Biblical Theology of Community


God’s gift of community embodies His extraordinary love and sacrifice for His people. As Bonhoeffer reminds, “It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians.”[1] From the beginning of time, God carefully built his beloved into a holy temple; a family where people of all nations can join together to dwell with God through His Spirit (Eph 2:19-22). God sets the lonely in families (Ps 68:5-6) and creates a place for all to belong (Rom 12:5). He has no other plan to proclaim His wisdom but through the church (Eph 3:10), thus community must be a priority for every Christian.

This paper will show that from the beginning of humankind and throughout the Old and New Testaments, God calls His people to dwell together with Him and each other, proclaiming Christ to the world through the community’s love for each other (Jn 13:34) while shaping one’s character and contribution through participation in this community.

Christian Community Defined

God has always worked through relationship. In the first two verses of the Bible one reads,In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters (Gen 1:1-2).  A few verses later God refers to Himself in the plural, “Let us make man in our image; after our likeness” (Gen 1:26-27, emphasis added).  

The Scriptures teach that Jesus, the Word, was with God in the beginning and all things were made through Him (Jn 1:1-3). The Spirit was also present at creation, hovering over the waters. After God created humankind He walked and talked with them in the Garden (Gen 3:8-9). God is love (1 Jn 4:7-8), and love implies a relationship between a lover and a beloved. Just as God is in relationship with Himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit from eternity past, He designed humankind for relationship with Him and each other now and for eternity future. We are relational beings. This is part of what it means to bear the imago Dei.[2] As man and woman populate the earth, the Old Testament displays myriad ways God makes clear his desire for community, as shown in the following section.

Community in the Old Testament

In the Old Testament books of history one finds God forming a community of His people while fulfilling a promise to Abraham (Gen 15:12-20) and working His will toward the formation of a spiritual community through Abraham’s offspring (Gen 28:3-4).

In Exodus 19-40, at Mount Sinai, Yahweh forges a covenant agreement with this offspring. After liberating them, God consolidates his graciousness by making them a people of His own, a nation with identity and laws. The remaining account in Exodus acquaints us with what it means to be a people of God.[3] Moses, who along with Aaron and Miriam led this community (known as  Israel), did not treat the massive group of people brought out of Egypt as a multitude, but upon the recommendation of his father-in-law divided them into units of 1,000, 100, 50, and 10, and trained leaders to serve each group. Thus, leaders would not wear out and people’s needs would be met (Ex 18:14-25). Relationships do not cultivate and function as a mass, but as small groups.[4] We also learn that in the community, one member’s actions affect the entire community (Jos 22:18,20).

Reading through the Old Testament, we learn that God never planned for His people to selfishly hoard His blessings or that the rest of the world would be excluded from them. Rather, Israel was called to be a “kingdom of priests” (Ex 19:6; 1 Pet 2:9). A priest’s function is to bring God to the people and the people to God. When Israel did not accomplish the mission to bring Yahweh to the world (Is 26:18), the task fell to the church which was to come (Matt 21:43).[5]

As the people of God wandered from God into captivity, Zerubbabel, Ezra, and Nehemiah eventually led the Jews back to Jerusalem after the Babylonian captivity ended. Nehemiah engaged the people to rebuild the broken-down wall of Jerusalem. He could not do it by himself; he needed the entire community to take their places on the wall. Nehemiah was motivated by his passion for God and His community, and he depended on God from the beginning of the rebuild (Neh 1:4) until the end, when after the community celebration Nehemiah is portrayed back on his knees asking God for grace.[6] Certainly, great grace was needed, and God eventually sent the perfect giver of grace, Jesus, to demonstrate and offer forgiveness while showing the way to build lasting, loving community.

Jesus and Community

Jesus demonstrated community throughout His time on earth. He healed, served, taught, and loved individuals, but called twelve disciples to walk with him daily, training them how to think and act. He opened His life to His disciples, no longer calling them servants, but friends (Jn 15:15). These relationships demonstrated “an enthusiastic embrace of one-on-one and small group relationships, hospitality, encouragement, challenge, inspiration, and even correction…to develop genuine, transgenerational community.”[7] Jesus demonstrates how to build relationships.

The Father and Son experienced perfect unity (John 17:20-23), thus the cross was an unfathomable price to pay since it caused separation between the Father and Son. Jesus paid the price for sin, purchasing the church with His blood (Acts 20:28) so that Christians could experience the fullness of community with Him and each other. After Jesus’ resurrection and ascension to Heaven, the disciples did what they knew to do when the way forward seemed unclear. They gathered together, as a community of believers to pray (Acts 1:12-14) and wait on the Lord. After His resurrection, Jesus instructed His disciples concerning their participation in a coming new community. The disciples eagerly awaited this new community that Jesus had promised them. The Spirit would inspire the New Testament authors to write His will for this community, as discussed in the next section.

