World Council of Churches

A worldwide fellowship of churches seeking unity, a common witness and Christian service

Study VIII: Community

The study guide My Neighbour's Faith and Mine: Theological discoveries through interfaith dialogue, was published by the WCC in 1986. Since then it has been translated into numerous languages and used widely.

01 January 1986

A. The Christian community and the community of humankind

1. Texts
Consider the following texts from the Bible:

a) When the rainbow appears in the clouds, I will see it and remember the everlasting covenant between human beings and all living beings on earth. That is the sign of the promise which I am making to all living beings.
Genesis 9.16-17

b) The Lord says, "I am making a new earth and new heavens. The events of the past will be completely forgotten... Wolves and lambs will eat together; lions will eat straw, as cattle do, and snakes will no longer be dangerous. On Zion, my sacred hill, there will be nothing harmful or evil."
Isaiah 65.17, 24-25

c) He said therefore, "What is the Kingdom of God like? And to what shall I compare it? It is like a grain of mustard seed which a man took and sowed in his garden; and it grew and became a tree, and the birds of the air made nests in its branches."
Luke 13:18-19

Community is basic to Christian faith. The communion of believers is rooted in our understanding of God as Trinity. We see the community of the church as the body of Christ. There are many beautiful images of the church as a community. See, for example, Paul's image of the Body and its many parts in 1 Corinthians 12.12-30 and Peter's image of a house of living stones in 1 Peter 2.

The texts above, however, take us beyond ourselves to the larger community which is God's goal for creation. Although our community, our family so to speak, is the church, the kingdom of God is larger than the church. The hospitality of the kingdom, like that of a great tree, is widespreading. The kingdom of God stretches our minds and hearts towards a larger vision of the transformed human community that God intends.

What do we mean when we, as Christians, speak of "community"? Our own particular, familiar community of the church? The wider "community of communities" that is humankind? The envisioned community of the kingdom of God? We have long had a certain tension within Christian thinking as to where the emphasis should be. This tension is suggested in the text from the 1977 WCC consultation on "Dialogue in Community", held in Chiang Mai, Thailand.

As Christians, therefore, we are conscious of a tension between the Christian community as we experience it to be in the world of human communities, and as we believe it in essence to be in the promise of God. The tension is fundamental to our Christian identity. We cannot resolve it, nor should we seek to avoid it. In the heart of this tension we discover the character of the Christian Church as a sign at once of people's need for fuller and deeper community, and of God 's promise of a restored human community in Christ. Our consciousness of the tension must preclude any trace of triumphalism in the life of the Christian Church in the communities of humankind. It must also preclude any trace of condescension towards our fellow human beings. Rather it should evoke in us an attitude of real humility towards all peoples since we know that we together with all our brothers and sisters have fallen short of the community which God intends.

Guidelines on Dialogue, paragraph 14.

2. Discussion and questions
Discuss the texts that speak of a universal covenant and community. Where do hey come from, and what do you think is their meaning? What images does the New Testament give us of the community of the church? Read the passage mentioned above where Paul speaks of the one body with its many members, or where Peter speaks of the house of living stones. What other New Testament adjectives or images describe the nature of the Christian community? What adjectives or images would you use to describe the Christian community today?

a) What do you think is the relation of the particular community we call the church to the wider community envisioned in the kingdom of God?

b) What should be the relation of our own local church or our denominational "family" to the worldwide church? What should be the relation of the Christian family to other families of faith?

c) What is the theological basis for our thinking about the Christian community and its role in the wider community of humankind? How would you describe the Christian community of women and men, clergy and laity, of denominational diversities, to someone of another faith community?

B. Understanding of community in other religions

1. Texts
The concept of community is also basic to other faiths, as is the question of how one particular community relates to the larger or worldwide human community. For Jews, for example, being part of the community is much more than being a member of a group. It is participation in a covenant relationship with God. While God's covenant with Noah was a universal covenant with all humankind, God's covenant with Abraham is understood as unique to the Jews.

Muslims have a very strong sense of the particularity of their community, but they see Islam as the one community which transcends all barriers and is the ultimate expression of God's will for all people. Some Muslims may even speak of the ummat al-da 'wa, the ummah (community) of hope, extending the Muslim vision of community not just to Muslims, but to all who willingly share in God's mission on earth.

