This statement has been prepared by request, under an assignment to treat this significant doctrine about unity in a responsible, contemporary, but non-technical manner. This book therefore treats the meaning, basis, and forms of Christian community. It is an effort to explore the biblical doctrine of unity and the experiences which are possible and expected when the relational imperative of agape love is obeyed by Christian believers. Christian unity is not just an ideal. Unity is spiritual, a divine given, but our experience of it is preconditioned by our openness as believers toward each other. I like to refer to that openness as our obedient response to Christ’s “relational imperative.” Thus the title of this book.
This study begins with the biblical tradition about the doctrine of unity. Attention is then given to the history of Christian relations, letting us watch some of the tensions believers experienced as they sought to deal with the natural impulse to separateness, on the one hand, and to obey the Lord’s mandate to relate, on the other. The meaning of Christian community is treated in several chapters, and contemporary illustrations are given showing how the unity impulse has been at work within the Church on both the local and world scale.
The doctrine of unity is one thing, and the spirit of unity is another. The doctrine of unity points to a life in fellowship and highlights the relationships generated and governed by Christian love. The spirit of unity involves that love itself, and it enables the believer to break free from patterns of selfish individualism and experience the fellowship that a common faith allows and shapes. This relational imperative of love always works against fragmentation, anonymity, coldness, distance, and divisiveness. It generates openness to share and be in community. Christian unity is a gift from God through the Spirit, but it is experienced only as we open ourselves to be in community with other believers. That is the thesis and import of this book.
The reader will note a few references in these pages to personal experiences from the author’s life. I have deemed this quite fitting. Writing as one whose interest and involvement in the life of the Church has been deep, prolonged, and wide-ranging, I have been eager to confess convictions deepened by my own experiences of unity. Very early in my life I set forth to validate for myself creative applications of the doctrine of Christian unity, and on the widest scale possible. Because of my own deep interest and openness, I soon discovered that agape love can be trusted and that community always results for those who trust and follow love’s imperative to relate with other believers.
The experience of unity belongs to the very meaning and mission of the Church. The Church itself is a mystery which none of us can understand in full, but deeper insight into this mystical communion can be gained increasingly as we examine features of its life in experiences of unity. May this brief book help its readers to such an end.
It only remains to be said that the editor was both patient and prodding as the completion of this book was delayed again and again. He knew it would be done and I am grateful for his faith that it was in process.
As with other of my writings, Ms. Linda Foust handled with care and competence the sometimes difficult work in preparing successive typed drafts from my obtuse handwriting and heavily penciled insertions on the typed pages. She has made the writing process much more easily handled. —James Earl Massey
Christian Unity: Biblical Perspectives
THE WORD unity appears in the Bible at three places. The first instance of its use is by the psalmist in Psalm 133:1.
Behold, how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity!
The other two instances of its use occur in the Letter to the Ephesians 4:3, 13:
eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.
Although we come upon the word unity in only these three instances, [Editor’s Note: First Peter 3:8 contains a fourth reference to the word unity in the phrase “have unity of spirit.” However, the Greek word from which that translation is made, homophron, is not that used in the Letter to the Ephesians.] the concept of unity appears in many other places in Scripture, couched in several poignant images that help us to comprehend the nature, scope, and importance of the reality itself.
I. Psalm 133. This psalm stresses the importance and beauty of fraternal harmony. Through its lines the writer underscores the importance of harmonious relations between every member of the Hebrew nation. The psalmist viewed the nation as a family unit under God and was concerned to see a basic brotherliness maintained within the nation.
It is possible that some tradition of gathering was being neglected, that attendance at some regular gathering was in decline because selfish concerns were hindering former solidarity. Perhaps dissension had mounted over disagreements among chief leaders who honored tribal concerns over national goals.
The psalm calls attention to unity as the nation’s highest good. The writer lifts harmonious covenant relations to view as basic for the nation. He knew that where the relational imperative is obeyed, there community emerges and prevails. The psalmist knew that fraternal harmony is possible, and he called for it to happen in full. Thus his words of call and challenge (KJV): “Dwell together” (yachad, in community spirit). The psalmist reminds all that unity is “good” for all those who experience it, and it is “pleasant” to God who delights when we honor and preserve it. The psalm was written to encourage the interest and openness necessary to promote unity.
