In the West today, many of us tend to take a rather individualistic approach to life.
What does this mean? It means simply that if you live in the West you are more likely to see yourself as an individual – with your own private life and thoughts and feelings and freedoms and experiences – than as part of a community with shared values and responsibilities to each other.
If you are a Christian living in the West, the temptation can be to think that your faith is primarily about an exclusive relationship between yourself and God.
You might be part of a church, you might meet and share fellowship with other Christians, but ultimately it’s down to something that only exists between you and God. It’s your own faith, made up of your own personal beliefs and feelings and experiences.
It doesn’t matter if the rest of your church doesn’t agree with your view on things. You aren’t answerable to anyone except God. Nobody gets to tell you what to think or what to believe or how to worship. They can do things their way and you’ll do things your way.
Is that the way you are tempted to think about your faith?
If so, then unfortunately that is not the way Jesus and his first followers intended the Christian life to be lived.
Shortly before his crucifixion, while trying to prepare his followers to begin the church after his departure, Jesus said:
“I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing. If you do not remain in me, you are like a branch that is thrown away and withers; such branches are picked up, thrown into the fire and burned.” (John 15:5–6)
We do not come to God as individuals. In this illustration we are all part of the one plant, with Jesus at its root.
In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul described the church like this:
Just as a body, though one, has many parts, but all its many parts form one body, so it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit so as to form one body—whether Jews or Gentiles, slave or free—and we were all given the one Spirit to drink. Even so the body is not made up of one part but of many. Now if the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” it would not for that reason stop being part of the body. If the whole body were an eye, where would the sense of hearing be? If the whole body were an ear, where would the sense of smell be? But in fact God has placed the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body. (1 Corinthians 12:12–20)
In Paul’s illustration the church is like a human body, in which each part has an individual role to play, yet none of those parts can survive on their own or claim to be independent of the others. Each Christian within the church has a unique set of abilities and ways they can serve, as well as a unique set of weaknesses and temptations they must overcome.
You may find it difficult to exist as part of a church community. You may not always get on with your fellow Christians or see eye-to-eye with them on certain issues. You may feel frustrated when they struggle with things that come naturally to you. You may feel disgusted when they give into weaknesses or temptations that you’ve never felt even the slightest desire to indulge.
We are not all eyes. We are not all feet. I can guarantee that you have your own set of weaknesses and failings that some other Christians will not be troubled by in the slightest. This is as it should be. The church would be entirely weak and ineffective if everybody was the same.
Do you ever look at your church and think “They’ve made a complete mess of things, but at least I’m all right with God”?
Your faith is not an exclusive relationship between you and God. Use your abilities to serve others. Let your strengths strengthen the church. Even if you cannot see what your abilities and strengths are, God would not have chosen you for his church if there wasn’t something you can add, something which would be missing if he hadn’t done so.
Tackle your weaknesses. Try to learn and grow and overcome. Admit your failures and ask for forgiveness and understanding. Be willing to extend forgiveness and understanding to those whose failures look very different from yours.
In the next few posts we’ll look at what Paul has to say on the subject of using our abilities and resources to build up the church. There’s a right way to do it, a wrong way to do it and then there’s doing the complete opposite and destroying the church!