When God calls us to salvation, He places us perfectly within His body: the Church. We are all given strengths and abilities to help the church thrive, to maintain health, to reach the world and to make disciples. The Church needs every member and every member needs the Church.
“But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills. For even as the body is one and yet has many members, and all the members of the body, though they are many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. For the body is not one member, but many. If the foot says, “Because I am not a hand, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. And if the ear says, “Because I am not an eye, I am not a part of the body,” it is not for this reason any the less a part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the hearing be? If the whole were hearing, where would the sense of smell be? But now God has placed the members, each one of them, in the body, just as He desired. If they were all one member, where would the body be? But now there are many members, but one body.”
– 1 Cor 12.12-20
This is the beautiful and unique form of community with which God has blessed the Church. In short, we get in each other’s lives and we “do life” together. But do you know what happens when you get in other people’s lives? It gets messy. No Christian has attained perfection and the fullest maturity until he is freed from his earthly body, and that means that people are going to be misunderstood, people are going to be offended, and there will be conflict. Even within the Church. ::gasp:: If you’re not getting messy, you are not doing it right.
But let us not despair about this fact. This is actually our opportunity to first of all glorify God in how we respond. If Jesus is our example, let us remember that He was the only person to walk the face of this Earth without sin, and He was despised, mocked, tortured and murdered. He endured all of this without lashing out, but with forgiveness and grace, even praying for God to show forgiveness to those who were in the act of murdering Him. Can you imagine? We often times need space and time to cool our emotions, but Jesus, in the midst of His own murder, was able to show selflessness and mercy. In the same way that He loved and forgave us, we must love and forgive one another. Otherwise we elevate ourselves and our offense above what Jesus endured on the cross.
Secondly, this gives us an opportunity to grow in maturity.
“Consider it all joy, my brethren, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance.”
– James 1.2-3
I particularly love this passage out of James because he speaks directly to “various trials”, not simply persecution for the Gospel’s sake. Various trials can be our cars breaking down, a difficult child, a tension at the church or persevering through an illness. All of these various trials are tests of our faith. How do we respond? Do we get angry and selfish? Or do we turn to God and die to ourselves? Are we humble or are we proud? When we persevere through the testing of our faith we achieve endurance. And Romans tells us that,
“And not only this, but we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope; and hope does not disappoint, because the love of God has been poured out within our hearts through the Holy Spirit who was given to us.”
– Rom 5.3-5
We will not have proven character until we persevere through the mess of relationships and come out victorious on the other side. We will not have true, Biblical hope until we persevere through trials that test our faith. If we do not persevere and glorify God by dying to ourselves and following Christ’s example in day-to-day trials, we will be tossed around like the waves of the sea and depend on our circumstances for happiness (James 1.6).
Thirdly, these situations give us an opportunity to express the Gospel to others in the Church and to a lost world. We will all have conflict. But consider this: we are all familiar with the terrible and ongoing “worship war” that is present in many churches. Everyone wants his own style of music. For some the music is too loud, for some it is too soft, for some it is not played skillfully enough, and for some the style is just unbearable. Consider a person who has never come to the church before and who has never heard hymns, contemporary praise, quartet or even Christian rock music. Everything, to him, is new. He can have two polar opposite experiences determined by the church-goer by whom he sits. The church goer can have a bad attitude, choose not to sing, choose to be grumpy – or even wait in the foyer until the music is over before coming in. The unsaved man will see nothing different from the world here. What he knows and expects. Nothing attractive. And he will probably examine the music with the same mindset. Now, imagine he sits next to someone who does not necessarily care for the style of music being played, but this person says in his heart, “I want God to be glorified by the music and in my heart. I am going to sing whatever they choose to sing and praise God!” He considers his neighbor who loves this music and can best express his heart to God through this style, and he prays, “God help my neighbor meet with you today, and I praise you that these songs are fostering his heart to praise you!” The lost person will see this as a selfless and humble person who loves God and loves his neighbor, and will see something different.
If the world sees conflict between two believers, if the believers act like the world, then our witness is lost. But if the believers humble themselves, put one another’s desires and needs above themselves, respect one another and forgive lavishly, then we demonstrate the love and forgiveness that we have been showed in Jesus. Scripture teaches us that we only love because He loved us first (1 John 4.19). And Scripture teaches us that we should love and forgive in the same degree by which we are loved and forgiven.
“So, as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you.”
– Col 3.12-13
Paul teaches us that our attitude towards one another should be, at the foundation, one of humility. And based on that humility we bear with one another and forgive in the same manner that we have been forgiven. What does that mean? If you have come to Jesus for salvation, He has forgiven you of every offense you have ever committed and will ever commit. In short, there is nothing that another person can do to you that would be worse than your offense against a holy God. Therefore, if Jesus has forgiven you of everything, then we, by His example, must forgive every offense confessed towards us.
Paul knows, however, that this is not easy and that it goes against our sinful nature. That is why every single letter that He wrote addressed the topic to some extent.
Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love; give preference to one another in honor; not lagging behind in diligence, fervent in spirit, serving the Lord; rejoicing in hope, persevering in tribulation, devoted to prayer, contributing to the needs of the saints, practicing hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep. Be of the same mind toward one another; do not be haughty in mind, but associate with the lowly. Do not be wise in your own estimation. Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, “VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,” says the Lord. “BUT IF YOUR ENEMY IS HUNGRY, FEED HIM, AND IF HE IS THIRSTY, GIVE HIM A DRINK; FOR IN SO DOING YOU WILL HEAP BURNING COALS ON HIS HEAD.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
– Rom 12.9-21
So much as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. This does not mean that you have to be buddy-buddy with everyone in the Church. This also does not mean that you excuse and overlook sin. Jesus gave us very clear instructions for how to handle a church member who is sinning (Matt 18.15-17), and Paul teaches us that when someone is in sin, we should lovingly restore him and help him fight the sin (Gal 6.1). We should never overlook sin, but bring it to light and squash it before it takes a foothold in anyone’s life. This is the truly loving thing to do, to push one another on to maturity and hope.
But humility follows the example of Christ and dies to one’s self. Humility seeks to glorify God and His gospel by forgiving in the way that He forgave. Humility serves the body and individuals in the likeness and manner of Christ (Phil 2.3-8).
Life will get messy. It is in these moments that we must choose to put away our pride, we must choose to seek to glorify God by loving and forgiving as He has loved and forgiven. We must long for the unity of the body by lifting one another up and resolving conflict, and this will show the world that we are Christians: by our love (John 13.35). It is easy to do service projects and humanitarian aid. It is easy to look happy on Sunday mornings, but a dynamic witness to the world is Christians loving one another when they do not necessarily want to.
“For this finds favor, if for the sake of conscience toward God a person bears up under sorrows when suffering unjustly. For what credit is there if, when you sin and are harshly treated, you endure it with patience? But if when you do what is right and suffer for it you patiently endure it, this finds favor with God. For you have been called for this purpose, since Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example for you to follow in His steps, WHO COMMITTED NO SIN, NOR WAS ANY DECEIT FOUND IN HIS MOUTH; and while being reviled, He did not revile in return; while suffering, He uttered no threats, but kept entrusting Himself to Him who judges righteously; and He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross, so that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed.”
– 1 Peter 2.19-24
So let us approach community with a realist mindset, knowing that pouring into one another’s lives will bring conflict eventually. People are people, they will let you down. But let us embrace those opportunities to press into God, to press into one another, to grow in maturity, and to be a dynamic witness to a lost world. Let us die to ourselves, put one another first, help one another fight sin in our lives, and thus sharpen one another and be what God intended the church to be: a body.