One of the most common questions that I hear during discussions about dealing with faith is "how much time and effort should be placed into performing works?" It’s that versus living into one’s faith with knowledge that it’s through the grace of God that we are offered salvation.
The answer invariably deals with the arguments between grace and works, and also spills over into how a believer behaves in community. You may ask how community plays into the argument between grace and works, and I would answer that a believer needs to be acting in community to be able to most fully live into their life of faith.
An argument might be that there is no need to live and worship in community, perhaps using monasticism as an example of how people lived an ascetic and religious lifestyle without being in community, starting roughly from the time of Constantine when most persecution of the early Church ceased. I would argue that the early monastics did indeed retreat into the wilderness, especially in Egypt, however they were not completely alone, and invariably made time to be in community with other ascetics and monks. Time for worship, time for learning from one another, time for study of the Holy Scriptures and time for community building strengthened and reinforced the faith of the early Church fathers and mothers. In my opinion, no believer is knowledgeable enough and so thoroughly grounded in all aspects of faith that they may exist outside of a community of believers.
In the time of St. Augustine, Pelagius, an ascetic monk, most likely from Great Britain, who was based in Rome, made some extraordinary statements for that time. He believed that human beings had a need for moral responsibility and for overcoming what he deemed to be moral laxity in Rome. His statements were interpreted by St. Augustine as being contrary to divine grace in the life of the believer, and Pelagius was roundly criticized by St. Augustine for his stance.
St. Augustine felt that Pelagius emphasized the ability of human beings to improve themselves and take initiative for their own salvation, which could be summed up as being “salvation by merit” or works dominated. Pelagius did believe that mankind did not have an inherent disposition toward sin, often referred to as “original sin,” and therefore humans always could improve their lot. St. Augustine felt, on the other hand, that grace was solely the gift of God, and that it was completely unmerited or underserved by any action of ours. St. Augustine did believe in “original sin” and as a result, humanity is completely dependent upon God for salvation, and has no inherent ability to change their lot in life. Two church councils in 416 condemned Pelagius as a heretic, and Pope Innocent I excommunicated him.
In today’s society, I believe that we still see elements of Pelagianism, where people believe that it is through their many works that they will gain their own salvation, in which there is a checklist of items to complete and that one gains merit from their actions toward their own salvation. This often is accompanied by a lack of need to participate in community, which unfortunately compounds the problem since there is a complete lack of oversight. In my opinion, it is the unmerited and unwarranted grace of God that allows us to continue in our life of faith, and that life must be lived in community, where we share and live with one another as in a family of believers.