It appears that our world is retreating into tribalism, that there is an inexorable shift towards unhelpful varieties of identity politics. Whether it be our carefully selected followers and exemplars on social media, or the increasing polarity between left and right in political and cultural discourse, it seems that ‘them’ and ‘us’ is increasingly the order of the day.
In this article, I want to think out loud about the formation of identity groupings, some of the dynamics which inform them, and where the entity of the local church fits or fails to fit within this mindset. The reflections here are at an early stage of development, and it may well be that I will revisit these themes as my thinking further matures.
For now, here are three observations about identity politics and local ministry:
1. Community versus Coalition: Not all social groupings are the same:
This point is not as obvious as it may appear on a first pass. The varieties of groupings in modern society are not only predicated on what their beliefs are, but on what their basis, their raison d’etre, truly is. German sociologist Ferdinand Tönnies famously divided social ties into two main groups, Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft, and these distinctions exercised a huge influence on political and social theory throughout the twentieth century. In rough terms, Gemeinschaft are social ties which are based on community, family, true fraternity, whereas Gesellschaft are more mercantile social bonds which exist for mutual advantage or the advancement of a shared external cause. While Tönnies did not necessarily intend all that his terminology has come to represent, we might helpfully transpose and simplify his thinking in terms of our own contemporary contexts.
Modern society abounds with Gesellschaft, and these are often mistaken as being centres of true fealty and belonging. We might anglicise our terms, and describe these groups as being ‘coalitions’*, gatherings or collectives of people who are engaged with one another and with their world for the sake solely of propagating a cause, or producing capital. Co-operation and co-belligerence are the order of the day in coalitions, and the connections which they forge are by no means organic. In fact, coalitions can (and at times must) straddle other, deeper, associations and dogmas, in the name of achieving a shared end.
By contrast, Gemeinschaft might be transposed to describe true community*. In Christian circles community is an overused and under-defined term which can cover how a church talks about small groups, coffee meet-ups, and conversely the world outside of the church which they are seeking to reach. Churches appoint community workers, do community evangelism, but also talk about living in community with one another. For the purposes of this article ‘community’ is a much deeper and more profound connection than any of the uses outlined above. Community in terms of Gemeinschaft more resembles kin than kirk, family than a shared interest group, true belonging rather than simply identifying; a sense of fraternity which transcends common ideals and works its way into a common life, a common love for one another, and a common concern for the welfare of those within (and outside) its bounds.
Distinguishing these two kinds of grouping is vitally important for the rest of what is shared here, but it is important at a much wider level too. If we understand groupings in our society via the wrong category, or we understand our own life and witness in a misguided way, our ability to share the gospel with confidence will be greatly weakened.
2. Coalition can lead to legalism, community should work from love:
Coalitions are extraordinarily attractive to us as human beings. To ‘sign-up’ or ‘turn-up’ for the sake of a cause which a coalition is championing has a certain frisson, a certain social excitement and currency. Marches, protests, petitions, social media picture frames, wristbands, bumper stickers, rallies and so on give the illusion of cohesion and belonging to those who buy into them, and can provide the husk of community without entailing the hard work of truly relating to one another. At times coalitions are needed, and history proves the power for good that they can be (think of the American civil rights movement for example), but they can also breed nominalism and legalism in frightening measures. My concern here is with the church, so an illustration of how these polar responses look in real life might be helpful.
A coalition mentality which embodies nominalism, means that people can identify with causes and issues which the church propounds without really thinking through what belonging to Christ entails, or what belonging to a church requires. This nominalism might be expressed by identifying with a church because of its stance on pro-life issues, or its understanding of marriage, or its concern for social justice, or any number of other contemporary, hot-button issues. For the nominalist the church provides a handy forum wherein they can have their views voiced by a bigger group, or have the edges of their social beliefs shored up, with little effort or true engagement on their part. In this instance the teaching and reception of the gospel becomes secondary to a perception of having a ‘team’, having a group of people who think and act in similar ways, and believe roughly similar things.
A coalition mentality which embodies legalism, is expressed when people make the cause their gospel, and may even be willing to die for it. The cause du jour becomes the central tenet of the individual’s belief system, and issues of the heart, issues of true agape, of ministry, of speaking the truth in love, of truly committing to other Christians are readily jettisoned. There is nothing biblical nor is there anything edifying about a legalistic coalition mentality, but sadly this can be a socially acceptable way to express one’s ‘faith’. The recitation of the shibboleth, the waving of the flag, the wearing of the team uniform are strictly adhered to with no true thought of the deep soul work which the gospel brings.
Community, on the other hand, is predicated on the true bonds of peace that the believer shares with other believers. Fraternity in the Christian church is not some imagined ideal, or some purpose statement bullet-point, but an objective reality which exists between those who enjoy union with Christ. The entry point to this community is not on the grounds of social issues, or co-belligerence, but solely on the gospel of Christ Jesus alone. Community is formed among Christians when the literally crucial elements of Christ’s incarnation, atonement and resurrection are believed on with sincerity, when these tenets are the indicatives which power all of the other imperatives of how Christians relate to their world and to one another. Under these terms Christian community is not a social construct, but a soteriological consequence of becoming a believer, it is something which is not generated by Christians so much as organically enjoyed by them. This is fellowship, this is the communion of the saints, and it is beautifully captured in the early chapters of Acts where those who had repented of their sin and trusted in Christ were devoted to the marks of being a church, and devoted to the members of that church in deep and sacrificial ways. Community outstrips coalition because it has in it a Spirit-given life principle which energises its expression internally, and vivifies its expression externally in evangelism.
3. Believers must speak to their world through community rather than coalition:
The biblical pattern of the church speaking to its world is through local assemblies of believers who live with one another in love, and speak the truth of the gospel with love to their world. If Christians speak to their neighbours and address the public square via the model of coalition then they will be understood as activists in a cause, rather than participants in Christ, and that is a tragic misunderstanding. There is a place for Christian coalition on important public issues, but this was never designed to be our default way of communicating the core message of our faith. Churches which are composed of believers from the same vicinity, which embody the love of Christ which transcends ethnicity and social class, which set themselves to understand the gospel biblically and dogmatically, and who are determined to express the gospel sacrificially and with integrity, are God’s chosen instrument for winning people to the gospel.
As we listen to much of the uncivil discourse that changes hands on social media, as we watch the gradual disengagement of our contemporaries from face-to-face, person-to-person interaction, the church has a powerful opportunity to show what true gospel community is. This might mean that we need to stand down some of our frankly sinful posturing on social media which we have indulged in with the hope of getting some kudos in a virtual coalition. This will certainly mean starting to view the local church not as a network which you are plugged into, but a body which you belong to and which you are fully invested in. This will mean coming to terms with the depth to which the gospel must go in our hearts, and the true ramifications of our union with Christ and, by extension, other believers.
A coalition is easy for our world to reject as just another special interest group. A true Christian community might be despised by the world, but it cannot be ignored or explained by it, and that can be a powerful first step in people coming to Christ themselves.
*I have borrowed the terms ‘coalition’ and ‘community’ as exclusive terms from Jonathan Sachs’ Radio 4 documentary ‘ Morality in the 21st Century’. The terms were cited by an astute sixth former who participated in the programme.
Andrew Roycroft is pastor of Millisle Baptist Church in Co. Down. N. Ireland