Podcast episode 026: Bonus episode: The elusive joy of Christian community (encore)
Quite a few of our listeners have been asking us to roll out the audio from our regular CCL public events as part of our podcast feed. That’s what you’ll be listening to in this bonus episode: an encore presentation of “The elusive joy of Christian community” event held on 26 February, 2019.
The material falls into two parts of around 25 mins each:
- Tony Payne on what Christian community really is (and what it isn’t).
- Chase Kuhn on how we can miss the joy of Christianity in three crucial ways.
Links referred to:
- “A very short course in Christian ethics”, Saturday 25 May, 9:30am–1:00 pm at Moore College.
- Moore College Open Week, 13–17 May.
- Audio and video from our February event.
Runtime: 1:00:05 min. Subscribe via
Tony Payne: Hello, I’m Tony Payne, and welcome back to the CCL podcast. Great to have you with us. A little bit of housekeeping before we dive into this episode. This year, we’ll be continuing to do what we have been doing up to this point—that is, we’ll roll out a new interview-based episode every month or so on some aspect of the Christian life. But we’re also going to introduce this year some bonus episodes that we add in the middle of each month—almost months, anyway—and they’ll be of two kinds: we’re going to have some regular Q&A episodes, where we catch up and answer all the questions that you guys keep sending into us, and please keep sending them in. But we’re also going to roll out the audio from our public events as part of the podcast feed. We’ve been asked to do this by quite a few of you, and that’s what this episode is going to be that you’re listening to. It’s an encore presentation of the event we held in late February on “The elusive joy of Christian community”, where I spoke and Chase Kuhn spoke on what Christian—Christian community really is and how we sometimes miss its joys and riches.
If you listen to the conversation that Chase and I had earlier in the year on this topic, you might also enjoy this encore presentation, because it’s from the event where we develop those ideas and presented them in full. So whether you came to that event and want to listen again and have a chance to ponder the ideas, or whether you missed out on coming and want to find out all that happened, that’s what we’ll be doing on this episode of the Centre for Christian Living podcast.
TP: Welcome back to another episode of the Centre for Christian Living podcast, coming to you from Moore College in Sydney, Australia, where our goal, as always, is to bring biblical ethics to everyday issues. And today, as I’ve already mentioned, we’re going to be running an encore presentation of our most recent public event on “The elusive joys of Christian community”.
Before we roll that tape, though, I want to tell you about our next event, which is coming up very soon, on May 25th. It’s a special one: it’s on Saturday morning, running from 9:30am ’til 1, and we’re very excited about trying this, because rather than dealing with another topic of Christian living, which we keep doing here at CCL, at this special Saturday morning event, we’re going to pause and zoom back a little bit and look at the whole question of how we do Christian ethics. How do we apply the Bible to every aspect of our lives as Christians? And so, this very special event is called “A very short course in Christian ethics”, which really means, “How do we come to understand what it means to apply the Scriptural truth that we believe to every facet of our life?” That’s really what ethics is: it’s the study of how to think theologically and biblically about everything that we do.
And so, do join us on May 25th from 9:30 to 1 for “A very short course in Christian ethics”. You can come in person here to Newtown at Moore College, or you can livestream. You can gather some friends together and livestream as a group, or you can do that individually and participate in the event that way. For all the details and to get your tickets, go to ccl.moore.edu.au.
But let’s get on to our encore presentation of “The elusive joy of Christian community”, and we’ll pick it up in the introduction where I’ve just been talking about how rich and wonderful Christian community can be in a way that we often take for granted. But of course, that it’s not always like that.
Tony Payne (speaking at our February event): But if you’re anything like me, I’m sure there’s also a part of your soul that is dissatisfied with the level of—sense of community within the churches that you’re in now, or have been in the past. People often speak of church life just feeling a bit superficial. We turn up on Sunday or even at small group, we share kind of banalities with one another, we chat about this and that, but no one really knows me—really. No one really connects with me deeply. We have the same bland kind of prayer points that we bat around the group. Does anyone really know me? Does anyone care about me? Is this what Christian community is supposed to be? Turning up to church, singing a few songs, having a cup of tea, talking about the football and going home. It doesn’t feel right. It feels like something is missing. And many of you, I think, know what I’m talking about. I’ve heard that expressed to me by many Christians.
