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A 60's radical once said, "Never trust anyone over 30." By the time most people reach 30, they have exhausted the ideals of youth. And by the time utopian communities exceed 30 members, they usually begin to stray from their original goals.

Our membership has now reached 30, and each year more of us celebrate 30th birthdays. So where are we heading, and what are our chances of maintaining ideological purity?

We would like to say that God is not limited by such statistics. But we are not so sure that God will exempt us from this harsh reality. A study of Paul's letters to the church in Corinth shows that he was dealing with some pretty tough nuts in his efforts to build the kingdom of God. They easily misunderstood, quickly forgot, and often willingly rebelled against his leadership. We look back at this and wonder why Paul bothered persevering with such hopeless cases.

After all, we have not had to put up with such hard cases. For more than ten years we have enjoyed unbelievable unity, with almost no incidents of theft, sexual misconduct, or battles over leadership. We have experienced pure democracy and pure communism, with an overall feeling of mutual trust and equal power in decision-making.

The most important ingredient in the formula for such success is simply to choose your members carefully. By requiring people to give up everything they own, we cut the field down to those who are willing to confront the root of all evil in their own lives. And by continuing to live by faith (i.e. by refusing to let money be our goal in what we do), we have avoided other traps that lead to hypocrisy.

But we can only relate deeply to about 30 other people. The "great big happy family" begins to become just another organisation as we grow larger. For example, every one of us writes a general letter to the rest of the group each week. But mail calls can now take up half a day. And business meetings involving all members and giving plenty of time for full discussion of each issue can take many hours each week. As we continue to grow, something has to give.

So what should be our approach to the future?

A clue comes in what appears to be two levels of organisation recognised by Jesus in his own ministry.

Jesus and his 12 disciples represented a utopian society. They maintained group purity through the grievance system (Matthew 18:15-17). Problems were dealt with more or less on the spot... to the point of excommunication if necessary. The standards were high and dissenters were urged to go elsewhere. (Luke 11:23) Little weeds were plucked out before they had a chance to spread. And in this way he maintained the same high ideals and unity that we have experienced.

But there was a second, more tolerant level of association, where Jesus said, "If you are not against us, you must be for us." (Luke 9:50) This he applied to other groups working in some sort of a loose association with himself. He did not have full control over their activities, but that did not seem to bother him.

If we apply this in our present circumstances, it may be that we can expect to grow to the point where we will divide into a number of different communities, over which we will not have so much control. Some of those communities may make serious mistakes and may even go completely off the rails. But, unless we are actually participating members of them, we will not be able to judge as swiftly or as harshly as we could within our own closer fellowship.

This may be what Jesus was predicting in his parable of the wheat and the weeds (Matthew 13:24-30). After his ascension to heaven, his utopian community grew into a much bigger one, where 'weeds' managed to take root and spread. The solution was not always to pull out the weeds. If nothing else, it may have been to transplant the wheat, in the sense of sincere people banding together to form a new fellowship.

This is more or less what we have done with regard to the institutional church. Because the grievance system is not used by local assemblies, we could not, even in very small groups, confront the weeds in the churches, and deal with them. So we pulled ourselves out and formed a new garden of our own.

We cannot deny that there are sincere individuals in the institutional church; but they are outnumbered, and the weeds are growing pretty much unchecked. Ripping out all of the weeds would cause more damage than simply starting over (as we have done).

A prophet (or critic) is usually one who excommunicates himself or herself (or more appropriately, the prophet excommunicates the whole body) and steps outside with a call to renewed idealism. We have done that with the institutional church; and in varying degrees, we will probably have to do that with one another if we continue to grow.

We must seek to enforce Christian ideals within each individual community. But we can only be really certain about the 20-30 people with whom we are working most directly. For the others, we may have to let God (John 21:22) or other appointed leaders take final responsibility.

(See also The Trend Toward Tolerance, Divisions - Part of God's Plan? Corporate Adolescence, Why Communes Fail, and Pastors and Teachers.)

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