At times, a fake thing can be as good than the real thing. For example, a reprint of a Rembrandt has the appearances of authenticity and will look just about the same in a frame on the wall. But it’s not the real thing. It isn’t the work of Rembrandt. It is a cheap knockoff. That’s all well and good and far cheaper for the one who isn’t an art enthusiast. However, to the art enthusiast, there are clear signs that a reprint is just that—a reprint. A fake. There are signs that mark an original work, that clearly set it apart from any fake reproductions or reprints. But unless you know what those signs are, you probably would never know the difference. The fake reprint could pass as an original Rembrandt.
When it comes to our life together, what are the signs that our community is the real thing? What are the markers of authentic Christian community? What distinguishes community birthed out of the gospel of Jesus from all other forms and types of community? In other words, how do we know we have the real thing?
Needing nothing nor constrained by anything, the eternal Triune community of love overflowed in the creation of others outside himself, namely human beings who bear his image, that they together might share in and reflect his community of love to others.
To answer that question, it will be helpful to clarify what true Christian community is not. First, it is not confined to place. True and distinctively Christian community is not rooted in a particular geography or in a particular building. If this were the case, Christian community would be contingent upon our being in a certain place, like a worship center. When we leave that particular place, we would leave community behind as well. One can go to a symphony and enjoy the community of fellow listeners and, having been entertained, depart from the symphony hall leaving the community of the crowd behind. This type of community is bound only by a shared desire to enjoy or consume. It is a selfish community who cares little for others and much for appeasing one’s appetite to consume the product or service offered only in a certain place. This cannot be true and distinctively Christian community.
Second, true and distinctively Christian community is not grounded in our relationships with others. It is not ultimately derived from our shared experience with others as friends or neighbors or co-workers. If this were the case, Christian community would be contingent upon circumstances and preferences which change as constantly as the seasons. Often without warning the threads that hold circumstantial and preferential relationships together suddenly dissolve. This can even be said of local church involvement. We are currently members together of Mountain Park, but if one in our membership should leave preferring another style of corporate singing, we would no longer be bound together as local church members. This type of community is knit together only as long as shared circumstances and preferences permit. It is a community whose relationships with one another are ultimate self-serving, whose limits are reached when there is no benefit returned to self. Neither can this be true and distinctively Christian community.
The mark of authenticity embedded in true Christian community is love.
Having excluded these two types of community from true and distinctively Christian community, we can now see more clearly the markers of the real thing and answer with certainty the question at hand—how do we know we have the real thing?
In short, the mark of authenticity embedded in true Christian community is love—chiefly for God and secondly for others. Though this sounds simple enough, it is in actuality incredibly profound. Consider that God is himself a perfect, eternal community of love in the happy fellowship of Father, Son and Spirit. Needing nothing nor constrained by anything, the eternal Triune community of love overflowed in the creation of others outside himself— namely human beings who bear his image—that they together might share in and reflect his community of love to others. The well from which true and distinctly Christian community springs up is this—the community of love of the Triune God. This means that unlike the previous types of communities, Christian community is not conditional—either upon geography or preference or any other sort of condition. Because love always looks to extend blessing beyond itself, it is in this way infinite. It is eternal—always striving, always pursuing its beloved.
If the community we have received from God with one another is not overflowing to bring love and life to others outside our community, we do not have true and distinctively Christian community. We have something lesser.
Therefore, true and distinctive Christian community is not an unrealized ideal. It is a constant eternal reality. Community is the reality into which our salvation has swept us. We together, the church, have been saved from sin and death into into fellowship with God who is a community of love. We have been saved by community for community. This is why Jesus says the world will know that we are his disciples if we love one another. The community of the church is to be a reflection of the community of love of Father, Son and Spirit whose love overflows freely and without constraint to others. As God has given us his own life-giving Community, we likewise are to gift our community to bring life to others.
If the community we have received from God with one another is not overflowing to bring love and life to others outside our community, we do not have true and distinctively Christian community. We have something lesser. We possess some fake knockoff that may appear to be authentic but proves in the final analysis to be reprint. Like a reproduction of a Rembrandt, it can never stand up to the original. It will never be what it claims to be.
Moreover, it will never be what God calls our community to be. That is, it will never make disciples. It will fail to extend the life-giving love and blessing of the gospel to others. It is only when we embrace the paradox of the community given us by God that we will be faithful together to God’s design for our community. In the giving away of our community, our community grows and we find together supreme joy and benefit because it is then that our community bears the likeness of its Giver—the God whose love has pursued us to the grave to call us out of death and into his eternal life.