And when the failures happen in particular, or when the good things just don’t happen or don’t happen often enough—often enough, we do start to worry that something’s just wrong in our church life—that there is something missing. There’s a—there’s a genuineness problem of some kind.
And if you’ve ever felt that, you’re—you’re not the first. And in order to deal with it—in order to dig into what really is to diagnose what the problem really is, and then to talk about how we might treat that problem, as I said, we’re going to go in two movements. I’m going to talk now for a few minutes about what community—Christian community really is—let’s understand it really well—and then Chase is going to talk a little bit more about how the joys of that community can be experienced.
Now the way in to talking about community I’m going to use is I’m going to reflect and quote from one of the classics on this subject that has been written just in the last 100 years or so. Dietrich Bonheoffer’s Life Together is perhaps one of the most well-known books on the nature of community that has ever been written, and for good reason: it is a classic. You may wonder sometimes whether your church is a genuine community, and you have may doubts sometimes about the direction your church is going. That’s nothing to what Bonhoeffer was going through in the 1930s in Germany, where you had a certain section of the Christian community—the Christian church—that were basically acquiescing in the rise and the actions of Hitler, and another group of the church that were utterly appalled that that kind of compromise and support of the Nazi regime could be possible. And so, the question of what is genuine Christianity and what a genuine Christian community would be, was a live one—a very live one for Bonhoeffer.
And the Confessing Church, of which Bonhoeffer was part—the churches—the collaboration of churches that opposed Hitler—they got together and they came up with a declaration called the Barmen Declaration, which kind of expressed the essence of why they were opposed to this appalling compromise. And the essence was that they saw that the German Christians who were supporting Hitler had lost sight of the centre and the central nature of about Christianity was, and that it’s not about the historical manifestations that might happen in history and what God might be doing or not be doing through the German people—that was the issue for them. The centre and essence of Christianity was Jesus Christ. And the very first article of the Barmen Declaration says it very clearly: “Jesus Christ, as he is—as he is attested for us in Scripture, is the one word of God which we have to hear and which we have to trust and obey in life and in death.” And the fight within Germany about whether that would guide church life or the compromise with the political realities of the day, was genuine and real.
It was in this context that Bonhoeffer set up a seminary for young Moore College-type students of that time in the 1930s in a place called Finkenwalde in Germany. And they lived together in community, much like Moore College does here. They lived together as they studied the Scriptures. He saw this seminary as kind of like a laboratory for reinventing the German church—that the German church, which had been so fractured and so destroyed by what had happened with Hitler could perhaps be reborn if young seminary graduates like those he was training at Finkenwalde could bring genuine Christianity and genuine Christian community back to the German church. His little laboratory was shut down by the Gestapo, of course, in 1937. In 1938, he sat down and wrote this book, Life Together.
Now, in it, Bonhoeffer argued that Christian community is not a type of something else; it’s not as if there’s a category of thing called “community” out there in the world and we want to build a Christian version of that thing called “community”. He argued that Christian community was something quite distinctive and unique. In fact, he said, it’s something that’s impossible by any human standard or action. It’s impossible—except for the work of Jesus Christ.
And this is because of Bonhoeffer’s view of what sin was. Bonhoeffer, being a German and a Lutheran, was very steeped in Luther’s view of sin. And Luther famously described sin as “The human heart curving back in on itself”. Rather than our hearts being opened up to God and to other people, the essence of sin was our hearts curved inwardly back on ourselves. And so we became self-enclosed—self-obsessed—and everything was about us. And that that was the essence of sin. And if that’s the case, Bonhoeffer said, then we are incapable, really, of proper relationships with other people, because of our selfish, aggressive, self-obsessed ego—our own sense of ourselves. And so, when we encounter other people as inwardly curved sinful people, we encounter them either as objects for us to control or to meet our needs via other people; objects that we want to manipulate in some way to get what we want; or else we experience them as threats that might threaten the meeting of our needs and purposes that we’ve decided for ourselves.
And so, Bonhoeffer argued that genuine relationship and community with other people is impossible for sinful man. It’s as impossible for sinful human people to relate properly and rightly in community with others as it is for sinful people to relate properly and rightly to God, says Bonhoeffer. Because our self-centredness—our persistent inwardly curved nature—makes it impossible. It ruins everything. This is a hugely important point for what true community is and for what Bonhoeffer says false or fake community is. I’ll come back to that later.
