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A disciplined community

This is the first of a series of articles that draw on the thought of some well-known past and present theologians, from outside the ‘evangelical tradition’, to provide some guidance as we seek to remain faithful to Jesus and practise authentic church in 21C post-Christian Britain. This article provides a taster of US theologian Stanley Hauerwas’ understanding of the church as a ‘disciplined community’.

Hauerwas is quoted as saying: “Why is niceness, not atheism, the real enemy of the church too afraid to preach as if it had enemies, too timid to call the lonely consumers of modernity who enter and leave the church as strangers to become a disciplined community?” (my italics).

Hauerwas inveighs against church growth strategies borrowed from the market, with their “ABC of Attendance, Buildings, Cash”, which “make God’s existence incidental to their success”. In an aside at a lecture he commented: “Karl Barth had the Nazis, we’ve got Willow Creek! I mean Bill Hybels has been quoted as saying why he doesn’t have a cross in the church as it gets in the way of the gospel… give us a break.”

The idea of the church as a ‘disciplined community’ is central to Hauerwas’ thinking. Although a pacifist, he sees the armed forces, with their culture of self-discipline and group identity, as a better analogy of the local church than civilian life. And he likens the Christian life, which for him is a life lived in the context of ‘church’, to disciplined training through apprenticeship to a master-craftsman.

Being good, he argued, is easier in church, if church is what it is meant to be, ie a disciplined community: “I don’t have any faith in myself of living a virtuous life; but if I am surrounded by other people who are also formed by the same commitments, then we’ve got a better chance. We need one another to live up to the wonderful invitation we’ve been given to be other than we are.”

These ideas appeal strongly, but finding their realisation has been a lifelong quest, as I suspect it is for most of us.

One of the problems for those of us with ‘evangelical backgrounds’ is we are trained to think individualistically. Most of what I have heard in sermons in churches, over many decades, has been addressed to individuals, yet much of the Bible is addressed to communities. Hauerwas cuts through this pattern, echoing the teachings of Jesus Himself – disciples are those who obey everything He has commanded, and together they form a disciplined community.

(All quotations in this article are from Coffey, M. 2009. The Theological Ethics of Stanley Hauerwas. E152. Grove Books.)

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