Podcast episode 023: Where can I find Christian community?
We all want our churches to be more than clubs, more than institutions and more than events that we turn up to each week. We want to experience the joy of genuine community with other Christians.
But let’s face it: that sort of community is hard to come by. Our churches often feel more like clubs or institutions or concerts than genuine communities.
What does it mean for churches to be “communities”? And how can we be a part of such a community and experience its joys?
In advance of our 27 February CCL event that will address this topic, Tony talks with Chase Kuhn about Christian community.
Links referred to:
- Next CCL event: “The elusive joy of Christian community” with Chase Kuhn and Tony Payne.
- The Preliminary Theological Certificate (PTC) at Moore College.
- Life Together (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)
Runtime: 39:04 min. Subscribe via
Tony Payne: Belonging to a church is part of the fabric of the Christian life, and I don’t think I’ve ever met a Christian person who doesn’t want their experience of church life to be a rich one—to be more than just belonging to a club or going along to an event each Sunday that we might find beneficial—but to be part of something deeper—something where there is partnership and fellowship—where there is what we often call today “community”.
But, let’s face it, the joy of belonging to a Christian community is often one that eludes us, because our churches do often feel more like clubs or institutions, or just events that we go to.
What does it mean for a church to be a community? And how could we experience the joys—the often elusive joys—of belonging to such a Christian community? That’s our topic on today’s episode of the Centre for Christian Living podcast.
TP: Hello, I’m Tony Payne, and welcome to the Centre for Christian Living podcast episode 23, coming to you from Moore College in Sydney, Australia. Our goal in this episode as in every one is to bring biblical ethics to everyday issues, and we do that not only through these podcasts, but also through the events that we hold throughout the year. Our first event is coming up soon: it’s on February 27th here at Moore College on “The elusive joy of Christian community”—the same topic we’re addressing in this podcast.
My guest both on the podcast today and at that event will be Chase Kuhn, who lectures in theology and ethics here at Moore College. And if you’d like more information about the event and to register either to come in person or want to be part of the livestream, then go across to the website—that’s ccl.moore.edu.au—for all the details.
In advance of that event on February 27th, I asked Chase to come and join me on the podcast for this episode to talk about Christian community—about what it means and how we can experience its joys. And he started by telling me about a book that he’s recently been reading.
Chase Kuhn: So my wife and I have been—my wife’s name’s Amy—my wife and I have been reading Bonhoeffer’s Life Together. We’ve actually just started back into it this week. I had read it a few times while I was studying at seminary and as I took up pastoral ministry, but had really wanted to get back to it again, and we were—we were rebuked and laughing about this—not laughing—embarrassed, I guess, laughing, to say that Bonhoeffer goes on this great detailing of how certain people—prisoners and exiles—long for community. They’re desperate for it, and when they get it, it’s almost thirst-quenching. And he says, “What a joy for us: they get to meet every week together and celebrate that, and how it fills our hearts with great delight!” And I paused at that moment and I said to Amy, “Wow! What a rebuke!” Because it doesn’t. It’s so normal and it’s just so routine for us that we take it for granted.
And then we read the next paragraph down and he says, “But we don’t enjoy it, do we!” [Laughs] And so we laughed about it and sort of sheepishly thought, “Yeah, what a rebuke! We have something so precious—the presence of Christ, if you will—as we meet together with brothers and sisters,” and I was so challenged by that that it stimulated me. It actually got me thinking, Tony, I mean, you’ve been reading a lot about Bonhoeffer—I know you’ve been doing a lot of work on Bonhoeffer for your PhD. You should tell me why you think Bonhoeffer’s important for Christian community.
TP: Sure! He—he certainly writes about it at length in—well, I say, “at length”; he writes about it very insightfully in that little book. It’s not a long book. But it’s a profound little book, isn’t it, Life Together. It’s the story of—of him really looking back over and thinking about the principles of community that he tried to put into practice at the seminary that he established in Germ—in Germany in a place called Finkenwalde in the—in the mid 1930s, and the Gestapo came in and closed it down. But he sat down, and over a four or five-week period, wrote down what he thought Christian community really was—what animated it, what energised it, what founded it and constituted it—and what you’d need to watch out for in Christian community, and how Christian community proceeds and what are its really important practices. And so it’s become this—this mini classic about the nature of Christian community, and it’s not surprising that you’re being challenged again reading it, ’cause I certainly have been delving into—into it quite a bit.
