In last week’s post, I talked about the new identities God gives us when we enter a relationship with Him. For those of us with a Western cultural mindset, “identity” is typically connected with “individualism” — who you are that makes you unique from everyone else. But the Bible was written by people with an Eastern cultural mindset, where identity is a more collective concept that involves how you fit in to a group or family.
When we find our identity in God, it is a collective as well as an individual thing. The Christian life isn’t meant to be an isolated one. We’re part of a community, a family. If we neglect to recognize that, then we’re missing out on a huge part of our identity as believers. And if we purposefully cut ourselves off from the community, we reject an incredible blessing.
Being in Christ Is Being in Community
I recently read a fascinating book called Participating In Christ by Michael J. Gorman. One of the key points he makes is that “to be in Christ is to be in community” (chapter 10). We miss this in English far more easily than we could if we read it in Greek.
“This life in Christ is lived not in isolation but only in community. (We must keep in mind that most of the words for ‘you’ in Paul’s letters are plural pronouns, and most often the imperatives are given in the second- [or third-] person plural form.) — (Gorman, Participating In Christ, Chapter 1)
“You (plural) are the temple of the living God” (2 Cor. 6:16). “By grace you (plural) are saved” (Eph. 2:5). We often read these verses, and many others like them, as a deeply individual thing but they’re addressed to a community. Our individual relationships with God are vital. But so is our communal relationship with God and His people.
How We Fit in the Body
This emphasis on community does not erase individual differences. When Paul talks about such differences, though, his emphasis is on how they let each of us contribute to the community.
Now there are various kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are various kinds of service, and the same Lord. There are various kinds of workings, but the same God, who works all things in all. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the profit of all. (1 Cor. 12:4-7, WEB)
Paul goes on in this chapter to talk about how the church is like a body composed of many parts and unified by the Head, Jesus Christ (v. 8-30). The church of God is a vibrant, varied community of people with diverse gifts, backgrounds, and personalities, but we’re also united by a common spirit and Lord. We’re meant to function in unity that happens when we all share the mind of Christ (1 Cor. 1:10; 2:16; Eph. 4:1-8). The unique gifts we have are “for the profit of all.”
Don’t Give up on Community
We need other Christians. We’re meant to do life with a community of faithful people. But if you’ve been involved with Christianity for any length of time there’s a good chance you’ve had some less than ideal interactions with other people who go to church (ranging from relatively minor conflicts to outright abuse). Those sorts of things are not what God wants in His family and I know it grieves Him to see His children hurt. But even if a person or church group has hurt you, I encourage you to not give up on finding and engaging with a community of faithful believers.
And let us think about how to stir one another up to love and good works, not abandoning our meeting together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging each other, and by so much more as you see the day drawing near. (Heb. 10:24-25, LEB)
God wants us in community, encouraging each other and stirring each other up to be like Him. Ideally, this happens in a literal sense but it also involves a state of mind. In other words, there’s a big difference between whether you see things as “just me and God” or whether you value Christ’s whole body. Individualism to the point of isolation shouldn’t be our goal.
I know some of you are isolated by geography, health, or other factors outside your control and God understands that. You’re still part of His people and no less a part of the community if you are unable to gather in-person. Isolation isn’t ideal, but God can (and will!) continue to work with you if you’re by yourself.
A Community in the Messiah
Therefore, if there is any encouragement in Christ, if any consolation of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and compassion, complete my joy, so that you are in agreement, having the same love, united in spirit, having one purpose. Do nothing according to selfish ambition or according to empty conceit, but in humility considering one another better than yourselves (Phil. 2:1-3, WEB)
God desires unity in the body of Christ. He expects us to contribute to peace in the community by thinking the way He thinks and putting others first. That’s part of what it means to be in Christ.
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but rather to the interests of others. Cultivate this mindset in your community, which is in fact a community in the Messiah Jesus (Phil. 2:4-5, MJG)
What I love about this translation, which comes from Participating In Christ, is that it captures Paul’s emphasis on how community is meant to work in the Messiah, Jesus. The author, Michael J. Gorman, spends all of Chapter 4 explaining why he translated it this way. It’s far too long an explanation to quote here, but if you want to check it out you can click this link to purchase a copy (please note this is an affiliate link, which means that at no extra cost to you I’ll receive a small commission if you click on it and make a purchase).
Part of the Family
Being in Christ is something we share with other believers, not something we do all on our own. Our individual identities as followers of God are meant to fit-in with all the other individual believers to create a community located in Jesus. That’s one of the core aspects of being a Christian.
Having an individual relationship with God is a wonderful thing. He even calls us His friends if we’re walking with Him in obedience. But we must not get so caught-up in our individual experience of God that we forget He has called us to be part of something bigger than ourselves. God is a family and He wants us to be part of that. To have a relationship with Jesus and our Father is to be in community and we must not reject that. To turn our back on the church is to disconnect from the body of Christ and that’s not something we should want to do.
It worries me sometimes how cavalier we are in American Christianity about leaving church groups when we have a quarrel with someone or get hung-up on a doctrinal dispute. There are definitely times to separate ourselves from communities that don’t teach the truth and encourage people to walk contrary to God. And if there’s an unhealthy, abusive situation going on that can’t be resolved in a way that keeps you safe, then you need to get out of there. But if we’re just leaving because we want to do things our own way, what does that say about our priorities and our respect for God and His people?
It’s definitely something to think about next time we feel frustrated with other people in the church and feel like we’d rather not go back (which has happened to me many times). Ultimately, the good a community of faith does outweighs the bad. And if we’re walking with God faithfully, we have the opportunity to contribute positive things to the body of Christ and make the community healthier, more encouraging, and more filled with love.
Featured image credit: Shaun Menary via Lightstock