The Essential Community
From the beginning pages of the biblical story to the last chapter in the book the Bible repeatedly pictures the relationship between the believing community and God as the ideal marriage. In the Old Testament God is the loving husband who has pursued, redeemed, and entered into covenant marriage with Israel. In the New Testament Christ is the Bridegroom and the church is the bride.
Marriage is an intimate relationship, not a communal one, yet the biblical emphasis in the marriage motif is on the community more than the individual. Something in our deep sense of human independence does not like this concept and we struggle long after we are saved to understand where the church in me ends and the Christian in me begins. We rightfully ask, Am I predominantly a member of the redeemed community, or am I predominantly a redeemed person? No simple answer will resolve the matter: we are both.
Temptations lay on all sides of the path that tries to come to some resolution on the matter. If I seek to resolve the issue with a carnal heart, then I will find myself either in haughty vanity thinking that I am superior to others, or in comfortable denial assuming my righteousness is proven by the company I keep, or try to keep. I may find it convenient for my sinful nature’s desires to excuse my poor behavior on the basis of what I perceive to be worse behavior in others, while at the same time dodging the issue of the condition of my relationship with God. So the church can become a source of comfort for all the wrong reasons – comfortable to think I am better than others and comfortable to think I am among the redeemed in God’s eyes because I am among the so-called redeemed on this earth.
Even in my highest moments of spirituality I still struggle with this issue, at least to some degree, and find a seeming contradiction in my heart. I may strive to press on to know Him and acknowledge Him, to grow closer to Christ, yet my brother and sister, my spiritual family, may not join me sufficiently in my quest. What am I to do? Am I to wait for them to catch up? Am I to go on without them? Am I to try and do both?
And what if my brother or sister seeks to move forward without me, or if they choose to move forward with an issue that is of little interest to me? Suppose they seek to become deeper in their relationship with Christ through reading an author I don’t care for, or listening to music I dislike? Must I go with them? Will it make me a better person and a more profound Christian? Or will it just irritate me to no end?
And what about the biblical promises of spiritual blessings built on the marriage motif? Can I experience these personally, independently regardless of the believing community’s spiritual condition, or must I forgo some of them because my community’s spiritual lethargy? Am I more blessed to associate with sincere believers and less blessed to be found among carnal Christians?
The first biblical response to resolve this conflict is simply the multitude of promises. The emphasis of the Bible is on individual faith – he that believeth may come, if any man hear my voice and open the door I will come in and sup with him, let him who hath ears hear what the Spirit is saying to the churches. So the promise is for all, but it is particularly for those who will hear and respond in faith. Furthermore, the movement of many toward God is influenced by the primal movement of some or someone toward God. So if these promises are broad in their offerings they may only be responded to by individuals – individuals who, no doubt, may be influenced by other individuals, who may move in seemingly tandem agreement with God but individuals nonetheless.
The biblical stories of Christ and His dealings with common, ordinary individuals reveal this reality. He called persons one by one to leave all and follow Him and He promised life and joy and peace to “any man” or woman or child who would hear and believe. Our God-given sense of individuality is not a delusion but a fact. You and I only live life from within this thing we call our soul. There is no hint in the Bible of the great cosmic soul of Hinduism (and other religions and philosophies) that swallows us up at death. Human life created in the image of God celebrates this reality of individuality, and in this created realm we will continue to live through all eternity – we are individuals for eternity. David dared to declare, by the inspiration of God, The Lord is my Shepherd, and, I will dwell in the house of the Lord, forever.
But the second biblical response is a call to remember the importance of the fellowship of believers. Christ is not an adulterous husband – He does not have but one wife and I am unable to claim these blessings as mine and mine alone, exclusive to all others. Certainly there is a point to my uniqueness and my individuality, I am the only me there is, but I would not have heard of the Good News apart from the faithfulness of others. Even in learning about the depth of spiritual blessings in Christ for an individual, I have become dependent on the believing community’s faithfulness across the ages and through untold numbers of faithful conveyers of this truth. So my individuality is never sufficient to pull me away from community, both in regard to my need and my responsibility.
This is evidenced by the fact that the offer of a deep spiritual life is given to all – it is even extended to the as-of-yet unbelievers in the Gospel message as an advertisement of coming attractions – repent and be baptized everyone of you in the name of Jesus and you, too, shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. In addition, there remains a desire in maturing believers’ hearts for the community of faith to come to this realization and experience. This is why corporate worship is so essential for believers, why the preaching of the word and of the Word is central to this experience. In our hearts we long to come with our brothers and sisters and experience God’s love flooding our hearts simultaneously. We long for an exciting corporate assignment from God for His glory and to sense His enabling power as we in tandem obediently respond. In our heart of hearts as believers, we long not so much for individual recognition as we do for corporate surrender: Oh, that somewhere at sometime I would sit with others who also desire nothing more but the pure life from Christ and would receive that life by faith – rejoicing in His love – and go forth under His leadership and in His power to serve.