And the interesting thing—one of the really interesting things that Bonhoeffer identifies early is that Christian community—and by that, he means any situation where Christians come together and encounter one another; he’s not just talking about church on Sunday. He’s talking about the prisoner who gets visited by somebody and experiences a little taste of Christian community. And of course his seminary wasn’t a church; it was a seminary. They—they lived together in Christian community in a house.
But he talks about the dangers of Christian community—of—of all kinds of communities—and of what a—and he contrasts what a Christian community really is with false or what he calls “soulish” or “fleshly” communities. And it’s one of the quite challenging chapters early on in the book, where he contrasts the fact that people long for community—they want community—but the kind of person who comes to you really wanting community is really dangerous, because they’re very often wanting a fleshly or what he calls a “soulish” community. That is, one that meets their needs—in which they are able to satisfy their longings and desires for being with other people, or for receiving or getting things from other people—getting satisfaction or affirmation from other people. It can be a profoundly self-centred exercise, trying to form a community.
CK: What do you think are some of those trappings, and—and how do those look in life or in Christian communities in the book or today? I mean, do you have examples of what you think they might be?
TP: Well, it’s interesting to me—there’s been a—a kind of a movement towards the—a communitarian vision of Christianity over the last 10 or 15 years. Things come and go in the Christian world, and the longing for community and building communities—it’s been a big sort of—it’s been a common theme that I’ve observed in the Christian world. Certainly in our neck of the woods over the last 15 or 20 years. And very often what that means—a desire for community—is really a desire for relational closeness. I—I want to be close to other people, and I want them to be close to me: I want to know them, I want to share with them, and I want them to share with me.
And while that’s a really attractive idea in many respects, it’s also a dangerous and sinful impulse in other respects—in that we—we can want to be with other people and to join with them and relate to them for our own purposes, or for another purpose—for—for their purposes or for God’s purposes. Just the very fact of wanting to be with other people and commune with them is not necessarily always a healthy and good thing, and that’s what Bonhoeffer identifies.
And that can come out in the way that certain people you know at church, they love coming to church and they love being at church, but it’s—you can see it’s because of what they get out of coming to church personally—what it does for them psychologically to be wanted, to be needed, to be someone. A community’s great, see, because community can help me be someone. I desperately want to be someone—to be recognised and—and approved of by others. I need others to do that for me—to give me that sense that I’m important. And I can only do that in a community. I can only do that by becoming important in a community, or becoming valued. And you see that happening in—in all communities. But you certainly see that happening in churches too, right?
CK: Certainly. Certainly. I’m sure we’ll return to some of these trappings a bit more in a moment. But how—how does Bonhoeffer then contrast that false community with an authentic community? What does he say builds that community?
TP: Well—well, it all goes—comes back to his view of sin. Bonhoeffer sees sin as the human self sort of self-enclosed—kind of turned back in on itself, like Luther’s famous phrase: “The heart curved in on itself”. He—he very much sees sin—the essence of sinful humanity as humanity turning away from God and away from other people, and turning back in on ourselves, and prioritising and focussing upon and seeking to build ourselves.
And so, you see, it’s the essence of sin as self—selfishness, self-obsession, inwardness—being closed off from the others—and so that when I do encounter someone else, I encounter someone else as another object—another little self-enclosed ego over there, who is either a threat to me that I need to repel or in some way push away, or as someone who I can manipulate or control to meet the particular needs that I have for my project—for my little self-enclosed personal me. And so, sin prevents true community from happening. It prevents so—me from loving you for who you are and for focusing on you, because sin always says that everything’s about me—even that—that even community is about me.
And so, for Bonhoeffer, this is why true community is impossible, in his view, except for the work of God through Jesus Christ and by his Spirit. And—and that’s how Bonhoeffer talks about what Jesus comes to do for us—that he comes to draw us out of the place we can’t escape from—our little self-enclosed prison of—of egoism, with all its terrible consequences. We can’t escape from it ourselves. We’re locked into that. We’re slaves to that. He comes and pulls us out of that and opens us up and mediates a relationship not only with God again through him, but crucially with other people again through him. You see, because—because what Jesus does in forgiving us, wiping away—out our sin—but also placing us in a whole new place—making us whole new people by the Spirit—people who are no longer focused in on ourselves, but forgiven and free to love and focus on others, through Jesus we can now see other people not as a threat or not as an object to be controlled or manipulated for my purposes, but as another person to love.
