Sunday, May 30, 2010

Family, Community and Communitarianism

[continued from here and here]

What should be the emphases in church life? How are people in churches to live together? Of course, we are to love our brothers and sisters in the Lord (Rom. 12:10), but what are the specifics of church life beyond that?

The House Church model promoted by anti-institutionalist Frank Viola in his book Reimagiing Christianity (Colorado Springs, CO, USA: David C. Cook, 2008) promotes a communitarian way of doing church, as based upon his idea of the Social Trinitarian analogue which we have previously discussed. Viola states the link explicitly as follows:

As we have already established, the church envisioned in the New Testament is an ecclesial community that's modeled after the triune God. Father, Son and Spirit are all related. Their familial fellowship is both the source and the goal of the church (1 John 1:1-3)

The Godhead lives in everlasting reciprocity with each of its members. For that reason, the church is called to be a reciprocal community above everything else. Or in other words, a family.

Because we are made in the likeness and image of God, we are only truly human when we are living in community. ...

(p. 108)

The church, then, is not only to proclaim the gospel, but to embody it by its communitarian life (p. 147)

In Viola's view therefore, Christian "body-life" is to be lived in a communitarian manner. Viola further charged the "church in the West" to be "dominated by individualistic, anticommunal forces" (p. 147), which are clearly in his view unbiblical.

The most explicit picture (literally) of what communitarianism means in the life of the church is painted vividly by Viola in his book as follows:

[Narrated by a lady who shared with Viola what had happened in her house church]

This Valentine's Day, the brothers put on a grand hoopla for us sisters. They told us to dress up formally and wait for them at one of the sisters' homes. This would turn out to be an elegant occasion. Three of the brothers showed up. They were dressed formally with suits and ties. They brought a vase full of white tulips. They gave each of us a white tulip to hold. They told us how we represent the tulips. The white was for the purity of Christ; the green stem was for the life of Christ in us.

Then they took a picture of all of us so we would remember this evening. They escorted us to another house. We waited outside. What would happen next was a surprise. We had no idea. They told us that there was an artist in town. And he has opened up his art gallery to us. Finally, the doors were opened and we walked in. There was a tour guide who escorted us into the house. The first stop was an exhibit: a tree in a potted plant. It had on it a poem that talked about what each of us sisters represented to the Lord. The poem equated us to different parts of the tree. We found pictures of each of us sisters on the leaves. It was very moving.

At each exhibit, several of the brothers were role playing, telling each other what the exhibits were about. They stayed in character the whole time. They were in an art museum.

The next exhibit was a collage of brothers holding together pieces of a sign. Each sign contained a word. The words together spelled out a romantic poem that expressed Christ's love for His church.

The next exhibit was a heart put in a frame. A big red heart. Cut out in the middle of the heat was a man and a woman holding hands. Inside the man were all the brothers' faces in the church cut out to make a collage that made up the image of the man. Inside the image of the woman were all the sisters' faces cut out to make a collage. ... (p. 113-114. Bold added)

Communitarianism in this case can be clearly seen in the imagery of the art exhibit, as described in bold text aboe. All the brothers are corporately identified as one and the sisters likewise, and both groups make up the one [centered] community.

Preliminary analysis

Before we analyze the subject, what exactly is communitarianism? Communitarianism comes from the word "community", and thus it focuses on the community as the center of life/decision making/truth etc [1]. To put it simply (as much as I can simplify it), the community however defined (defined differently depending on the context) is the center as opposed to the individual. Sociologically, it can be said to be a third way between the individualism in Capitalism and the collectivism in Communism

Social communitarianism as espoused by Viola is the theory that a social unit of a community, in this case a "church community", is the center of the church. The individuals making the community are not individually important but corporately important, for since the community is the center, the community is what that matters. Individuals only matter insomuch as they make up the community, but they are not treasured for their own individuals' sakes. What this all means more concretely will be shown in due time when we consider the differences between the Biblical model and the Social communitarian model.

The first preliminary critique to to state that the opposite of an error may not necessarily be true, in the same way as the opposite of legalism (salvation by keeping laws) which is antinomianism (against the keeping of laws) is not true. Viola may rightly deplore the radical individualism of the West, but the opposite of collectivism in Communitarianism is not by elimination necessarily true either.

Secondly, there is no basis for the Social trinitarian analogue which is the foundation for the surface anti--authoritarian Communitarian theory put forward by Viola. While communitarianism may be true, Viola's argument for it is most definitely not since it is based upon an unbiblical theory invented by apostates.

With this settled, we will look more in depth into the issue. But in order to do that, we must see what is the biblical teaching of relational praxis in the church.

Biblical teaching

Firstly, the foundation for any teaching about people within the church must start with soteriology or the doctrine of salvation, for people are saved into the church. Even infants who are baptized into the church are baptized based upon the promises of God for the salvation of covenant children (Acts 2:39), not that they are just placed into the church regardless of whether they are or are not saved at some time in their life. Soteriology therefore is prior to ecclesiology, and we must thus look at soteriology first to inform us about the relational praxis that should be in the church.

All people that are saved are saved individually by grace through faith (Eph. 2:8-9). Believers are individually and personally elected and chosen unto salvation (cf Rom. 9:13, Eph. 1:4-11), personally adopted by Christ (cf Eph. 1:5). Salvation therefore is an individual affair dependent on the person's faith, and faith cannot be forced on a person as it is an inward attitude and not mere external compliance.

