In a previous post I talked about the function of community and why it is God’s good design for every Christian to join a local church, not give up on it, and become deeply involved in it. Today I want to talk about how the Gospel creates true community and how it must sustain and shape our community in a church.
1. The Gospel Creates True Community
Only the Gospel can create and unite a people from diverse ethnic backgrounds, social statuses, different genders and ages, different interests and hobbies, and all other kinds of diverse identities. And that’s because the Gospel says that our unity is not based on any of those things. Our unity is based on something objective, unchanging, and that is relevant to every single human being, namely the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. And in Christ there is “no Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all.” (Col. 3:11)
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer once wrote,
“Christian brotherhood is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate. The more clearly we learn to recognize that the ground and strength and promise of all our fellowship is in Jesus Christ alone, the more serenely shall we think of our fellowship and pray and hope for it.” (Life Together, p. 30)
In the words of Michael Horton,
“When God raises our eyes from ourselves to his Son through the gospel, we begin to see ourselves surrounded by a community of people who are no longer simply neighbours but brothers and sisters. . .Christ and his gospel is the tie that binds. I did not choose these people to be my brothers and sisters; God did. Like me, they are elected, redeemed, called, and justified by God in Christ.” (The Gospel-Driven Life, p. 192).
2. The Gospel Sustains and Shapes True Community as the Basis of Our Fellowship
And if the Gospel is what creates our unity it is also what must sustain and shape it. Paul exhorts the Ephesians to unity based upon the unity that we already have because of the Gospel:
Eph. 4:1 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2 with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3 eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism, 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
You see, our unity is not based on our ethnic background, our common interests and hobbies, our gender, our age, our stage in life, our social status, or anything else but the fact that we are all one because of the Gospel.
And when we start to lose sight of this reality, our community will quickly degenerate and become merely a social club or worse we will become divided and break apart. We’ll start to think, “I have nothing in common with these people.” But the Gospel says “Yes you do. . .you have something in common with every single one of them!” You all are sinners who have been purchased by the precious blood of the only begotten Son of God. You all have the same Heavenly Father. You all have the same Holy Spirit. You all have God’s Word and the same baptism and a common communion table. Some of us might share a few other things in common, but we ALL as Christians share these things in common. And so, we have to keep the Gospel central, in preaching, in our hearts, and in our conversations and actions towards each other. If you want to experience something you have in common with your fellow church members start talking more about the work of Christ with them rather than always talking about your favorite hobby, interest, political opinion, sports team, and other things that cannot unite a people from every tribe, and language and people and nation (Rev. 5:9-10).
In the words of Michael Horton,
“It is not my church to shape into my image, according to my own cultural preferences, ethnic background, politics, or socioeconomic location. It is Christ’s community–and he is the location that we all share together. He is the demographic niche and the political rallying point of this kingdom. I still belong to other groups based on my cultural affinities, but my family is not something I choose; it is something I am chosen for. . .the words and sacraments of the world create affinity groups for those with similar tastes based on generational, socioeconomic, political, racial, and consumer demographics. However, when the Spirit comes through his Word and sacraments, “the powers of the age to come” break into this present evil age (Heb. 6:4-5). The church becomes a cross-cultural community in the truest sense, defined by Christ’s work rather than our own” (The Gospel-Driven Life, p. 193).
3. The Gospel Sustains and Shapes Community by Demolishing Our “Ego Barriers”
And we have to keep the Gospel central because building community doesn’t come natural to us because of our sin. Our egos get in the way ALL the time. And only the Gospel can kill our pride. In the words of the hymn: “When I survey the wondrous cross On which the Prince of glory died, My richest gain I count but loss, And pour contempt on all my pride.” You can’t think deeply about the Gospel and continue to be proud. You also can’t think deeply about the Gospel and continue to be insecure, desperately living for the praise of men.
As Tim Keller notes,
“Our natural condition under sin is to be ‘glory empty’–starved for significance, honor, and a sense of self worth. Sin makes us feel superior and overconfident (because we are trying to prove to ourselves and others that we are significant) AND inferior and underconfident (because at a deep level we feel guilty and insecure). Some people’s glory emptiness primarily takes the form of bravado and evident pride; for others, it takes the form of self-deprecation and self-loathing. Most of us are wracked by both impulses. Either way, until the gospel changes us, we will use people in relationships. We do not work for the sake of the work; we do not relate for the sake of the person. Rather, we work and relate to bolster our own self-image–to derive it, essentially, from others. . .the way to transparency, love, and mutual service is ‘blocked by our own ego.’ But when the gospel changes us, we can begin to relate to others for their sakes. It humbles us before anyone, telling us we are sinners saved only by grace. But it also emboldens us before anyone, telling us we are loved and honored by the only eyes in the universe that really count. So we are set free to enjoy people for who they are in themselves, not for how they make us feel about ourselves. Our self-image is no longer based on comparisons with others. We do not earn our worth through approval from people or through power over people. We are not overly dependent on the approval of others; nor, on the other hand, are we afraid of commitment and connection to others. The Gospel makes us neither self-confident nor self-disdaining but gives us boldness and humility that can increase together.” (Center Church, pp. 318-19)
And so, if we want to grow together in brotherly affection towards one another and experience more and more true community in our churches, then we have to grow deeper and deeper in the Gospel. The Gospel creates true community in a Christian church and it is what sustains and shapes that community. If we want to experience true community in our churches the Gospel has to be kept central and it has to grip us at the core of our being. Otherwise our egos will prevent us from loving each other freely for the sake of Christ. We will use each other to find significance in life and we will end up being merely a social club or worse we will “bite and devour one another” and will eventually “be consumed by one another” (Gal. 5:15). But when we are continually being reminded of who we are in Christ, it frees us up to love each other with brotherly affection and to experience true community, the kind that is a powerful witness to the world (John 17:20-23), a sanctifying experience that is good and pleasant (Psalm 133:1) and that brings great glory to our One God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.