And Bonhoeffer says, really, just channelling the—the classic doctrine of justification by faith and by God’s grace, that the only way that happens to the human person—the only way the human person really becomes a true person again, because the selfish me—the self-enclosed individual atomised me—isn’t really a person anymore in the way that God created persons to be. We’re not open to others and in relation to others; we’re individualised and selfish.
CK: One of the things I recognised in Bonhoeffer’s work—you’ve just been saying, Tony, is that he takes a real Jesus-centred approach to community, and—and so Christ’s work features right at the centre of that, and—and what you were talking about a moment ago about how we think about other people, I remember one part really striking me—that we try to make the other person in our image, and one of the key things for Bonhoeffer is how Jesus becomes the mediator, not just of our relationship with God, but even in a way that we relate to one another is that you and I, as Christian brothers, it’s not Chase to Tony in a sense, but it’s actually Chase through Christ to Tony, and thinking about Tony as a brother in Christ, both of us receiving that grace. Is there anything you could add on that on how Jesus features at the centre there of that community vision?
TP: Yeah, it—he’s at the centre in two senses: he’s at the centre in that I can’t—I—I’m—I’m prevented by my own sinfulness from coming out of myself and coming to you, except by what Jesus has done for me and how he’s transformed me by his Spirit. So it can only happen through him.
But it can only happen through him, Bonhoeffer says this too, ’cause we only really know what it means to love somebody else—we only really know what—I only really know what’s good for you, Chase, and what you need and what I should say to you and what it means for Chase to flourish and be the—do—be the Chase that God wants you to be—I only know that through Jesus—only know that through what he reveals to me about you and about the purpose of—not only the purpose of you, but the purpose of every—of everyone and of everything.
And so, as Bonhoeffer talks about us being Christ to each other, you—you’ve probably heard that expression, you know: “We need to try and be Christ to each other”. What he really means is that through what Jesus has done and through his word, we’re set free to—to not only be able to love you as another person, but to know what it means to love you and how to love you, and what your good is as another person.
CK: You just used some interesting terms there. You talked about revelation—about revealing things—and you’ve also talked about the word and how we know these things. I know you’ve been doing a lot of work on this, Tony, in your PhD, but the word features very heavily in Bonhoeffer’s understanding of community and about what’s good for the community, what’s good for one another—how we know what’s good and also how we communicate that good to the—the other person—the man or the woman in the community. Tell me a little bit more about what you’ve been appreciating about this vision for the word being at the centre of the community.
TP: Yeah, ’cause hey—you say Jesus at—is at the centre, right? Let’s just say Jesus is kind of almost like the mediator—he—in the midst of our community—in fact, Bonhoeffer says that Christian community is nothing more, but nothing less than that—the encounter with one another through Jesus Christ. That’s what community is—Christian community is. It’s nothing more than that. It’s nothing less that. It’s gloriously that.
But then he goes on to say, “Well, how is Jesus present in the midst of us like this?”—day to day, week to week, in our encounters with each other? It’s by his—it’s his—it’s his presence by his word and his Spirit. And so, the—as the word stands between us, as it were, and we relate to each other through Jesus and through his word, it—it—it not only shows us what it means to love each other, but it gives us the word to say to one another when we want to encourage and help and love the other person.
And I’ve been doing a lot of work over the last few years in this project I’ve been working on about how that word is a word between Christians. It’s a one another word. It’s not just the word of preaching that, in a sense, stands—the—the word of preaching that stands in the middle of the congregation and sort of shapes the whole congregation and directs it and kind of is the flagship fundamental kind of authoritative standard kind of presence of Jesus in the midst of our community. There’s the preaching of the word that does that. But that the word is also present and must be also present as we relate to each other as members of the community, because it’s by the word that we bring—that I bring to you what you need as a person. And so, Bonhoeffer says that the single real service—kind of the highest form of ministry and service and love that we can have for one another as members of the community of Jesus Christ is to be bringers of the word of salvation to each other—is to—is to have—he calls—what he calls the free word between brothers, where we bring the word of Jesus Christ to each other in a whole range of different forms that complement and perform a really vital function alongside the word of preaching from the pulpit that expounds the Scriptures in a more systematic fashion.
