“One Anothers and Community”
Terry L. Johnson
This is the seventh of 18 articles in a series entitled “Who Needs the Church?”
34 A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35 By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34, 35)
Walk in. Walk out. That sums up the relationship that some people have with their churches. They walk in at 10:59 AM. They sit quietly for the service. They walk out at 12:05 PM. That is it. Their participation in the life and ministry of the church goes no further. Aside from a perfunctory “good morning” and maybe a “fine, thank you” or “I’m good” answering another’s “how are you today,” no more interaction occurs. In they come. Out they go.
We leave alone our members and visitors who settle for this level of participation. We caution newcomers that our congregation will not feel like home unless they are also involved in either Sunday School or the evening service and meal, or best of all, both. If over time we see that they are content with a Sunday morning only level of participation, we leave them undisturbed. We worry about them eventually moving to a church down the street with the predictable “we just never felt like we fit in,” or “we tried to break in but never could.” Yet, if they are content, we don’t continue to assault them with pleas to get more involved.
Still, this level of participation is not the biblical ideal. How do we know? The quick answer is the “one anothers.” By my count there are 28 of them. They paint a picture of what our church life is supposed to look like. They tell us a great deal about our relationships in the church, beginning with Jesus’ new commandment that we “love one another” (Jn 13:34, 35). Jesus provides us with perspective on how we are to relate to our fellow members. “Love, just as I have loved you” tells us all that we need to know about the depth and breadth of our commitment to each other. “By this will all men know that you are my disciples” tells us of the vital connection between our mutual love and our mission. No wonder “love one another” is repeated 11 more times in the New Testament (Jn 15:12, 17; Rom 13:8; 1 Thess 3:12, 4:9; 1 Pet 1:22; 1 Jn 3:11, 23; 4:7, 11, 21).
The other 27 one anothers flesh out what that love looks like. We are to care for (1 Cor 12:25), serve (Gal 5:13), be kind and tenderhearted (Eph 4:32), forgive (Eph 4:32; Col 3:13), comfort (1 Thess 4:18), show hospitality (1 Pet 4:9), teach and admonish (Col 3:16), be devoted and show preference to one another (Rom 12:9, 10), and so on. A high level of commitment to and involvement in each other’s lives is envisioned, is it not? If “love one another” is the most comprehensive of the one anothers, perhaps “bear one another’s burdens” is the most concrete (Gal 6:2). Together the one anothers provide a picture of our duties and responsibilities as members of the church. Take them away and a giant hole results in the New Testament picture of what it means to live a Christian life. Eliminate the one anothers and a huge chunk of the Christian life simply disappears.
Perhaps the first lesson to be drawn from the one anothers is that of realizing my evaluation of the church in the first instance is “not about me,” as the expression goes, or at least it should not be. My first question when assessing my experience of the church should not be “what am I getting out of it?” or “are my needs being met?”
Not that these are irrelevant questions. It is valid to question if a church is doing all that it should be doing or at least enough of what it could be doing to merit our loyalty. For example, if God’s gospel-word is not being preached, undoubtedly one’s needs are not being met. Also, if a church’s services do not feature substantial prayer, or congregational singing, or sufficient Bible reading, or regular administration of the sacraments, one will not “get out of it” what God intends that we get out of the congregation’s weekly assemblies. It would be odd if our souls did not languish in the absence of one or more of these central elements of a properly constituted worship service.
Still, the primary lesson of the one anothers is that my first question about my church should not be about what I am getting but what I am giving. Am I loving the brethren? Am I devoted to the flock? Am I bearing the brethren’s burdens? One’s experience of the life of the church unavoidably will be unsatisfactory if I am focused on whether I am being served adequately rather than whether I am serving adequately.
My consistent observation over 30 years of ministry in Savannah is that those who throw themselves into the life of the church, attending services, eager to serve, wanting to be involved, hungry for fellowship, are received warmly by current members and immediately begin to thrive. They quickly establish deep and lasting friendships. At the same time, those who remain uninvolved or under-involved, who are distant and detached from the vital heart of the church’s ministry never do “fit in.” They grow discontent. They are not making connections with others, they will tell us. They may perceive inadequacies in the structure of our church life. They may observe from the sidelines what we lack, offering suggestions for improvement. They may even conclude there is not enough love in the church, or care, or fellowship, not grasping at all the irony of this self-imposed context of isolation and discontent.
“Community” is one of the buzz-words of our day. Many people, especially among the young, are in search of rich community life. The one anothers reveal that without commitment, there can be no community.
Undoubtedly there are many deficiencies in our church and in every church. It would be arrogant for us to deny this. Of course we fail in many areas. Often our critics help us to see where and how to improve our ministry and we can be grateful to them. Yet consideration of the implications of the one anothers should lead to deeper self-evaluation. Does my commitment to the church resemble the level of participation indicated by the one anothers? Does my Christian life match the portrait painted by the one anothers in the New Testament? Furthermore, does my discontent (if there is such) result not from any inadequacies in the church itself, but from the inadequacies of my commitment to its ministry and members, hence, to community, and ultimately to Christ Himself?
Terry L. Johnson is the senior minister of Independent Presbyterian Church in Savannah, GA. He is author of various books including Leading in Worship, Worshipping with Calvin, Serving with Calvin, and The Identity and Attributes of God.
TAGS: “one anothers;” needs being met; what I am getting out of church; serving; community; participation in the church; Jn 13:34, 35; 1 Cor 12:25; Gal 5:13; Eph 4:32; Col 3:13; 1 Thess 4:18; 1 Peter 4:9; rom 12:9, 10; Gal 16:2.