A colleague was sharing his mostly positive experiences of having lodgers. For some reason, my brain stood down as my mouth opened and I reflexively asked, ‘Do you feel obliged to talk to them?’ Proof, if more were needed, of my need for Christian growth!
This sort of conversation was nothing new. Whenever friends have spoken to me about their experiences of house sharing, a sense of dread would invariably manifest within me.
We all bring baggage with us when we approach Scripture. It might be personality quirks like introversion and self-reliance, or culturally conditioned philosophical concepts like individualism. These things act as static that we must try and tune out.
When we do, we are better placed to hear what Scripture teaches on community.
I’ve heard many try to ‘tune out the static’ and ‘drop off the unhelpful baggage’ by stressing our communal nature as human beings.
For example, a standard approach from Christian authors and speakers is to talk about the trinitarian community that exists within the Godhead. Then, our creation in the image of God will be stressed. This will be followed by a reflection on our being wired to experience community because we reflect God’s nature.
This type of argument is not a bad one. I would certainly hold to its central message. However, it carries two weaknesses. First, contextually, I think the phrase “image and likeness of God” (Gen 1:26-27) has more to do with dominion (Gen 1:28) than with other concepts. Second, analogies that take us from God to humanity always fall at some point; for example, our different persons are not eternally subsisting in the same essence.
Therefore, as good as that approach is, I thought it worth departing from it. Instead, I think it’s helpful to look more broadly at three encouragements that come from being in a Christian community: “True belonging”, “A greater love” and “Spiritual growth”. These encouragements should inspire us to make the most of our Christian community, whether we’re naturally communal or not.
We are rescued from eternal death as individuals. No one else can repent and believe the good news for us. But once we are brought into fellowship with God, we are placed into fellowship with His people too. We become citizens of God’s Kingdom.
This Kingdom is clearly distinct from the world. Our community has a different Lord and a different passage of citizenship. And wonderfully, our citizenship is not based on nationality or ethnicity too. God has made it so that the boundaries that can so easily divide us are torn down in Christ (Galatians 3:28). This community really is one in Christ.
So, for Christians, being part of a community is not an optional extra. One doesn’t pray for ‘my daily bread’ but for ‘our daily bread’ (Mathew 6:11). It is through our community that God has designed us to flourish. Like Israel before us, we become a Kingdom of Priests so that we can proclaim the excellencies of Him who called us into His marvellous light.
Hopefully, it is quite clear that we belong in a community. The more we see that we belong in community, the more we should feel at ease in it. It is then that we can seek to make the most of it. Even when our Christian community seems to fall short, I think it’s helpful to remember that we belong in it.
A Greater Love
Love requires more than one person. This is something that has flummoxed “In Christian community, we will never lack opportunities to love one another” those who deny the Trinitarian nature of our God who is love (1 John 4:8). So, when we love, we reflect something of God’s character.
How tragic that in our culture love seems to have been reduced to sex and romance.
We should reject this reduction of love. Jesus said these profound words, ‘A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another’ ( John 13:34). In order to love, we need ‘one another’. The love of Jesus was sacrificial, centred on others, and fully motivated by God’s glory. I wonder whether we offer this type of love, modelled on Jesus? It is greater than any other conception of love, ‘Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends’ ( John 15:13).
It’s a simple command to love one another as Christ has loved us. Yet it is profound. By obeying it, people will know we are followers of Jesus ( John 13:34-35). And it means that our evangelism will be turbocharged too. How counter-cultural Christians can be when we ‘love one another deeply from the heart’ (1 Peter 1:22). What an impact that could have on a watching world. In this life, we will never love perfectly. Yet, because we belong to a Christian community, we will never lack opportunities to practice obeying our Lord’s command to love. Indeed, it is only in community that we can model this love of Jesus towards ‘one another’.
We should not forget that this ‘one another’ relationship is also familial. Jesus gave his mother into his disciple John’s care ( John 19:25-29). The mother of Rufus was like a mother to Paul (Romans 16:13). Timothy was like a son to Paul (1 Timothy 1:2). The new family to which we belong should stir us to love. Far from being wishy-washy, this love is profound, powerful, and practical.
For example, this familial love was manifested practically in the early Church. The community that the Apostles founded meant that ‘there were no needy people among them’ (Acts 4:34). And love demands to be practically manifested within our Christian community too.
Objectively, our salvation has caused us to enter a new family. There is no opt-out clause. We will not love perfectly. We must fight against the desires of the flesh in order to manifest the fruit of the Spirit. But the greater love that we can experience can only be found in a Christian community. That should motivate us to make the most of it.
When thinking about spiritual growth, often one’s personal devotions are the focus. As important as they are, we are designed to grow spiritually in our Christian community.
Every member of Christ’s body has a function. The goal of each individual part is to make the whole healthier. Each believer has gifts graciously distributed by the Spirit. Everyone has something to offer (1 Corinthians 12:7). No Christian is left on the bench. And the greater gifts are designed to build us up and help us to grow, both communally and individually.
Perhaps you find it difficult to believe that God has given you something to offer to others. But there is no escaping that truth. And, tragically, we limit the chances for our family in Christ to grow if we fail to participate fully. As iron sharpens iron, so we become more useful when we’re rooted in Christian community.
We truly belong in a Christian community. We are designed to model Christ’s love in a Christian community. And we are designed to grow spiritually in a Christian community. What better motivations can we have to drop off the unhelpful baggage we may carry to this topic?
This article was originally published in the Winter 2019 edition of the TFT magazine, Ascend.