Bonhoeffer argued that Jesus Christ is the key. As it says in the Barmen Declaration, “He’s the one word of God which we must trust and obey.” Jesus Christ breaks into our slavery and sets us free from our inwardness—our inward enclosed self. He pardons us. He forgives us for that move. He draws us out of ourselves. He opens out the inwardly closed self-focused person I was, and makes me an open person—someone who relates rightly to God again through him—someone who has realised that that inwardness is a massive massive mistake and a lie—and that only by opening myself out and realising who I am before God can I actually become the person and the human being that I was created to be. That’s what Jesus does. He puts us in a whole new place through his death and resurrection—in right relation to God through him and in right relation to understanding ourselves again.
Bonhoeffer says that Jesus not only brings me back to God, but opens us up to being a true human person again. Because Jesus shows us what it means to be a human person—someone who’s not inwardly curved and self-referenced, but someone who is with others and for others. They were the two expressions that he constantly used. Jesus Christ was a man who was always with others and for others, as opposed to being with and in himself and for himself. And in being that way, Jesus not—shows us and equips us by his Spirit to be true human beings. And so, Christ not only sets me free from sin and relates me rightly to God again, he actually relates me rightly to you again—as someone who is in relation to you and wants to love and serve you. That’s what a human being is supposed to be. And Jesus equips us—not only shows us, but equips us to be that person again. It’s very like what Paul says in Ephesians—that Christ breaks down the barriers not only between God and us, but between us and us.
He himself is our peace [he says in Ephesians 2] who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and my—reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility.
And so, in Christ we become one body, as it often says in the New Testament—all linked together—serving and interacting and relating to one another, existing for one another and with one another, only through Christ. And so, Bonhoeffer very boldly says that God—Jesus Christ is not only the mediator between us and God, he’s the mediator between you and me.
Without Christ we would not know God; we could neither call on God nor come to God. Moreover, without Christ we would not know other Christians around us; nor could we approach them. The way to them is blocked by one’s own ego. Christ opened up the way to God and to one another. Now Christians can live with each other in peace; they can love and serve one another; they can become one. But they can continue to do so only through Jesus Christ. Only in Jesus Christ are we one; only through him are we bound together.1
And this leads to Bonhoeffer’s definition of what real Christian community is. He says,
Christian community means community through Jesus Christ and in Jesus Christ. There is no Christian community that is more than this, and none that is less than this.
That’s a very big statement!
There is no Christian community that is more than this nor less than this. Whether it be a brief, single encounter or the daily community of many years
—or, for that matter, the Sunday by Sunday church of many years—
Christian community is solely this. We belong to one another only through and in Jesus Christ.2
So in this sense, friends, community—Christian community—is not something we can create or manufacture or even, in one sense, that—something that we can build. It’s something that God creates and builds through Jesus Christ, and by his Spirit. Christian community doesn’t consist of people having things in common with other people, such as all being young mums together, or men together or workers together. It doesn’t consist of a feeling of closeness with other people, such that I have an intimate knowledge of your life and you have an intimate knowledge of my life. That’s a lovely thing, and it relates to Christian community, but it is not Christian community. Christian community consists only and solely, says Bonhoeffer, and I think he’s absolutely right as far as the New Testament is concerned, by having Jesus Christ in common with one another. And having Jesus stand between us and draw the two of us together with him in the centre between us. That’s how Christian community happens: the gospel word comes to me, and by the Spirit, God converts and regenerates and stands me on my feet and makes me a new person. And he does the same for you. And so, he introduces us to each other around himself, and makes us partners together—makes us a fellowship, to use the New Testament word, or a communion, or a community around him.
Real Christian community is one where the gospel word of Jesus Christ—Jesus Christ present in our midst by what he says—by his gospel—by his word—that that word liberates—sets us free—and draws us together as one people—as a fellowship—in which the thing we have in common in Jesus.
And this strong statement that Bonhoeffer makes about what real Christian community is leads him, then, to contrast true and false community, and this is quite insightful. Bonhoeffer talks about, on the one hand, what he calls “fleshly” or “emotional” or perhaps “psychological” community—it’s a bit hard to translate his German neatly into English. But that sort of community is very common, but it is very human. It’s about the common needs we have for each other and with each other. The purposes that we have for which other people are necessary and which they help me meet. The longings, the needs, the wants, the desires we have as humans that we look to other people to satisfy. That kind of soulish, emotional, psychological community is quite different, he says, from Christian community. In fact, it’s very possible for a s0-called Christian community to be centred not around Jesus Christ, but around the mutual satisfaction that members of the community gain and draw from each other.
