From “Community and Growth”
by Jean Vanier, 1928-2019
When a community is born, it is very difficult to know whether it is a real community or a sect. It is only by watching it grow over time that we can know the answer. A true community becomes more and more open because it becomes more and more humble. A sect seems to be open, but with time, in fact, becomes more and more closed. A sect is made up of people who believe that only they are right. They are incapable of listening; they are enclosed and fanatical; they find no truth outside themselves. Their members have lost their capacity for individual reflection; only they are elect, saved and perfect; everyone else is wrong. And in spite of the apparent joy and relaxation, there is an impression that these are weak personalities who have been more or less manipulated and who are imprisoned in a false friendship from which they would find it hard to escape. They are governed more by fear than by growth towards inner freedom.
The language of elitism smells bad! It is not healthy to believe that we are the only ones to have captured truth and even less healthy to condemn others. These attitudes have nothing to do with the message of Jesus Christ. A Christian community is based on the recognition that we are all sinners and that we need to be forgiven each day and to forgive seventy times seven.
“Judge not and you will not be judged.” (Luke 6:37)
A Christian community should do as Jesus did: propose and not impose. Its attraction must lie in the radiance cast by the love of brothers and sisters.
Communities are also distinguished from sects by the fact that the members of a sect focus more and more on a single authority, their founder, prophet. shepherd, leader or saint. It is he who holds all the temporal and spiritual power and keeps all the members under control. They read only his writings and they live from his words alone. This false prophet refuses to allow anyone but himself to speak to the group; he dismisses anyone who could threaten his all-powerful authority. He surrounds himself with people who are weak, incapable of any personal thought. He is submissive to no one.
At the start of true communities, founders hold spiritual and communal power; they hold authority and are the person others refer to for all decisions. If they are essentially submissive to the Holy Spirit, they must also be submissive to other authorities in their church and to others in the community. They must gradually help the members to make contact with other sources of inspiration and authority, and journey towards their own inner freedom, so that they think freely, while remaining in the spirit of the community.
True Christian communities always have a multiplicity of authorities including the founder, the Gospel, the whole tradition of the Church, the bishop and the Holy Father (if they are Roman Catholic) and other Christians living in the spirit of Jesus. Then, most important of all, each member of the community must learn to take as their authority the Spirit of Jesus living in themselves.