Community in the New Testament

Jesus had told His disciples that the Kingdom of God would come with power (Mk 9:1), and it certainly did on the day of Pentecost when Jews from all nations heard the message of Jesus in their own languages. Many believed and responded to Peter’s message with repentance, baptism for the forgiveness of their sins, and to receive the promised indwelling Holy Spirit (Acts 2:36-41). Thus began the community of the New Covenant, and they demonstrated relationships of love and devotion to each other (Acts 2:41-47). The study of the early church recounted in Acts emphasizes the importance of relationships.[8] The church of the New Testament is described as the body of Christ, the household of God, and the family of God (Rom 12:4-5; 1 Tim 3:15; 1 Pet 4:17). The term “brothers” (adelphos) is used to refer to the Christian family approximately 230 times throughout the New Testament.[9]

The early church experienced a time of great growth, accompanied by persecution. Their purpose was clear. Jesus, before He ascended charged His disciples to go into all the world to preach the gospel, make disciples, baptize them, and teach them to obey all of His commands (Matt 28:18-20). They built transforming relationships in community. Over the years, the community’s purpose dissipated. Kenneman, the president of Barna research studies writes:

…the most heartbreaking aspect of our finding is the utter lack of clarity that many young people have regarding what God is asking them to do with their lives. It is a modern tragedy. They have access to information, ideas, and peoples from around the world, but no clear vision for a life of meaning that makes sense of all that input. I believe that God is calling our church to cultivate a larger, grander, more historic sense of purpose as a body and as individuals.[10]

God’s purpose for the church has not changed, thus God’s purpose for His church today must be clear in the minds and hearts of its members.

Community Purpose Restored

How can this clear purpose be restored and maintained in the church today? As Arnold Cook pens, “The tendency is for the fire of passion, commitment and excellence to go out…over time, vision dims, core values shift and passion fades.”[11] This must not be. Kinneman implores, “…our cultural moment demands of us Bonhoeffer-like clarity and leadership. Where institutions failed the next generation, he stepped in like a mentor, confidant, and friend. Where culture demanded mindless conformity in exchange for a sense of belonging, he created deep, kingdom-centered, alternative community.”[12] Leaders must sound a clarion call to the church’s purpose.

As the kingdom breaks into the present time and God’s will is done on earth as in heaven, kingdom relationships will stand in stark contrast to relationships in the world. Seeing to this must be a passion of disciples.[13] As such, the church must show each other and the world what it looks like to love the Lord with all one’s heart, soul, mind, and strength and to love one’s neighbor as one’s self (Matt 22:37-40). The community must put into practice the “one another” scriptures in order to live a life worthy of the Gospel and the Lord and to show the light of Christ to this dark world. As the Message Version translates James 3:18, “You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.”

God gave the church the mission to proclaim Christ and to present each other mature in Him (Col 1:24-29). Without practicing its mission, the church will die; without loving, Christ-like relationships, the church loses credibility. The future of the church begins with us. To look to the future, we must understand how past spiritual community experiences shaped us.

Shaped Through Experiences

After sixty-five years of life, many communities shaped my theology of community. I list them chronologically, sharing the main lessons I learned from each of these spiritual communities.

14th Street Church of Christ:  From Legalism and Fear to Love and Faith (1954-70)

My dad, though he worked at the University of Florida, started this small congregation a block from the University, believing the church must reach out to the campus. The church was missional, supporting a family from the church in Thailand. This mission focus and the church’s learner’s spirit (demonstrated by taking members on bus trips to view churches that were growing) shaped my view of missions and a learning spirit.

The teaching and atmosphere in the church shaped me with incomplete teaching, as I learned a fear of God without the love of God. While shaped in many healthy ways, unfortunately, I learned a legalistic approach toward God. For a while, I tried to become “good enough” to become a Christian, but when I finally realized the whole point of the cross was that I could never be good enough I was moved, repented of my sins, and was baptized, knowing this was a life-changing, lifetime decision. During my high school years the church hired a minister who taught Bible discussion groups in dorms and fraternities, and the church began to grow. The minister’s wife inspired me by the way she taught her neighbors the Bible. She mentored me, praying together with me weekly from the time I was fourteen until I got married, shaping my convictions concerning the need for mentoring. As the church grew rapidly, we moved to a new building which we called “Crossroads,” based on the scripture in Jeremiah 6:16.

