As you come to him, the living Stone […] you also, like living stones, are being built into a spiritual house […]. You are a chosen people, a holy nation, a special possession (1 Peter 2:4-5, 9).
In conversation this morning, I was struck by the depth of this passage. If we take this seriously, we need to change our theology and our practice of church in a radical way.
Even if not everyone with whom I speak agrees with me entirely on this point, there is a general recognition that the Christian life works better when you have like-minded people around you to help support you and keep you on the right track. People may not always live as if this is true (and in fact most of us are tempted to run away from community when we are in a jam or know we have done something wrong), but if asked, it would not be an uncommon response to say that it is better to have people around rather than fly solo. So we have a sense of the value of community in regard to discipleship. We cannot live an optimal Christian life without meaningful connection to other Christ-followers.
But can we live any type of Christian at all when out of touch with others who have made a commitment to Jesus?
When we think of salvation, I think it is a safe bet to say that we largely think about it in individual terms. I often hear
“I was saved in university” or “I want you to pray that my friend find Jesus.” Salvation in this paradigm is a largely personal — even private — response. Whether I am getting into heaven is between Jesus and me. I will come to church on Sundays and do all the Christians things, and the community of Christ followers can help me along, but whether or not I am in God’s good books and how I respond (or don’t respond) to the grace that he has shown me, is for me to know and decide. In the end, this creates a community of discrete individuals who each discretely access God on a personal level.
Again I ask: Is it possible to be a Christian at all outside of a community of Christ-followers?
This text from 1 Peter offers a very different picture than the one we are used to seeing. Peter here says that God is interested in the people of God as a cohesive whole. We may each be individual living stones, but what good is a stone by itself — it needs to be slotted into place beside all the other stones in order to make something bigger than itself — in this case a “spiritual house.” Peter uses other examples: a singular “holy people,” not just a collection of individually holy people. We as the community of faith are a singular “special possession.” Elsewhere in the Scriptures the Lord speaks of “the bride of Christ.” This is the singular, cohesive Church. There is one singular bride of Christ, not a collection of individual brides waiting to be swept up in Jesus’ arms. I do want to very much affirm the need for each person to make his or her own personal commitment to Jesus, but if it stays there, as it often does, we are getting but the smallest fraction of the picture.
Jesus is interested in what the Church is as a whole. We have a duty and an obligation to each other to protect the reputation of the Church. We have a responsibility to spur one another holiness, because the Church together ought to be moving forward and together, as one body, be experiencing God’s power and majesty as one. There is a sense in which the entire church is receiving His grace and is in the process of being saved. We are a singular community that expresses a collective will and obedience. It is the reality that certain individuals to choose to walk away from or disregard the truth of the Gospel, but Jesus promises that the gates of Hell will never overcome the Church as a whole (Mt. 16:18).
This is actually a very Catholic notion. I am convinced that the greatest failing of the Protestant movement from the very get-go (its Achilles heel, if you will) is the individualization of salvation — boiling it down into a transaction between a person and God, totally stripped of the involvement of that person in a worshipping community and significantly disempowering that community to call that person to a lifestyle commensurate with the decision to follow Jesus. I understand that the Protestant Reformers made this change in the face of an autocratic and often spiritually abusive medieval Catholic Church that had a stranglehold on all roads of access to God.
But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is a very old Catholic dictum that reads “Extra ecclesiam nulla salus” — outside the Church there is not salvation. While I hardly agree with the original intent of this saying: that God is unable to bring salvation without the Church’s knowing about it and administering the sacraments, I do want to affirm that a person divorced from meaningful engagement in a faith community and wilfully not making strides toward obedience to Christ, is potentially in serious danger. The lone Christian is an unbiblical myth. God will be the final judge and arbiter over all circumstances and people, but the Bible would seem to indicate that a person who makes a faith commitment to Christ but wilfully does not connect into Christian community, has not made much of a faith commitment at all. Such a person has missed the communal act of receiving salvation and the moving forward on the journey toward obedience that can only happen within community. And this by and large the position of the Church for the first 1500 years of its existence.
I welcome your thoughts and comments.