Early Christians saw themselves as the manifestation of Christ in the world. According to sociologist Rodney Stark, this understanding of Christ’s body fueled the church’s growth. Onlookers observed the warm-hearted gatherings of Christian men and women and were drawn to learn more. During pandemics and plagues, as Romans fled their cities and towns, Christians remained to nurse the sick and feed the hungry. And they did this not only for their relatives and friends, but also for their pagan neighbors. You could have said of them, “If you want to know what God is like, look at Christians.”
The tangible faith of these godly men and women provides guidance for our current moment.
In his classic work Life Together, German theologian and martyr Dietrich Bonhoeffer lived during a time of political unrest, racial injustice, physical isolation, and palpable fear—a time eerily parallel to our own. Bonhoeffer identified the vital necessity of the gathered church: “The physical presence of other believers is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.”
For Bonhoeffer, this was not just rhetoric. Due to his involvement in the German resistance, Bonhoeffer knew the pain of involuntary isolation from his Christian brothers and sisters. He knew that the mere presence of other Christians has a fortifying effect on our souls, even if we don’t always recognize it consciously. That’s one reason the Bible exhorts us to gather. We are Christ’s body, organically connected, the life and strength of Christ Himself flowing into us through one another (1 Cor 12:27). How remarkably relevant this is for us in our day.
Unlike any other community on earth, the church is the divinely given expression of Christ’s body. “Christian community is not an ideal we have to realize,” Bonhoeffer notes, “but rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our community is in Jesus Christ alone, the more calmly we will learn to think about our community and pray and hope for it.”
The English theologian and scholar John Henry Newman memorably struck this note. Stressing the importance of personal interaction, he described university life in Athens during Plato’s day, a period when learning among mentors and role models was of central importance. Newman writes: “It was what the student gazed on, what he heard, what he caught by the magic of sympathy, not what he read, which was the education furnished by Athens.”
Such an education holds great power because, as Newman explains, “persons influence us, voices melt us, looks subdue us, deeds inflame us.” How beautiful. In other words, the personal gathering of God’s people is crucial, for godliness is caught as much as it is taught (1 Cor 11:1).
In this fractured, tumultuous, and secular moment of history, it is tempting to regard the gathering of God’s people in worship, fellowship, and outreach as optional, only to be done if it’s convenient and safe. This stance shouldn’t surprise us. Pandemics, according to anthropologists, often stimulate a kind agoraphobia (fear of leaving one’s house) in the months following quarantine.
But neither should it stop us. Let us not forget that Christians down through the centuries faced situations no less challenging than our own—whether they were living under Caesar or the Third Reich. Yet, by the empowering presence of the Holy Spirit, they recognized the church as irreplaceable (Heb 10:24-25).
“It is easily forgotten,” Bonhoeffer said, “that the community of Christians is a gift of grace from the kingdom of God, a gift that can be taken from us any day.”
My brothers and sisters, in Christ we are God’s gracious gift to one another—and to the world.