Perspectives on Christian Community and Communal Living

What do you think about the current emphasis on communal living in some Christian circles? We're seriously worried about a couple of close friends of ours. Over the past year they've become increasingly obsessed with the idea of creating "community." Now they want us to sell our home, move with them to a rural area, and help them start a Christian "commune." We're really struggling with this. For one thing, the idea sounds "cultic." For another, we have a feeling that they're motivated to do this primarily because they have problems with authority, especially in the local church. They also seem to want to escape the responsibilities of modern life. Are our concerns off base?

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It’s easy to understand why you have concerns about your friends interest in starting a Christian “commune.” From a contemporary American perspective, this is a rather strange and unusual idea. Nowadays most of us tend to associate the word “commune” with left-wing political extremism or abusive and theologically misguided cultic groups. This perspective isn’t unreasonable. We all know that it has a pretty firm basis in fact. Nevertheless, the connection isn’t necessarily valid. We’d suggest that you won’t be able to think this question through clearly until you realize this. As a matter of fact, experiments in communal Christian living can be positive, beneficial, and God-honoring if they’re carried out in the right way. Everything depends on the people involved and their reasons for doing what they’re doing.

If you study history, you’ll discover that there has always been a strong impetus toward communal expressions of the Christian life within the orthodox church. This tradition has solid biblical roots. It goes all the way back to the early Christian community in Jerusalem (Acts 4:32-37). It has manifested itself again and again over the past twenty centuries in an almost endless variety of forms. It has found expression in everything from the primitive monastic communities of the ancient Desert Fathers to the early American Shakers to the present-day Hutterian Brethren. Catholic monks and nuns live in community. So do certain groups who are heavily involved in inner-city ministry, such as Sojourners and Harambee House, or outreach to the rural poor, such as Rev. John Perkins’s Mendenhall Ministries. In and of itself, the desire to create a strong, vital, and visible communal demonstration of what it means to live as brothers and sisters in Christ is a worthy goal.

There’s a sense in which all believers are called to this same high and holy endeavor, whether we live in a “commune” or not. We are meant to be “strangers,” “aliens,” and “sojourners” in the world (1 Peter 1:1). Whether we know it or not, we are a “called out” (Greek ekklesia) and “separate” community (2 Corinthians 6:17; Revelation 18:4). We are a distinctly set apart “city on a hill” (Matthew 5:14). This is what the church is really all about. The reason Paul had to remind the early Christians to submit to and cooperate with earthly authorities (Romans 13:1) was that they were so keenly aware of belonging to another kingdom and owing full allegiance to another Lord.

The downside to all of this, of course, is that it’s very difficult to make the dream work in the real world. You should be aware of this and your friends should be warned about it in no uncertain terms. If they have issues with authority now, they’re going to have serious problems once they get down to the practical logistics of organizing and maintaining a genuinely biblical and Christ-honoring community. To a certain extent, respect for proper authority is more important in that setting than almost anywhere else. Groups like this cannot survive unless someone is acknowledged to be “in charge.” Some of them fall apart almost immediately for lack of adequate authority. Others turn ugly and repressive and embrace heretical doctrines in an attempt to maintain control over their members. Anyone who has ever actually tried to do what your friends are proposing will tell you that it’s extremely hard to pull it off successfully. That’s the way it is when sinful, fallen human beings attempt to live together in close proximity.

If you’d like to talk about this at greater length, call our staff of pastoral counselors. They’d love to speak with you over the phone.


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