Book Review: God’s New Community, by Graham Beynon
Community is hard work. As a result, many people love the idea of community more than the experience of community. – Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from p. 110 of book
Why are authentic communities simultaneously so attractive and so elusive? Is it because we want all the benefits and none of the costs?
In his book God’s New Community: New Testament Patterns for Today’s Church, Graham Beynon, pastor of Avenue Community Church in Leicester, England, portrays a relationally rich vision of the church that realistically and practically grapples with the commitments involved in living out such a vision.
The book began its life as a series of sermons. Each sermon—now a chapter—expounds on a passage of Scripture with particular application to the shape of the church. Here’s a chapter by chapter summary:
- The church is to be the distinctive community of believers for which God created the world (1 Peter 2:4-10).
- We are to be a family of very different people united by our faith in Christ (Ephesians 2:11-22).
- Our purpose is to glorify God through edifying one another and testifying to the world (Ephesians 4:7-16).
- We are to be an inseparable body of disciples who are God’s diverse gifts to the whole (1 Corinthians 12:4-27).
- Our bonds of unity carry the responsibility of love (Romans 12:3-21)…
- …a love that is unconditional, costly, considerate and available.
- We are to be protected, fed, and led by servant-elders (1 Timothy 3:1-13, Acts 20:25-38).
- We are to strive for peace by modeling the forgiveness we know in Christ (Colossians 3:10-12).
- A community devoted to learning, “togetherness,” praise, and prayer is God’s primary strategy for the display of his glory, and thus for the evangelization of the world (Acts 2:42-47).
WHAT THE BOOK IS NOT
In his book, Beynon does not “attempt to cover all the bases on ecclesiology; in that sense, it isn’t ‘balanced’ but tries to emphasize an often missing piece—community.” Even with his limited goal, however, Beynon should have made several distinctions that would have added clarity to the shape of the community that is being recommended.
Local / Universal
To begin with, Beynon does not always clarify whether he is referring to the local or the universal church. This leads to statements that could be misunderstood by readers:
Some people think that coming to church services or church meetings is what makes you part of the church. Or it’s being on a membership list, or being baptized. But none of these things make you part of the church – only believing in Jesus can do that (14).
This is an important statement concerning the universal church. But in a book primarily about the local church (16), this might be taken to suggest that membership of a local church is unimportant. So too with the following statement:
Coming to Jesus means you are automatically included in this new spiritual house that God is building… If you believe in Jesus, you are a member of the church whether you like it or not. So how are you going to live out your membership? That’s the real question, not, ‘Do you want to join?’ (15).
Membership within the universal church is automatic on conversion. But God calls us to live this reality out in visible local churches, where “Do you want to join?” is an important question. Beynon is very clear that involvement in the local church is vital, but unclear about the fact that membership in the local church is necessary for healthy involvement. God’s glory is displayed to the world—which Beynon cares about—through the purity of visible local churches. Yet only a clearly defined church membership makes the purity of local churches visible.
Teaching / Preaching
Beynon models careful exposition of the Scriptures in the book’s structure. And the book’s power resides in its expository approach. Beynon is also clear that the church must sit under the authority of God’s word and be shaped by that word. He writes, “We learn from an authoritative message.” And in the early church, “teachers were to be judged according to how faithful they were to the apostles’ teaching” (124).
Yet Beynon could have given greater clarity to the necessity of expository preaching for the health of the church. In fact, some of his comments might be understood to downplay the importance of God’s word being declared to the congregation in favor of something more conversational.
Some people think there is something sacrosanct about having a thirty minute monologue from a pulpit, but I can’t find that particular mode of teaching actually commanded I the New Testament….We could have a sermon followed by questions and small group discussion within a Sunday meeting. We could have a ‘Seminar’ style presentation rather than a straight monologue (125-126).
Doubtless, interactive inductive bible studies and seminars are great ways of learning from God’s word. Yet these methods should supplement rather than replace the declaration of God’s word through preaching. When the gathered community closes its mouth and opens its ears, minds, and hearts, it most clearly demonstrates that it is a community under the authoritative word of God.
Congregation / Small groups
Beynon recognizes how small groups can helpfully embody practical love, yet he overstates his case by making it sound as if membership of a regular small group is the only way one can have meaningful relationships. “Missing your home group is missing church,” Beynon says, “just like missing a Sunday meeting is missing church” (129).
Beynon rightly insists that individuals who attend church on Sunday mornings but who avoid loving relationships within the congregation miss something essential about the Christian life and faith. Yet he confuses what’s helpful with what’s essential by more or less commanding small group involvement. In raising the home group to the importance of the congregation, Beynon may have inadvertently reduced the importance of the congregation to that of the home group.
WHAT THE BOOK IS!
So much for what the reader won’t find in the book. What the reader does find is careful reflection on several key passages about the church’s life together. Christians will find challenges not just to know but also to be what God’s word says about the church.
A Gospel-Shaped Community
Beynon rightly and repeatedly argues that the gospel must be the driving force in the community, and that the gospel is the only basis for true unity in the church. He writes, “It is through the cross that we are reconciled to God, and to each other” (115).
