Life Together

As a pastor, which in my context means one of five elders of a local church who happens to be the one who goes by pastor and works full time at the church, I am obsessed with biblical Christian community.  I have been a part of several iterations of Christian life together, and these range the gamut between practically communal, to a church on an interstate exit where some members live an hour apart from one another. What I have learned to this point, is that what is more important than the style and quantitative aspects of community, is the mindset toward Christian community. In short, how does one think about the experience?

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (the Christian pastor who was executed for trying to help assassinate Hitler) has been my tutor in this area, and I have read his magnificent Life Together dozens of times. I am planning to hand copy the book next, so that I can work toward memorizing every word. It resonated with me twelve or fifteen years ago when I first read it in the midst of church planting, and it has shaped my thinking more than any other book outside the Holy Bible (because it is so biblical). So if you have read it, you will see where I am coming from. If you have not read it, stop reading this, and go find a copy. Read that.

If I were to boil down the book to the single most important point, it would be this: Christian community is a reality in Christ. One participates in it by faith before taking any concrete steps toward deepening the relationships. If a group of people are gathered for the sake of worshiping God, growing in faith, taking the ordinances (Lord’s Supper and baptism), fulfilling the Great Commission, and that group is centered on the Gospel of Jesus Christ, then it is a church family. 

It is a local expression of the world-wide, across time, in Heaven and on Earth, Body of Christ.  God has assembled it. That church is a gift from him to the members. Whatever shape it is going to take will be by his grace, and for the sake of his glory. Ours is to be thankful for the fact of its existence, and for whatever it might look like at any given time. The relationships are bound by Christ and what he has done. The members are connected by the Holy Spirit. Christ is the center, and we are bound to it by faith. We are bound to each other by faith and faith alone.  

The first thing one must do is praise God for the church, and be thankful that we are not alone.  We should be thankful for whatever it is, because it is nothing short of a gift. It is not ours to judge, but to participate by faith, trusting the God who gathered this local church to make it into whatever he desires it to be, as the members participate as faithfully and thankfully as we are capable. 

The Bible says to “work your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Phil 2:12). Our salvation is a reality in Christ, but we are to work it out after taking that on faith. This means that we will look to him every day in order to conform to the likeness of Christ, growing all the days of our lives, and it is “God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Phil 2:13).  We start with a reality, our salvation in Christ alone, and work it out, knowing that God is the one working in us.  This is a mystery but we know it is good.  

Christian community is the same.  We are bound in our local church by faith. It is a reality in Christ.  Our relationships are Christ centered.  We’re not bound by any commonality or fondness but Christ.  Then we work for the rest of our lives to close distance with one another in a faithful way, thanking God for the privilege of Christian fellowship.  Here are the steps: 

  1. Thank God for what you have, no matter how paltry it seems to you.
  2. Pray for closer connections.
  3. Reach out and give of yourself and build some friendships primarily on the love of God in Christ. If these friendships can’t handle conflict, disagreements, annoyances, you didn’t center them on Christ.
  4. Go back to steps 1-3 until you die or Jesus returns.

A Christian Approach to Relating to Others Part 5, Treating Others as Better than Yourself

Treating Others as Better than Yourself

The Bible calls us to “consider others as better than [our]selves” (Phil 2:3). How can this be if we are supposed to begin our stewardship of all God has given us at the most basic level, ourselves? The answer lies in the sense in which God speaks these words. To put others before ourselves can only be done in a certain way. This is a huge hang up for most people, because they think it means something that it doesn’t. But if it meant what part of us thinks it means, life would be very short: You wake up one morning determined to put others first. You feel hungry and start to get out your cereal bowl, but just as you are taking down the cereal, you worry that your neighbor hasn’t eaten. Is it common for them to miss a meal? No, but what does that matter? He has not yet eaten, so you must offer your cereal to him. Plus, you have more cereal.

But wait, what about the other neighbor? Pretty soon there is no more food in the house. No matter, you have money, so you head off to the grocery store, but you get a little sick feeling when you walk in because there are other people there. You will need to pay for all their groceries before you pay for your own. Why? Because they are all to come before you. As soon as you find someone who is not in need of your food, you can eat. But that is just it, with seven billion people in the world, you don’t have a chance.

You might be thinking this sounds crazy and you would never do that. I believe you, but you still think you are supposed to…deep down…although you don’t, because at least part of you knows that is ludicrous.  These two parts are in contradiction.  You’ll never truly live it out, but you’ll always feel somewhat guilty.  This will always hold you back from enjoying what you have or truly giving out of your abundance.  

