The Church as an Alternative Community
“You are the light of the world” (Matt 5:14)
Christians are comfortable with the idea that Jesus is the light of the world (Jn 8:12). What is rather more challenging is the fact that he also described his followers as such, and as a city on a hill, which cannot be hidden. This is a solemn challenge, and one in which our lives together as his disciples matter a great deal, which is probably why it gets so much attention in the New Testament (e.g. Jn 17; Acts; Romans; 1 Corinthians; Galatians; Ephesians). We should also pause to note that Jesus said “you are …..”, not “you might be ….”.
The desire for transformative social impact is laudable, but our world is deeply fallen, corrupt, and under the influence of the evil one. It exhibits a brokenness that strongly resists being ‘fixed’. Utopian dreams often fall far short and become oppressive themselves.
In such a context, the church is an alternative community. We bear witness by who we are, not by what we do. There is a strong Anabaptist heritage to this idea, although it goes back to the early church itself, wherein the early Christians shared all their possessions and sold property in order to give to those in need (Acts 2:44-45). The North African theologian Tertullian wrote about Christians thus; “See how they love one another, and how ready they are to die for one another” (Apology 39.7), and the last pagan Roman emperor Julian the Apostate (who ruled briefly from AD361-363) wrote the high priest of Roman paganism to complain, “These impious Galileans not only feed their own poor, but ours also!”.
The main idea is that rather than trying to change the world through effort, one tries to influence it by showing an alternative. Often pacifist and non-violent, it tries to live by the Sermon on the Mount. It focuses on the cross of Christ, and on weakness and suffering (e.g. 2 Corinthians). And it is powerfully influential, as shown by the impact of just three people – Gandhi, Martin Luther King, and Mother Teresa.
But the focus on community purity can easily degenerate into petty legalism, as the subsequent history of many early Anabaptist communities demonstrates. Jesus said the same when he criticised the Pharisees for tithing their dill and cumin while neglecting the weightier matters of the Law, such as justice, mercy and faithfulness (Matt 23:23). Perhaps this broken, fallen, corrupt and resistant world needs a more radical approach to change?