Why Community is an Act of War (2)
What I mean by this is that the life of a Christian devoted to community is a life in combat with numerous enemies. There are forces and temptations and trends and even some people who if not resisted and overcome can undermine your relationship with Christ and seriously erode your growth as a Christian. Thus when you choose to pursue community with the people of God you are fighting the insidious and destructive influence of these enemies. So let me mention a few.
(1) Community is an act of war against sinful self-sufficiency.
We may not like to admit it, but there is in each of us a tendency to think we don’t need other people. We find ourselves saying, “I’ve got all the resources within my own soul to govern and regulate my life. And if I step out of line with God, I don’t need anyone else to stick their nose into my spiritual life. I can get myself out of any mess I create and I’m fully capable of living a godly life without the input of others.”
Where did that mindset come from? It certainly didn’t come from the Bible. Simply put, it’s the mindset of the world in which we live. The philosophy of the world is that our problems are outside of us and the solution to them is inside of us. The philosophy of the Bible is that our problems are inside of us and the solution is outside of us.
The answer to your deepest and most intensely painful struggles and failures in life is not found in who you are by nature. It is found in what God has done for you by grace. It is found in the power that resides in the community of God’s family.
We tend to think that we know ourselves better than anyone else. Thus we either overestimate our strengths or underestimate our weakness. But the fact is that others in the body of Christ are often much better and more discerning when it comes to tendencies in our life than we are.
In saying this, I’m not trying to sow the seeds of self-doubt in your soul. I’m not wanting you to become filled with unwarranted fear and anxiety about yourself and life. I’m just trying to reinforce the biblical truth that God never intended you and me to thrive and grow and increase in our enjoyment of God apart from the help and strength and support of other Christians.
(2) Community is also an act of war against self-protection.
Here I have in mind the fear of being seen and known for who we truly are. The result is that we hide behind a façade that doesn’t accurately reflect our true self. We are basically terrified of what others will think of us and what they might do if they really knew what we are like when we are alone. Living in community forces us to lay our lives before others and to authorize and empower them to speak the truth in love when we need it most.
Let me give you one example of what I have in mind. After years of interacting with married couples who are on the verge of divorce, I’ve discovered that the principal culprit is the passive, withdrawn, uninvolved man, the father who won’t speak into the lives of his children and who shuts out his wife with the excuse that he’s too tired after a long day of work. But his primary motivation is self-protection. He’s terrified of being exposed as incompetent. He can’t bear the thought of how painful it would be if it others discovered that he simply doesn’t know what to do to fix the mess his family is in. It’s much easier to pretend the problem will go away with time or to let his wife handle it.
How does community wage war against his approach to life? By connecting that passive, fearful, pain-resistant man with other men who understand what he’s feeling and who will challenge him, encourage him, pray for him, love him, and hold him accountable to do what has to be done.
(3) Community runs directly counter to the more general and natural tendency to be selfish.
We need community because we need to look outside ourselves and our own desires and serve others and give to others and sacrifice for others. Didn’t Jesus himself say, “It is more blessed to give than to receive”? If so, then to experience that blessing we have to become givers, but you can’t be a giver if you are not in relationship with someone who can receive!
When I’ve talked with both men and women about the importance of giving to others and pouring themselves out for and into others, they often ask: “What’s in it for me?” And I always respond, “What’s in it for you is the incomparable joy and satisfaction that comes from being more concerned about what’s in it for them!”
(4) Yet another lethal enemy of our souls that community confronts and defeats is self-importance.
I have in mind the person who in effect says: “I can’t afford to waste my precious time with other people. I’m simply too valuable to the people at my job and in other responsibilities in life to spend so much time and energy pouring into people weaker than myself who most likely will never appreciate what sacrifices I would make for them. What I’m doing is simply too important and too valuable to postpone or set aside just so I can hang out with a lot of people who don’t measure up to my accomplishments or my status in society. What I alone can accomplish is certainly of more value than anything these people can do. I just don’t think they have anything to offer of real value.”
Humbling yourself to live and serve in community with others is the antidote to that horribly lethal absorption with oneself.
(5) Community is the lethal enemy of individualism.
There are places on earth where this is not nearly the problem it is here in the west. What I’m talking about is that good old American “it’s-just-Jesus-and-me” mentality.
J. I. Packer describes “individualism” as “a proud unwillingness to accept a place in a team of peers and to be bound by group consensus. The gospel condemns individualism as disruptive of the life of the divine family, the new community of believers together that God is building in each place where individual Christians have emerged. Harmonious consensus, undergirded by brotherly love, is to be the goal for every church, and individualism is to be overcome by mutual deference” (“Evangelical Foundations for Spirituality,” Serving the People of God: The Collected Shorter Writings of J. I. Packer, 2:266).
