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The Christian community’s order as a model of Western civil order

By Peter Sellick - posted Thursday, 29 April 2004

As I have been thinking about my last article on On Line Opinion I have come to the conclusion that its sins of omission were great indeed, especially as I have continued my reading of John Howard Yoder. What was omitted was any suggestion that the Christian community would be ordered in a particular way and that this ordering is the proper ordering of society. Such an ordering is not confined to those who believe but stands as a truth for all humanity. For if the ordering of the Christian community is grounded in the truth about human life, that truth should also be applicable to society as a whole, even if the majority does not own the Christian confession. After all, truth is truth whether it is believed or not.

The Christian community finds its ordering in the person and work of Jesus who gathered together disciples to participate in that ordering. While latent in Judaism, this was an ordering that was radically different from that of the Greek and Roman worlds in that it was not based on power or hierarchy or any kind of coercion. Neither was it “thought” into being from some concern for the common good or the perfectibility of society or from the forces of economics. Rather, it was lived into being and is thus a truly incarnate reality. This ordering is celebrated in public worship. Yoder gives five civil imperatives that are found “within the vision of the first Christians”:

  1. egalitarianism as implied by baptism into one body.
  2. socialism as implied in the Eucharist,
  3. forgiveness,
  4. the open meeting,
  5. the universality of giftedness. (For the Nations, p33)

A brief summary of these imperatives will highlight how they are lived and expressed by the Christian community.

When a child is baptised he or she becomes a full member of a community of equals, all have died in Christ and are deemed to have received the Spirit. There can be no hierarchy in the Christian community apart from a hierarchy of service. This is enacted in baptism and also in the foot washing liturgy of Maundy Thursday.

The entire baptised are fed at the Eucharistic table, they all drink of the one cup and eat of the one loaf. The egalitarianism of the baptised is further enacted around the table. This is a shared meal that indicates a wider sharing in the bounty of the world.

Forgiveness is enacted in the prayers of confession and absolution and also in the words of the Lord’s Prayer. Again we need to be reminded of the radical nature of this when compared to many communities for which revenge is an integral part of the social structure. The increasing insistence on accountability in our own society threatens to erase forgiveness from public life. If things go wrong, heads have to roll even if it is shown that those heads were not in a position to prevent those wrongs happening.

The Christian community is grounded on revelation, the revealing of things previously hidden. Civil processes that are guarded by secrecy are therefore anathema. We are promised that in Jesus “the thoughts of many will be revealed”. The open meeting in which all may speak is the model for democracy indeed a better model than that of the Greek or even that proposed by Jefferson in the American Declaration of Independence, both of which were very narrow charters.

The Christian community recognises that each individual is endowed with gifts that are at the service of that community (1Corintians 12). Paul argues for an inversion of the values of the world when he tells us that the weaker parts of the body are to be accorded greater honor. This leveling of society gives as much honor to the blue-collar worker as is due to the highest-paid CEO. All work is honorable if it is used to build up the body. This is a model of socialism that does not countenance slackers; all have their part to play.


Yoder tells us that this ordering only comes about through the faith and hope engendered by the Christian community. Our expectation that it can be imposed on unbelievers is a mistake left over from the Constantinian church in which all were believers by decree. We cannot expect unbelievers to be able to produce this ordering either in their own lives or in society because they do not have the advantages of being trained in the discipleship of Christ. The danger of imposition, of coercion, is that the incarnate becomes ideological; it is abstracted into a principle and detached from its proper context, the worshipping Christian community. Thus, grace easily becomes political correctness. This is what happens when the Christian virtues are untethered from their context. “Love” becomes something that we assume that all can just do without instruction about what love is. When the Beetles sing “all you need is love” they sing a lie because love is abstracted from the One who taught us that love is hard won. Love requires the death of the self because we are called to love the unlovable, even our enemy.

When Christian virtue is abstracted from the community of faith it makes the transition between an ordering of life that is based on service and patience and an ordering that is based on power and coercion. It becomes instrumental and loses its proper depth in the human consciousness. We find Christians talking about empowerment as though the antidote to repression and poverty is power. This is not a Christian solution for: “God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are… “(1 Cor 1:28 NRSV). The ethics of the Christian community cannot, therefore, be generalised into a universal ethics, to attempt to do so is to transfer their ethos into the power structures of the world and destroy them. This is not to say that there is no vigorous conversation between the church and society but it does mean that the church does not sell its wares in a way that cuts the roots of their nurture.

It is tempting to look at Yoder’s five points and come to the conclusion that liberal democracy is their fulfillment. To give due credit, liberal democracy would not exist without the Christian faith and we can point to the fact that our civil institutions, at their best, strive to accommodate the five points. This is a happy thing. But it does not make us a Christian nation. While we have been formed by the teachings of the church and, while this is to be applauded, it does not mean that liberal democracy and the dawning of the kingdom of heaven may be equated. The difference is to be found in what happens when the virtues of the Christian community, which are nurtured in worship and discipline, make the transition to secular society and become law. We find that we must have a myriad of laws and commissions to ensure that our principles are enforced. This is because such an ordering is not imprinted in our hearts and must therefore be coerced.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences.

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