II. Ephesians 4:3, 13. The Letter to the Ephesians also encourages voluntary openness and action to promote unity within the family of God. The stress upon positive self-effort should be clear as the word list of attitudes is examined: “with lowliness and meekness, with patience, forbearing one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (vv. 2–3). The writer knew, like the psalmist, that only obedience to the relational imperative can generate and guarantee community.
The writer knew that human contacts can be burdensome at times, but he also knew that love can condition the attitudes of those who feel the strain of human differences. The strain can happen from one or more of many factors of difference—opinions, culture, behavior traits, expectations, and so forth. But a common grace links all believers to a common Lord, and a common salvation binds every believer to each other. That bond can be experienced.
The writer to the Ephesians wanted that to happen, among them. Thus the multiple and repeated use of “one” as he carefully stated his case for a willed togetherness among the believers there. “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of us all (vv., 4–6, italics mine).
The expression “unity of the Spirit” in Ephesians 4:3 plainly refers to Christian unity as a divine gift. Believers are called upon to exercise openness to each other because that divine gift can be experienced only when believers are open to let and help the experience happen. Unity is given, but our experience of it must be gained. The experience must be desired before it can be developed.
Ephesians 4:13 mentions unity in still another context or dimension. The writer refers there to “attain[ing] to the unity of the faith.” The Greek wording pictures this as the end of a journey, as a goal toward which all believers move, as katantao, “arrive,” surely suggests. The wordattain (or arrive) has political and ceremonial implications: political, as in royal processions, and ceremonial as in wedding party movements or religious gatherings at a stated shrine. The meaning is to arrive at some understood point or place where something of great importance will occur, and in which one will be involved as a sharer. When the writer referred to “attain[ing] to the unity of the faith” he was promising that the Church will one day share fully what Jesus now experiences as the exalted and vindicated Son of God. [ A similar interpretation of verse thirteen is found in Markus Barth, Ephesians:Translation and Commentary on chapters 4–6 (“Anchor Bible” 34A) (Garden City, N. Y.: Doubleday and Co., Inc., 1974), see esp. pp. 484–89.]This is the goal of the entire Church, and it must influence every believer’s beliefs and behavior. Experiences of unity help believers move on to that point and place of fulfillment; all such occasions aid our realization of the hopes generated by faith.
In Psalm 133 and in Ephesians 4, the stress is upon personal effort to promote a spiritual reality in human experience and to maintain it in unbroken fashion. The plea of both writers is for all members to respond to all other members, and to recognize that unity must be honored if it is to be experienced.
The biblical tradition highlights unity and the experience of being God’s people in community. The stress is not only with concern for a people’s collective life but for an organic oneness of cause, interest, and activity. Realized unity is important to the process by which the Church serves under its Lord. Unity is imperative for the growth and service of its members. As the common center of the Church, Jesus stands over its members as the one who unifies them, as the one into whose life and meaning they are being progressively drawn. His history conditions the life and work of the Church, and his destiny has determined the future of his people. Unity is germane to that conditioning process.
Images of Unity
While it is true that the word unity is found in only three places in our Bible, the reality behind the word appears throughout the Bible under many images and figures. In all instances the notion of togetherness in purpose and spirit is understood and underscored. Some of those images are as follows: citizens (sumpolitai, Eph. 2:19); members (melos, Rom. 12:5; 1 Cor. 12:18, 20, 27; Eph. 4:25; 5:30); household (oikeios, Gal. 6:10; Eph. 2:19); Flock (‘eder, Isa. 40:11; Jer. 13:17; poimnion, Luke 12:32; 1 Pet. 5:2, 3); race (genos, l Pet. 2:9); nation (ethnos, 1 Pet. 2:9); community or fellowship (koinonia, 2 Cor. 8:4; 1 John 1:7); friends (philoi, John 15:15), brotherhood (adelphotes, 1 Pet. 3:8; 5:9).
