Many Christians have a less than biblical understanding of what being a Christian is all about. More than a few liken it to a casual stroll down the proverbial yellow-brick road on our way to some heavenly OZ. Others think that being a child of God entitles a person to a pain-free existence, or at least an existence in which all pain is easily, if not automatically, eliminated. Of course, there are plenty of Christians who err at the other end of the spectrum. They have a defeatist mentality and fail to walk in the fullness of their privileges and power as the people of God.
I say all this as a way of explaining the title to this article: “Why Community is an Act of War.”
Immediately some will wonder why in the world I would use such a volatile and aggressive term as “war” to describe something that they believe is so easy, peaceful, and routine. There are a lot of things you might associate with the concept of war, but Christian “community” probably isn’t one of them. So what in the world do I mean by this?
To make sense of this idea we need to remind ourselves of the daily battles we face in life today. And when I say “battles,” I mean spiritual challenges, war, conflicts. No one wants conflict for its own sake. I much prefer peace at all times. But ask any veteran of the United States military and they will probably tell you that the reason they went to war was to protect and to preserve the peace.
So what are some of the “enemies” you and I face that call for spiritual resistance? Who or what are the opposition that calls for us to bind ourselves to one another in community? Again, in what sense is community an act of spiritual war? But first, what is “community”?
Perhaps the best way to answer that question is by looking at how the Bible describes God’s new covenant people: the church.
My settled conviction is that one of the primary reasons people avoid community is that they have not understood God’s perspective on the local church. And from one angle I can understand that. You walk into a corporate gathering on a Sunday morning and you are instantly confronted with an odd assortment of people, many of whom you may not know. The differences that exist among God’s people are often huge barriers to community.
There are people of different ages, and so we confront a chronological hurdle to jump over. Most people are more comfortable associating with people their own age. It’s not easy to bridge the age gap that exists in a local church.
There are people of different socio-economic status. Some are extremely successful monetarily and their standard of living is noticeably different from those who struggle financially.
There are people of vastly differing educational background. There are people who dropped out of high school and people who have multiple graduate degrees. It’s all too easy for some to resent the highly educated and for the highly educated to look down their noses at those who haven’t progressed very far in school.
There are people of different races. Although the church isn’t nearly as ethnically diverse as it should be, some people are still a bit hesitant about how closely connected they can be with someone of a different ethnicity.
And then you add to the mix the differences that exist among us when it comes to our family background, where we grew up, whether or not we’ve been Christians for many years or were only recently converted to faith in Christ, and you can begin to see why some people are afraid of burrowing deeply into community and of committing themselves and entrusting themselves to others.
But God speaks to us in his Word about the nature of what a local church is designed to be and it is obvious that these unavoidable differences are actually strengths rather than weaknesses. This is clear from the most common metaphor that the NT authors use to describe us. Repeatedly we see in Scripture that we, the individual men and women of a local church, are like the parts of a human body, connected and related one to another in a common life with a common goal.
For example, when the Apostle Paul tells the believers in Ephesus to stop lying to one another but rather to speak the truth, the reason he gives is, and I quote: because “we are members one of another” (Eph. 4:25).
Again in Romans 12:5 Paul says that “we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.”
In 1 Corinthians 12:27 Paul says, “Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.”
And in Ephesians 4 Paul repeatedly describes us as a body in which every member and every part makes its contribution to growth and maturity in Christ.
All of us know what it means to be a companion with another or a teammate or the friend of another. I know what it means to be affiliated with someone in an endeavor or even in an organization. But what does it mean for you and me as Christians to be “members one of another”?
Clearly Paul has in mind something that goes beyond mere casual acquaintance. Christians in a local church are not just neighbors. Paul has in view a solidarity and mutual inter-dependence one with another that flows from a spiritual unity created by God and willingly embraced by each believer. We are no longer alienated or independent beings but people who belong together in covenant commitment as one body in Christ.
This mutual inter-relationship and inter-dependence that we experience as God’s children is the foundation for community. By community, then, I simply mean the way we live our lives together as the people of God. Community in the church is very similar to what it is or ought to be in the family: very different people loving each other, speaking truth to each other, encouraging each other, partnering with each other in mission and ministry, holding each other accountable to the life Christ has called us to live, forgiving each other, teaching and instructing each other, worshiping together with each other, and the list could go on endlessly.
I realize that not all Christians want to hear this. They honestly don’t like it. But there’s simply no way of getting around the fact that when you come to faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior you not only have a new personal identity, you also have a new personal community, a new family. And the simple, undeniable, inescapable fact is that we will never grow up into the fullness of what we are in terms of our personal identity in Christ until we embrace and enter into our corporate identity as one people of God.
I’m totally persuaded from Scripture that you and I will never grow up in Christ, will never fully experience all he has died to obtain for us, if we persist in living as isolated individuals cut off from the grace and power that comes to us only in the context of spiritual community. I’m not saying you aren’t saved. I’m not saying you won’t go to heaven. I am saying that your maturity, growth, and even your enjoyment of God will be stunted and fall short of what you otherwise might experience.
Let me give you just one example as stated in Ephesians 3:17-19. Here we have Paul’s prayer for the Ephesians, that they might experience and enjoy the depths of God’s love for them in Christ. But notice carefully how he anticipates this happening. We read in vv. 17-19, how Paul prays
“that Christ may dwell in your hearts through faith—that you, being rooted and grounded in love, may have strength to comprehend with all the saints what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge, that you may be filled with all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:17-19).
This indwelling influence of Christ in our hearts is in some way related to, perhaps even dependent upon, being “rooted and grounded in love”. The “love” here is what you and I have one for another. In other words, apart from a communal and mutual love that we display toward each other we will struggle to know and experience Christ’s love for us.
But there’s more. It is “with all the saints” that we are enabled to understand the unfathomable love of God for us, his children. For all its glory and the great heights from which it came, such love can only be experienced together “with all the saints” (cf. 1:1,15; 3:8; 6:18)! Our experience of Christ’s love is personal, but never private. It is meant to be felt and proclaimed and enjoyed in the context of the body of Christ. It is a personal, yet shared, experience. When we think about, pray about, talk about, and give thanks for God’s love for us together with other Christian men and women, we feel and experience and deepen in our awareness and assurance of that love far beyond what could ever happen if we did it alone.
But why speak of community as an act of war? We’ll take this up in the next article.