Thoughts on the Church as City-State

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We recently received one of the learning tools I had written about early, The Foundations of Western Civilization from It is taught by Professor Noble of Notre Dame, and we are really enjoying it. My wife says it hits on a lot of the memory pegs we have been having the kids memorize in our classical home school curriculum and so they may provide more information and interest for them as well. I am not going to force these lectures on the kids, the younger ones at any rate, but I do want to have them watch some of them to gauge their reaction and if they are capable of following it.

The lectures have inspired a few corollary thoughts in me this week. I had never really thought about how or why civilizations arose, but it had to do with the formations of cities, usually in river basins. In time these cities built walls, and rivalries eventually developed between other city-states (i.e Ur, Uruk, etc in Mesopotamia). Rivalries within the cities also developed, which lead to the development of politics, laws, etc., which had not existed before this time.

I was thinking of this in relation to the church as I sat in a planning meeting for VBS (Vacation Bible School) at my church. I had a fairly intense visual picture as the church as a city and civilization, working together for God’s purposes. Those that serve the church come together as if members of a city. They grow closer together through service, and as they grow, so also does the need organization and governance. A question occurred to me: those who only come to church on Sundays and do not serve, are they part of the city? Are they a part of the Christian “civilization” and “citizens”? Jesus said in Matthew 20: “Whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

Continuing with the city-state metaphor, perhaps people don’t get involved in church service because they see rivalries and politics? It certainly can be a problem. Indeed, sometimes (maybe more often than not) the church does look like a collection of opposing city-states, battle lines drawn on every street corner. Are these “cities” obeying God’s law though, or following their own impulses and reason?

Anyway, I would not rather judge whether those that don’t serve (and are “citizens”) are saved or not. Those that don’t serve do not get to participate in God’s civilization. As Goheen emphasizes in “A Light to the Nations,” God’s purpose for calling Abraham, and blessing his descendants, and giving Israel the law and setting them apart, was to create a counterculture to the selfish sinful culture and nations of the time. The church is a continuance of that Light, that counterculture, and if we are not serving the church, God’s city, we are missing the point of God’s mission: building a civilization as God intended, before the fall of Adam.

3 thoughts on “Thoughts on the Church as City-State

    Kirk Lowery said:
    April 5, 2012 at 6:36 pm

    Well, not all of us want to be “first” among the disciples! What’s the value in that?!

    And it is possible (as in my case) that one’s service to Christ is completely outside of the context of the local church.

    Every human group I know has a hierarchical structure; and the group only really benefits those high up on the food chain. Christian community is a matter of “over-promise, under deliver”. That doesn’t mean one cannot have satisfying social relations and interactions!

    I guess I’m trying to say I don’t respond positively to the metaphor of city state for the church. I don’t see that it works out empirically.


    The Curmudgeon

    klowery88 responded:
    April 6, 2012 at 11:41 am

    Ah Herr Curmudgeon! welcome to my blog. I didn’t know you were reading it, but thanks! 🙂

    I quoted that scripture, not to inspire anyone to be first (of course), but that Jesus was emphasizing service in his followers. Instead of thinking about ourselves, which we do naturally and quite well, we should do the the opposite: serve others. I’m not talking about staff, but Joe and Jane Average Christian, coming together to serve. That is what brings people together in a unified local Christian culture and “civilization.” I do realize there are those (i.e. you) who sort of fall outside of this specific metaphor, but you do have your community (very global, it seems) that your interact with, in a “city-state” kind of way.

    I don’t know necessarily how far the literal metaphor of city-state goes, but I do think there are similarities, especially with all the denominations out there. I don’t even know how unified I am with the next Baptist church down the road, in terms *how* it is run and what is preached. I have heard stories of some churches I would not want to visit. In that respect, the churches would be similar to a physical and spiritual city-state. Do you agree with that statement?

    I was thinking of the hierarchy and politics in a church as a turn off to some. It was for me. Or an excuse against serving, maybe. The main point I was trying to make was the the lack of sevice (hitting church on Sunday and that’s it) equates to a lack of unity with the church, spiritually speaking. Or maybe I shouldn’t say that much, because a lot of people at my church service the children on Sunday and go about their week. I think the services draws Christians together, but also facilitates and forces the politics (that also developed in the first city-states).

    As I am not really a historian (a work in-progress), perhaps I am stating the obvious, or I do not have a accurate concept of the city-state.

    Kirk Lowery said:
    April 6, 2012 at 5:29 pm

    I have no objections to “service” being a part of the life of a Christian! Discipleship demands it. But serving means “meeting needs” and does not require this city-state you speak of. And much occurs in this city-state that is named “service” or “ministry”, but really isn’t, or is trivial.

    I was probably reacting to what I perceived as a “utopian” vision of church life and community. As for church hierarchy, I do not see the church staff or even the pastor in all cases as being at the top of it. There are many churches where the staff are treated as outsiders. (I’ve worked on the staff of one of those. Many decades ago!)

    If a picture illustrates the reality you experience, then it’s fine. But the reality I see is perhaps different from yours. I don’t identify with any group within the Kingdom of God. I’m an individual who interacts and associates with different combinations of other individuals that changes from time to time. Many, if not most, Christians tend to be far more group-oriented than I am. My wife, for instance. 🙂

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