Some additional statements about “fellowship” (koinonia) are in order at this point. Fellowship involves a shared life. It is the word of togetherness, unanimity, not necessarily because of feelings and thoughts held in common but by reason of a common cause. There are tensions in the togetherness of any human group, but the group purpose presents a constant challenge and spur to maintain a working harmony. The tensions and occasional disagreements between members test the depth of personal commitment to the cause; they also test each member’s openness to work through any differences to reach a new level of caring for each other. Fellowship is both an ideal and a function.
The harmony expected in fellowship is described by Paul under the figure of the group as a body. All the bodily parts, or members, bear a relation to the whole and each part serves a function that benefits the whole body. Just as citizens are members of a city, giving and receiving in its business and life, so are church members mutually dependent upon each other for relation and worth. Two things are central to this relation: the awareness of belonging and the spirit to fulfill the demands of belonging. The notion of fellowship gathers these two aspects and holds them forever before each member of the Church. When Paul wrote “For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit” (1 Cor. 12: 13), he was expressing the basis of church membership and the character of fellowship by which the Church functions and is fulfilled. Fellowship between the members makes that unity visible. Fellowship is unity being experienced in community.
The special character of the community Christians experience in fellowship is further illustrated by the familial terms used in referring to each other. The major New Testament terms are brother, sister, fellow, friend, and occasionally neighbor. The closeness of Christian relations is akin to that of persons born from the same womb. All true believers are children in the same family. They are indeed related by blood (that is, faith in the redemption wrought for them by the sacrificial death of Jesus); thus, Paul’s statement to the Ephesian believers that there is “one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in all” (4:6). Given such a tie with God and each other, the expectation of a family love is understood and constantly underscored. The scope of that love is expected to be as wide as the Church, embracing all who belong. A spiritual unity links all believers as brothers, sisters, companions, fellows, friends. Fellowship with each other allows that unity to affirm, serve, and strengthen each other.
There are other images of community used in the biblical writings—many, many others. [ See esp. Paul S. Minear. Images of the Church in the New Testament (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1960), esp. pp. 268–69, an appendix of the images he has treated in his book.]There is no need to mention any others here. The understanding should now be that the concept of unity is best understood as community. This certainly becomes clear as one studies the images about togetherness, kindredness, interdependence, relatedness, and community.
Unity as a Given
Unity is spiritual; it is a divine gift, as we have seen. The real experience of it is the work of love. Agape love stirs us to be related, and when we are not so stirred, that love mandates us to open ourselves to become interested and stirred. Becoming open to love and staying open to its constraints, is the responsibility of every Christian.
Until the spirit of unity becomes an impulse, it challenges every believer as an imperative. But whether as impulse or imperative, love is always on the move to shape and preserve community.
In speaking of community, I am using a word of great depth and dimension. In some ways it is an even stronger word than church. Even Karl Barth recognized and lamented that the word church is an “overshadowed and overburdened word,” suggesting that it should be interpreted by the word
community. [See Karl Barth. Evangelical Theology: An Introduction (New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1963), p. 37. Trans. by Grover Foley.] The word community, keeps us moderns from thinking singly about an institution or an organizational structure. Community immediately reminds us that unity is more than a spiritual result, that it is also a social happening, something that occurs by a higher law, something that binds us in a living unity of our spirits.
Christian community is the bringing together of persons whose lives have been touched and changed by Christ. His life and work are the basis for the bond between believers, and his Spirit seeks always to promote experiences of that bond in personal openness and regard for each other. Quite apart from any organized or structured togetherness—and certainly prior to this, there ought to be a sensed relationship between believers. It always happens when they meet and share in the spirit of community.
Christian unity is not a transient happening but a lasting result. Openness to experience and promote that unity becomes a trait in our lives through the immediate and effective work of the Spirit of God in us. Christ constitutes the center of faith and loyalty while his Spirit gathers us into experienced oneness in his Name.
The writer of the Letter to the Ephesians aptly referred to “the unity of the Spirit” (4:3) because the Spirit of God specializes in helping believers experience oneness. The Spirit influences us toward togetherness and cooperation, aids our growth in love (Rom. 5:5), and establishes in us the impulse that prompts relations and proper responses in dealing with each other.
The exhortation to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3) reminds us that the more essential dimensions of unity can be reached only by strict intent to share ourselves, and that we must keep a balance between personal freedom and social demand. It is helpful for us to remember that throughout the Bible, salvation is usually discussed not as solitariness but in the context of community.
