Community and the Rule of Life

Here in our final article about developing a Rule of Life, we are looking at the importance of community in that process. Community as a spiritual practice is both a large subject and an essential part of life for the intentional Christian. It deserves consideration in its own right- perhaps something we shall take up later.


Even for our purposes here, however, some introductory things need to be said. First, let’s be honest: we are profoundly ambivalent about belonging to a community. On the one hand, modern people state again and again how lonely and isolated they feel- something the pandemic lockdowns only made worse. On the other hand, our culture of individualism and autonomy means that we aren’t so sure we want to give up our time and freedom by belonging to one another.[1] Witness the fact of how few of us have returned to church or any other communal group as lockdowns have eased- it’s just easier not to commit. So, when it comes to community, we are often our own undoing.


Secondly, we should admit that the churches and other communities we encounter do not always help the matter. Even when we can accept that they are made up of mere sinners such as ourselves, the fact remains that scandals, abuses, authoritarian leaders and even doctrinal confusion can heighten our own desire to withdraw and to be an individual with a “me and Jesus” spiritual life.


However, community nonetheless remains God’s design for Christian living. As Henry Cloud and John Townsend remind us,

The clear teaching of the New Testament is that the Body of Christ is to be people deeply connected to each other, supporting each other and filling each other’s hearts.[2]


N.T. Wright goes even further than this, stating:

[individuals]… join the Christian community through baptism and begin to share in its common way of life. That is how people come into relationship with the living God.[3]


That’s enough overview on the subject of community for now. Our assertion here is that, when it comes to properly crafting a rule of life, some form of Christian community is irreplaceable. We will consider two ways: traditioning and actualizing our rule.


Community and “traditioning"


It is only a recent idea that one can either fully become or live as a “solo Christian.” This truth applies to crafting a rule of life as well. Self-study in isolation can never give us that depth of lived experience of the faith that community relationships will. The community teaches us the language, belief and historic practices of Christianity- they “tradition” us. In the community we learn how to be and what to do, and it’s more “caught” by long observation and imitation as opposed to being something that is “taught,” which is why books read on our own are less effective.[4] What’s more, we can even question if a rule of life is useful at all, if there is no community basis for it. Theologian Simon Chan makes the point this way:

The purpose of Christian formation is not developing a better self-image, achieving self-fulfillment or finding self-affirmation; nor is it the development of individualistic qualities that make singularly outstanding saints. Rather, it is developing certain qualities that enable us to live responsibly within the community that we have been baptized into.[5]


It is the community that helps us understand such things as both the faith and practices of being a Christian- our “spiritual DNA”. Not as mere intellectual data, but as an experiential way of life that both forms us and joins us to the larger family of God- both in the present and throughout the ages. This is traditioning- and if it applies to the whole of our Christian life, so also it applies to crafting a rule. It is our particular faith tradition and local community that will give us the “flavor” of the kind of rule we craft and live. Without that community input, it is likely to be sterile and theoretical.


Community and the actualization of our rule


The other importance of community in the development and living out of a rule of life is that it is the place in which that way of living comes to fruition. Our rule is actualized- concretely achieved- in the context of community. Even the solitary disciplines of the spiritual life find their ultimate purpose in the life of community, as that is where all that we are becoming is expressed. We need our sisters and brothers in order to have a context in which to exercise our discipleship.[6] As Saint Basil reminds us, “if you live alone, whose feet will you wash.”[7] Beyond this, a community can also have the beneficial effect of helping us refine our rule- we learn what works and what doesn’t by trying our practices out in the midst of a fellowship of other believers. So, despite our hesitation about being a part of Christian community, it is the place wherein a rule comes to life, and where it is road-tested as well. That it is a blessing should go without saying, yet our cultural situation and individualism often lead us to see only the drawbacks and not the benefits. Surface appearances and ambivalent feelings notwithstanding, Bonhoeffer would have us remember that “the physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.”[8]


Community, Isolation and the Rule


These words may stir a longing in you, yet few will consistently act on it- I know this from personal experience. However great our longing for community, our preference for autonomy, wounds we have received in the past from communities of faith, and the inertia of daily life will cause many to just remain alone. Our original desire may spring up quickly, but with no roots to sustain it, it can wither away in the harsh light of our day-to-day. At the right time, however, we may be inclined to respond to Christ’s design and the Spirit’s prompting and actually risk the commitment to Christian community. That is certainly God’s desire.


The good news is that, even as some communities of faith are dead or dying, new forms are arising. It may be that if an old form of Church was not a good fit for you or hurt you somehow, one of these newer communities may be a place in which you can find a place. It is worth trying- again, and again, and again- until you can find brothers and sisters in whose midst you can live out your Christian walk.


At the beginning of this article, the assertion was made that when it comes to properly crafting a rule of life, some form of Christian community is irreplaceable. Perhaps these few thoughts have made clear why. Want to live an intentional Christian life? Want to properly make a Rule of Life? Find, join, and preserve in the hard, countercultural, and beautiful task of life in Christian community.

 

Les Martin is a participant in the A300 program and a long-term missionary in Nigeria. An Anglican priest, he is an Archdeacon and serves in the office of Canon Theologian for the Anglican Diocese of Pankshin, while lecturing at Archbishop Vining College of Theology, Akure. He lives in Lagos with his wife Kate, and he believes that his marriage to her is far more important than anything else mentioned above.

 

[1] - for a deeper understanding of this trend in modernity, two classic books are worth a look: Putnam, Robert D. (2000). Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Simon & Schuster. and Bellah, Robert, et al. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985). University of California Press. Although written about American culture, the overlap in all postmodern Western cultures make their insights useful for a much wider audience. [2] - Cloud, H. And Townsend, J. (2001). How People Grow: What the Bible Reveals About Personal Growth (p.122). Zondervan. [3] - Wright, N.T. (2014). What Saint Paul Really Said: Was Paul of Tarsus the Real Founder of Christianity? (p. 117). Eerdmans. Emphasis is mine. [4] - consider these words from Cloud and Townsend: “We cannot do what we have never seen done. We need models to show us how. Both Paul and John talked about the dynamic of modeling.” (p. 140). [5] - Chan, S. (1998). Spiritual Theology: A Systematic Study of the Christian Life (p.102). Intervarisity Press. [6] - Consider all the “one another” teachings- John 13: 34, Romans 12: 16, John 13: 14, Galatians 5: 13, Galatians 6: 2, and the like- it is clear that we need others to be intentionally Christian. [7] - https://sojo.net/articles/voice-day-saint-basil-1 [8] - Bonhoeffer, D. (1954, reprinted 1993). Life Together. (p. 4). Harper Collins.

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