A post by pastor Matt Adair on living life together.
Several years ago, I preached through the book of Hebrews and found something that has developed into one of my deepest convictions about our life together as a church. Hebrews is a sermon, written by a pastor to members of a church who are about to abandon Christianity because their conversion to Jesus has resulted in rejection and ostracism by their own families. The effect of such shunning is not merely that these men and women and children have lost relationships and jobs and homes, but because of the deep familial ties in the first-century Greco-Roman culture, they essentially lost their identity. So throughout the letter, this pastor urges his readers to ‘keep the faith’ and to ‘continue to run the race.’
What this first-century church faced was the temptation to ‘turn away from the living God’ (3:12). And while their circumstances are different than ours, the basic temptation that we share is unbelief (see 3:12; 3:19). And by unbelief, I’m not referring simply to a passive lack of trust but an active refusal to believe God; a refusal for which they’re responsible for.
This kind of unbelief is a foundational sin for us as humans, and it has been around since Adam and Eve. By listening to the tempter and disobeying their maker, the first couple acted in wilful and purposeful rebellion and set out to secure their own destiny. That is always the nature of unbelief. A hardened heart is an unbelieving heart, and one that is hell-bent in fighting God and his purposes.
To counter our proclivity to disbelieve God in circumstances that range from the spectacular to the mundane, God places us in believing communities where members take an active interest in each other’s lives and play a vital role in keeping each other from this all-too-common sin. The work we do in groups to keep each other from rushing headlong into unbelief is daily and mutual encouragement to keep believing God, in both the crises and the trivial minutiae of ordinary, everyday life.
The primary reason why groups are the frontlines of helping each other trust and enjoy God is because at the core of our identity is the understanding that we are individuals-in-community. And because this is who we are, it makes sense that our ability to survive and thrive is determined by our involvement in a community. Simply put, life in community is the way life is supposed to be lived. It is not an add-on, an upgrade, an optional package for life. Community is essential and non-negotiable if we, as Christians, are going to actually be Christians.
Let me show you how this plays out in two specific issues:
We haven’t spent much time talking about this in our Real Marriage teaching series, but your commitment to your spouse to love them in this unique relationship of husband and wife necessitates the presence of a healthy community around you.
You learn what it means to be an individual-in-community in marriage in the context of biblical community. Our lives are marinated in individualism and an alternative is needed if we’re ever going to live out God’s design for our marriage. Simply put, we do not possess the skill set needed to live with another person. Everything in us and around us fight against it. So being part of a community where Christians take their commitment and responsibility for one another seriously is an essential part of learning to be human.
If you want your marriage to flourish, embed yourself in biblical community. That is not a pragmatic statement, as much as it is a theological conviction. Placing your marriage within the wider context of a church where relationships matter is not only a good thing, it’s non-negotiable if you want your marriage to thrive. This makes sense when you envision a community that holds couples accountable to their vows, that gives the couple a vision for a life bigger than their marriage and family, that helps the couple realize that their marriage has a critical role to play in modeling the relationship between Christ and his Church.
If your marriage is going to be sustained and nurtured - even and especially when things get hostile and destructive - Christian community (even more than the counselor’s office) is the God-ordained context for you to be comforted and challenged by the gospel.
Leaving the Church
People leave the church. Sometimes they leave because they move out of town or have an opportunity to better serve or be served at a different church in town. And while those are emotional departures because of the relationships formed over time, the heartache of a healthy departure pales in comparison to the agony caused by people who leave the church angry.
Since I’ve been here at Christ Church, a consistent pattern shows up every time someone leaves the church because they are angry or hurt. At some point, a person is legitimately hurt or disappointed by someone else in the church, usually in leadership. Over time that pebble turns into a mudslide as those hurts are never addressed in a healthy manner. This leads to a deepening frustration with the church that drives individuals or couples into isolation, culminating in a decision to leave that never had to be made.
Life in community provides significant and needed help for us when we are hurt by others. As we share our story with others who know us, they can encourage us to take our grievances to those who have wronged us when there is a legitimate offense. And when the pain causes us to see things through a distorted lens, we are helped by having a community around us who can help us to see that what we are seeing isn’t reality.
I had one leader in our church tell me after he left suddenly several years ago that the reason he didn’t talk about what he was feeling was a well-intended desire to avoid gossip. And while I genuinely appreciated his desire to not throw other leaders under the bus, the reality is that he needed to talk about it with other people. This became obvious in the course of our conversation when he admitted that the factors that led to his decision were filtered through personal and professional pain that distorted how he saw the world around him, including the life of our church. But until we had the conversation after his decision had been made, he never took advantage of the opportunity to talk through his issues and have someone listen to him.
Is there ever a reason to leave a church? In fact, there is. Similar to the biblical license for seeking a divorce in marriage, there are grounds for a member to divorce our church. Those reasons include a failure to preach the gospel and patterns of unrepentant sin by the elders of the church. But in the same way that we remain committed to our spouses as we are hurt by their sin and sinfulness, so also we would do well to remain committed to the church when we are disappointed and damaged by the sin and sinfulness of others.
As broken individuals-in-community, we should not be shocked by the presence of sin in our midst. It should grieve us and we should lovingly seek to bring people to repentance and faith in the work of Jesus. But when we leave the church when there is no need to leave, we effectively short-circuit the work of the gospel by never giving the person who hurt us an opportunity to repent and never giving ourselves the opportunity to live in the freedom of granting forgiveness and journeying together towards heaven.
Here are some practical steps to take when you feel ready to walk away from your marriage or our church (from Real Marriage by Mark and Grace Driscoll):
- Commit to fight well. If you love the people around you, you’ll fight. If you love Jesus, you’ll learn to fight well.
- Don’t fight dirty. Don’t resort to criticism by attacking this other person’s character or personality. Don’t give in to contempt by displaying disgust through name-calling, mocking, condescening humor, or provoking the other person. Don’t hide behind defensiveness by refusing to apologize or back down from the conflict. Don’t settle for stonewalling by ignoring the issue and living lonely, separate lives.
- Repent of your sin. There has never been a relationship where only one side wronged the other. Your actions in your situation is not the exception to this rule.
- Ask for forgiveness quickly and grant forgiveness quickly. Respond to sin the God has responded to your sin.
- Beware of bitterness. Deal with the root of the issue.
- Fight as friends. Make sure this other person knows that you are committed to the relationship. Ask God to give you wisdom while you fight. If you can’t resolve the issue, get a referee and let them make the call.