Crossroads: Faith, Passion, and Mentoring (1971-74)

Hundreds of students from the campus became Christians at Crossroads and built a vibrant, loving campus ministry. Their changed lives were a testimony to the power of God. All races were converted, and the church became black and white, which was an anomaly for churches during the early seventies. This experience shaped my faith that God could change anyone’s life and that diversity was good and right. The church’s teaching on purity in dating, marriage, and the practice of personal involvement in each other’s lives shaped my convictions. My friend, Wyndham, became a Christian. We fell in love. After graduation, he moved to North Carolina to serve in the campus ministry. I joined him a few months later, after my graduation and our marriage. The Crossroads community shaped me with evangelistic fervor, desire for ministry, and a deep desire to study and teach the Bible as we next served in Raleigh.

Brooks Avenue, Raleigh: Sent Out for Campus Ministry (1974-79)

As we reached out to students on campuses at NC State, Duke, and Chapel Hill, God worked powerfully. Over a hundred students were baptized that first year, and over the next five years the church grew by hundreds. There was new life in the church, but some of the older members felt challenged by the many new college-aged Christians who were from all kinds of backgrounds. After several years we learned the challenges of new wine in old wineskins and were encouraged to find other employment. Wyndham was asked to preach in West Virginia.

Morgantown Church of Christ (1979-82)

We saw many become Christians in Morgantown, but the Crossroads Church where we were trained for ministry was under suspicion from some mainline churches of Christ because of Crossroad’s focus on evangelism and involvement in each other’s lives. The elder who invited us to Morgantown became our persecutor because of our roots and asked us to leave. It was a difficult time, and I was angry. If not for the help of my husband and cries out to God, bitterness would have entrapped me. This community shaped me to know that though things may not be fair God will take things into His hands, and I must guard my heart against bitterness. Former students converted in Raleigh then asked us to come to start a church that would reach out to the campus in Charlotte, North Carolina.

Charlotte: Stepping Out on Faith (1982-1987)

This community took great care of each other. We had two young children, and I was pregnant when we arrived in Charlotte. A group of thirteen Christians stepped out on faith to start this new church. They were sacrificial and supported us, even offering us a place to live. Here I learned that God can take the faith of a few and grow a strong church of hundreds. We were a close community, relying on God and sharing our faith. After five wonderful years, we were asked by a growing church in Boston to move there to train for the mission field.  

Boston 1.0: World Evangelism and Vulnerability (1987-1994)

The Boston Church of Christ taught me a mission mindset and vulnerability in life. Though we had been slated to move to South Africa, because of immediate needs there we were asked to stay. We had teen, preteen, and elementary kids, and the church needed an “older couple” like us. The church grew to several thousand, sending out over fifty mission teams around the world. This community opened my eyes to different needs of the world, and because “discipling relationships” were practiced, I learned for the first time to be vulnerable. This community helped me learn to be honest and not remain a people pleaser (Mark 12:14).

HOPE worldwide: Remember the poor (1995-2003)

For eight years we served with the church’s outreach to the poor through HOPE worldwide. My visits to slums all over the world shook me to the core and changed my worldview. Our work in Romania, with the orphans and street children, shaped me to become an advocate for the underserved. Our adoption of a twelve-year-old Romanian orphan helped me to understand and relate to those who struggle with rejection, trust, identity, guilt, and shame. The HOPE community shaped me to develop deeper compassion than I had ever known. 

Boston 2.0: Repent and Reboot (2003-present)

We were called back to the leadership ministry after serving with HOPE, as legalism, judgmental attitudes, and leadership pride and entitlement caused a disturbance in the church. This shaped in me the importance of speaking up to leaders who are going the wrong way. Disappointed by some harsh and entitled leaders, I learned that God always brings sin to light. My faith was increased as God brought wrongdoings out in the open. I gained deep convictions from Romans 3:4. God, His Word, and His plan for the church remain true no matter what person(s) fail to be righteous, and God always humbles the proud (James 4:6). The repentant church grew healthy and began growing again, learning from past mistakes.

This community has shaped my conviction to be a mentor, training others to be faithful, humble, and responsive to God’s Word as I strive to follow the Lord. It shaped me to be self-aware and always invite others into my life. In the last decade, we focused on training and raising up elderships in our mission churches in Europe. I have been shaped through all these communities and hold priceless treasures of deep, abiding relationships. I long to pass on convictions concerning what I have learned and am still learning, through all these community experiences.

Investment in the Future

It sobers and thrills me, as an older woman, to invest in the future. I plan to do this through teaching, training, mentoring, and writing. I am currently teaching and training in our school of missions, developing classes for women as well as advocating for the inclusion of women in the teaching of both the men and women. I will continue mentoring many of our women’s ministry leaders and elders’ wives. Currently, as I am a caretaker for my husband, I must work out of my home and through the phone. I am in an awkward and difficult stage of life—holding on to every day I have with my husband while making plans for the best ways to serve now and when he transitions to Paradise. Through all transitions, I plan to continue to study the Bible with other women, helping them to become Christians and grow as Christians in spiritual community.