And so, yeah, Christian community for Bonhoeffer is one in which Christians relate to each other through Jesus Christ—that is, through his word—where the word is constantly on our lips with each other, and we bring the word that one another needs to each other in the time that we need it. And he—at one point, he says, really very movingly, I think, that it’s—it’s kind of like the way our salvation comes to us: our—our salvation comes to us from outside. We can’t save ourselves: God comes to us with a word from outside ourselves and brings us out—out of the darkness and—and into the truth, and it comes out like a—it comes from outside, and he says, “That’s why God has given Christians each other, because we—we need each other to bring that word to each other from outside.” He says, “The word of God in my heart is weaker than the word of God on my brother’s lips”—by—by which he means, you know, “I’m weak, I fail, I stumble, I doubt, I—in all sorts of ways; I need you to come and tell me the word again in order to strengthen me and keep me strong.”
CK: One of the—one of the points in the book, I remember, he—he even says that it’s a very unloving thing to withhold the word at a moment of need—that why would we ever withhold the thing of most need to our brother or our sister? What is it that you think leads us to that kind of withholding, because my experience of church is the preached word is primary and—and I—I love the preached word; I’m very for the preached word. The read word happens: we hear the word read. But very seldom is somebody speaking to me quite openly, honestly, deliberately, freely, if you will, from that word—maybe even in a moment of need. And yet the times that it has happened to me, it is that refreshing almost sal—salvific kind of moment where that word comes to me from outside. What are the hindrances are you—are you seeing, and I could tell you maybe a few of mine afterwards of what I’ve thought. Please tell me.
TP: Sure. I should also say Bonhoeffer’s very aware that speaking the word to another person is not easy, and it’s a bit dangerous. He says, look, he—he—he—“In the end, who am I to speak this word to you? What if I say the wrong thing? What if I—what if I speak when I should have been quiet, and what if I’m quiet when I should have spoken?” And—and so he recognises that it’s not necessarily an easy thing to speak the word to another person. But in the very passage that you just referenced, he said, “But it’s unthinkable and unchristian”, he says, “that we should not speak—that we should not testify to our brothers of the truth and do what they need and give them what they need.”
Why don’t we do that? There’s a—there’s a lot human reasons and a lot of practical reasons why we’re not used to it, why we aren’t taught about it. It’s not a—it’s not something that Christians—many Christians have been taught to think that is a normal part of their Christian discipleship or ministry to other people. But the chief reason we don’t is the chief reason we don’t do all good things, and that is sinfulness. It’s—it’s the old man and the old impulses of our sinful self asserting themselves and saying, “I would rather keep quiet because it’s safer to keep quiet. I don’t risk anything in—in—if I keep quiet. I can—I can self-protect, I—I don’t risk the possibility that you might reject my word or that you might be offended by my word. In other words, it plays into our natural impulse, which is self-protection and self-enclosed selfishness. And that’s the primary reason we don’t, I think, is that it’s easier not to and that it’s—it’s the—it’s the same reason we don’t love other people generally. It’s the same reason why love isn’t our first impulse. It’s because selfishness is an easier impulse for us, I think.
TP: Well, we’ll be back to the subject of Christian community in just a moment. But first I wanted to tell you briefly about two things. The first was a quick reminder about our event on February 27th on “The elusive joy of Christian community”: Chase and I will be speaking there. It would be great to see you in person. We always have a fun night, interacting over these subjects together and having supper afterwards. Do come and join us on February 27th here in Newtown.
But if you can’t make it to Newtown for whatever reason, there’s also the livestream. And we’re finding that an increasing number of small groups—Bible study groups—are getting together to watch the livestream and talk about it together. And you might like to avail yourself of that possibility as well.
The other thing that I wanted to tell you about briefly is that CCL and all that we do here is not the only thing that Moore College does to equip and to help Christians grow in their knowledge of God and in living for him. The PTC or Preliminary Theological Certificate is an excellent, very affordable short course that can help you come to know God better—come to know the Bible and its theology better, come to understand better the whole historical foundation of the Christian faith. Each unit of study in the PTC helps build your understanding of these things through study materials that have been developed over many years here at Moore College by the Moore College faculty, and many thousands of people have done the PTC over the last many years, and if you haven’t heard of the PTC or haven’t thought about enrolling in and benefitting from it, let me encourage you to do so. And perhaps to gather a few people at church to do it together. The PTC has lots of study options these days: you can do it online, you can do it in the traditional correspondence mode, as well as an option to attend some evening lectures if you wanted to supplement at all that way. To find out more about the Preliminary Theological Certificate or the PTC, go to moore.edu.au/ptc.
