A Church Patterned on Trinity

Several authors have urged a return to what I call “shared church.” But their books don’t appear on best-seller lists, and few Christ-followers know about them. This blog is the second on such books.

How Should “Trinity” Shape the Church?

In Trinity in Human Community, Peter R. Holmes explains how. His subtitle, Exploring Congregational Life in the Image of the Social Trinity, offers a hint. God, he says, is a social, relational Being. This truth should mold the way we meet and interact in our churches.

As those created in the likeness of this personal, communal God, we grow best as we relate to him and to others in true community. But too often church people do not experience such fellowship. Holmes notes that “Congregational meetings can look like the classroom, faith being a thing we learn to do intellectually. We often stand in rows to worship God.”

After-Effects of Augustine

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Why do we find it so challenging to experience real community? Holmes traces much of the difficulty to the theology we in the Western Church got from Augustine. Most of us don’t realize how greatly the ideas of this fourth/fifth-century theologian still color the way we think. Influenced by Greek thought, Augustine emphasized the oneness of the Godhead. By contrast, the Eastern Church had stressed the personhood of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. From Augustine, says Holmes, we “inherited . . . the idea of a static, transcendent Trinity.” This “makes it more difficult for us to imagine the possibility of engaging with our spirituality, and knowing an intimate relationship with God.”

The insights of Augustine, Holmes believes, need to be counterbalanced with those of his Eastern-Church contemporaries, the Cappadocian Fathers—Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory Nazianzus, and Basil the Great. Although we should not see them through rose-colored glasses, the Cappadocians offer an understanding of God we have missed: perichoresis. This means that God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have always lived in intimate social relationship, mutually indwelling each other. As Jesus said, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me” (Jn. 14:11). In other words, God himself is, lives, and loves as a Community.

A Reluctant Church Planter

In 1998, along with four others, Holmes planted Christ Church Deal (CCD) in Deal, a coastal UK city located where the North Sea and English Channel meet. With years of experience in churches and church leadership, Holmes had a “personal problem” in making the transition to a perichoretic church. “It had never really occurred to me,” he admits, “that congregational life could or should be more than a series of regular meetings, and that ‘fellowship’ as I was regularly practicing it was actually not authentic community.”

He discovered that he had “deep personal prejudices against ideas of ‘community.’” Solid Christians didn’t need community, he thought. He’d been raised to think of himself as a strong, independent male. Who needed close relationships? He had read and heard stories of the heroes of the faith, recalling that “Most of these writings seem to focus on the journey and successes of the individual.”

Realizing what it would cost to practice perichoretic church, Holmes resisted. “I instinctively and stubbornly held on to the old ways, redoubling my efforts rather than taking the risk of changing my thinking. What I had to admit was that reproducing traditional institutional Church is always much easier for me. After all, I had had over thirty-five years of doing it this way. The task of seeking to create a new model of congregation as community was far too daunting to undertake.”

Steps Toward a Perichoretic Church

But as he began to listen to the hearts of those in the newly planted church, Holmes began to realize that what he and they needed most was a true community patterned on the social Trinity. He recalls that the people in CCD “did not want meetings, but they did want relationships.” Since then, CCD has intentionally taken steps to create an environment in which relationships in community can flourish. For example:

  • “We have experimented with the idea of doing things together, seeing this as an excuse for a get-together, or for making a job a relational event.”

  • “Another change in our community was when we moved the worship band to the back of the congregation, requiring each person to proactively visualize worshiping Christ in relationship rather than continue to be passively ‘led’ in worship by the singers and musicians.”

  • “On the last Sunday of the month, we cancel Sunday church altogether. We do this to facilitate social relations in and outside the congregation.”

CCD has not built or bought a building. “We decided that would not put money into buildings, but into people.” So their homes serve as their primary meeting-places. As the congregation grew, they rented or leased space when they needed more room for special events.

Should We Meet to Worship, or . . . ?

For CCD, the central reason for gathering together differs from the typical understanding of why Christians gather. “A characteristic for Paul of faith community life was that people did not go to church to ‘worship.’ Rather, Paul saw one’s whole life as worship (Rom. 12:1-2). . . . Paul saw the purpose of meeting corporately as the spiritual strengthening of one another (1 Cor. 14:12, 19, 26). This was done through sharing gifts in mutual ministry or charism (Eph. 5:19; Col. 3:16-17).”

This one-anothering—which Jesus calls for in his New Command—has led CCD to adopt a non-hierarchical church structure. “In CCD we have sought to take up the idea of a flat organization. . . . Easy access to the leadership is important. . . . we elect most of our Leadership Team (LT) of ten men and ten women, and choose a chairperson from among this group. All are lay people and work on a voluntary basis.” CCD has adopted “arrangements [that] militate against individuals having power over others or developing a power base within the congregation.” Holmes says, “by putting people ahead of tasks, we have endeavored to mirror social Trinity.”

“What I am suggesting is that our modern practice of one priest leading a congregation is in danger of usurping what Hebrew thought and Paul are actually saying to us. It is the ‘priesthood of all believers,’ as Peter suggested (1 Pet. 2:9), that should form the foundation of local congregational life and leadership, not just one man or woman.”

Rapha: A People-Mending Community

A core teaching in the CCD community comes from God’s word to the community of Israel after their exodus from Egypt: “I am the Lord, who heals you” (Ex. 15:26). In Hebrew, that word for heals is rapha, which means “to stitch together.” God wants to stitch his people back together from being ripped apart by such things as our bent to sinning, our inability to find God, and our being held captive by external forces. So the whole body of believers, as each part does its work, becomes a therapeutic community.

Throughout the book, Holmes intersperses many quotations in which CCD people describe their experience in this perichoretic church community. Here are just three:

  • “There is an accountability with each other within the community.”

  • “There is a sense that the load is shared. If you have got a problem . . . you can seek someone else to help you, a community of helping.”

  • “Prior to CCD I thought being a Christian was like having a label, being part of a club you attended once a week. . . . But since being at CCD, I understand that being a Christian is about how you live your life every day—it’s in you, about living in truth and loving each other, belonging.”

Holmes says, “In CCD we have now been seeking to live this journey of intentional therapeutic faith community for a number of years. . . . We have not got everything right, but we are trying.”