Wednesday 19 December 2018

Gemeinschaft not Gesellschaft: In the Fourth Gospel Jesus tells the disciples that Christians should grow as a loving 'family', not as a formal institution

One of the most striking, and indeed shocking, aspects of reading the Fourth Gospel as the primary and most authoritative source about Jesus- is that Jesus tells the disciples to propagate the faith as a 'family' of believers and says nothing about setting up a church.

To use the old German Sociological terminology: Christians ought to be a Gemeinschaft, not a Gesellschaft - a loving community, not an institutional society.

In a long section (Chapters 13-17*) describing the night before the crucifixion; Jesus instructs the disciples on the meaning of his teaching and what they should do after his departure. What he seems to be saying is that the disciples have (since the departure of Judas Iscariot) a mutually loving 'family'; and that future Christians should be the same.

The themes (here and elsewhere in the Fourth Gospel) are all about love between Christians; in effect, a group cohering by a web of love. Love cannot be imposed. A loving group can and does grow, as a family grows by marriage and children - but only one person at a time, and only by mutual consent. It is clear that this is the consent of friends, not of master and servant.

Is there then to be no structure to the Christian community? It is not explicit, but the structure of family is sustained throughout the Fourth Gospel - including that between Jesus and his Father. The family of Mary, Martha and Lazarus (who is himself the author of the Fourth Gospel) is a major feature of the Gospel; Mary's marriage to Jesus in indicated in three places; and Lazarus (Jesus's brother in law) is made the son of Jesus's Mother at the crucifixion.

I assume, therefore, that the Christian community would have the same kind of internal structure of authority as an ideal family.

What I take from this is that Jesus intended for his followers to be structured and operate like a loving family - a family that adopted new members, as well as marrying and procreating them.

*John 15: [7] If ye abide in me, and my words abide in you, ye shall ask what ye will, and it shall be done unto you. [8] Herein is my Father glorified, that ye bear much fruit; so shall ye be my disciples. [9] As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love. [10] If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father's commandments, and abide in his love. [11] These things have I spoken unto you, that my joy might remain in you, and that your joy might be full. [12] This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. [13] Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. [14] Ye are my friends, if ye do whatsoever I command you. [15] Henceforth I call you not servants; for the servant knoweth not what his lord doeth: but I have called you friends; for all things that I have heard of my Father I have made known unto you. [16] Ye have not chosen me, but I have chosen you, and ordained you, that ye should go and bring forth fruit, and that your fruit should remain: that whatsoever ye shall ask of the Father in my name, he may give it you. [17] These things I command you, that ye love one another. [18] If the world hate you, ye know that it hated me before it hated you. [19] If ye were of the world, the world would love his own: but because ye are not of the world, but I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hateth you. [20] Remember the word that I said unto you, The servant is not greater than his lord. If they have persecuted me, they will also persecute you; if they have kept my saying, they will keep yours also.


Anonymous said...

Paul, in chapter 12 of Corinthians, also picks up on this idea: of the church as a body with many members, each of which plays a differing but nonetheless significant role. Paul points out the necessity that each part be different; and that this is both inevitable and right.

Nathaniel said...

Just admitting my own ignorance here, and understand if you don't want to address it - but how is this different from basically what we have in the Catholic church (leaving out the celibacy aspect)?

It appears to me we have a "head of the household" in the Pope (though he may be a bad father) who we sort of need ultimately to address disputes - we have the "father" of each small family (church). Certainly even good Christian families will often have disputes - maybe come near divorce even. Would we not have the exact same thing as history has shown, with schisms and splits, the need for authority to parse arguments, etc.? I thought that was basically the idea behind (ideal) traditional monarchies, etc. - a natural progression of a family structure.

Bruce Charlton said...

@Nathaniel - A real family just doesn't scale-upward like that.

Even with frequent interpersonal interactions (which very seldom happen nowadays), an extended family cannot be extended beyond 1-200 - after which it changes its nature fundamentally. The numbers are smaller with less intense interaction. What you end-up with is just analogous names.

The 'Father' of a million subjects is nothing like the same thing as a Father of his own ten children. Even the 'Father' of an extended family (a 'clan') is qualitatively different from the primary Father.

My point is also that a good family does not have an institutional structure. There is a structure, but it is built around individuals as they are and as they become (with increasing age, different sexes, different marital status, with work and with sickness etc).

This need not ever be formally set-out nor need there ever be 'laws'.

Nathaniel said...

Thank you for explaining!

I'm still stuck on imagining this structure. Just my natural experience - even the smallest families have rules (laws?). More than a few families are going to naturally appoint a judge/leader/priest/Bishop to decide among themselves. I can't imagine humans not simply becoming hierarchical over any given time. Maybe the Amish have come close to this - but even among several families they appoint an elder/Bishop who is going to communicate with others (e.g. early Christians/Orthodox), etc.

The Mormons certainly do a great job with family emphasis and breaking down even large churches into smaller groups, and forcing people to work together (unlike Catholics who tend to "church shop" and don't have any required allegiance to a parish, priest, etc.) but even that is all dependent on the hierarchy and respect for the prophets as father figures, etc.

Bruce Charlton said...


I don't think such families exist in the world today - but my reading about hunter gatherers (and introspection about what would be natural, and how things seemed to me as a young child) suggests that such things once existed spontaneously. What I am saying is that this is what we can look forward to in Heaven; it is a return, but this time in full knowledge and awareness of the situation.

Nathaniel said...

Thank you Bruce. This really goes with our other takes on focusing individually as a Christian, and focusing fundamentally on making good actions and decisions *personally* - our direct relationship with God.

As you say, we can not waste our lives trying to compromise with evil, or save institutions (Boy Scouts, the Church, the West, etc.), or even tie our identity to what bad decisions any group is making, but must simply focus on doing God's will, individually, personally, as best we can each day.

I think I see this is what the Catholic church crisis certainly reveals, it seems timely. Vigano has been threatened with all kinds of legal repercussions, church reprimands, etc. for revealing the Pope's covering up of sexual abuse and befriending predators. It seems each Priest and Bishop is under this false pressure if they wrongly idolize this hierarchy and institution, obeying corrupt and evil Bishops (I think Bonald made a similar argument that seems to wrongly put this sort of obedience to a hierarchy above obedience to God).