Let’s consider honor.  If everyone is greater than you, and should go before you, and should be considered to be a better person, then you might as well find a dirty floor somewhere where people are walking by all day and just bow down, face in the dirt, and live there.  But in fact, this would be dishonest.  Everyone is not greater than you.  Some people are greater than you by certain standards.  They might be more loving, honest, industrious, courageous, free in Christ.  They are ahead of you.  They are your equals in intrinsic value because you are both created in the image of God. 

Nevertheless, Jesus does say to put others first and to take the lowest place. He did wash the feet of the disciples, though he considered himself their Lord (Jn 13). He did say that whoever would be great among you must be your servant (Mk 10:43). So why did he say that if it is impossible? Because it is only impossible in a certain sense.

In a completely different sense, on a completely different plane, it is not only possible, but required.

We are not to rank ourselves in order of value. So we are not to take personal power over another. We are not to use others. We are not to violate the rights of others: taking their property, looking down on them, treating them as though they are not our equals, keeping from them equal opportunities, judging them by anything but the content of their character. We are to be just.

And when it comes to ourselves, we are to take our identity from the only place we are truly allowed to, from God and our very being. We have an identity as image-bearers, little “i ams,” and we have identity from Aristotle’s law of identity that says, a thing is a thing. Existence is a pretty profound truth, and as such, makes us matter. Since we matter, we don’t need anyone else to make us matter. We don’t need to elevate ourselves in status with our wealth and stuff, comparing to others and climbing in a class or status system. Class is irrelevant. Status is irrelevant. Being better than anyone else is irrelevant. Only who we are in God and in being/existing is relevant. After that, it is proper to judge ourselves by the ways that God tells us to: character, love, courage, truthfulness, purity. Being and existing according to these qualities is not penance or a way to win with God; it is rather the nature of the abundant life that Jesus died to give us.

So when should I consider others above myself?  When it would be justice to do so.  For instance, you are in a room with your family.  Everyone is reading and quiet. You decide to pull out your iPad and watch TV with no headphones.  There was an unspoken agreement that everyone was being quiet. You have broken it.  You need to have some terms with the others who are sharing the room, and treat each other fairly.  This is right, or righteous.  No one should be allowed to trample the rights of the others.  It is not proper.  

What about the others in the room? Should they say, “No, you are more important than us. Watch your show. We’ll deal with it.” If you were only one person saying that, it might be a Christlike thing to do. Except it could be a little dishonest if you are going to resent the iPad watcher. But as long as there are others there, they are the ones to stand up for.   An agreement needs to be spoken out loud with some ground rules and boundaries.  We’ll be quiet for an hour and then watch TV for an hour.  Again, you can be magnanimous and give up your own claims, but it actually isn’t right to allow them to be rude, to enable them.  

In a similar way, giving your cereal to your neighbor robs him of an important aspect of being, that is, productiveness and finding his own provision, which is something God actually expects us to do (2 Thes 3:10). So when we give to help or serve others, it should not be done in a way that enables them to be less than human. Then it becomes unloving. Once we know this, to continue to do it belies a false motive on our part. Is it manipulation? Do we love feeling needed? Do we not want to make them upset by cutting them off?

Or worse, do we hate ourselves and it alleviates some of our self-hatred?

There is something going on, and it needs to be discovered and rooted out. Human nature is such that for a great many people, even our own semi-adult children, if we allow them to be freeloaders or parasites by our own “generosity,” we harm them, and we are supposed to love them too much to harm them.

Responsible to Rather than for

Much more can be said about helping, giving ,and serving others, but there are many good books and blogs already about it. The only other thing I will say is that we are not to be responsible for other people. Not anyone, not even our own children (at least not in the sense I’m getting at). But we are supposed to be responsible to everyone. Everyone. In what way? We are responsible to others to be truth tellers, courageous, generous (without enabling), loving, kind, patient, but also discerning. We are to show the way to God by being a concretization of the abstraction that is the Christian life. We are to lead all the “horses” to water, but never attempt to force them to drink. The “water” is God in Christ, the truth, righteousness and the kingdom of God. We show it, and we tell it, but we don’t coerce or manipulate others to live it. That violates them and the command of Jesus to not lead like the Gentiles (Mk 10:42).

Furthermore, whatever we say we will do, we do. We understand that the meaning of life is stewardship for the glory of God. Being. Pursuing life for our own sake, for his sake. This is what it means to be responsible to everyone. It shows value to others and puts them above yourself in the proper sense. In this way there are no contradictions. We treat people with integrity and goodness. The outcome of this truthful living is the right outcome. God will get his way, and we with regenerated spirit will love it.