There is in Christian faith a community principle. Believers are encouraged again and again to share themselves with each other. Christian faith and love involve us in a life that is essentially trans-individual. Unity affirms individuality, but always with concern for fellowship. This is the basic thrust of the biblical passages that exhort us to unity.
Potential and Practice
The Church is a spiritual body, yes, but it is a social bond, a community, as well. The unity of the Spirit is a divine gift, but the experience of unity is something gained. Gaining that experience depends upon personal openness to others, the willingness to give of oneself, and opportunities for the sharing that promotes acceptance, trust, regard, and cooperative mission. What is potential in the Spirit must become actual in practice, which means that learning and growth are essential in the believer and in the group.
This should help us to understand why the New Testament writers place such stress on the imperative to relate and have fellowship. The imperative is stressed because being converted did not make the believers instinctively cohesive. That is to say, those believers had to be taught in order to go beyond certain limiting notions, prejudices, fears, and reasons for distance from each other. While it is true that there were some early Christians who did flow together with a ready sense of relatedness, many other factors were already at work giving them some sense of tie—their Hebrew customs, a common life-style, personal acquaintance with each other, family or household connections and so forth. The early Christians had to learn togetherness, and they were prodded by teaching to sense the binding ties generated in them by the Spirit of God. The potential for that togetherness has always been a gift of the Spirit; the practice of that togetherness has always demanded a personal willingness to relate.
The opportunities for relating were many, and most of the settings were intimate. From the very start there were the “house church” meetings. The major social context of early Christian living and worship was the house church community. The communal life of the first Christians was influenced greatly by the privileges and demands of small group sharing, done in the close-knit setting of someone’s dwelling. It is possible that this setting influenced the letter writers as they treated the familial aspects of fellowship. The house church setting also helps to explain how party tensions sometimes arose between Christians in the same city. [See Floyd V. Filson, “The Significance of the Early House Churches,” in Journal of Biblical Literature. Vol. LVIII (1939), pp. 109–12.] Certain texts come alive in a fresh way when seen against the background of the house church setting. For example, consider such texts as Romans 16:3–5, 10, 11, 14, 15; 1 Corinthians 1:11; 16:15–16, 19; Colossians 4:15; Philemon 2; 2 John 1:1, 10.
Given such stress on unity, the house church groups were being cautioned against exclusiveness, and were being told to cultivate a sense of togetherness with all other Christians, both in the same city and in the regions beyond. Now as then, centers of worship and service narrow the concern and vision of some persons so that the local becomes their limit. Then, too, social considerations played their part in shaping attitudes of sameness or difference, and undisciplined preferences could influence feelings of separateness even within the house church gatherings. If 1 Corinthians 1:26–29 is read with this in mind it is easier to see the problem of social ranking which Paul addressed so strongly in writing to that church. The fact is that the contrasts of life circumstances did sometimes influence relations between believers. The relational imperative had to be stressed. This was necessary to promote right learning, Christian growth, and a stable inclusive fellowship. The house church setting helped personal integrity and group intimacy to deepen, but it also occasioned tensions and pride in some members. This was especially the case when there was more than one house church in the same city. The Church met in “house churches” from the first through the third centuries, and historians and sociologists of its history have called attention to the many social factors which made the unity emphasis of the New Testament writers so necessary. [5 See Robert M. Grant, Augustus to Constantine: The Thrust of the Christian Movement into the Roman World (New York: Harper and Row): Gerd Theissen, Sociology of Early Palestinian Christianity (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1978), trans. by John Bowden; Abraham J. Malherbe. Social Aspects of Early Christianity (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1977); E. A. Judge. The Social Pattern of Christian Groups in the First Century (London, 1960).]
1. Read the Letter to the Ephesians through at least twice. Then try to pinpoint the problems being addressed in that writing. Notice the careful treatment the writer has given to make the point about unity clear and forceful. How does the writer’s concern for unity relate to yours? Where do you place it on a list of priorities in your own life as a believer?
2. Have you ever had to strive for unity under stress of some personal clash with another believer? How did you handle the matter? What stirred your response? What guided your response?