But back to Chase and to the question of Christian community. And we started to think about some of the underlying reasons that stand in our way of relating to each other genuinely in community through Jesus Christ.
CK: I think about my experience in Christian community, and we’ve been thinking about Jesus being central and the word being central, and my fear is that we are exposed at this very point—that we do not address each other from the word—that we may not actually have confidence in the gospel—and that this is actually a real weakness for us—that I can’t actually be intimate with you in a way that makes me vulnerable, or you can’t be intimate with me in the same way that makes me vulnerable. And part of that is that sinful impulse—that self-protection. And what that betrays is an underlying lack of confidence in gospel grace—that my sin really has been dealt with on the cross—that Christ has really taken it and I am actually free to share with you my joys, my struggles, my challenges, and it comes as a—I think, again, a—a very strong challenge to what I know and experience—not just currently, but all throughout my Christian life, of how guarded we can be in Christian community—even some of the best Christian communities that I’ve been a part of.
On the flip side of that, I’ve seen beautiful moments where people in real gospel integrity and—and sincerity have come and—and been very open about life. And you see this freedom there that they know Christ, they trust Christ, they know that I stand in that same grace, and therefore they’re willing to share with me about life in a way that they’ll come for a word almost. They’re almost coming asking for that word. And I’m able to share, and likewise I’ve been able to share with others that have been able to speak truth to me, and, again, it works—it grows me up in my salvation—in my—in my understanding of the gospel and who I am as a Christian man. It’s—it’s a really beautiful thing about community.
TP: That’s very insightful, Chase: the—the more that we trust the gospel and what Jesus has done for us, not only will we be more oriented towards the other person and to—and to love them, but we’ll—we’ll be liberated and free from all those instincts of self-protection. “What will they think of me? I couldn’t possibly confess my sin to somebody else, encourage them with the forgiveness that I’ve received in the gospel for that. And—in—and in so doing, encourage them in their battle with sin. I could never do that, because of what someone might think of me. What—what would they think of me if they realised I had that sin, or if I actually did that? And it does betray a lack of confidence—of trust, faith, it’s a lack of faith, isn’t it—in—in what God has actually achieved on the cross—just how clean the slate is—how free we are—how—how blameless and totally saved we are by what—by what God has done.
CK: Can I actually share even that thing with you, my brother?
TP: How do you think—it’s interesting: how do you think it works, that talking openly and honestly about our struggles ends up being a word of encouragement. ’Cause it does. How does that—how does that work? How does the confessing of our faults to each other not only bless me in that I hear reassurance from you for—about the gospel, but it somehow also helps you?
CK: Yeah. It helps—you’d know that you’re not journeying alone—that we also struggle—all of us still struggle in this flesh. But I think there is a moment where either I can speak to you or you can speak to me gospel reassurance. The Reformers used this in a very different context in thinking about the keys: they thought about the keys to the kindom and the keys in Matthew 16. And what that meant was that ministers had authority to absolve sin, and what that—what they were talking about is they could pronounce the truth of the gospel—not that they themselves had the authority for forgiveness, but that they could declare the truth of the gospel that Christ has paid for sin. And I think we as brothers and sisters in Christ have a great privilege of speaking that kind of truth to one another, and you perceiving that kind of truth—that we’re in our deepest moment of despair, because the devil deceives. And in our spiritual battle against sin, the flesh, the world, the devil—whatever it may—all these things that come at us in different ways and shapes and forms, there’s always a—a struggle against despair. What if that sin was it? I mean, what if—what if God really doesn’t forgive even that now? I’ve done it again; how can he forgive me even now? Surely not! And we can be encouraged: “Yes: Christ has paid it all.” Over and over again, we can hear Christ. Christ is sufficient: he’s done it.
TP: It’s almost like in the confession of sin itself—it’s almost like the confession of sin itself is a testimony to the gospel.
