There’s one thing that’s vital for every church community- but in particular, for communities that see themselves as “missional.”- It’s a non-negotiable for those that want to move beyond being a “congregation”- literally just a gathering or grouping of like-minded people, to being something more radical- a community which follows the Spirit of God out into to the world so that they might cooperate with what He’s doing.
But it’s not something we talk or think about very often.
When we talk about the “missio Dei”- the mission of God- what we are really talking about is not God’s desire to get individual butts up and over the goalposts of Heaven. No- what we are talking about is God’s plan from the beginning to create for Himself a redeemed community, living in a renewed earth (that has had heaven come down on it- Rev 21 & 22), in relationship with each other and with the Triune God. In other words, as you read the OT, though God started with one man- Abraham- and then one family- Jacob/Israel’s, and one tribe/people- the Hebrews- the plan has always been that eventually that circle would continue to expand until everyone, everywhere, heard the invitation to join God’s covenant family, his redeemed community. That’s what God said when He called Abraham- I bless you to be a blessing to all the world. That plan and promise is hidden throughout the OT- in such a way that had they been paying attention, and really seeking to know the heart of their God and His mission, the people of Israel would have known and recognized and co-operated with this.
But instead, they became insular, inward-facing. They lost the missionary impulse of their missionary God– and took the Law that was meant to be a set of cultural protections from the idolatry around them, and turned it into a self-righteous, legalistic means to control insiders and exclude everyone else.
This is why Jesus was so angry when he found the money changers in the Temple- not because they were cheating people- though that was undoubtedly part of it- but what did He say when he waded in there with a whip, overturning tables? “This was meant to be a house of prayer for ALL NATIONS, but you have turned it into a den of thieves!” They had set up their religious marketplace in the Court of the Gentiles– the place where everyone, regardless of whether they were Jewish or not, could come and learn about and worship God. They weren’t just robbing people of their money- they were robbing them of their chance to experience God. They should have used that area to love and welcome those who didn’t know God, seen God’s heart in the design and followed Him into mission- instead, they filled it up with animals and tables and moneychangers- and tried to make a buck.
What should have been their greatest witness became the reason Jesus judged them.
The Book of Ephesians slotsright into this story and presents us with a very similar choice.
Ephesus was a Roman town in what we would now call Turkey- Paul had gone there on a missionary journey and returned a while later and spent 2-3 years there, during which he encountered a lot of opposition. In spite of this, a vibrant local church emerged- made up of Jewish believers in Jesus AND Gentile converts to Christianity. Paul was later imprisoned in Rome, and he wrote this letter to the Ephesians from his jail cell.
One of things that concerned him, was this growing dissonance between Jewish and Gentile believers. He wants them to understand that their faith isn’t just an individual thing- but it’s a wholistic life-change which revolutionizes every area of their lives, including their relationships with one another. God the Father planned throughout history for Jesus to create a multi-ethnic, diverse community of followers. Men and women, Jews and non-Jews, free people and slaves, high class and low-class- these followers form the covenant family, the redeemed community God promised to Abraham. More- They live in solidarity/unity as one body in their families, neighborhoods, and churches because of God’s grace- and as a witness to God’s grace.
Ephesians chapter one talks about God’s amazing, awe-inspiring grace to us, and how God has always planned to bring us together into a covenant family, a redeemed community of restored humans who are united with Jesus and united into one metaphorical body- the church- unified in the mission of God and energized by the Spirit of God.
In Chapter two Paul declares that God’s grace invites all people, Jew, Gentile, whoever- to join in Jesus’ resurrected life and this diverse redeemed community He is creating- and become this new, unified humanity that lives together in peace– because Jesus has broken down the walls that separate us.
And because the Good News of Jesus, the Gospel- unifies and brings together all different kinds of people, who are all empowered by the Spirit of God, who see the love God has for them in Jesus and can’t help but be inspired to love others in the same way- Paul says in Chapter three– that God’s purpose in all of this was to display Himself. In other words- the greatest evidence we have of the truth of God’s work in the world, the greatest apologetic we possess for our faith, the primary means by which we tell others about Jesus- comes down to the way we love each other AND the unity we possess.
