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We’re All In This Together

February 2, 2014

A very long time ago, very early in my life as a Christian, I found a book of sorts, a study guide really, one of those mimeographed things with a plastic coil binding (now doesn’t that date me).  Its subject was the reciprocal commands, the “one another” statements salted throughout the Epistles.  I loved it.  It was thrilling to think that I would now be part of a church where people would love one another (1 John 4:7), welcome one another (1 Peter 5:14), serve one another (Galatians 5:13), accept one another (Romans 15:7), comfort one another (1 Thessalonians 4:18), encourage one another (1 Thessalonians 5:11), be honest with one another (Colossians 3:9) and forgive one another (Ephesians 4:32).  These commands and fifty others like them paint a beautiful picture of what life is to be among believers in Christ.  It sounded like a little bit of heaven to me. 

The thing is, I never found that Church.  (I am not referring to any particular congregation, but rather The Church as a whole.)  What I did find was very different, different from what I imagined, what Jesus purposed, and what I believe was understood by Paul and the earliest Christians.  If fact, little of what I see practiced in the contemporary church can be found in Scripture. Having dismissed the example of the New Testament Church—with its strong emphasis on commonality as described in Acts 2—as having been voluntary, indicative of only the 1st century, and not instructive for itself, The Church is now permeated by the values of the world, most markedly, individualism.

The Bible is read with an individualistic bent.  Salvation is presented and spoken of in very individualistic terms.  The believer’s relationship with Christ is labelled “personal.”  Devotions are personal.  So are confession and repentance.  In most churches whose doors I have darkened, even the Lord’s Supper is individualized, with those little communion cups and crackers.  Individualism, though absent from the Bible, is rampant in The Church.

The Church no longer functionsas “a holy people” and as “a holy nation” (I Peter 2:9-10), but rather as the sum total of autonomous “Spirit-led” individual believers. Christians are not called to see their commitment to the Body of Christ as concomitant with their commitment to their Saviour.  Instead they are taught that their primary concern is to “win the lost” and to develop and maintain their own private holiness. Christianity is now focused on the individual instead of a communal entity.

Consequently, many of today’s Christians see church only as a place where they can get their private spiritual needs met, a bridgehead from which people can be evangelized into heaven, and a classroom where “personal” holiness can be taught.  Only secondarily is it seen as an environment of relationships.  Few see fellowship with other Christians as necessary for godliness or instruction in the Christian life, nor as a requirement for Christian service.  We no longer know many of the people in the pews around us, our relationships with most of them superficial at best.  We farm out our children to others to learn the ways of God and of life, not really knowing what they are being taught.  Rather than modelling the communal love of the Trinity, The Church indulges in a self-contradictory self-focused spirituality.

So how did we get to this place? Well, it didn’t happen overnight.  The history of the movement toward individualism in The Church is long, but it has surely accelerated over the last century or so.

The roots of our Western way of thinking sink deep into the soil of Greek logic and Roman upward mobility, amplified by the Renaissance and the oppositional mind of the Reformation, then codified in the cold rationalism of the Enlightenment.  Individualism, based on Augustinian dualism, emerged as a new way of thinking and acting that grew in 17th century Europe, its initial dogmas with their imperatives for behavior and property protection formulated within the context of the political and economic rights of the propertied class.  Thus the rights, potential, and privileges of the individual came to be core to our societal values.  The Church followed suit, the Dispensational view of the Bible and American Revivalism taking religious individualism even further still. Our relationship with God, particularly in the person of Jesus Christ, became one-on-one.  Everything became about personal choice, everything depending on individual consent.  It is clear to me from reading Scripture that this isn’t what was intended.

Jesus came into a world in need of reconciliation to restore us into fellowship with God and with one another, and to bring reconciliation to all of His creation (2 Corinthians 5:18-21).  He has chosen us to be His agents of reconciliation, to share in His mission of healing.  Jesus sent The Church—“As the Father has sent me, so I send you.” (John 20:21)—as His representatives in this world, intending that just as He did, we not only proclaim the good news, but also embody and enact it. 

The Church is to be a microcosm of heaven with a radically different order and with radically different values than the society around us, demonstrating to the world what can be in the here and now.  We stand both as the substantiation of the kingdom at hand, and a bellwether of a creation yet to come.  We are meant to be a thumbnail sketch of the coming kingdom of God. The Church is to be an alternative community, even an unusually subversive one, its power to change society derived from a corporate life that reflects the gospel of Christ.

The touchstone of The Church is to be our love for one another.  By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another (John 13:35). It is love flowing between the Father, Son and Spirit, that makes God one.  It is love between brothers and sisters in Christ, originating from the heart of God Himself, that makes The Church one, a family in communion.  It is love for God and for the people of God that breathes life into our community.  We are the manifestation of God’s love, the Body of Christ, and even more so in our togetherness (1 Corinthians 12:12).  Unless the world can see this by the way we have love for one another, the message with which Jesus entrusted us will be lost.

In the society in which we live, love has been redefined to mean so many of things that it now means almost anything at all, or worse still, nothing at all.  As I see it, in the economy of the world, most frequently it has become something to be weighed in an ever-changing cost/benefit balance, and in case it should be found wanting, must incorporate assurances of an exit route.  Even for many Christians love seems to suggest merely being warmly tolerant, just not hating others.  Real love, the agape love of the Bible, is deemed too inconvenient, too messy, too costly.  It simply asks too much.  A polite handshake in greeting and a bit of superficial conversation in the church foyer or in 140 characters or less will have to suffice.

Scott Peck, writing in A Road Less Traveled, stated, “Love is too large, too deep ever to be truly understood or measured or limited within the framework of words.”   While I wholehearted agree, if the Bible is clear about anything, it is about what love really is.  In addition to Paul’s oft-quoted analysis of divine love in 1 Corinthians 13, the Bible incorporates literally hundreds of verses on love.  In its words we find irrefutable assurance that God sees us as inherently valuable, worthy and deserving of His unconditional love.  Likewise we are to see those in the Body of Christ (and by Jesus’ measure, all others) as worthy and deserving of our love.

The love poured into us in the person of the Holy Spirit takes the initiative, not waiting for permission.  It readily steps out of its comfort zone to reach out to others.  It patiently endures all things, covers a multitude of sins and is quick to forgive seventy times seven times and beyond. It considers it a privilege to meet the genuine needs of others.  Although it is aware of the risks, it is not deterred by them.  As C.S. Lewis wrote in The Four Loves, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken.”  Of course love is risky!  After all it’s a God thing. Love costs, and it often costs dearly.  Witness the love of our Lord and Saviour. But love does not count the cost, for it knows any loss is gain.   

The reciprocal commands are a goodly part of God’s blueprint for the Church.  Every one is a particular perspective on love.  Together they describe how we are to live and share life as the Body of Christ with the Spirit of God in our midst, empowering us to love God and one another.  They tell us how to build a community of believers that is a safe place, a home of strength and of security where all can grow in faith.  They point out that as brothers and sisters in Christ we are to take emotional, physical and material responsibility for one another, putting all we have and all we are (which is all a gift from God after all) at the disposal of the other members of the Body.  If we give them prayerful consideration, if we take these commands to heart, if we learn to live by them, if we abandon the world’s love of egocentric individualism and recapture the Christ-centric idea that we are all in this together, we will truly become The Church Jesus intended, shining the light He has given us into a dark world.

 

Let Your kingdom come and Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

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