Salvation involves adoption into God's family the church. We are first and foremost saved individually, then placed as individuals into God's family. Yet though we are individuals when saved, God saves through the covenant line, and thus the creational and redemptive aspects meet in the believing covenant family (Eph. 6:1-4).

The ordering of relations for a Christian therefore is firstly, between God and man one-to-one, then secondly, between man and his covenant family (if any), and then thirdly, between a man/woman and the church. This is the priority in relational praxis that is taught by Scripture

Secondly, the model for relational praxis is clearly taught by Scripture in typology. Christ is the head of the church as the husband is the head of the wife (cf Eph. 5:23). Christ is the bridegroom of the church analogically to the relation of the husband to his wife. That is the analogy Scripture has made, and the celebration of marriage and the emphasis on the family is central to all of Scripture. The focus on relational praxis in the church therefore should similarly prioritize families as taught by Scripture

Critical Analysis of Viola's Communitarianism

The first critique that can be immediately made of Viola's Communitarianism is that it violates the biblical ordering of relations. Biblical Christianity starts off with the relation between God and the individual one-to-one. In this sense, Christianity IS individualistic. In God's eyes, believers are first loved and saved individually logically (not temporally) before they are placed into the church. Individuals then make up the community of believers. Communitarianism with its center on the community logically prior to individuals reverse the relational order that is found in the redemptive order. (It also violates the creational order too since men are made by God in His image (Imago Dei) logically before being born into society, but I am not dealing with political communitarianism here!)

Community therefore is not, contrary to Viola and his Emergent friends, the focus of Scripture. While church is a community of saints, it is first and foremost a community of saints before being a community of saints, which is incidentally why the fact of fellowship itself is to be grounded upon absolute objective Truth (cf Jn. 17:17,19) and not the other way around.

The second major critique is that communitarianism embraces the wrong model for relational praxis and therefore trivializes the family and God's love for His church. The model for relational praxis within the church is the one stated explicitly in Scripture — the relation between a husband and wife to form a family unit. A husband is to love his wife in a way that reflects the love that Christ has for His church. While community is important, it takes a backseat to the family unit which is not only the foundation for the creational order, but for the redemptive order too within the church.

As Christians, we do not believe in any sort of polygamy or generically polyamory (multiple "loves" or partners). Yet the communitarian view moves towards such albeit on the emotional level. In Viola's fan's narrating of her house church Valentine's Day's event, the picture of the brothers being likened to an individual man while all the sisters being likened to an individual woman trivializes the marriage typology by opening what should be a special love within the couple into indiscriminate "deep" love within the church. There is a reason why love within the marriage relationship is to be special and not shared with others. If such love is made common, it is emotionally polyamory and thus adulterous in nature. While sharing is often a virtue, this does not apply to love within a marriage. Whoever does not believe that is welcome to try to see whether their spouse would be happier if their special marital relationship is opened up to include more parties. After all, isn't it good not to discriminate and "share the love"?

By trivializing the special love within a couple and making that into deeper relationships within the church body, Communitarianism takes what should be a special love between a husband and a wife and desecrates it in forming a "deep" church community. In practice, such community churches extol the idea of "deep sharing" of everything to all within that particular church community, and decry any form of reticence to share as being contrary to Christian love. I have previously personally visited one communitarian church myself, and was astonished at the plea for greater "transparency" and sharing from the pulpit, as if trust is an inherent right to be demanded and not earned. Not to mention the sheer naivete that goes into the statement as if all members and visitors to that church are all perfected saints who would not backstab them.

Another practical problem with Commuitarianism in desecrating and making vulgar the special love between a couple is distorting the manner by which our emotional needs are to be fulfilled. Being initially intended within a family, profaning such love makes the emotional component of marriage superfluous if done perfectly. It furthermore serves to at least partially satisfy the emotional needs of especially single men and women that are to be sought in marriage. Such is a violation of God's plan for His people, and such people would be emotionally dependent in the wrong way as such is not God's plan for them.

The answer

The biblical answer to Communitarianism is Covenant Theology, with its proper balance between the individual's personal relationship to God and the idea of Covenant headship whereby we are seen also in light of the covenant. God condescends to save us by making Christ our representative head of the Covenant of Grace He makes with us corporately, yet our entrance into the Covenant of Grace is through the individualistic notion of personal faith in Christ. We are saved through our corporate union with Christ (cf Rom. 5:15-20, 6:1-11), yet this union is achieved by grace through personal faith in Him (Eph. 2:8-9).

In like manner, Covenant Theology puts everything into proper perspective. The amorphous "community" is not the center for human relations but the family is. That is where God would be greatly glorified when the family functions as God has designed it to do. While church community is important, we move from us as individuals to families to the church, not the other way around as Communitarianism does. We do love our brothers and sisters in Christ, but such love cannot be the type of "deep" indiscriminate love to all in the church.


In conclusion, communitarianism is an error which should not be embraced by the church. While subtle and seemingly minute, it leads to church life praxis that is poles apart from what Scripture actually teaches on the subject. May we not hear the siren call for "deep" fellowship and in so doing create false dependencies which are not commanded by Christ. Friendship and fellowship with the brethren may be deep for we all do make close friends (and some more than others), but it should never be indiscriminate and profanely given to all merely because they are Christians.


[1] For more technical information on Communitarianism, check out the article "Communitarianism" from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy here (

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