So, Paul says in Chapter 4:1
Therefore I, a prisoner for serving the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of your calling, for you have been called by God.
What is the calling? It’s all we’ve talked about so far- That we would partner with God in His mission to create a redeemed community of people who look to Jesus for salvation, for life. And what does it mean to lead a life worthy of that calling? He lays it out-
Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love. Make every effort to keep yourselves united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace.(vss 2-3)
What’s really interesting here, is that in describing a life that is congruent with the calling of God, Paul could have talked about a lot of things- our worship, our morals, our sexual ethics, the way we live out justice in our neighborhoods and our world- and all of those things are important- but in light of the thread, the narrative he’s weaving in this letter, what does he focus on?
The way we are with each other.
It starts with our inner lives- Always be humble and gentle. Humility isn’t thinking less of yourself- as CS Lewis said, it’s thinking of yourself less. It’s not thinking “I’m a terrible person,” it’s thinking about the other person and what they need. It’s the opposite of pride which puts my desires, my preferences, the way I see things and the way I believe they ought to be front and center. Humility doesn’t deny that I might have gifts, or a unique insight on the problems we are facing- it just refuses to push itself, it’s needs and wants forward at the expense of others. And that’s why he adds gentleness– because occasionally we do have conflicting opinions/conflicting worldviews. And when we bump up against each other in community, if we both assume a posture of humility, and proceed with gentleness, we make room for God to work. If instead we choose pride and either forcing my way, or passive-aggressively manipulating people or situations to get my way, we’re boxing God out saying “I’ll take it from here, God- I’ve got this.”
He says “Be patient with each other, making allowances for each other’s faults.” We probably all have an idea of what patience is- but what does it look like to make allowance for each other’s faults in community?
Making allowances doesn’t mean ignoring hurtful or sinful behavior, it means making room for people to be humans- humans who are flawed and always in process. It means seeing people as individuals who have certain biases, certain giftings and certain flaws. For example- the church I planted and pastored in Portland Or had a strong value of women in leadership- we wanted to see women serving in every layer of leadership, and represented well on the stage, preaching, leading, etc. Because of this value, certain folks were attracted to our community because they felt strongly about that issue. The problem came when there would be a week when, despite our best efforts, it ended up that those doing announcements, those leading meditations, leading worship, preaching would all be dudes- that’s just the reality of a small community- only so many people are willing and able to serve in those roles, and sometimes, especially during summer when a lot of people are away traveling, you have to settle for who’s around, who’s willing? And occasionally- it would just be all dudes.
On those weeks, we knew we could count on hearing about from one or two people- they wanted to let us know that wasn’t okay. They didn’t know all the effort we had gone to, the number of women we had asked who said they couldn’t or wouldn’t be in town… they did know our value, our track record, but for one reason or another, they chose to ignore that and let us know we had, in their eyes, committed a community faux pas.
On hearing that, we could go two ways- One would be to become defensive and think “who does this person think they are? Don’t they know how hard we’ve worked on this issue? Don’t they recognize we’re trying?” and maybe even power-up and push back in a number of ways.
Another way- they way Paul is urging us here, would be to make some allowances- to recognize that this is a particularly sensitive area for a lot of people. That someone coming in may not be completely aware of all the history, all the effort, all the ways we’re trying. They may just be dealing with a case of having a very mature value, but an immature way of expressing it. If that’s the case- the right answer isn’t defensiveness, it’s not making excuses, it’s saying “You are totally right and I agree with you- it’s not always possible on any given week or at every event to make sure things are balanced in the way we both would like them to be- but I hear you. Trust me when I say this is something we care about and are working for.”
There does come a time when, in the midst of making allowances for the faults of others, that we have to actually confront immaturity and character faults- especially when they are hurting themselves or others in the community- but we do it humbly, gently and, Paul says, “because of your love,” – out of love for others, not because they are annoying us. Out of love for the community, not because someone isn’t living or thinking up to my standards.
Humility- gentleness- love. Paul is pointing us here towards Christ-like character.
He says, as here’s maybe the toughest part-
Make every effort to keep yourself united in the Spirit, binding yourselves together with peace.