3. How familiar are you with other congregations of Christians where you live? Do you seek to relate to the persons who belong to those other congregations? How easily do they allow you to relate? How free do you feel in trying to be at one with them? If you do not feel free, then why don’t you?
4. What has the need to honor unity ever cost you? Did you pay that price in the spirit of obedience only, or out of a true concern to see a situation remedied?
5. Memorize Psalm 133 and reflect upon its lines at least once each day for a week. When your own heart becomes full over your meditation about unity, then talk with another Christian about what is stirring in your heart. See what comes of the discussion.
Unity and a Sense of Belonging
THE CHURCH has nearly always known itself as a covenant community in the world. It is necessary to say “nearly always” because at the beginning of its history the Church was not essentially self-conscious. The first members of the Church did not begin to delineate and explain its life until circumstances made this necessary; but once the explanations began, they continued in depth, and those explanations all called attention to a life and people of special character.
The Acts of the Apostles is usually lauded for the way in which it treats the progress of the Christian message in the Roman world, but that book also shows us how and why the Church grew increasingly self-conscious as its members made their way in that world. The records are full of accounts showing that the first disciples described themselves as followers of Jesus, and that they viewed him as Lord. Their vigor and creativity must be traced in part to this strong awareness of who Jesus is and what a sustained relationship with him means for those who are led by him. Most of the epistles teachingly treat the same theme as Christian discipleship, and those epistles use clear and forceful terms in stating what it means to follow Christ and to share in the witness, work, and fellowship of the Church.
The theme of unity takes on increased importance only as the identity of the Church is clearly sensed and understood. Central to that identity is what it means to enter and experience church life. A basic orientation about the unity of the Church must always include some understanding about its fellowship and covenant life.
Fellowship is Fundamental
A quite perceptive writer aptly commented that “Life may be pretty well summarized in terms of what one does, thinks, and the company one keeps.” [Edwin McNeill Poteat, These Shared His Passion, Cross, and Power (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1948), p. 134.] How well put, because very little of our experience falls outside these categories of action, thought life and the company we keep.
The Church is a Christian community which involves its members in a special kind of belonging. The belonging is special because the group life has been constituted by Christ, and it is progressively conditioned by him. The Church is the community of those who honor Jesus Christ, sharing his life, teachings, and work. Belonging to him makes every believer belong to all other believers.
The Christian faith involves more than teaching. It is a way of life, and it is a basis for fellowship.
Fellowship was a basic concern among those who first followed Jesus. They understood increasingly that fellowship is the constituted life of the Church and that they were at their best only when they were in active relation with each other. The Church is best understood as a community, not a crowd, with Christ standing at its center, touching and ordering the life of those who belong to it.
The Meaning of “Christian”
A prominent eye physician died some years ago and left a will that caused some distress, both in the immediate family and beyond it. [“What Is A Christian?” Time Magazine. October 22, 1951, p. 15] An avid Christian, that physician had willed that a large portion of income from his estate be used to support Christian causes. His stipulation was that the funds must be distributed only to “persons who believe in the fundamentals of the Christian religion and in the Bible and who are endeavoring to promulgate same.” When the doctor’s widow died ten years later, anxious nephews and nieces started a lawsuit to break the will. They argued that there is no common agreement about what are the “fundamental principles of the Christian religion.” The court proceedings continued for some time, and several preachers and professors of religion were summoned to define and explain the Christian faith. After all the views were heard, the presiding judge, himself a Methodist, took several weeks more to prepare and announce his decision about the case.
What is a Christian? Why was there such a dilemma about definition?
A dictionary answer to the question is inadequate. The dictionary says that a Christian is one who professes the religion of Christ; but profession can be mere talk or sterile belief. The dictionary says that a Christian is someone who belongs to a country or nation of which Christianity is the prevailing religion. But being Christian involves more than this—far more.
The word Christian was at first a pun, a nickname used by opponents of Christ’s followers to ridicule them. According to Acts 11:26, it all happened first in Antioch. Perhaps the people of Antioch heard followers of Jesus constantly using his name in their talk and work. They might have noticed as well the strong concern among the disciples to be like Jesus, so they used the word to describe them, whether in admiration or derogation we do not really know. But we do know that the believers finally began to use the term as a title of honor marking them as persons intent to copy Jesus and imitate his example. The use spread across the empire and was current among Romans and others as the now self-conscious Church grew in influence and numbers Acts 26:28 records the use of the word by Agrippa II during a conversation with Paul, and 1 Peter 4:16 repeats the word as a recognized and regular part of church talk.
