Community, church, the body of Christ

Living in a community implies shared principles and goals. The extra dimension in a faith community is the relationship of its members with God. Christian communities understand themselves to be the metaphorical body of Christ on earth, otherwise known as ‘the church'.

God's people in the Old Testament

The community of the Jews, or the people of Israel, in the Old Testament, believed that they were God's chosen people. This belief was based on a covenant or solemn undertaking of mutual commitment between God and his people. They believed that God had said:

‘I will put my law in their minds and write it on their hearts. I will be their God, and they will be my people' (Jeremiah 31:31-33).

The Christian Community

In the New Testament, Paul explains that through the death of Jesus, relationship with God is no longer restricted to the Jews, but is offered to everyone who believes that Jesus is God's son. The community of God's people, the church, therefore expanded so that Jews and non-Jews could become ‘fellow-citizens … and members of the family of God' (Ephesians 2:19).

A series of metaphors are used to describe the church, the close-knit Christian communities of those who believe in Christ. They are:

A Building

Paul uses this metaphor when he writes to the Christian believers at Ephesus:

Christ Jesus himself is the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit' (Ephesians 2:20-22).

Vine image available through Creative CommonsA Vine

Jesus uses an agricultural image:

 ‘I am the true vine, and my Father is the gardener … you are the branches. If a man remains in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit' (John 15:1-8).

A Body

The most powerful image of the community of Christians is that of the Body of Christ. Paul writes about this in several of his letters, making the point that all the parts of the body are essential for it to function properly:

‘Christ is like a single body, which has many parts … God put every different part in the body just as he wanted it to be … All of you are Christ's body, and each one is a part of it' (1 Corinthians 12:12; 1 Corinthians 12:18; 1 Corinthians 12:27).

Paul explains therefore that within a Christian community, different people have different roles, for the common good, but that Christ is the head of the body.

Love one another

As he prepared them for his death, Jesus told his disciples that love for each other should be the distinguishing feature of their community:

‘A new command I give you: love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another' (John 13:34-35).

The early chapters of the book of Acts record how this was put into practice by the first Christians:

‘All the believers were together and had everything in common. Selling their possessions and goods, they gave to anyone as he had need' (Acts 2:44-45).

An early Christian writer, Tertullian, claimed that pagans often made the comment, 'See how these Christians love one another.' In Colossians 3:12-17, Paul lays down some principles for relationships and behaviour within Christian communities including showing compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forgiveness and love. Inevitably, through history, Christian communities have not always been known for these qualities.

Being salt and light in the world

Salt basketWithin the wider community, Jesus told his followers that they should be like salt and light (see Big ideas: Salt; Light), that is, to be a purifying influence, and to expose evil:

‘You are the salt of the earth … You are the light of the world … Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven' (Matthew 5:13-16).

Christians through the centuries have been motivated by their faith to be like salt and light in the world, bringing about changes in society. Examples include William Wilberforce, motivated by his faith to expose the evils of the transatlantic slave trade and seek its abolition, and Lord Shaftesbury, who brought about the reform of working conditions for women and children.

Related topics

Big ideas: Salt; Light

Other cultural references

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