I plan to meet with a group of young teen girls, mentoring them at this crucial age, and helping them to fall in love with Jesus. At some point in the future, after getting my DMin, and retiring from salaried ministry, I hope to do some adjunct teaching, hoping to impact more lives.

A priority for investment in the future also includes my grandchildren. Though they are gaining great Christian parenting and teaching, I know grandmothers can give additional perspectives, and I plan to do this by spending scheduled, specific times with them, perhaps taking small trips together with time to pray and dream.

Lastly, my investment in community includes writing more books. This, I have been told, is a gift set. Thus, I believe I should continue to write books that help others grow spiritually and stronger in their communities. I also plan to develop and teach accompanying workshops.


It is imperative to understand and teach how God works in and through community; however, this is not enough. Christians must garner the courage to expect other Christians to obey God’s teachings. Leaders must call the church to act upon God’s commands for relationships, for community is priority to God. The experiences that shaped us can dull us toward apathy, create cynicism, or can instill within us faith and fire for growth and change. The Spirit of God is no less powerful today than during creation, and must still be employed in the church to boldly, faithfully, and in unity ignite the purifying fire to change the world. As Francis Shaeffer wrote, “Christianity is not conservative, but revolutionary. To be conservative is to miss the whole point, for conservatism means standing in the flow of the status quo, and the status quo no longer belongs to us…If we want to be fair we must teach the young to be revolutionaries.”[14] Nehemiah called the people of God in his day to “come and rebuild” (Neh 2:17), and the community replied, “Let us start rebuilding.” So they began this good work. No matter where we have come from, we can move forward and take our place in the community. It’s time to pick up our bricks, working side by side.



Barna, George. The Habits of Highly Effective Churches. Ventura, CA: Regal, 1999.

Bonhoeffer, Deitrich. Life Together:The Classic Exploration of Christian Community. NY: HarperCollins, 1954.

Cook, Arnold L. Historical Drift: Must My Church Die?. Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, 2000.

Dia Monje, Rolan. Exodus: Making Israel’s Journey Your Own. Spring, TX: Illumination Publishers, 2015.

Getz, Gene. Building Up One Another. Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983.

Jacoby, Douglas. A Quick Overview of the Bible: Understanding How All the Pieces Fit Together. Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2012.

Jones, Thomas and Steve Brown. One Another: Transformational Relationships in the Body of Christ. Spring Hill, TN: Discipleship Publications International, 2008.

Kinneman, David. You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith. Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011.                                        

Myers, Jeff, PhD. Cultivate: Forming the Emerging Generation through Life-on-Life Mentoring. Dayton, TN: Passing the Baton International Inc., 2010.

Shaeffer, Francis. The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century. Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1970.

Swindoll, Charles R. Hand Me Another Brick. Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1978.

[1] Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community (NY: HarperCollins, 1954), 17.

[2] Jeff Myers, PhD, Cultivate: Forming the Emerging Generation through Life-on-Life Mentoring (Dayton, TN: Passing the Baton International Inc., 2010), 225.     

[3] Rolan Dia Monje, Exodus: Making Israel’s Journey Your Own (Spring, TX: Illumination Publishers, 2015), 13.

[4] Myers, 29.

[5] Douglas Jacoby, A Quick Overview of the Bible: Understanding How All the Pieces Fit Together (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2012), 55.

[6] Charles Swindoll, Hand Me Another Brick (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, 1978), 205.

[7] Myers, 17-18.

[8] George Barna, The Habits of Highly Effective Churches (Ventura, CA: Regal, 1999), 43.

[9] Gene Getz, Building Up One Another (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1983), 22.

[10] David Kinneman, You Lost Me: Why Young Christians are Leaving Church…and Rethinking Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2011), 207.  

[11]  Arnold L. Cook, Historical Drift (Camp Hill, PA: Christian Publications, 2000), 3.

[12] Kinneman, 14.

[13] Tom Jones and Steve Brown, One Another: Transformational Relationships in the Body of Christ Spring Hill, TN: Discipleship Publications International, 2008), 15.

[14] Francis Shaeffer, The Church at the End of the Twentieth Century (Downers Grove, IL: Intervarsity Press, 1970), 82.

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About Jeanie Shaw

After retiring from forty-five years in full-time ministry, Jeanie Shaw went back to school to earn her master’s and doctorate in spiritual formation and discipleship. She also serves as a certified Christian life coach who loves helping people discover the joy, peace, and purpose that come from finding and following God’s plan for their lives. She has taught classes and workshops all over the world and has written numerous books. She has four grown children, eight grandchildren, and a golden retriever who thinks he is human. When she is not reading, writing, coaching, teaching, or enjoying her family she might be found walking along rivers, learning new lessons about life.

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