Continued from Part One…….
Another aspect of the early church often escapes our notice and it would serve us well to rectify this blind spot. The early churches broke down social and ethnic barriers in a way never before witnessed in the ancient world. Believers of various ethnic, cultural, educational, and economic backgrounds came together in unity of belief and purpose. Granted, there were problems that emerged as a result of this melting pot, but these difficulties became fuel for growth rather than division. It wasn’t until a few centuries later that full scale divisions in the faith began to emerge, mostly over doctrinal disagreement rather than ethnic or socio-economic reasons. Georges Florovsky speaks to this reality:
Christianity entered history as a new social order, or rather a new social dimension…………There was precisely a New Community, distinct and peculiar, in the process of growth and formation, to which members were called and recruited. Indeed, “fellowship” (koinonia) was the basic category of Christian existence. Primitive Christians felt themselves to be closely knit and bound together in a unity that radically transcended all human boundaries. – of race, of culture, of social rank, and indeed the whole dimension of “this world.”
And of course, scripturally, Paul speaks directly to this when he states:
There is no longer Jew or Gentile, slave or free, male and female. For you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal. 3:28 NLT)
When the fledgling church burst upon the historical scene of ancient Palestine, it was a curious and unique entity. In every sense of the phrase, it was in the world but not of it. Mike Erre describes it this way:
…….the church understood itself to be a parallel culture, a distinct community that existed within the social, economic, religious, and cultural structures of the Roman Empire. This community was comprised of people from every tongue, tribe, and nation. The redemption wrought by Jesus Christ superseded the barriers of hostility that existed between Jews and Gentiles, and reconciled them together into what Paul calls a new humanity.
Echoing what was said earlier, it is impossible to overstate the underlying, motivating reality which permeated the early church: community. The fellowship was fundamental to the survival of the early church, particularly during times of hardship and persecution. I was blessed with the privilege of seeing this very kind of communal unity played out on a daily basis during the five years I worked on the mission field in China. Maintaining survival while, at the same time, undergoing phenomenal growth, the Chinese Christians were living examples of the importance of community and unity of purpose.
The establishment of the kingdom on earth will not be brought about by individuals or even by groups of individuals, acting as individuals. Instead, kingdom work is community work and the sooner the American church understands and incorporates this fundamental spiritual principle into its being, the sooner healing and renewal can begin. Again, the words of Mike Erre are appropriate:
This, then, was what God was doing in Jesus. He was creating a people through whom the promises given to Israel were to be given to the world. This work was fundamentally communal. The church was not to be a collection of individuals who each found spiritual nourishment and fulfillment in Jesus. Instead, the church – as a community of the redeemed – was to witness to, point toward, and seek to embody the kingdom of Jesus to the world.
It has been said thousands of times yet still bears repeating: the Christian path was never intended to be walked in isolation. The Kingdom of God was, is, and forever will be, a group project. Spiritual development, from the Christian perspective, involves growth within the context of relationships in general and “covenantal relationships” in particular. When we entered the stream of Christian spirituality we entered into a covenant with God – and by the same action – we entered into covenant with fellow Christ-followers. Scripture discusses at length the nature and responsibilities of both of these covenantal relationships.
The relational aspect of Christian spirituality is so fundamental that scripture speaks of these themes in many different places. Perhaps the most practical and concise presentation of how we, as fellow travelers on the path of Christ, are to relate to each other is contained in what has come to be known as the “one another,” scriptures. As you will see, these passages are wide-ranging in terms of location:
* Bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2).
* Confess your sins and pray for one another (James 5:16).
* Care for one another (1 Cor. 12:24-25).
* Greet one another (1 Peter 5:14).
* Love one another (John 13:34-35; Rom. 13:8; 1 Peter 1:22; 1 John 3:11, 23; 1 John 4:7, 11-12).
* Spur one another on through love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24).
* Serve one another in love (Gal. 5:13).
* Encourage and build one another up (1 Thess. 5:11; Heb. 3:13; 10:25).
* Admonish one another (Col. 3:16).
* Bear with one another and forgive one another (Eph. 4:2; Col. 3:13).
In looking at the content of these scriptures we can readily see that instead of traversing the journey of spiritual development and life in this broken world, God intends for us to walk together as one Body, caring for one another, encouraging one another, admonishing one another, serving one another, bearing one another’s burdens and above all, loving one another.
As we journey together as part of a covenantal groupings of like-minded Christians, we quickly discover that there are additional benefits that perhaps we had not anticipated.
By way of illustration, allow me to be somewhat personal for a moment. It is no secret that I suffer from advanced Coronary Artery Disease. In addition to impaired bypass grafts, I also suffer from Congestive Heart Failure. Although I am generally doing fairly well considering the severity of this condition, I am also realistic enough to know that eventually I may very well die from this illness. My destiny beyond the grave is not what concerns me. What I find that I become most anxious about is the welfare of my wife and daughter.
This is where my faith comes into play. We belong to a wonderful, caring, cohesive church and I have little doubt that if and when I pass on from this world, my wife and daughter will not have to deal with this reality alone. As a part of this church, this grouping of covenantal Christians, I am assured that my loved ones will be cared for in every way. As you can well imagine, this brings me great comfort. Years ago, when I first became a serious Christian and when I was much younger, I never gave this much thought as my mortality was not something that occupied much of my thought. This added and unexpected benefit of the Christian faith was something I discovered as I grew older and as I began dealing with this affliction.
Living in unity as a part of a covenant church is also a powerful witness to those outside the faith. In a time when the church has a tarnished image within post-modern culture, this kind of positive witness can be both restorative and even evangelistic. People notice this kind of caring community, which has increasingly become a rarity in our society. Stephen A. Macchia, founding President of Leadership Transformations, Inc., speaks clearly of this aspect of covenantal relationships, as well as the scriptural “one anothers”:
The healthy disciple understands that the “one anothers” are not optional for the Christian life. They are community-building mandates from God to his people. His longing is for us to live in such vibrant Christian community that we can’t help but shine brightly in juxtaposition to how others live in this world. However, for many North American Christians the “one anothers” are foreign teachings.
In spite of this unfamiliarity with these vital teachings, it should be crystal clear by now that these principles are exactly what the Master expects us to live by. As a group, the local church (or whatever form a local gathering may take) is expected to be an interdependent, self-supporting, and nurturing community. The “one-anothers” give us clear guidelines to follow in terms of governing our group relations.
Realization of the fact that, contrary to our American ideal, authentic Christian faith is built upon interdependent relationships should come as no surprise. Jesus did not incarnate into this broken world in order to create rugged individuals. He didn’t even come so that we could have a new religion. In fact, that was probably the last thing he envisioned.
Jesus came so that we could have a dynamic, breathing, life-giving relationship with God. He modeled exactly what this kind of relationship with the Divine would look like. Although no one knows what Jesus’ appearance was like or how he carried himself physically, we can safely assume from the pictures painted in scripture that he did not go around half-cocked with a knife between his teeth and a Rambo-like grimace on his face.
Instead, the Master exhibited a balanced life with both independence and interdependence. And in his relationship with the Father, he displayed complete dependence. In his earthly mission he quickly surrounded himself with twelve close disciples and set about developing relationships with each one of them. Now, we, as the hands, feet, and heart of Christ on earth are expected to do the same. With the guidance of the “one anothers” and a plethora of biblical guidelines, not to mention the empowerment of the Holy Spirit, we are without excuse.
© L.D. Turner 2011/All Rights Reserved
- Christianity: Rugged Individuals Need Not Apply (Part One) (lifebrook.wordpress.com)
- God Already Lights My Way (nrhatch.wordpress.com)