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Community out of Necessity: The Limitations of the Body and the Formation of the Church

February 13th, 2008 | 3 min read

By Matthew Lee Anderson

In my reflections for Ash Wednesday, I claimed that it was “through death—in suffering, in weakness, in solitude—that the communion of saints begins. The brokenness of Jesus’ body is the birth of his people.”

While I focused mainly on the experience of solitude and silence as the confrontation with the limitation of death, I could have easily have focused on the experience of the local church.   In an article I wish I had written myself, Tim Challies writes:

In his book A Journey Worth Taking, author Charlie Drew provides an important warning about the involuntary nature of the community God calls us to as His people. He warns us against elevating our individual tastes in the churches we attend.

“Church” is not an event. It is people — people whom God calls us to love. What is more, it is in a very important sense an involuntary community of people: we don’t choose our brothers and sisters — God does. And sometimes (oftentimes) those people are not terribly compatible with us — not the people we would choose to hang out with. But it is this very incompatibility that is so important, for at least two reasons. First, learning to love the people I don’t like is by far the best way to learn how to love (it’s easy to love people I happen to like). Second, the church is supposed to be a sociological miracle — a demonstration that Jesus has died and risen to create a new humanity composed of all sorts of people.

The notion that Church is “involuntary” is, I think, tied to the notion that death is beginning of Christian communion.  Heather Koerner at Boundless highlights this passage from C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters:

“Surely you know that if a man can’t be cured of churchgoing, the next best thing is to send him all over the neighbourhood looking for the church that ‘suits’ him until he becomes a taster or connoisseur of churches.

The reasons are obvious. In the first place, the parochial organisation should always be attacked because, being a unity of place and not of likings, it brings people of different classes and psychology together in the kind of unity the Enemy desires. The congregational principle, on the other hand, makes each church into a kind of club, and finally, if all goes well, into a coterie or faction. In the second place, the search for a ‘suitable’ church makes the man a critic where the Enemy wants him to be a pupil.”

What is interesting about the parish model is that it makes geography–to which we’re tied by virtue of our corporeality–one of the main determinants of church affiliation.  It demands the submission to the limitations of the body–that is, it demands the death of our desires for perfection, for liberty, and for transcendence.  In putting to death such desires, we are rewarded with that which we sought–the experience of the Spirit’s indwelling presence, which transforms our local church bodies into communities built upon the Word of God.  Only then will community become holy communion.

Ultimately, the idea that the local church body is a place that should meet our needs or feed us is misguided, in that it presumes we are free from the injunction to die to our selves while we remain within the confines of the Church.  But if we are fellowshipping with Christ’s sufferings, then it is primarily in Church that we must lay aside our desires for theological rigor and precision, aesthetic experience, and close friendships.  It is precisely in such broken, failing, and dead areas that we are able to experience the judgmental, impatient, and angry nature of our hearts.  It is in such environments that some who care deeply about the Church are most able to experience the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit.

The experience of the Christian within the Church must be the experience of Christ on the cross.  When our communities–our local Churches–fail to recognize that, they will fail to experience the transforming power of the Resurrection and instead experience friendship and sociability built not on the regenerative power of the Holy Spirit, but on the structures and institutions of this world.

Matthew Lee Anderson

Matthew Lee Anderson is an Associate Professor of Ethics and Theology in Baylor University's Honors College. He has a D.Phil. in Christian Ethics from Oxford University, and is a Perpetual Member of Biola University's Torrey Honors College. In 2005, he founded Mere Orthodoxy.