CK: Absolutely! And I think the confession of sin is something we’ve lost sight of largely—and partly because we don’t have space for it. But also because we don’t have relationships that are built around that kind of investment of honesty and openness and—that’s a—it’s a real different thing. But—but yes, there is an opportunity there for the confession of sin to be an enactment of the gospel.
TP: And by—we—and what we’re talking about there is not—not just the corporate confession on a Sunday when we say the confession together, but talking openly and honestly with a Christian brother or sister—with a family member or someone in Christ who we encounter to talk honestly and openly, trusting in the gospel about the realities of sin our life and the realities of sin in your life.
And in that—that’s how it, I think, that also relates to admonition and rebuke, because that’s the other thing that we find very difficult to do—
TP: —in a community is to talk openly and honestly about your sin when you’re self-deceived about it.
CK: Mmm, certainly!
TP: And it’s the same—in a sense, the same lack of confidence in—in the power of the gospel word and in the importance of loving you enough to say that word to you ’cause you need it.
We—we know it in our own case. I know I want someone—I want someone to say something to me when I’m self-deceived and when I’m wandering down a wrong path and I haven’t—I either haven’t seen in my own blindness that the path is wrong, or I’m stubbornly going down it anyway. I want someone to say to me, “Brother, what are you doing? Look, I just can’t help but notice you—you’ve—this is worrying me. What’s going on? Can you—can we talk about this?”
CK: Absolutely! It’s a scary thing to confront somebody, because you’re worried about being self-righteous in that confrontation. You’re also worried about how they’ll receive it—what they’ll think of you—etcetera etcetera. In my own pastoral ministry in the past, I can think of a—a number of accounts where I had spoken of concerns to persons and several of them left my church. But a year—two years—later when I see them, they say, “That was one of the most helpful thing that’s ever happened to me spiritually. Thank you, because you were absolutely right, and it took me so long to see it. I was deceived and I’m so glad that you brought that to my attention. I’ve repented of that now and I feel like I’m really growing. And that’s no applause to me. That’s just saying that we have to be able to say, “This is crucial. I care about you more than I care about, you know, protecting something in me that might be insecure about losing this thing. But if—if I can’t put that on the line, then it’s probably pretty fickle anyways.” So there’s something deeper in the gospel fellowship that says, thick and thin, we can be honest and real about these things—namely, sin and address that thing, because we have assurance in Christ. And that—that, I think, gets to the richness of a genuine Christian community.
TP: And that’s where joy is found!
CK: That is where joy is found! We will always be putting our joy—what we—finding what we think is joy in superficial things, if we can’t get to that point.
TP: You’ve been looking at—I know, you told me you’ve been looking at Galatians a bit recently and—
TP: —thinking about this.
TP: What—what have you found there that’s cast light on this?
CK: I’ve been thinking a lot about what it means to carry each other’s burdens, and what it means to walk in the Spirit and to exhibit the fruit of the Spirit and contrasting that with some of the vices that are listed there. And one of the things that’s been standing out to me in particular and I was—I was talking with a colleague about this the other day was that there’s a warning there not to be conceited—not to devour one another—and then carrying each other’s burden—I can’t remember if I was reading Calvin or Luther on—on that passage, but it was basically saying, “Don’t use it as an opportunity to attack or prey upon the weaker brother or sister,” and I always thought the warning there in Galatians 6 to not fall into sin yourself was “Don’t fall into the same sin as the person that you’re helping along by carrying their burdens.” So if your brother’s stumbling in lust, don’t you also, by helping them, become lustful. But actually I think what’s being said there is as they’re struggling in lust, don’t just pounce on them as if they’re a weaker person and kick them while they’re down and say, “How dare you!” and use that as an—as an excuse to burden them with the law again, in a sense. But actually reassure them, comfort them and guard your own heart not to be conceited in pride and then devour them in that moment of your pride.
TP: Isn’t it—I’m going to say “fascinating”; it’s the wrong word. Isn’t it evil, I suppose is the right word, how we can use a situation like that—even a situation like that—for our own benefit and our own purposes—that we can see a brother stumbling and in trouble and we take pleasure in pointing it out—perhaps to him, or just maybe to one another, because it makes us feel superior—makes us feel better.