The early believers had long used other terms to describe themselves—disciples, brethren, friends, saints, believers, followers of the Way, but Christian finally became the great and glorious label. The early disciples of Jesus had lived their way into the highest meanings of the word. They saw and identified themselves as persons living under the direction of Jesus Christ, persons concerned with the business of Christ, believers intent to promote his name and work. This is a special kind of concern that binds all those who have it in a special kind of community.
Christian unity is based upon a common allegiance to Christ. This fact is fundamental in any discussion about unity. It is important to remember this when we are tempted to choose sides over some issue of dispute which could cause disruption if not handled wisely.
The congregation at Corinth was reminded about this at a time of deep wrangling among its members over some pressing issues. Paul wrote and gave them a reminding word about the nature of their life together. “I appeal to you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree and that there be no dissensions among you, but that you be united in the same mind and the same judgment” (1 Cor. 1:10). His Corinthian readers needed to honor the relational imperative, so Paul spelled out again those fundamental elements by which fellowship is maintained.
Paul stated clearly that Christian unity is not based upon the personality or gifts of any church leaders but upon the central person and work of Jesus Christ. As 1:9 puts it, “you were called into the fellowship of his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Togetherness remains tentative when believers are more attached to a human leader than to the divine Lord of the Church. Controversy is always problematic, and conflict is always in the offering when this is the case. When human leaders can become rival centers of loyalty in any local group, that group is doomed to have trouble.
Now it must be said that there was nothing wrong in the admiration some Corinthians held for the eloquence and effectiveness of Apollos; the wrong was in the partisan attempt of some admirers to promote his abilities and traits as authoritative for church life there in Corinth.
Some other believers deeply treasured their memory of Peter’s ministry among them, but they went wrong by devaluing the work of other church leaders who lacked his prominence and experience.
Some other Corinthians revered Paul and felt tenderly toward him as founder of the congregation there. They even honored him in special ways; but they showed a wrong spirit when they refused the ministry there of other leaders who succeeded that noted apostle.
It was not wrong when still others, seeing that certain personalities were being highlighted to the extreme, recalled the congregation to the figure of Christ. But Paul wisely sensed that some who spoke strongly about the Lord did not have a proper regard for the Lord’s servants, so he rebuked the “Christ-party” as well. No one honors Christ by devaluing the servants he sends. And no one can promote Christ by exalting the human leader beyond the limits set by his lordship.
Church leaders are focal figures, and so much can and should take place around them; however, unity is not based upon good leaders but upon a gracious saving Lord. Christian fellowship is centered in Christ. This is one of the fundamentals for fellowship.
The nature of church fellowship, then, limits participation to those who remain open to the person and place of Christ in its life. Only so does Paul’s appeal to his name carry the meaning and means to bring adjustments and strengthen alliances when they are under threat. As Lord over the fellowship, Christ holds all accountable who belong to it. As Lord he is responsible for placing them within its life. This seems to be the plain meaning of Acts 2:47, “And the Lord added to their number day by day those who were being saved.”
The true Church is composed of persons who have experienced forgiveness of sins (that is, conversion, salvation, the new birth). The descriptions of this experience are many but the result is the same: one has made a new start in life through faith in Jesus Christ, and one stands committed to live under charge to him. A direct result of this is a spiritual unity with all other believers. A common life with them follows because of a common Lord. When that common life is understood, valued, and shared, fellowship deepens, and each one’s personal worth is enhanced by fruitful contact with other believers.
Fellowship is such a full word because it is such a full experience. Fellowship is possible because of a common conversion, a spiritual change, a renewal that is individual, moral, progressive, and lasting.
There are many difficulties rooted in human personality, and we should not underestimate them. There are complex effects upon us all from faulty human experiences we have had, and we should not minimize those effects. There are intricate patterns in our upbringing and conditioning, and we should not overlook them. But we do not tend to rate highly enough the power of faith and the spirit of community to nurture believers in ever-increasing newness. Conversion makes the believer different in concern, motives, morals, behavior. Fellowship deepens the process. The Church not only calls persons to experience such redemptive change; the Church is the community of the Lord to deepen that change in all its members.
