The most important subject for all human beings answers this question: What kind of societal structure insures the full potential of each individual while at the same time safeguarding the integrity of the whole society. As we have stated elsewhere, the bible makes the claim that only the kingdom of God provides this. What’s more, the bible asserts that every other system will sooner or later cause the destruction of the society as well as the erosion of any advantage the individuals might accrue in the short run.
The bible story always begins in Genesis 1-11 and though these chapters are laconic regarding ultimate ends, whole worlds of thought can be derived from them. One of these areas has to do with the Biblical concept of community. It should well be argued that what died at the fall of the first man and woman was this sense of community. One young church planter I heard recently named John Gibson made an insightful statement. God existing as Father, Son and Holy Spirit dwelt in perfect community and in the beginning extended that community to all of creation.
It went without saying in the ancient world, that living within the community was equated with life itself. To say one was “beyond the pale” referred to being distant from the family or community fire where the light illuminated one’s face. The “pale” color created by the fire represented nearness to it as well as the community that tended it. To be banished from the community made survival difficult if not unlikely. One would be subject to bandits, the elements or lack of food and water, usually jealously guarded resources. Community provided security for the necessary resources that support life. But community goes beyond that. It provides what a lone individual cannot easily accomplish by multiplying the contribution of each member.
Adam Smith in his work An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations points out that community in which barter and trade can take place increases the production of the whole society through the division of labor so that members may specialize. This specialization allows one person to perfect a certain skill that makes him far more productive at that task than a person who would be trying to accomplish all the tasks necessary for survival. He then can trade the surplus of his own expertise to someone who has specialized in something else. When a society functions this way, the productivity of the whole is greater than what the individuals could do separately if each individual was required to accomplish all of the tasks.
In a tribe of hunters or shepherd, s specific person makes bows and arrows, for example, with more readiness and dexterity than any other. He regularly exchanges them for livestock or for venison together with his companions, he unearths at closing that he can in this way get greater livestock and venison than if he himself went to the sphere to seize them. (kindle loc 318)
The Apostle Paul structures a similar idea around the metaphor of a physical body in 1 Corinthians 12. Each part of the body has a specific role to play and in doing so contributes not only to the welfare of the whole group but the individual member as well. This idea when discussed in pulpits or bible studies usually limits the concept to the body of Christ, which in truth is the context in which Paul is writing it. However, it can also be said that what is designed for the body of Christ was only a return to what God originally intended in creation for humanity as a whole. The Church or “Assembly of God’s people” is the restored humanity. If this is the case, then if follows that human beings were not only originally created to live in harmonious community, but that that community was part and parcel of that which sustains life as God created it to function. It also follows that the fall, then destroys this community link with life first with God and then which each other.
We can then conclude that life requires community free of those things which will fracture and isolate individuals from each other. When considering the fall of the first man and woman, the narrative gives us some interesting clues as to what is necessary for this type of community to exist. First of all, there need to be an agreed upon standard of what is good and not good for the entire community. Agreement of this type is more than difficult. It is impossible among human beings alone. The book of Judges assess the decline of the fortunes of the children of Israel with the statement set twice in an inclusio surrounding the entire text from Judges 17-21: “In those days, there was no king in Israel and everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” The king in Israel was supposed to be God, but the people rejected that idea for a king “like the nations round about us” (1 Samuel 8:5).
It is obvious that a society will not work together cohesively if there is no agreement on what is good for it. Everyone deciding on their own causes people to work at cross purposes with each other. A human king does bring a certain amount of stability in direction as long as everyone’s allegiance remains firm. But kings are human and fallible. At some point failures undermine allegiances. Actually only God can determine what is good and not good since only God can see the ultimate end of any action. He can see all the way out into eternity if any action will ultimate prove beneficial or detrimental. From a human perspective, something may look good for the foreseeable future but turn out to be disaster. Add to this the fact that leaders may only be looking out for themselves and that cynics suspect thats the case, getting universal agreement just doesn’t happen.
The second thing necessary for a community to operate as a unity is confidence. In Biblical terminology, we can call this faith. For individuals to fulfill their role in the body by specializing on the area they are most suited for, must believe that those things they are not involved in gathering for themselves will be supplied to him by the others in the community. This makes the person vulnerable to the willingness of the rest of the community to care for those needs as he provides for their needs in the operation of his speciality. In a fallen world, it becomes increasingly difficult to place all the trust necessary on the magnanimity of others. Free market capitalism says this is not what actually happens. Once again, Adam Smith points out that we are not counting on the “benevolent best” from out fellow community members but on their own self-interest.
But man has almost consistent event for the help of his brethren, and it’s far in useless for him to anticipate it from their benevolent best. He might bemore likely to be successful if he can hobby their self-love in his favour, and and display them that it’s fare for their personal advantage to do for him what he requires of them. (Wealth of Nations, Loc 305)
I personally believe that in a fallen world, it is the best structure we can establish for making sure that all members of the community fulfill their role so that other members can leave off concern and focus on their speciality. This is all the more important considering that in any society, there will be those who because of age or infirmity cannot fill a role. Children produce very little that can be said to support the community, but are the very future of that community. Investment in them requires excess production of the society. The old and infirm likewise may no longer be able to fulfill a heavy role. A free market economy provides incentive for each member out of his self-interest to work.