Bonhoeffer was very aware of this. He says, this:
Therefore, the other who comes face to face with me earnestly and devoutly seeking community is not the brother or sister with whom I am to relate in the community.
“It’s not the people who really want community that I want to be in community with,” says Bonhoeffer.
My brother or sister is instead that other person who has been redeemed by Christ, absolved from sin, and called to faith and eternal life. What persons are in themselves as Christians, in their inwardness and piety, cannot constitute the basis of our community, which is determined by what those persons are in terms of Christ.3
It’s not who we are as humans or the connect—the personal connection we have with other people as humans, that makes us a community. It’s who we are in Jesus Christ and him alone, says Bonhoeffer.
And when we think about our churches and some of the dysfunctions that come to churches (and we’re all sinful people and churches are sinful places, and we have these functions in our churches), it’s interesting how this kind of soulish, emotional, fleshly community, as Bonhoeffer calls it, is still a common problem in churches. Where people join and are part of churches because churches make me feel better about myself. They make me feel like I’m part of something that’s bigger than me. They give me something that I need. You see it at different ends of the spectrum with different personalities. You see the person who has a role in church, and they don’t want to relinquish that role. In fact, if you try and get that role or that action—away from them, it’s like trying to pry it from their cold, dead hands; they will not let go of this thing that they do in church. Why is that? It’s because what they receive and benefit from that role—the sense of belonging, the sense of significance—that’s what they’re gaining from that aspect of the community life. Or you see the needy person who is—who is—always seems to be in crisis—always needing validation—always after approval—always wanting to be noticed. At one level, the Christian community is wonderful because we care for people who really are needy. That’s who we are. But I’ve seen plenty of occasions in my experience of Christian churches where—where that has also been an expression of exactly what Bonhoeffer’s talking about—someone whose—whose emotional and psychological needs is the basis for their belonging to the community, not Jesus Christ.
And equally you see it in the detached person—the person who wants to not expose themselves to other people at all—who wants to remain somewhat aloof—who wants to receive the benefits of being part of the church community—perhaps in teaching or in—in the sense of significance or in being known—but who doesn’t want to give themselves to others—who remains apart. It’s the same issue.
By contrast, Bonhoeffer says, a true Christian community is one that is spiritual—a spiritual community. It’s one where we relate to one another through Jesus Christ—through—by the Holy Spirit—where we love the other person through Jesus Christ, and we learn from Jesus Christ what it means to love that other person. Here’s another fantastic little Bonhoeffer quote—I’ve only got one or two more. I could give you heaps, but here’s another great one:
Christ stands between me and others. I do not know in advance what love for others means on the basis of a general idea of love, growing out of my own emotional longing—all of which in the sight of Christ may instead be hatred and the worst kind of selfishness.
That’s very perceptive, I think. Very perceptive.
What love is, only Christ in his word can tell me. Contrary to all my own opinions and convictions, Jesus Christ will tell me what love for the brother truly looks like. Therefore, spiritual love is bound to the Word of Jesus Christ alone.4
Bonhoeffer says that therefore true spiritual community has the word of Jesus Christ at its centre. And this is revealed in our devotion to the word, when we gather together as a whole community, as we read it and preach it, as sing it, as we pray it, as we talk about it with one another. In our big communal gatherings, the word of Jesus Christ must be the animating core of what binds us together as a community.
But Bonhoeffer also says, in our constant ongoing relations with one another, there are four ways in which the word of Jesus Christ relates us to one another as brothers and sisters in community—four practical ways, as it were, that community is expressed as we relate to each other through Jesus Christ. And I’ll mention those four very briefly.
The first one is listening—“to listen to the other person with the ears of Christ”, as Bonhoeffer puts it.5 In other words, not to immediately impose myself on the other person—not to try to control the other person or set the other person’s agenda for them. But to listen deeply to what is really going on with that other person—to what they are saying—even to listen to what’s going on behind what they’re saying. It takes time and it takes listening, and Bonhoeffer recommends that real Christian community will listen to the other person humbly with the ears of Jesus Christ.
And secondly, in Christian community, we will relate to other people in what he calls “active helpfulness”: we’ll practically lay down our lives for other people in practical—even menial—ways, because we care for the other person and what they need, rather than ourselves and what we need.
