“Lord, I just want to pray for Kevin right now. . . .”
Who’s Kevin? I thought, eyes closed, head bowed. I rehearsed the names of the new small-group members in my head, wondering how I had missed Kevin. After a few more moments, I realized that Kevin’s prayer needs were much like my own.
Then it registered: He was praying for me. I was Kevin.
Anyone who has been part of Christian community for long can testify to such awkward moments. The moment you invest in a church, you surround yourself with people who can, at times, grate on your nerves. People who clap precisely on the offbeat. People who say, “We should get together,” and then apparently forget all about it. People who call you Kevin.
Most of us, of course, can chuckle away such trivial frustrations. The real trouble comes when the trivial turns genuinely tiresome. Remain in a Christian community long enough, and you may find yourself underappreciated and overlooked. You may receive all manner of unasked-for “counsel.” You may become tangled in the pettiest of conflicts. And much worse.
If we meet with enough of these provocations, the mists of disillusionment may begin to settle upon us. We may begin to wonder if we are in the wrong community.
Life in the Body
Now, to be sure, sometimes we are in the wrong community. Perhaps you joined a church that appeared healthy on the outside, only to discover advanced disease within. In such cases, your best course of action may not be to patiently endure but graciously depart.
But for every ten disillusioned church members, perhaps only one should consider leaving. Meanwhile, the other nine of us need to remember that even the healthiest bodies have strange ticks and unseemly features: an unusual tapping of the foot, a frustrating tone of the voice. In fact, if our church body does not regularly try our patience and oppose our preferences, then we may not be close enough to our church body.
This observation comes not mainly from experience (though experience heartily testifies), but from Scripture. Although the apostles give us a picture of the New Testament church that is exalted indeed, their descriptions of everyday life in that church are far from romantic. The head of this body may dwell in the heavens, but the feet still stand in the dust.
In the apostle Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, we find both the lofty vision and the everyday, earthy reality. The church is nothing less than the Father’s chosen children, the body and bride of Christ, the Spirit’s dwelling place (Ephesians 1:5; 2:22; 4:15–16; 5:25–27). But then we come to a command like the one in Ephesians 4:1–3:
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.
Consider what Paul implies with such a command. Why would he call us to walk “with patience,” for example, if he did not assume that we would regularly provoke each other to impatience? Such provoking may come in the form of an insensitive joke or an oblivious insult. We may listen helplessly as a small-group member carries the discussion down into the deepest of rabbit holes. If such friction were no part of our life together, we would have no need for patience.
Or why does Paul bid us to “[bear] with one another in love”? Surely because we will, at times, feel burdensome to each other. We may find ourselves confronted with odd opinions and mystifying decisions. We may sit next to people with whom we struggle to make small talk. And unless we have joined a remarkably homogeneous church, we will find ourselves surrounded by people we never would have associated with — if not for the love of Christ (Ephesians 3:17–19).
Or why must we be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace”? Doubtlessly because the temptations to divide from one another in the church are legion. We may, at times, find ourselves so vexed by our brothers and sisters, or perhaps so deeply grieved by them, that unity will come only at the cost of painful conversations, and humbling confessions, and extended conflict resolution.
Daily patience, daily bearing, daily maintaining — this is the everyday life of God’s glorious church. And it’s enough to disillusion even the most realistic among us.
Whenever we discover new dark spots in our community — blemishes that demand our patience, our bearing with, and our maintaining unity — two paths lie before us.
On the one hand, we can run from the distressing realities of our church body, clinging all the while to an idealized vision of what community should be like. But if we do, we will inevitably flee into the trap identified by Dietrich Bonhoeffer: we will become “destroyers of community.”
Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial. (Life Together, 10)
Sometimes the destroyers of community look obvious. They are the agitators, the complainers, the everlasting faultfinders. Like Korah of old, they may gather a cadre of fellow grumblers around them. Or perhaps they just always find a way to share how they would do things differently if it were up to them.
Far more often, the destruction is subtler. We become passive rather than active destroyers. Frustrated by those in our community, we gradually stop trying so hard. We neglect the uncomfortable conversations, leaving others’ sins unaddressed and our own concerns unmentioned. Our relationships begin to look more formal than familial. Instead of patiently bearing with others, we nurse grievances, replay offenses, and find ways to keep our distance.
Such apathy is as much of an enemy of the Christian community as antagonism. We need not burn bridges in order to weaken the beauty and unity of God’s church; we just need to quietly withdraw. Some destroy by fire, and some by ice — but both can leave a community in ruins.
The other path is the one Paul lays before us in Ephesians 4:1–3. This path is far narrower, far more burdensome, than the path of the destroyers. But it is also far more beautiful. For if we are willing to enter into our disillusionment fully, allowing it to clear away every unbiblical community ideal, we may gain something on the other side that we would not trade for the world.
We will not finally escape the need for patience, of course. Nor will we discover, to our astonishment, that others’ oddities no longer seem odd, or that unity comes easily. Rather, we will find deeper fellowship and closer conformity with the one whose patience is perfect (1 Timothy 1:16), whose shoulders bore the burdens of the world (Isaiah 53:4), and whose zeal for unity brought him from heaven to earth, and from earth to the cross (Ephesians 2:14).
As long as we value a dream community over Christlikeness, we will unwittingly work to destroy whatever community we join. But if we value Christlikeness over even our dearest dreams of community, then every slight, every peculiarity, every conflict, and every sin will become an opportunity to become more like the glorious head of this body (Ephesians 4:32–5:2).
Only then will God’s children rise up into maturity. Only then will the body grow strong. Only then will the bride become resplendent. Because only then will our communities look more like Jesus Christ.