However, the dependence on the self-interest of our fellow citizens can only go so far in caring for the wellbeing of the community. It may become advantageous for some individuals to do that which is destructive to the community in order to increase the production and profitability of their speciality. This is why we establish governments and make laws. The point of any government is to make sure people play fair, because unsupervised people have a tendency to cheat. James Madison once said, “If men where angels, we wouldn’t need governments.” And human government itself is something has ordained. As Paul puts it: “The authorities that exist has been established by God … he is God’s servant, agent of wrath, to bring punishment on the evildoer” (Romans 13:1,4)
The conundrum lies in the fact that governments are also made up of fallen men. Something must make sure that they do not use their power to oppress. In the economy of God, this was done by competing nations. In Genesis 11, the world is divided up into many competing groups by separation of languages. The point the author is present in the narrative of the tower of Babel is the danger of fallen government with ultimate power. To prevent the entire enslavement of the human race in oppression and violence (which the flood had dealt with previously, but which God swore He would not do again), competing nations would keep each other in check, never allowing total oppression for very long. This same idea is used in the constitution of the United States where competing branches of government would out of jealousy for their own powers would keep each other in check.
Once again, however, this is only a stop gap measure. Sooner or later, power accumulates in one branch or one nation not unlike the chip stack at a Texas Hold ‘Em table eventually gets so large in one player that he can dominate and force other players whose resources must be much more closely attended to. As this happens in the seats of power, the strongest are more and more able to oppress and get away with it. The power of the strongest can then increase further but at the expense of the community as a whole. Although in the short run, this is advantageous to the strong. In the long run it will certain bring the end of life to them as those who they are oppressing simply because life exists in a communal body. If the hand hoists a gun to the head and pulls the trigger, the brain dies, but so does all the rest of the body including the hand! If the hand cuts off the legs, it may not be felt immediately by the hand, but it has limited greatly the things the hand will be able to do. This is the very argument the apostle Paul makes: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I don’t need you!’ And the head cannot say to the feet, ‘I don’t need you!’” (1 Corinthians 12:21).
This isn’t some spiritual formulation for religious people to mull over so that churches can flourish. This is the very nature of creation and the very nature of the survival of the human race. We may think we can get along without others, but that is an illusion. Especially within modern society! The infrastructure that facilitates our ability to work and get around, that provides for our every meal, the clean water we drink, the clothes we wear, the security we enjoy is dependent on a highly functioning society. Early settlers in America had to grow or hunt for their own food, find and tote their water, make their own cloth from animals and plants in order to sew their own clothes. If they wanted light in their cabins they had to save the fat of animals and make candles.
Where does this leave us? Community is necessary for life for it protects and supports the welfare of the individuals. So individuals must work for the welfare of the community as a whole. As said above, in order to do this, there has to be agreement on what is good and not good in the community and there must be confidence that all the members will do their part in the support of the functions of the community necessary for the survival of each individual thus freeing each individual to do their part in the whole. In Genesis 2 God prohibits human beings from relying on themselves for the determination of what is good and not good. They are to rely on Him. This keeps the human race connected to the community which is God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit––the community upon which all successful community is founded. In doing so, each member of the community will have the confidence to accept the vulnerability necessary to perform their part.
The last verse of Genesis 2 states: “The man and woman were both naked and unashamed” (v. 25). This verse almost seems like a throw away verse after the statement about God ordaining marriage in verse 24. In chapter 3 we see that after the man and the woman decide to rely on themselves rather than God for the determination of what is good and not good, they notice they are naked and sew fig leaves together. This is more than just about being embarrassed or not embarrassed. Before the fall, there was total trust and total vulnerability. Need for protection from ulterior motives didn’t exist because each dependent not on themselves for their needs nor on their resources for their needs. The unlimited resource of God assured them that nothing they needed would be denied them, so they were free to love and enjoy. The moment however they broke community with God and took on the job of being their own providers, their vulnerability became a huge liability. Though the implications of this echoes throughout the entire Biblical story and could be detailed in a book all by itself, what can be immediately seen is the entire destruction of confidence. The couple begin by trying to hide from each other (i.e. sewing fig leaves, as if that would protect them!), and then hiding from God.
This distrust immediately escalates in Genesis 4 when one brother distrust and jealousy leads him to kill. Cain is now even more concerned that someone will kill him, so God creates a situation where Cain will be protected and avenged 7 times. Then a descendent of Cain’s, Lamech requires he be avenged seventy times seven. By Genesis 6 the world is so full of violence, the whole concept of community is now completely broken down. And although the writer does not detail this, there is good reason to believe and argue that the world was at that point on the brink of destroying itself. God brings the flood, not so much as ending civilization but as the means of preserving at least one family and starting again.
Belief in Christ is not so much about a personal ticket to the ultimate eternal Disneyland, but rather the reestablishment of the kind of community with God and people originally intended in Creation. This cannot be established by any human government whether free market capitalism, constitutional republics, socialism––democratic or otherwise––or monarchies. Human government at best can only slow the deterioration and at worst can accelerate the horror. Jesus entire message was that the only source of life is available because the kingdom of God was now at hand. God’s kingdom is first a rule in the hearts of women and men that issues itself in the physical reality of the created universe which like the mustard seed in Matthew 13 it will grow to fill. Jesus made it clear that this will really only happen at the end of the age. Though there is a certain truth to the fact that Christ offers life right here and now, it is a mistake to say or think in terms of this fallen world here and now.
The parable sometimes called the wheat and the tares tells us that the Son of Man has planted seeds of his kingdom but an enemy has also planted weeds among them. The roots of the weeds are tangled up with the roots of the wheat and cannot be separated in this age. Therefore the benefits God intends for the human race is severely curtailed here and now. Only at the end can the separation take place from the community that relies solely on itself and those connected to the community of the Godhead. Till then, the community of the kingdom of God is to pray for the community of the fallen world. In doing so, we bring the blessings of God’s kingdom into it as light in a dark place. We not only increase life for the fallen world, we increase life for ourselves and our children. Only in this, does life exist at all.