It is in this connection that baptism is so meaningful. Christian baptism is a public ceremony of identification with Jesus and membership in the Church. Baptism confesses faith in the forgiveness of sins; it is the sign of a new personal history and the confession of a new hope because of Christ. As Martin Luther once explained, “Baptism is an external sign or token, which so separates us from all men not baptized that we are thereby known as a people of Christ, our Leader, under whose banner of the holy cross we continually fight against sin.” [See Luther’s Works. Volume 35, edited by E. Theodore Bachmann (Philadelphia: Muhlenburg Press, 1960), p. 29.] Done in obedience as an indication of faith and hope in Christ, baptism is the believer’s public statement about membership in the Church. Each baptized believer is expected to follow the Lord, keep learning about the Lord, and share life with the Christian community.
1. “Faulty human experiences” can have complex effects upon our lives—affecting judgment, expectations, desires, and ability to relate to others. Can you trace any relational problems in your life to such faulty experiences? How did you deal with the bad conditioning?
2. How has belonging to the Church helped to deepen the changes wrought in your life by the experience of conversion? If you can trace the pattern of that help, then you will be in a better position to sense the importance of your helpfulness with other believers.
The Behavior of Belonging
BELONGING to the Christian community grants us some special benefits. It also places us under certain demands. There is the obvious benefit of receiving from what other Christians bring with them to the fellowship, the sharing of experiences and lives. The basic factor is togetherness. Openness does the rest, assisted by sensitivities, seriousness, and stability. The involvement is creative—or should be.
The involvement is encouraging as well. Most of us need encouragement. We normally find it in gracious openness and acceptance of understanding and concerned Christians. More often than not, encouragement is generated in company. Even the hardest matters are more readily handled when there are those who eagerly assist or assure us as we seek to live and do our work. The assisting presence of caring friends can make all the difference in the world. It is no small matter to be regarded and loved. There is a world of meaning in belonging to the Church, in being part of a fellowship, part of a caring family of faith, and knowing that we belong in a special kind of way.
Acts of love are part of our expected behavior when we truly belong. Expressions of love toward each other deepen each one’s sense of belonging and security. They also generate the courage we need to do our work. Sharing ourselves is to live like our Lord; and serving each other, despite all cost involved, keeps our relations practical, meaningful, and trustworthy.
Psychiatrist Herbert Wagemaker, Jr. has reminded us, “If our relationships with other human beings are going to be meaningful; they will cost us something. Relationships are demanding.” [Herbert Wagemaker, Jr., A Special Kind of Belonging: The Christian Community (Waco: Word Books, Inc., 1978), p. 59.] Yes, they are. This makes us treasure a genuine fellowship all the more.
In belonging to the Christian community we must be alert and work always to strengthen its life and witness. We must in particular maintain a concern for fellowship that is stronger than emotional churnings due to problems that arise in relations with each other.
In meeting with others we invariably learn that some persons are more readily loved and approachable than others. There are those who for reasons of background and/or other differences make friction as we touch them. Unless the will for fellowship is strong, one would ordinarily turn away and refuse to wrestle with the differences, friction, and the emotional churnings they cause. But concern about our Lord, the unity he has willed for us and for the persons involved, keeps us sensitive to the imperative to relate at whatever cost.
When the concern for fellowship is strong, a mature Christian will make every effort to resolve conflicts and develop healthy attitudes toward others. If we obey the imperative of love, we will sift our motives and, when necessary, seek help to deal with any hardheartedness that hinders fellowship.
Unity is one of the Lord’s imperatives for his people. Emotional complaints threaten fellowship. Distrust impedes it. Resentment undermines fellowship. Unforgiveness denies fellowship. Party attitudes poison and kill fellowship. Division buries it. This does not happen when there is a working willingness to remain together and keep sharing in order to encourage and develop trust.
Belonging to the Christian community lays a claim upon us to share, and in all ways that are necessary to life.