The Buddhist sangha (community) is the fellowship of those monks and nuns who have committed themselves to a life of spiritual discipline, but the larger chatursangha, the "community of the four directions", includes both monks and laity and may be seen as the embodiment of the truth of the Buddha. Again, in African traditions, the sense of community extends beyond the immediate generation of people to those who have ceased to exist in the body, to spirits, and to nature.

There is today an increasing awareness of the need for a wider community, transcending traditional boundaries of race, nation, and religion. Clearly the importance of envisioning a wider community is recognized by people of other faiths as well. Listen to these testimonies:

a) Jainism does not regard birth in a family as of much consequence, since it does not recognize the caste system, but judges everyone by his way of life. We all live and thrive on the services of numerous beings, known and unknown; hence it is but appropriate that all of us render service to our fellow beings to help their progress. . . Mutual understanding and tolerance heighten the joy of social and ethical life to pave the way for fellow-feeling and brotherhood. With that end in view, Jain thinkers propounded... the doctrine of many points-of-view to infuse the spirit of tolerance and breadth of vision, enlightened by generous outlook on other religions and their principles ....

J.K. Tukol in Religion in the Struggle for World Community, Proceedings of WCRP III, ed., Homer A. Jack, New York, 1980, p. 234.

b) Islam teaches us that a consequence of belief in the oneness of God is an appreciation of the unity of all mankind. The Qur'an emphasizes that all men were created from one man: God blew His spirit into Adam who, according to several verses of the Qur'an, was the original man. Man is not uniform in all aspects, but Islam teaches us that the differences in language and way of life of various nations and groups of men are signs of God's greatness. Within this context it is also pointed out that mankind is basically one, and that therefore all nations and groups of men should endeavour to come to an agreement on various fundamental points, the most essential of which is the belief that God is One and that all men belong to one family.

H.A. Mukti Ali, "Religions, Nations and the Search for a World Community", in Christian Muslim Dialogue, eds S.J. Samartha and J.B. Taylor, WCC, 1973.

c) Here two persons belonging to two religious communities are attempting to show how their religious tradition does recognize the need to acknowledge and be part of a wider community. In the following text, a Hindu challenges us that all religious traditions are in serious need of rethinking the way they have understood the nature of the community they seek:

Time has come for world religions to make a new departure. Confronted as they are with fundamental problems of human survival and destiny, they have both the responsibility and the opportunity to cooperate with one another in the promotion of human community and well-being. There are differences between them and will continue to be, and they need to be respected and preserved...

Traditional theology, developed in religious isolation, has now become inadequate, if not obsolete; it does not permit the different religious traditions to live side by side in friendly cooperation. Religious conflict has become tragic and pointless; no single religious tradition can expect to displace all the other religions. As far as we can see, human community will continue to be religiously pluralistic. Each religion should come to terms with this fact, and attempt to do justice to the religious experience of mankind as a whole. By a deep and a thorough investigation of its respective heritage, each tradition should open up a new spiritual horizon hospitable to the faiths of other people. The future usefulness of any religious tradition depends on its ability to cooperate with other traditions.

K.L. Seshagiri Rao, "Human Community and Religious Pluralism - a Hindu Perspective", in Dialogue in Community, ed. C.D. Jathannna, Mangalore, India, The Karnataka Theological Research Institute, 1982, p. 162.

2. Discussion and questions
How do the people of other faiths in your area think of their own community? How do they think of themselves in relation to the wider, more diverse community around them, which includes you as Christians? Invite people from that community to discuss with you the question of what is particular and what is common in our experience and understanding of community.

a) Together, describe the communities in your area. Where does your life in community naturally intersect? Where is your community life carried on separately?

b) Are there particular areas where you need greater understanding of one another's sense of community? In questions of marriage or intermarriage? At times of festivals or holy days?

c) Discuss the relation of women and men in your respective communities. Are changes occurring in the role and image of both women and men?

d) What are the major reasons for conflict within and between religious communities? Can you illustrate from your own experience? What do you think is the role of religions in the search for peace and the resolving of conflicts? Think of examples where religions have served as agents of reconciliation.