Thirdly, he says, that Christian community will be expressed in a kind of service that is forbearance of one another. We relate to one another—if we relate to one another through Jesus Christ, then we relate to one another as sinners, forgiven by Christ and so we forebear with one another: we put up with one another’s weakness. We’re patient with each other.
So we listen to each other and we practically help one another, and we put up with each other because of who we are in Jesus Christ. And these three modes of Christian service and relationships, for Bonhoeffer, lead to the fourth, which he regards as the highest and real form of service that we have to one another—the one to which the other three forms are aligned and to which they lead. And that is to open our mouths and bring the word of Christ to one another in some sort of way—not, he says, like the formal word of the pulpit, which is ordered and authoritative and recognised, but “the free word”, as he calls it—the brother to brother word—where, in the moment of freedom in conversation in circumstance, we bring some testimony—some word of encouragement—some admonition—some encouragement—some prayer—to our brother or sister for their benefit in Christ. That we bring Jesus Christ to them at that moment in a word that we speak to them.
I think this is my last Bonhoeffer quote, but it’s almost my favourite. He says this, ’cause he links the way that the word comes to us from outside from God to the way we bring the word to one another from outside. He said,
Help must come from the outside—
He’s talking about the grace we need as Christians.
Help must come from the outside, and it has come and comes anew every day in the word of Jesus Christ, who brings us redemption, righteousness, innocence and blessedness. But this word God has placed in the mouth of men [of people!], so that it might be repeated among the people. When someone is struck by the word, he tells it to others. God has willed that we should seek and find his living Word in the testimony of brothers, in human mouths.
And of course, he means by “brothers” there, “brothers and sisters”; he’s not making any particular gendered point here. He’s just using the language of his time.
Therefore, the Christian needs Christians, who speak to him the Word of God; he needs them again and again, when he becomes uncertain and fails, because from himself he cannot find help, without cheating himself of the truth. He needs the brother as a bearer and proclaimer of the divine word of salvation. He needs the brother solely for the sake of Jesus Christ.
This is a great sentence!
The Christ in his own heart is weaker than the Christ in the Word of the brother; the one is uncertain, the other is certain.
That’s very insightful, isn’t it. When we’re weak, when we’re failing, when we’re doubting, when we’re struggling, the Christ in our own hearts needs the word—is weak and uncertain; we’re struggling. We need the word from outside—just as we did when we were saved. When we heard the gospel. We need the word that comes to us from God—from outside. We need it on the lips of our brother or sister to sustain us, to strengthen us, to remind us, to rebuke us, to encourage us, to exhort us, to testify to us, to just gee us along and say, “Yes, yes. Keep trusting. This is the word that we both trust.”
Therefore, the goal of all Christian community is clear: to encounter each other as bringers of the message of salvation.6
Bonhoeffer says that you find real community in its best and highest sense where Christians are constantly encountering each other as bringers of the word of Jesus Christ to each other, because the Christ in our hearts is weaker than the Christ that someone brings to me in the word. Where we are listening to each other with the ears of Christ and sacrificially serving each other practically with the service of Christ, and bearing with each other’s weaknesses because we know we’re all sinners before Christ, and speaking the word of Christ in some way as we have opportunity—not preaching a sermon, but bringing a word in the moment to someone else—then, says Bonhoeffer, we are seeing the flourishing of real and genuine Christian community. And this brings deep joy.
My time is basically up and I’m not going to dwell too much on the joy, ’cause that’s Chase’s job to tell us how much this is joy. But we’ve already come a long way towards answering that question in one sense, because we’ve defined what real community is. It’s not something we can manufacture through emotional closeness or through any other technique. In fact, our emotional longing for community can sometimes be a facet of our selfishness—of our self-desire, not our desire to love others through Jesus Christ. If real community is community only in and through Jesus Christ, and nothing more and nothing less than that, then the joy of Christian community is the joy of Jesus Christ. Joy just rings through the New Testament because of Jesus Christ. The joy of forgiveness, the joy of liberation, the joy of being free from being selfish and living that lie, and instead, being able to live with others and for others as we were meant to always do. The joy of security and victory over our enemies. The joy of knowing that present suffering is only small and light, compared to what is coming. The joy of not having to hide who I really am, but being able to confess openly who I really am, and know that I’m forgive and free. The joy of being able to serve others. That joy comes when we share it with others—when we hear it from them and speak it to them and rejoice in it together. And Bonhoeffer would say that the highest and best joy of all is being able to be Jesus Christ to somebody else in all these ways—and especially by bringing his word.
