-36, James 5:1-6). If nothing else, neither Christians nor local churches should gain the reputation in the community of perpetuating injustice or oppression; they should be more identified with the kind of people with whom Jesus identified Himself.
The world has never learned of Jesus in some kind of global or national way; people learn of Jesus from those who would embody and proclaim Jesus in their midst. Christians are the salt of the earth, a city set on a hill (Matthew 5:13-14): members of the community learn about Jesus from their words and deeds, for better or for worse, and part of their acceptance or rejection of Jesus is based on how well or poorly His people embody Him. Neither Christians nor local churches are well-served to have the reputation of representing a hothouse of partisanship; at the same time, it is impossible for either Christians or a local church to maintain a completely apolitical posture, for even the attempt to remain entirely disengaged from local, national, or global politics is itself a political position. Christians and local churches do best when they are seen as bringing the lordship of Jesus to bear in their engagement with local politics and local political authorities: to glorify God through their work and service, to uphold God’s justice and righteousness in Christ in political engagement, to affirm justice and resist oppression. Christians are to be a distinctive people, living as sojourners and exiles, yet committed to the welfare of their community, seeking to proclaim and embody Christ not just in “spiritual” matters, but also to bring Jesus’ lordship to bear in the “secular” domain. May the people in the local community see Jesus in us as Christians and the local church, and may they be given reason to glorify God in Christ on account of us!
Ethan R. Longhenry