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 4, The Outcome of the Truth is the Right Outcome

The Outcome of the Truth is the Right Outcome

One main reason that people lie is that they are attempting to control outcomes.  But outcomes are never really in our control, and thinking they should be is a recipe for misery.  We don’t need to think about outcomes because God is already doing that. “The lot is cast into the lap, but its every decision is from the LORD” (Prov 17:1).  And who else but God even could do that?  Think about it. There are a million, billion, trillion things that God is doing at any given moment.  Your situation affects and is affected by countless other situations involving other people and other processes.  You could never unwind it, at least not 99.9% of it, and the .1% you can see is more than enough to keep you busy.  

So what do we have?  Process.  How we live will determine a lot.  If you want the best outcomes possible, though they are barely predictable, you must walk straight.  You must obey God and move in such a way that is pleasing to him.  Jesus told us exactly how to do that: seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness (Mt 6:33).  Follow God, and walk.  If you do this, you will love the outcome, thought you had not been able to predict it.  Walk according to principles, in this case, the principle that the outcome of the truth is the right outcome, and you will love what God does; you will be strong, and you will like yourself.  Don’t you want to see what God has in mind for you?  Don’t you want to see what he thinks is the best life for you?  Trust him. 

How does this relate to other people?  It relates because, remember, we are in the business of building trust.  As you relate to others it is important that you have integrity.  This means that you must not lie to anyone.  You must act right towards others.  It also means that you must not lie to yourself.  This should be fairly obvious by now.  But the next part might not be as obvious to you: you must not allow others to lie to you and get away with it.  Why?  Because you are committed to truth, and this will serve you well. 

Now we are getting into the realm of courage.  You must walk honestly, but you must also walk courageously.  It takes courage to tell the truth, especially when there will be pain involved.  If you aren’t willing to tell the truth, then it means you either do not trust God, or you have not worked trusting God into the place in your mind and heart that makes your decisions.  It takes constant vigilance and practice to do that.  Dont’ quit.  

But it also takes courage not to allow anyone to lie to you. The simple reason for this is that it will be uncomfortable. If you call them on their bull, they will not like it, and they might not like you.  If they are a worthy heart to get close to, then they will appreciate your honest and brave feedback.  If they are not, you don’t want them around anyway.  If you have up until now lived your life in such a way that you closely monitor people around you for signals about your own worth in their eyes, because you were taught to live that way: people-pleasing, then this will be difficult.  But pressing through and learning to do this will change you like almost nothing else.  

Look at what they said about Jesus:

Teacher, we know that you are true and teach the way of God truthfully, and you do not care about anyone’s opinion, for you are not swayed by appearances (Mt 22:16).

This is incredible. The literal translation of that last part is, “for you don’t look at faces.” If you tend toward people-pleasing, then you are an expert at reading faces. Jesus didn’t try. He just said what needed to be said in the most loving but direct way possible. Granted, it can be helpful to see how people are reacting, to read their faces for the sake of understanding their feelings, but searching for approval so that you can form your opinions (which will not be your opinions) is to shirk responsibility for being an image-bearer, because being an image-bearer requires you to have your own opinions, that is, your own judgement, or if you like, discernment.

Knowing this is not half the battle.  It is at best 5% of the battle.  95% percent is in the doing.  Most people know what is right, and yet almost no one changes.  People that live like this, truly righteous and just in their approach to other people, are extremely rare.  Instead they are scheming, lying, manipulating, coercing, evading, resenting, and in the end, hating.  It is a form of hate to treat people dishonestly for any reason.  It is the most loving thing you can do to act in relation to others with total integrity.  

Integrity is a great word.  It means “whole.”  Think of the math word integer, a whole number.  Anything else is fractured and fragmented.  If you are a fragmented person, you will not feel strong, and you will not like yourself much. You will have no good reason to have genuine self-esteem.  You will depend on the approval of others and your ability to hide the truth from yourself.  You can try, but you will fail, and God does not like it, especially after sending his Son to die so you can, among other things, be honest. Have hope; break off the bondage of untruthfulness. 

Thou Shalt Not Kill

Another way to see that value of human life is to realize God’s hatred for murder. From Genesis 4 we see that the taking of a life runs contrary to God’s ways and nature.  The law is crystal clear on the matter.  God reserves the taking of a human life for himself alone.  Even when the state or an army is authorized to do it, it is by the power vested by God to protect an individual entity from doing so.  And if God so values life, so should we.  

Thou Shalt Not Steal or Covet

When considering how to treat others, consider that God tells us in the Word that it would be wrong to take or covet another man or woman’s possessions.  Why? Because it belongs to them.  More accurately, it belongs to God who has given it to them for stewardship.  In that sense it belongs to them, and what belongs to others, we are not allowed to appropriate for ourselves. They have special value by nature of being possessed by one of these image-bearing creatures with intrinsic value and, as it turns out, inalienable rights.  It is not just to take something from someone just because you can.  

Incidentally, this is how we know it is OK to own private property. God’s command to protect it means that he sees it as under our authority.  God gives a lot of credence to what is under the authority of one his image-bearing creations.  Consider that the reason the whole world, including all the people in it, were cursed at the fall was because Adam rebelled, and Adam was in charge of everything.  So Adam went down, and now the “whole creation has been subjected to futility” (Ro 8:20).  “For as in Adam all die.”  The good news is that in the very same way, “in Christ, shall all be made alive” (1 Cor 15).  All we have to do is put ourselves under Christ’s authority and he replaces Adam.  Everything owned by a person is considered under a person’s authority.  God protects it with his law so that it is not right to take or covet something that belongs to another.  

Tomorrow let’s look at what the Bible has to say about treating others better than ourselves and how that relates to what we have been saying about justice, dominance, and trading value for value.