By Mason Scroggins
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift. (ESV) Ephesians 4:1–7
I would like to continue writing on this theme of community in the pastoral context by looking at the subject of nearness. In my previous article, I wrote on the pastoral dangers of extra-organized gatherings (small groups). In this piece, I want to encourage pastors to not confuse nearness with community. As most of you are aware there is a slight difference between unity and community. Unity speaks to the oneness of something. Community refers to the coming together of different parts to form a whole. A good example of this is how the church is both a community and unity. We corporately are one, but we are individually unique and have differing gifts. Unity is the one body. Community is the members coming together to form the one body. I invite unity into this discussion because unity is a biblical term whereas community is a derivative of it.
Pastors can often fall into the trap of thinking we are kingdom building by drawing large groups of people into one room. We think if our church is growing in number that our unity or community is also growing. Here lies the problem- community is not just about visible nearness to one another. Prison cellmates are very close, but no one walks through a prison hall and ponders how they cultivate such a beautiful community.
Our goal, as shepherds, is not simply to close the geographical space between us. We want to partake of one another. The way we do this is in Christ. We become partakers of the divine nature when we commune with Him in faith. (2 Pet 1:4) In a very similar way when we commune with one another we partake of each other. As we do this we are both changed into something that we were not before. This is the beauty of the kingdom of God. Like a mustard seed, it grows and grows into a large whole pulling from the outsides into the inside. What was the world’s becomes Christ’s. This is how discipleship works; we make disciples by exposing the world to the Son to whom they will be conformed. As we all come together to commune with the Son we are not conformed to the world, but to Christ. The growth is taken from the world, but the fundamental identity is transformed. This process is the renewal of all things. It is quite simply the gospel at work.
The world would like to call gathering under one roof real community. As pastors and theologians, we know there must be a change that happens to bring people together. Otherwise, there may be visible reality, but an invisible void. We must be transformed by the renewing of our minds to have a unity of mind. (Rom 12:2, 1 Peter 3:8) When we become another person in Christ as individuals, we also corporately are formed into something new.
The visible and invisible church, as the Westminster defines it, is a healthy way of thinking about community. What is it that the visible church may lack regarding community? The answer to question 69 of the Larger Catechism answers well: “The communion in grace, which the members of the invisible Church have with Christ, is their partaking of the virtue of his mediation, in their justification, adoption, sanctification, and whatever else in this life manifests their union with him.” Pastor, you may have a very large visible church, but until the invisible and visible are rightly aligned you lack genuine community. Unity of the Spirit is how Paul urges the Ephesians to maintain community. Without the indwelling Spirit of Christ, the connection between members is forever broken. It is eternally dead. Thus the utter necessity of being born again.
Time and space do not fill the spiritual gap that often grows between people. Consider Judas, he was very near to our Lord visibly. He walked right along his side (space) and he was with Christ almost to the end of his ministry (time). It is uncomfortable to think about, but Judas had what one might call today “a personal relationship with Christ”. He even partook of the Lord’s supper, but his heart was far from the Father and thus the Son as well. We can’t have true community without the abiding presence of the Son. False community looks like Judas tagging along for selfish reasons. Using people who are close to you is not friendship and it most definitely is not real community. Consider Judas who used the apostle membership for his advantage. He did not walk in a manner worthy of the calling of the twelve to which he had been called to. Are you walking in that way? Is your ministry marked with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace? Or are you trying to increase headcount because more members equal more sales…I mean souls. The faithful pastor not only follows all those Pauline urgings himself but exhorts those in the flock to do the same. Elder, deacon, church member those callings to humility, gentleness, patience, love, and unity apply to the whole church. Whether you are called to one of the offices or not this applies to you. All Christians have a calling to walk in that includes this list.
The broken view of community is building up a group of people for your own pride, manipulation, greed, and so on. It is the Babel project. Unified as a whole, but for all the wrong reasons. The biblical understanding is building up a body of believers through the sharing of divine gifting. Community in the purest sense shares and trades what God has shared with mankind. This may sound simplistic, but it very much is the case. We trade our value for other’s value in the name of Christ to build his kingdom. (1 Cor 14:26) In economic terms, the kingdom of God is built on free trade. No one class, not even elders, is getting rich at the expense of others. While the members are giving/trading their giftings for the mutual good, it is collectively for the divine glory, and the product is Christian Joy. Thus our litmus test for healthy community should not be the number of heads, geographical nearness, or any such physical indicator. As Christians, we look not at the seen, but to the unseen. Any vision can gather people to join in, but only the Holy Spirit can produce lasting fruits. And it is by the fruit that you will know whether healthy community exists or not. Pastor, as grace extends to more and more people it will increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God. If your Church lacks thanksgiving, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control it needs the unity of the Spirit. Pray earnestly for it. But if you do sense these good fruits be encouraged, pastor, that the members are not building another Babel, but the kingdom of God.
Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits. Matthew 7:15–20 (ESV)