When you live outside community you are at the center of your world. When you live within community God is at the center.
In no way am I denying the reality of individuality. Yes, we are each unique individuals, shaped in God’s image with our own unique personality and gifts and opportunities. I must individually believe in Jesus. You can’t believe for me. There is no such thing as salvation by proxy. But at the same time my own individuality will never be nurtured and sustained and corrected when it goes astray if I give myself to rank individualism.
In one sense, when it comes to justification and the forgiveness of sins, you can legitimately say to God: “You’re all I need.” In another sense, when it comes to sanctification and growing up in Christ, you must say to others: “Help me. I need you. God doesn’t want me to do this alone.”
(6) Community is an act of war against the threat of doctrinal drift.
This is what Paul is talking about in Ephesians 4:14-16. Contrary to what you may think, you are not capable of maintaining a straight course toward the truth all by yourself. You need the corrective input of others. You need the insights of those whose spiritual gifts are different from and in some cases more greatly developed than your own. You need the eyes and awareness of others who see the doctrinal dangers and heresies and lies of the world, the flesh, and the Devil that want to deceive you.
In the absence of community you are doomed to drift theologically, or as Paul puts it, to be “tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes” (v. 14).
(7) Community is an act of war against clericalism.
What is “clericalism”? It is the idea so prevalent in the church today that everything of impotance when it comes to ministry and the exercise of spiritual gifts is done by the ordained pastor, the preacher, or in some churches, the priest. It’s the horribly unbiblical notion that the guy wearing the robe or the turned around collar or the fellow that attended seminary is somehow more anointed than you and is someone to whom you must always defer. But in community, everyone gets to play! Spiritual gifts are for all believers.
(8) Community is absolutely essential to win the war against the deceitfulness of sin.
Here is what the author of Hebrews said: “But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ [in order] that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin” (Heb. 3:13). You simply cannot see sin for what it is without the spiritual eyes of others in the body of Christ.
Sin is blinding, and few people are aware of how dangerous this can be. As Paul Tripp has said, “spiritual blindness is not like physical blindness. When you are physically blind, you know that you are blind, and you do things to compensate for this significant physical deficit. But spiritually blind people are not only blind; they are blind to their own blindness. They are blind, but they think that they see well” (Dangerous Calling, 72-73).
None of us is safe living separately from others and unknown by them. Contrary to what you may think, you don’t know yourself nearly as well as you think you do.
(9) Community is an act of war against secrecy regarding our sin and resultant poor health.
My guess is that this one sounds a little strange, so let me explain. Whenever we talk about praying for the sick, our attention typically turns to James 5:13ff. There we read that if anyone is sick, “let him call for the elders of the church, and let them pray over him, anointing him with oil in the name of the Lord” (v. 14).
But many people stop there. They mistakenly think that healing prayer is solely a matter of the Elders and the one person who is sick. But if you continue reading into v. 16 you come to this statement:
“Therefore, confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person has great power as it is working.”
James isn’t talking about the sick person confessing their sins to the Elders but of average, individual Christians confessing their sins to other average, individual Christians. He doesn’t mean standing up in front of an entire congregation on a Sunday morning and confessing your sins and failures to complete strangers. He’s talking about the close fellowship and accountability that exists among those who’ve embraced the community of intimate knowledge one with another. That doesn’t mean you can’t confess your sins to a stranger. But I believe James has in mind the sort of confession that comes more readily when the people involved trust one another and love one another and have committed themselves one to another.
And the point is, you can’t do this if you have forsaken the intimacy of community. Clearly, James believed that one reason we don’t experience healing is unconfessed sin: whether it be of unforgiveness toward others, bitterness, lust, greed, envy, or whatever. If you want to be healed, find a community of trusted Christian friends and be open and vulnerable with them about your sins.
(10) Finally, community is an act of war against Satan and all his schemes.
You do realize, I trust, who is behind the first nine of these threats to your spiritual welfare: Satan! One of the primary reasons why it is so difficult to find community and commit yourself to it is because there is a spiritual adversary working beneath and behind the scenes to create mistrust and doubt and fear and to supply you with all sorts of seemingly legitimate excuses why you can’t pull it off.
Satan’s strategy is simple: divide and conquer. Keep Christians separate from one another. Isolate them. Convince them they don’t need anyone else. Convince them of their own self-sufficiency and self-importance. Convince them that others can’t be trusted. Convince them that community is too costly, too time-consuming, too controlling, too manipulative. Do everything necessary to splinter the body of Christ into little more than singular units of human life that rarely intersect with each other, much less unite in covenant love and commitment to one another.
This is why community is an act of war!