What are these blessings that are inherent in the marriage motif? Adam said of Eve, flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone, and this is the first summation of human married life and of the spiritual life of the believer. We are to be so conjoined to Christ in spirit that, at some level, His life and our life seem one and the same. That God became a man is intended to give us knowledge and power so that we might become redeemed to the former privileges of our race.
Adam spoke the words, but they are reciprocal in nature and Eve could have spoken them as well – male and female are of the same stock. So for the Christian and church the realization is that we are redeemed by Christ and are now of the same spiritual stock. It would be unnatural and abhorrent for a man or woman to leave the other and co-habit with animals. So for Christians to co-habit with Christ in our values, our thoughts, our goals, our desires, our choices, our actions, and our time, is the most natural thing – perhaps we should say the most super-natural thing in the world.
The spiritual blessings of Christ are available to those with faith. So you and I as individuals may have our souls flooded with the love of God and, as members of His bride, enjoy these blessings of relationship and overwhelming love and power even if no one else does. Can we enjoy them all? Do we need the community of believers at all? The answer is obvious – some of these spiritual blessings will be mediated through a body of believers or, perhaps, not at all. So, the obvious conclusion is that the health of my spiritual life depends to some degree upon the health of the spiritual life of those Christians I most closely associate with. It is the same in the physical realm and we should not be surprised to find it true in the spiritual realm. Sickness produces further sickness – lifestyle influences lifestyle, contagions produce more contagions. A community without a good health system, without hygienic protections would not be a logical place to go in order to become healthier.
That being said, a significant spiritual danger exists for those who are always looking for the best Christian family, or the “next big thing.” Like earthly families, the perfect Christian fellowship does not exist and there is a point to settling down in the family you have got and, with gratitude, seeking to improve it through whatever role you are allowed to play. Whereas a sick, morbid type of Christianity is to be avoided, to not recognize the potential of every Christian fellowship is also fundamentally wrong. As someone observed, tongue-in-cheek: If it weren’t for dysfunctional families we’d have no families at all!
In the absence of spiritual leadership in our lives we may try to compensate through prayer and reading – even reading the stories of great Christians in the past, their struggles and joys – and Christ will in His redemptive power make a merciful substitution in our lives, but that is not to say that we would not have been better off with a living, healthy functioning believing community. But none is perfect – neither community nor Christian – and the wisest, if he has the choice, will settle down with one community to believe together and bond with one another, and to move and re-learn these things with relative infrequency. Those on constant shopping sprees never seem to find the best bargains, nor enjoy for very long the ones that come their way.
So, we know the “what” and the “why” and the “who,” but what about the “how” and “when?” Believing communities, like families, tend to be messy and defy orderly process. We stand at different levels of maturity and life situations – too much co-mingling can deny us the associations with people on the same spiritual level trying also to progress. But too much insular isolation can bereft us of the benefit of helpful testimonies of others. How should we seek progress as individuals and as the redeemed community?
I share a few thoughts along practical lines.
· Place a priority on individual spiritual growth. Do not neglect the important time that you spend in prayer and devotion. Read the Bible for devotional content and also the great Christian books of the ages. Spend time with Christ in prayer and in meditation on His word.
· Find others in the church of a similar spirit. Associate with a group of people who truly desire the life of Christ to flood their individual souls and are willing to open up on a personal, intimate level to others. But be careful to avoid an exclusive mentality within the group. Assume that God is working in others’ lives as well and that none within your group have made it to moral and spiritual perfection.
· Out of this group seek to infiltrate and impact the remaining Christian community or local church. View each person in the church as a candidate for spiritual growth, no matter how immature they seem to be. But encourage some response and commitment. Look to where Christ is working and in whose life He is working. It may be, and often is, that the best candidates for spiritual growth are those who are new in their faith in Christ.
· Look for the Spirit’s movement among the congregation. He always draws people near to Christ. Seek opportunities within the corporate community of faith to celebrate the beauty and naturalness of walking by faith in Christ.
If there will be a sense that as a believing community Christ is bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh then some within that community must first lead the way in experiencing, sharing, and influencing others toward that goal. There is really no other way for the church to be renewed other than the spiritually minded to set this agenda before the church. And the Bride of Christ now says, Come! Come, Lord Jesus to Your rightful place in our universe, in our world, and in our hearts.