One of the most crucial tests of unity is at the level of having to share goods and meet economic needs. Those who sense their relatedness will ordinarily do “over and above” for each other because of that special tie. As Galatians 6:10 puts it, “So then, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all men, and especially to those who are of the household of faith.” A special tie is in view here, with special constraints growing out of the high benefits of belonging. The “good” to be done can be as wide as the needs and concerns of those who relate to us in faith.
A moral factor is in view here. The believer must be open to obey the constraints of love and do what is practical for a brother or sister in the faith. Love counsels us to help when a need is seen. Giving the self in fellowship is not enough; our goods must also be available to be shared. Those who have something to share are under spiritual obligation to help those who lack.
The concern to acquire is natural. The concern to help by sharing is spiritual. Sharing is a right action. It is merciful. It is loving. It is exemplary. It is practical. It is godly.
Some of the most disturbing passages in the New Testament treat the theme of giving and sharing. James 2:1–13 warns against snobbery in preferring persons of wealth and lack of concern for those who are poor and needy. In fact, the passage warns against mishandling social tensions due to social and economic differences.
The prophet Amos strongly condemned all selfish use of personal assets (Amos 5:1–12). And Jesus echoed the same tradition in his teachings: “And as you wish that men would do to you, do so to them” (Luke 6:31). “And if you do good to those who do good to you, what credit is that to you” (Luke 6:33).
As one reads 2 Corinthians 8–9, the ministry of sharing because of spiritual relationship is clearly taught by Paul. Those chapters tell us plainly that Paul was collecting funds from the Gentiles to aid the needy Jewish believers in Jerusalem. [See F. F. Bruce, Paul: Apostle of the Heart Set Free (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1977), esp. pp. 156–57, 319–24.] This seems to have been a deep concern of that apostle, due, perhaps, to the growing problem of poverty among Jewish believers. Paul attached great importance to this ministry, and he eagerly defended his actions along these lines when he met with other leaders at the Jerusalem Council. (See Acts 15.) Those leaders commended Paul’s work in remembering and relieving the poor. Famine and poverty relief were a necessary matter, and Paul viewed it as a spiritual grace which blessed the generous churches in Macedonia and Achaia.
Paul’s first reference to such a relief fund appears in 1 Corinthians 16:1–4, which tells us that some of the Corinthian believers had been touched to give as they were able. The spirit of cooperative sharing so touched some among the poor in the Gentile congregations that they placed their meager possessions, if any, at Paul’s disposal to help the victims of famine. In 2 Corinthians 8:2–4, we read how Paul commended them for this generosity.
Another reference to such sharing appears in Romans 15:25–28. The members of the congregation there were also involved in expressing the concerns and generosity of love. Sharing is action dictated by love and demanded by needs. Sharing is an expression of unity; it is a way to strengthen fellowship. We see from the passages just mentioned that sharing was a tangible proof of God’s grace at work in the hearts of concerned persons, as 2 Corinthians 9:14 clearly says. Such voluntary sharing spoke loudly about belonging and caring to the full.
Unity and sharing go together. Sharing is the way love relieves suffering. Sharing is the way love conquers differences and distance. Sharing is the spirit of love; it is the way love shows itself. Sharing is not a once-for-all matter; it is a continuing spirit that influences Christian life.
Honest, sincere sharing is done freely and with interest in the receiving persons. It is a gracious action. It honors the one who initiates the deed, and it helps the one who receives the action of the deed. When sharing is done with reason and in right spirit, it is never self-seeking nor proud. It cannot then devaluate the receiver and make him or her forever obligated.
Sharing is love’s way of creative appeal. It is our personal participation in God’s ongoing providence. When we belong to the Christian community in such a spirit we refuse to be fixed, static, and selfishly preoccupied with our own abundance. Those who share themselves and their goods affirm each other, touching one another at the points of openness, concern, and need. Sharing is the way to dedicated community. Sharing is the spirit of love and the committed outgrowth of what it means to belong, indeed.
1. What has it cost you to be a sharing Christian? Has it been difficult to maintain that spirit in dealing with some persons? How did you handle the difficulty?
2. What are some of the acts of love from which you have benefited as a member of the Church? Were you surprised to receive them? How did you respond to those who acted toward you so kindly? What lesson and/or lasting impression remains with you because of such experiences?
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