CK: Even the privacy of our own hearts. The heart is a wicked thing! And I think this is part of the problem—why people don’t open up more in church is because the times they finally get up the courage to be a bit vulnerable, if somebody in their pride preys on them or exhibits some sort of self-righteousness or superiority in their own insecurity, that really turns them off. And it gives them a—a doubt about their status—a doubt about the authenticity of this community and this thing. So what has to keep happening is we have to keep coming back to the gospel together. I know this is what we talk about: this is Christianity 101, but the gospel has to be front and centre as we’re thinking about Christ-centred community. That’s it. That’s what it comes down to.
In fact, I think there’s a lot of s—things that we put in our way that prohibit—we sort of cut our legs out in—in church. And I don’t know if you’ve experienced the same, Tony, but—but what we settle for too often as we pursue community in this—in this day and age of desiring community is superficial and often affinity-based. Now, that’s not to damn the whole thing. That’s not to say that it’s all wrong. But we can say all—only the people I can be around are people within five years of my age bracket. They have to look like me, dress like me. I realise this is a caricature: it’s a bit exaggerated. But I can only be in a small group if they’re married like me or they have kids like mine, or if they’re single like me or whatever it may be. They have to be like me.
TP: As if that’s the basis of community!
CK: As if that’s the basis of community! So the only thing about the community that makes it a community is that it’s like me! Which is, again, is—it betrays our self-service. It betrays our interest in ourselves—in our own self-interest. And what I love about church and genuine gospel community is the way that it crosses barriers and boundaries.
I had a coffee with a—a dear friend of mine who is like family to me. He’s twice my age. He and I are sitting over coffee a couple of weeks back, and he’s sharing with me real struggles in his Christian life—honestly and openly, telling me, “I’m really having a hard time here. Would you pray for me? What would you advise me?” As if he needed to ask me, half his age, what I would do! But he was seeking counsel from the word. And I was able to share with him from the word and give him encouragement and reassurance from the gospel. And that meant the world to him. He messaged me later and said, “Thank you so much!” But that brother is twice my age. If I hadn’t been in church with him and he hadn’t been willing to, in gospel fellowship, cross those barriers, come across congregational lines even, if you will, I would have missed out on a richness of an older brother confiding in me. Me as a younger brother being able to encourage him.
But also, that’s just one occasion: the flip side comes true so often as well: I get to confide in him. I get to lean into him and say, “Can you help me with this, please? Will you pray for me? Will you stand beside me?” And that’s the richness of Christian community that’s centred on the gospel. It brings strange faces. It brings people across age boundaries and barriers—across gender boundaries—across relational bound—I mean, all sorts of ethnic boundaries. We come together in Christ in a beautiful unity. It wouldn’t happen anywhere else—not even in your best football club.
TP: Because what is a community? A community is a group of people who love something in common.
CK: Yeah, that’s right.
TP: And it—it’s, as you say, it’s not primarily that we share certain characteristics or we—we love a particular kind of culture or being a certain way in the world. The joy of Christian community is that the thing we love—the person we love—frees us to be our true selves with each other.
CK: Yeah. And I know you’ve read a lot of Oliver O’Donovan for your PhD as well. He’s written a little book—a set of lectures that he’s written up into a book called Common Objects of Love, which is really the centrepiece of community: we have a common object of love, and for Christians, we have the common object of love—namely, Christ, the revelation of love to us. 1 John tells us that we know love because God gave his Son for us in 1 John 3:16. And you think about God is love in 1 John 4:7 and that whole exposition of God’s love in those following verses. We know it because God gave his Son. And so, we have the Son! That’s our common object of love, which brings us together in the best form of community to be found anywhere. I mean, we could say that as a fact: the best, because we have the best common object of love.
TP: Well, thanks for joining us today on this episode of the Centre for Christian Living podcast. I really look forward to seeing you at our event on February 27th—either in person or virtually via livestream, if you can make it. And if you have any questions, both about this particular podcast or what we’ve been discussing or any topics that you’d like us to address, please get in touch.
In fact, over the next couple of months, we’re planning some bonus episodes of this podcast where we specifically address your questions about living the Christian life in this complicated world that we’re part of. And so, if you have any questions at all on any subject that you’d like us to address, send us an email. I’ll give you the address in just a moment. And we’ll do our best to address those questions in one of our bonus episodes that are coming up. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. Send in your questions and we’ll answer them.
Thanks for joining us today. I’m Tony Payne. ’Bye for now.