Community or Society?

Previous post : Rebuilding the parish

Québec Parliament Building, 1901 Québec Parliament Building, 1901, from Wikipedia

Once you were not a people, but now you are God’s people – 1 Peter 2:10

What is a people? Unfortunately we usually take the word to simply mean the plural of “person”. But the meaning of the word here is distinct – it speaks of a cohesive people group. In Quebec we have a somewhat clearer idea of what a people is than elsewhere in Canada. We often speak of “the Québécois people.” We argue about the definition of the Québécois nation – is it ethnic, linguistic, or cultural? Can you become Québécois? (I used to think so, but with time I’m losing hope…)

“A People” in the New Testament can have all three of these meanings1, as well as a few others. But the idea here is that God is gathering people from all sorts of cultural, ethnic, linguistic and social backgrounds to build something that is more than just a gathering of individuals : we are a cohesive people, with a connection that is deeper and stronger than a free association. These people that had nothing in common now form a tribe, a nation, a lineage.

But even if Québec gives us an idea of what a people is, we still don’t really understand the cohesion that existed among the people in more traditional cultures. There is an element of family that goes beyond what we think of when we imagine a people. A people, in this sense, is much more than a group of people who live on the same land, who speak the same language, and even who are born of the same family line. There are natural and invisible bonds that connect the members of a people, and we do not often experience them in our day.

Why is the idea of being united as a people so nebulous for us? Because God’s work of gathering, of changing scattered individuals into a united people, is the opposite of the present movement of our world. Instead of creating fraternal ties, we live in a time when we are more and more separated and individualised. Our modern world is profoundly different from the traditional context in which the Bible was written.

German sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies proposed a model to compare traditional cultures with modern societies, calling them communities and societies 2. We need to specify that these are a sort of ideal type and not historical descriptions. No social group is entirely community or society, but the distinction helps us to see the tendencies in the world around us. So let’s take a look at these two types:


  1. We become a member of a community by birth, and we are accepted into it because our presence is a part of the natural order.
  2. Members feel a mutual dependence and common belonging. Shared identity is felt more strongly than individuality.
  3. The unity of the group comes from this shared identity, which is based on common values, a common vision of the world, and a common religion.
  4. Members of a community see the social order as natural, and accept certain inequalities and roles of more or less honour and power as a part of this order.
  5. Members contribute to the well-being of the community, according to their respective roles.


  1. Social association is based on reflection and personal choice: belonging is artificial rather than natural.
  2. The individual and individuality take precedence over the collective, and we feel only a week sense of belonging, because
  3. Unity comes from a legal framework (a social contract), which we see as a necessary burden and not an element of who we are.
  4. Society is a rational construction, made by people who consider themselves to be equals.
  5. We pursue our own advantage and personal success. We see our neighbour as a competitor.

Tonnies believed that the transition from traditional community to modern society is the result of industrialisation and urbanisation. When people leave the social context of their village of origin and establish themselves in a large urban centre, they move to a more isolated life in search of personal advantage. They concentrate more and more on the immediate needs of daily life and less and less on tradition, culture, and social cohesion.3

Comparing these two types of social groupings brings to light certain tendencies of our own society, for better or for worse. This can also help us see how we should act and live together, as the people of God : the idea of a people as the apostle knew it looked much more like a community than a society.

Of particular interest, the weak social link, competition, the social contract (which brings the idea of relationships as transactions), and the independent and autonomist vision all harm our relations, both within and without the people of God. It would be easy to idealise traditional communities, and I’m sure I do this sometimes, but these communities are not perfect either. However, we can still learn quite a bit from these examples. So let’s re-imagine our social interactions in the light of being the community of the people of God.

1: λαός ,n : a people, people group, tribe, nation, all those who are of the same stock and language (

2 Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft in German.

3 Gregory Baum, Religion and Alienation, Novalis, 2006, pp 52-54.

Next post : Community happens in the little things...

Related pages


comments powered by Disqus