Tuesday, October 10, 2006

Part II: The Family of God

One of the benefits of a neo-monastic system of organizing groups of local Christians would be the contrast it formed with the Western culture of radical individualism. As Americans, the primary lens through which we view our identity is that of the individual. If we were asked to describe ourselves, we would all probably begin by talking about our occupations, our personal preferences, and so on. Even if we spoke about our participation in church, it would probably come out as individually-focused—this is the church I attend, and this is what I like about it…

But the biblical picture, coming from a very different cultural perspective, insists that the basis of our identity does not rest in ourselves, but in Christ and in the church. The biblical view of life is as much communal as it is individual, and here in America we have largely missed out on the communal aspects of Christianity.

I should qualify the issue, though, by saying that individualistic Christianity isn’t all bad. It’s an authentic shape of the faith, contextualized to the culture around us. Because the surrounding culture is individualistic, people will probably feel more comfortable (at least at first) in an individualistic church-setting than in a communal one. And in some measure, the New Testament does take the almost wholly communal view of the Old Testament (focused on the entire people of God) and move it in a much more individualistic direction.

My argument, though, is that by ignoring the communal aspects of the biblical view of life, we are missing out on some of the richest depths of the Christian experience. Even our view of Scripture becomes skewed. Letters that were written for a communal audience are taken and applied almost solely to individual circumstances. We begin to view church as something that we attend, not as something we belong to, body and soul. Church becomes more of a social club and less of a family.

Though much of the evangelical Christian community recognizes and works against these cultural influences, we have not carried it far enough. Many Christian groups do emphasize a communal basis to the Christian life—that of the nuclear family. The ideal type of the family is presented as the lifelong husband-and-wife partnership and the children they raise. Whether or not this represents the ideal base unit of family, it is not the base unit of communal living as presented in the Bible. Rather, the New Testament continually presents the church as the communal basis for Christian life. There are a few references to family relationships sprinkled here and there in the apostolic letters, but the larger focus of the Scriptures is unceasingly on the communal life of the church. In fact, the traditional family-type in the ancient world—the ‘household’—would have been much more flexible than our present ideal, since it included extended family, servants (and possibly slaves), as well as friends and guests. Though it’s good to hold up the ideal of the Christian nuclear family, if we focus on that one ideal to the detriment of understanding the true nature of the church, our communal life as Christians will suffer. Numerous groups of people will begin to feel a bit estranged because they don’t fit into the ideal paradigm. The unmarried, the divorced, and single parents will all be made to feel uncomfortable in evangelical churches. If, however, we present the local church as the communal base of Christian living, fortified in the practice of mutual love and grace, all people will be able to find rest and fruitfulness within its embrace.

Neo-monasticism could help correct some of the cultural errors of the American church. By living communally and drawing one another into the intimate embrace of our daily spiritual lives, we would come to a greater understanding of what it truly means to be the Body of Christ.

Supposing that such a movement could attract a wide age-range, neo-monasticism would offer a way to garner from the wisdom and experience of those further down the road of life. In many (but certainly not all) of our churches, we split apart by age-groups and tend to function as nothing more than a once-a-week convention of smaller, more isolated churches. It’s certainly easier to make connections with our own age-group, and no doubt there would still be a place for that within neo-monasticism. But living in constant community would also lead us into engaging with those who are very different from us, whether we want to or not. Teens and young adults could be raised up to minister to the whole body with their gifts, no longer being treated as a separate species. And they could, in return, receive the ministry of the elderly, a depth of resource I’ve been blessed to receive, humbled and rejoicing, in my own life. Traditional nuclear families would also receive the added support of community. Children and teens would, in most cases, benefit from being raised by the monastic village as a whole. Adolescents going through crises of identity and rebellion against parental authority would be given a broader social foundation for growth and maturation.

It should also be said that communal living will not always be pleasant. In fact, it might be unpleasant more often than not. We can probably all think of a fair number of people (or at least types of personalities) that we would not want to be engaged with on a day-to-day basis. But if we come into such a community knowing the difficulties and believing that the rewards are greater than the struggles, I think we will come to the place of discovering a deeper and richer expression of the faith than we could have thought possible. In an individualistic society, it's too easy for us to run away from those Christians we don't like. We seldom have the chance to push through our rifts and grudges to discover the stretching blessings of authentic community.