If God’s plan from the beginning was to, by uniting them with Christ, unite people from all the disparate tribes of humanity into one new family, one redeemed community, and if as Paul said in chpt 3 God’s purpose was to use the Church to display this plan, to showcase it, to be a sign and a foretaste of where He’s taking the world- then unity takes on a VERY high value in our hearts and minds.
Or at least it should.
A couple of things about this- First, unity doesn’t equal unanimity, or uniformity. It doesn’t mean we all think the same, believe the same, or act the same. What it does mean is that we recognize that at the very center of our relationships, of our community is the person of Jesus– not myself and my preferences- but the person of Jesus and HIS values, His goals, His vision for the community, and we are united around a common goal of knowing HIM and His values, goals and vision for our community and for the world and helping others do the same. Unity means we recognize there are A-level things, B level and even C and D level things- and our focus is on how common understandings of the A-Levels things unite us in spite of differing views on the B, C and D level things.
Second- this takes effort. It’s not easy. The human tendency is to constantly devolve down into ever smaller groups of warring tribes and communities. We LOVE doing this. It doesn’t matter what group or community you are talking about- take a closer look and you will see sub-groups who have disagreed with another subgroup, and now lost sight of the overarching thing that united them and have separated down into competing factions. You can’t just be a “feminist” anymore- because there’s First Wave feminism, Second Wave Feminism, Third Wave Feminism. There’s Radical Feminism, Separatist Feminism, anti-pornography Feminism, Sex-positive feminism. Anarchist Feminism and Socialist Feminism, Liberal/Individualist Feminism and Post-structuralist feminism. Eco Feminism, Christian Feminism, Lesbian Feminism… All with different ways of expressing feminist ideals- and if that were all they were, good enough- the problem is they all critique one another, all compete to one extent or another, and many view the others with much suspicion…
The human tendency is to devolve down into ever smaller groups- but as we’ve seen- the plan and the purpose of God is to put back together what is broken- to bring humanity together in one, multi-flavored, diverse community where differences aren’t ignored, they are simply recognized as secondary.
This is what God is working towards in the world, so it’s imperative we must follow Him and work it out in our communities.
For there is one body and one Spirit, just as you have been called to one glorious hope for the future.
There is one Lord, one faith, one baptism,
one God and Father of all,
who is over all, in all, and living through all.(vs 4-6)
Regardless of what it may look like, there’s only ONE Church- one Body of Christ. It has a lot of different parts, a lot of different expressions worldwide- but because Christ is the one we are uniting with, we are necessarily united to everyone who’s united to Him. So, those Christians you really have a hard time with? Those Christians who believe x, and support y, and do allow or don’t allow z? They’re family. They may be the crazy uncle of the family, but they’re still family. Why- because the same Holy Spirit has baptized them into the same Body of Christ. There’s only one Lord, one faith, one baptism- even though we may have different ways of expression- we’re still one Body.
There’s a lot to unpack there, and we can do that in some of our Q and A times- yes, there limits and provisos, and caveats- but what we really want to do is bring it down to the very local, the very personal. To here and now for Veritas.
Henri Nouwen famously said that community is where the person you like least always is.
If we understand what God is doing in the world, then the hard parts of community- the disagreements, the competing visions and values, the ways we rub each other the wrong way- these are not flaws in community- they are features, not bugs- in other words- it’s those very things God wants to use to help us live out the Gospel and display it to the world!
If community was ONLY people who thought exactly like you, how would you ever learn?
If community were only people who never stepped on your toes, how would you practice and grow in forgiveness?
If community were only people who you got along with, how would you ever learn patience, grace, kindness?
It seems like if God wanted us to be formed into people who look more and more like JESUS, who learn how to live in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control, He couldn’t have come up with a better mechanism to stretch us and grow us in those areas than this messy, challenging, inspiring, comforting and troubling thing we call church.
Bob is the Director of Equipping and Spiritual Formation for the Ecclesia Network.
He’s the co-author of Eldership and the Mission of God: Equipping Teams for Faithful Church Leadership as well as Ministry Mantras: Language for Cultivating Kingdom Culture.
He planted the Evergreen Community in Portland, OR in 2004 and holds a DMin from George Fox/Portland Seminary.
Bob currently lives in Boise, ID with his wife, Amy, his kids, Jack, Jane, and Josie and his dog, Bentley.