The following insight on church community are from Swiss theologian Karl Barth (1886-1968). Before we get to the four assumptions, it is important to understand Barth’s working definition of community–disciples united in Christ to the cause of God. Barth expresses himself this way…
This task of the disciples, however, is the meaning of the active life of the Christian community which humanly speaking is established by their testimony. This community is the assembly or people of those whom God through Jesus Christ has called with Him and for Him. They, too, are confronted by God’s work as His atoning and saving work, not directly but through Jesus Christ, not in isolation from but in conjunction with Him and therefore with one another, not for their own sake, notwithstanding the reward which they have certainly been promised and will indeed be given, but in obligation to Him and in Him to the causa Dei [cause of God]
If we seek to establish the testimony of Jesus Christ, then the church, must live a vibrant life as the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Here then, according to Barth, are the four assumptions for creating vibrant Christian community.
Assumption #1: Christian community is above culture, skin color, nationality, demographics, and humanity itself.
We assume that the Christian community or Church is a particular people, and therefore that it neither is nor can be identical with humanity or with a natural or historical segment of humanity, as, for example, a nation or the population of a certain territory or country. We assume that it always represents a distinct antithesis to humanity as naturally and historically fashioned and to all the associated groupings. We thus assume that the numerical equation of Christianity, customary since the time of Constantine, with a supposed Christian West, rests on an error which, although it has not arisen without the permissive guidance of God and therefore to some purpose and profit, is still glaring and fatal, and can only result in the self-deception of the Christian community or Church and the hampering of its service. Since its Lord is no other than the One who rules over heaven and earth, it is in fact a peculiar people, assembled and to be assembled from all nations, and existing in dispersion among all nations with its special task and service. It is constituted by the imminent kingdom of God and not by any kind of great or small historical dominion. It has not to look to even the highest interests either of humanity or of this or that greater or smaller human group, but in conflict with humanity and all human groups, and for their salvation, it must serve the particular interest which God in Jesus Christ both willed to take, and in His patience will always take, in humanity. It cannot try to be the Church of the people, but only the Church for the people. Only in this sense can it be the “national” Church.
Assumption #2: Christian community is a living entity and superior to institutions and human organizations.
We assume that by the Christian community or Church is not an establishment or institution organised along specific lines, but the living people awakened and assembled by Jesus Christ as the Lord for the fulfilment of a specific task. In obedience to its Lord this people may and must provide itself with particular institutions, rules, regulations and obligations. But these do not constitute the Christian community; they are themselves made by the Christian community. They are always, it is to be hoped, the best possible and yet changeable forms in which the Christian community is active and undertakes to perform its service. The Christian community does not live as these institutions subsist and are maintained and protected. It lives as it discharges its service to the kingdom of God in the changing, standing and falling of institutions. What it has to do must not be determined by its institutions; its institutions must be determined by what it has to do.
Application #3: Christian community is not an end, but a temporary witness to the person of Jesus Christ.
We assume that the Christian community or Church is in fact the people which has been constituted and given its commission by Jesus Christ its Lord and therefore by the coming kingdom. Its existence, therefore, is not an end in itself. Even the temporal and eternal reward which it has been promised for fulfilling its commission is something apart. It can and should look forward to this with gladness. But the meaning and purpose of its service do not consist in the receiving of it. Nor does it serve in order to satisfy its religious needs, to practise its piety, to live out its religious emotions, and thus to deepen and enrich its own life and possibly to improve or even transform world conditions. Nor does it serve in order to gain the favour of God and finally to attain to everlasting bliss. It serves because the causa Dei [cause of God] is present in Jesus Christ, and because, come what may and irrespective of the greatness or smallness of the result, it imperiously demands the service of its witness.
Assumption #4: Christian community demands that all Her members serve useful roles and that nobody sits on the sidelines of faith.
We assume that the Christian community or Church is the people which as such is unitedly and therefore in all its members summoned to this service. Two common distinctions are herewith abolished. The first is the recognition, far too readily accepted as self-evident especially in many of the Reformation confessions, that the Christian community comprises many dead as well as living members, i.e., Christians only in appearance. The truth is that not merely some or many but all members of the Christian community stand under the sad possibility that they might not be real Christians, and yet that all and not merely some or many are called from death to life and therefore to the active life of service. It is quite impossible, and we have no authority from the New Testament, to admit into the concept of the Christian community a distinction between real and unreal, useful and useless members. That all are useless but that all are used as such is said to all who are gathered into this people. Again, the distinction is also abolished between a responsible part of the community specially called to the service of the Church and a much larger non-responsible part, i.e., between “clergy” and “laity,” officebearers and ordinary Christians. The whole community and therefore all its members are specifically called to this service and are therefore responsible. All are mere “laity” in relation to their Lord, and therefore in truth, yet all are “clergy” in the same relation and therefore in truth. Admittedly, the service is inwardly ordered, so that there are within it different callings, gifts and commissions. Nevertheless, the community is not divided by this ordering into an active part and a passive, a teaching Church and a listening, Christians who have office and those who have not. Strictly, no one has an office; all can and should and may serve; none is ever “off duty.”
To some readers, these 4 assumptions may not seem that radical, but remember, Barth wrote them more than a half-century ago.
Ultimately when the church allows Herself to be defined by racial, political, denominational, or social boundaries, She ceases to be the manifestation of God’s Word among all peoples.
Only when the church puts the Missio Dei above the Missio Humanitas, can She properly minister the hope of salvation.
- How might your view of church been impacted by Barth’s theology?
- Was Barth spot-on with his assumptions, or did he miss the mark?
- What other assumptions can we make about the nature of Christian community?
Barth, Karl, Geoffrey William. Bromiley and Thomas F. Torrance. Church Dogmatics, Volume III: The Doctrine of Creation, Part 4. Edinburgh: T. & T. Clark, 2004. pp 487-489