Beynon not only affirms this, he dwells on it. And he encourages his readers to meditate on the unconditional, self-sacrificial love that Jesus demonstrates on the cross for sinners, so that they in turn might be encouraged to love others:
Jesus defines loves [sic] for us in his death on the cross. And so he sets a model of how we are to love each other. Our love is to be patterned on his. (82)
When we find it hard to bear with each other, or hard to forgive each other, Paul tells us to reflect on how God bears with us, how he has forgiven us. He would take us back to the cross and tell us to reflect on that. (118f.)
We need to keep on coming back to the cross and let the wonderful message seep deep into our hearts. (120)
Particularly in our thoughts about the church, it is all too easy for Christians to merely assume that our lives and our teaching are in accordance with the gospel. Attractive Christian communities too often remain elusive precisely because churches don’t meditate enough upon the gospel. Yet Beynon fastens the shape of the church to the shape of the gospel, which leads to a gospel-shaped community.
In short, Beynon calls the church to keep the gospel at the center, and to reflect deeply upon it.
A Biblically-Reflective Community
The expositional form of the book means that it’s saturated by helpful reflections on particular texts of Scripture. Not only that, a clear biblical theology undergirds what Beynon writes.
He starts in Eden: “The idea of church is people belonging to God, in a relationship with him. So the first church was actually back in the garden of Eden” (18) He then traces this community belonging to God through Abraham (Gen. 12) and the nation of Israel (Ex. 19, Deut. 7). Israel then points to the Christian church, which itself awaits ultimate fulfillment in the recreation of the new heavens and new earth (Rev. 21).
Such a biblical theology shows us clearly that the church is central to God’s plans. As Beynon puts is, “God’s acts of salvation are so that he has a people who belong to him. He saves people to create the church. That’s how important it is” (19-20).
Furthermore, Beynon desires churches not only where leaders teach Scripture, but where the church itself is devoted to biblical learning. “Lots of churches are known as places of good teaching…I’d far prefer it, though, for a church to be known as a place of good learning! Because that’s what the teaching is supposed to achieve”(125).
What a challenge for those of us in churches where the word is faithfully preached. Unless the word is faithfully learned, the good teaching will only add to our guilt. As Thabiti Anyabwile has put it, “Just as the pastor’s preaching agenda is to be determined by the meaning of Scripture, so too must the listening agenda of the Christian be driven by the meaning of Scripture.”
A Diversely-Integrated Community
Too many models of church look to the culture rather than to the bible to define “success” for them. By contrast, Beynon’s exposition of Ephesians 2:11-22 demonstrates how a church which adopts the homogenous unit principle has lost touch with the church’s purpose of displaying the gospel.
Once I attended a conference on student work in churches and the different ways that can be organized. One of the models on the table was of a church comprised only of students. And I was to preach on this passage in Ephesians the following weekend! I thought of what this passage says and I had to say at the conference that the idea of a student church doesn’t tell the world very much about the unity Jesus has brought. Ideally we want to see a multi-age, multi-class, multi-racial, multi-background type church. The more differences that are represented, the more the unity of the gospel shines out. Of course, a church can do no more than reflect the neighbourhood it’s located in… But the point is, we don’t organize ourselves to limit the breadth of the church (32).
What is so helpful here is that Beynon does not let the desire for numerical growth eclipse diversity, but nor does he let diversity become the overarching ambition. Rather, diversity serves the overarching ambition to bring glory to Christ through a community that displays the gospel.
A Doxologically-Purposed Community
Following on from this last point, Beynon writes, “We usually assume that we will continue to do things the way they’ve always been done. And if we do think about changes, we rarely go back to our purpose for existence… to glorify God…That is its most foundational purpose.” (38)
All other purposes are subsequent to this goal of fulfilling God’s overarching purpose for the church. “Even in thinking about our internal life, it is vital to bear in mind that all we do is aimed not at ourselves but to glorify God.” (41)
A Corporately-Bonded Community
Perhaps most personally challenging in the book for me were the two chapters encouraging readers to love one another (65-93). Reflecting on Romans 12:4-5, Beynon writes,
We want our love to be able to flow where we want, rather than being pinned down, and set in place. We want some ties to other people but we don’t want those ties to be too tight… But Paul paints the opposite extreme: we are bound together with knots that can’t be undone. We can’t say, ‘I’d like a bit of freedom now, I’d like to undo my ties to these other people.’ We belong to each other. (65, 67)
Even here, Beynon recognizes God’s self-glorifying purpose in such costly love: “The world will find this kind of behaviour very strange, abnormal even. But it will speak volumes to the world about the love of God.” (76)
By reflecting on the Scriptures, Beynon has seen what the church so desperately needs: a model of church health more concerned about the glory of God than the “success” of the church. God does not call the church to appeal to our individualistic culture by accommodating it; he calls it to speak and act prophetically into the culture by living together as a self-giving community that reflects the condescension of God’s own self-giving character.
God’s New Community is not a comprehensive guide for the local church. I would not give the book to someone who is not already convinced of the need for expositional preaching as the fundamental change agent for church health. Moreover, I would want to supplement it with another book that clearly defined the importance of membership in the local church.
But for those churches that already have an expositional ministry, this book will be richly encouraging. We all struggle to live out being the body of Christ. And Beynon has written a book that spurs readers on to authentically connected lives of gospel-focused and gospel-shaped love, as we seek together to glorify our God and Savior, Jesus Christ.