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I admit it: I’m envious. I’m green when I look at observant (“orthodox”) Jews.
What do they have that we don’t? Covenant consciousness: a way of thinking that begins with the assembly rather than the individual. There’s an “us-ness” to orthodox Judaism that is missing from Western Christianity.
That “us-ness” is made mandatory among Jews by two adamantine traditions: the “Sabbath day’s walk” and the minyan. Christians are familiar with the former from Acts 1:12—the Mount of Olives was “a Sabbath day’s journey,” or about a mile, from Jerusalem. To walk a greater distance is considered “work” and therefore forbidden. Minyan (Hebrew for “number”) refers to the minimum number of male Jews above the age of 13 required for congregational worship. Jews have a saying: “Nine tsaddikim [righteous men, Torah scholars] do not make a minyan, but one ordinary man, joining them, completes the minyan.” It is not uncommon today to find, outside small shuls (synagogues), a man seeking to flag a “tenth” Jew, urging him to come inside so the liturgy might commence. Some find support for this minimum number for a congregation in Abraham’s “bottom line” (Gen. 18:32); others look to the 10 spies who, in Numbers 14:27, are called an edah (congregation), a word commonly used in Exodus to refer to Israel (see 12:3, 6, 19, 47).
Whatever the origin of these two traditions, they’ve served the Jews well. The fact is that in order for a Jew to live as a Jew, he must live in a community where at least nine other post-bar mitzvah Jewish males are within walking distance of one another. Result: Decisions about where to live begin, for Jews, with the assembly, not with the individual or even with the family.
The advantages of covenant community are real and constitute a compelling case for Christians to live among others of like precious faith:
• If love is in the details, the interaction among people of like faith provides abundant opportunities to love one another.
• The closer we live, the more frequently we can meet for worship and service.
• Our identity as a called people is strengthened by our common interests.
• Our interaction holds a powerful attraction for unbelievers, whose idea of community is artificial, typically found only in television or the state.
• Our common faith allows for communities that transcend race and other factors that divide the world.
Imagine an entire community with a like ethic! A covenant community could elect officials to represent God’s claims. We’d tell our leaders, “Don’t worry about success—just be faithful and we’ll reelect you.” Such a community would mean covenant businesses, enabling us to enrich fellow believers as we spend. Our children would have covenant-keepers as playmates. Plus, they would be more likely to meet proper partners in a faithful community.
The New York Times recently reported on a study proving that people, despite all the melting-pot rhetoric, still choose to live “among their own kind.” But just suggesting that Christians ought to live near one another raises eyebrows today, even accusations of cultishness. It sometimes seems that Christians can affirm any kind of neighborhood except a Christian one! They sympathize with those who desire to live near others of like ethnicity, language, or race. They even endorse Jews, Hindus, or Muslims wanting to live near one another. But Christians? “Unacceptable,” they say. This comes close to self-hatred. But there’s nothing cultish about desiring, and planning on having, Christian neighbors.
The beauty of covenant community is that it can be lived out even in the midst of the busiest, most diverse urban centers. Come to Brooklyn and see how the Jews do it! It is not isolationism; rather, it is an anchor in rough waters.
And the idea is hardly un-Biblical. In Acts 2, believers met together “daily” in the temple courts, broke bread in one another’s homes, and ate together with glad and sincere hearts. Hebrews 3:13 suggests that Christians still were meeting daily many years later. Neither is the idea unhistorical. Calvin’s daily preaching in Geneva relied for efficacy upon a people living close enough to avail themselves of the opportunity to hear him. Try that when Christians are randomly scattered in far-flung pockets.
That Christians have the freedom to do “X” is not a compelling argument for them to choose to do “X.” As Paul taught, asserting that “all things are lawful” should not lead one to conclude that all things are expedient, profitable, or beneficial (1 Cor. 6:12). Though Christians are free to live wherever they choose, there are good reasons for them to choose to live in covenant community; better reasons, in fact, than those employed by our Jewish friends.
Demographers tell us that the average American will move many times during the course of his life. He bases his decision where to live on employment, proximity to other family members, housing costs, transportation, education, cultural venues, and—among the more committed—proximity to a sound church. Rarely does he put Christian neighbors at or near the top of the list. But he should.
Divided, we’re falling. So resolve, please, that the next time you have to move, move next to or across from a faithful Christian family of like mind. If all of us did this, my natural complexion would soon be restored.
It ain’t easy being green.