Christian Community (Part 1) - Introduction
We saw last week (12:2a) that God wants to transform our lives as we renew our minds. As we learn God's perspective on every major area of life and step out in faith to act consistently with his perspective, his power is unleashed to radically change us from the inside out.
This is how we are saved. Not by doing a bunch of works or rituals for God, or by being blown away by some dramatic experience--but by understanding the message of Christ's death to pay for our sins, and then by choosing to receive this gift by faith (Eph. 1:13,14).
And this is how we grow spiritually once we've received salvation. As Paul unpacks what this renewed mind and transformed life looks like, he begins differently than we might. Many of us may begin with private Bible study or prayer--but Paul begins with our involvement with other Christians. Unless you learn God's perspective on your relation with other Christians and begin to act consistently with this, you will substantially block God's transformation of your life! So this morning, we are going to springboard from Rom. 12 into a miniseries on Christian community.
"What kind of involvement should I have with other Christians?" Christians usually try to answer this question by a list of practical steps (EXAMPLES). Some of these aren't even biblical, as we will see. Others are biblical, but they are not the proper starting place. Paul begins on a deeper, more abstract level--on the level of our identity . . .
Christian community begins with learning who you are.
Read 12:3. Proper involvement in Christian community begins with a proper understanding of who we are. Paul warns against megalomania (and, by implication, inferiority) in this area, and urges us instead to think "sanely" about ourselves.
What does it mean to have a sane estimation of yourself in this area? Read 12:4,5. It means to understand that if you have received Christ, you are an interdependent member of Christ's body. Individual Christians are related to one another in the same way the organs of our physical bodies are related to one another.
In your physical body, each of your organs is unique and individual--yet the identity of each is essentially corporate. Each discovers its identity in its relationship to the other organs. Each needs the contribution of the other organs, and each makes a vital contribution to the rest of the organs. In a healthy body, each organ functions consistently with this identity. Should any organ begin to function in a contradictory way, sickness is sure to result.
Imagine that tonight while you are sleeping, your liver develops the capacity for self-awareness, free will, and self-expression. Suppose it wakes you up tomorrow morning by saying, "I feel confined by these other organs--they are impairing my development as an individual! I want to be free to be me!" Or what if it said this: "I feel like I'm an unnecessary appendage. It really doesn't matter whether I contribute anything to this body--it will be fine without me!" What would your diagnosis of your liver's estimation of itself be? It is insane, because its view of itself is fundamentally different from what is actually the case. And unless it changes its self-estimation, you will be dead before you can get a liver transplant!
Is this a stupid story? Of course! But here's the point: What we affirm about the members of our physical bodies, we often deny about our membership in Christ's spiritual body. For a variety of reasons, ranging from biblical ignorance to willful stubbornness and unbelief, we think we are self-sufficient or superfluous in relationship to other Christians.
This is a big area of conformity to the world, which we talked about last week. Our culture has long glorified the ideal of autonomous individualism, which emphasizes individual freedoms more than communal responsibilities. So we bring this mentality right into our Christianity. It is true that we can each have a personal relationship with Christ, but this distills to a "just Jesus and me" view of spirituality.
This is why most American Christians speak of "going to church"--which is a profound misconception. The church is not a building that we enter and leave; it is the community of people who belong to Christ and therefore are members of one another. This is why membership in a local church is normal in our culture. It reinforces the fiction that real involvement with other Christians is optional, whereas the New Testament teaches that when you are reconciled to God you automatically become a member of Christ's body.
But regardless of what we think or believe, we still are members of Christ's body and therefore of one another. This is insane thinking, and unless you correct it and personally affirm this before God, you cannot progress spiritually beyond a primitive level.
NEE: “. . . in Christ I have died to that old life of independence . . . and I have become not just an individual believer but a member of his Body. There is a vast difference between the two. When I see this, I shall at once have done with independence and shall seek fellowship. The life of Christ in me will gravitate to the life of Christ in others.”1
I know this from personal experience. Although I had access to Christian community from the beginning, I wanted an autonomous, self-sufficient relationship with Christ. But he held out on me. My relationship with him went nowhere. Repenting from this and taking my place as a member of his Body was the decision that unleashed God's transforming power in my life. And throughout my Christian life, there has been a direct correlation between my involvement with other Christians and my spiritual vitality and effectiveness. So much of what Christ has given me (LOVE; DIRECTION; ENCOURAGEMENT; CORRECTION; INSIGHT INTO HIS WILL FOR MY LIFE) has come through his Body.
This is where some of you are today. God is not going to change the rules for you; he is calling you to get in line with the way he operates. Agree with him that you are a member of his Body and that you need the other members.
Christian community requires acting consistently with who you are.
Now we can begin to answer the question: "How involved should I be with other Christians?" The basic answer is: "You need to be involved enough that you are acting consistently with your identity as a member of Christ's body." We call this "body-life" or "being in fellowship," and it happens in a couple of ways.
The first way Paul mentions that we do this is by regularly exercising your spiritual gifts. This is what he describes in 12:6-8 (read).
Like the organs of our physical bodies, God has designed each of us to build up his Body in a unique way. Spiritual gifts are special spiritual abilities like the ones mentioned here (briefly explain).
What is need for adequate involvement, then, is more than regular attendance at meetings. What is needed is your function (12:4), the contribution of your gifted ministry. You aren't fully involved until you are playing the role for which God gifted you, and when playing that role is a key part of your identity as a Christian.
When you give to others in your gifted areas, you build up the body of Christ in a powerful way. You also experience great satisfaction that God is working through you!
How do you discover your spiritual gifts? Amazingly, the New Testament gives no direct answer to this question. Like finding your area of expertise in team sports, it seems to assume that they will emerge over time, as we first learn the fundamental skills, which is what Paul describes in the next paragraph . . .
Read 12:9,10,13,15. Paul is describing the kind of Christ-centered friendships all Christians ought to have with some other Christians. Are you involved enough with some Christian friends that showing affection between you becomes normal and natural (12:10)? Are you involved enough with some Christian friends that you know one another's practical needs and are trying to meet them (12:13)? Are you involved enough with some Christian friends that you are emotionally affected by one another's lives (12:10)?
He is actually echoing the command of Jesus in Jn. 13:34,35 (read). How involved with one another should we be? Involved enough that we give and receive love from one another in all the ways Jesus loved his disciples. This is what causes us to grow spiritually, and this is what draws non-Christians to Christ--especially in a culture that doesn't know how to succeed in close relationships.
So important is this that the disciples purposefully unpacked this command through a variety of "one another" imperatives like the ones we just read in Rom. 12.
There are at least 50 verses that use the phrases "one another" or "each other" in explaining how we should be involved in each others' lives. Here are some examples (ENCOURAGE; ADMONISH; CONFESS; FORGIVE; ACCEPT). Are you involved with some Christian friends enough that these are happening (in both directions) on a regular basis?
Beginning next week, we're going to look in-depth at several of the main "one another" imperatives, with a focus on how we can practically relate to one another in these ways. We'll start next week with "serve one another."
Getting involved in a home group is a great way to start . . .
SEEKERS: While you can improve your relationships (MARRIAGE; FAMILY; JOB) to some degree by using this information, you will profit far more if you first begin a relationship with Christ. Why? Because he will supply a source of motivation and empowering that makes deep and long-lasting change possible.
1 Watchman Nee, The Normal Christian Life (Fort Washington, Pennsylvania: Christian Literature Crusade, 1984), p. 219.
Copyright 2000 Gary DeLashmutt