TP: Well, we’ll be back to “The elusive joy of Christian community” in just a moment, where, in part 2 of the presentation, Chase Kuhn looks at why we miss out on the joys of Christian community.
But first I want to tell you about some things that are coming up here at Moore College. Moore College brings you the Centre for Christian Living—both the events and the podcast—and if you want to find out more about Moore College and especially studying at Moore College and the various courses that Moore offers, there’s an Open Week coming up in early May—starting with an Open Night on the 13 May, where you can come along to the college, have a free meal, which is always great, check out the college facilities, get an insight into what the college does, what kind of theological training you can do here, you can tour our—our fantastic new building at 1 King St, and have all your questions answered about college life and about studying at Moore College by faculty and other students. So come along to the Open Night on May 13th—that’s a dinner from 6 to 6:30pm and then a—a tour and some sessions from 7 to 8:30pm.
And that’s the beginning of a whole week of events—Open Week here at Moore College, where you can come and find out more about what the college does, you can come to a sample lecture, you can meet students, you can drop in for a day or part of a day—that week, from May 13th to Friday 17th, is a wonderful opportunity to—to find out if Moore College is where you need to be studying sometime in a future. For all the details, go to moore.edu.au/open.
But back to “The elusive joy of Christian community” and to Chase Kuhn.
Chase Kuhn: Thank you all for coming out on a weeknight. I’m really grateful to have you here. And I’m glad to be able to share with you. My—my goal tonight is really to expose some of the problem areas I think for us, in terms of why we don’t find joy, and as we uncover some of those things, look at the—the solutions and where we actually will find true joy. So that’s my real aim.
My observation as a churchgoer has been that we are fairly insecure people. And I mean that in the sense that we are insecure in the gospel. Now, I know we believe certain truths, and I know that we confess certain things—maybe even with great vigour. And yet, I wonder if our practice actually betrays these insecurities and our doubts about the gospel. I want to try to work through a couple of blind spots—three common reasons why joy—joy eludes us in Christian community this evening, and I say they’re common because they’re what I’ve observed in the churches that I’ve been a part of and what I’ve heard from other people in their own church experience. But also, the problems that I think feature in the Bible. I think they feature especially in the epistles as different problems are addressed by especially the Apostle Paul, and I’m going to be drawing on a few of those texts this evening.
So they aren’t necessarily new, but we find them today in different and perhaps even attractive new clothes. New dress. What I want to do in exposing these is see that, as we lay hold of these problems, we recognise the false joy that they hold out to us. The reasons why we go for them is because they seem attractive initially. And I want us to find out how actually corrections to these help us to grab hold of true joy. And for each of these three problem areas, I want us to see within them an actual worldliness that I think is antithetical to the gospel.
So why does joy elude us? Three ways that we negate joy in Christian community.
The first reason why joy eludes us is that we are more comfortable concealing rather than confessing our sin. Now, I’ve set as a textbook myself Bonhoeffer’s Life Together, and Tony and I have talked a lot about Life Together over the weeks and months and things, working together. Life Together has been a book for me that has been one of the texts that’s brought the most areas for repentance in my own Christian life and growth, and even reading again and working through it again even for this lecture this evening, I was—I was exposed once more to some of my own blind spots and problem areas in my own life in Christian community.
I had coffee recently with one of my dear friends at church who is a lovely brother. He’s twice my age, and we went to a café and he said, “I just want to talk to you about some sin.” And I thought, “Wow! All right!” And he wanted to talk to me just real man-to-man—Christian man to Christian man—brother to brother about struggles in his own Christian life. He wanted to share those with me and be able to confess those things to me. The trouble that he said he had typically was that in his own Bible study group and in his own close networks, typically at church, people are really reluctant to be transparent. They do not want to move beyond superficial matters. In a Bible Study, they stay guarded even behind information they can provide about the text, rather than exposing their own heart and life, and have that text actually penetrates into their life and maybe exposes sin in their own hearts.
I suspect that your church community—I can’t speak for yours, but if it’s like mine, has largely embraced the broader societal expectation that we keep our business to ourselves. And in fact, we hide our business from others so that we can advance in life, because success in life, so we say, is keeping my life together. I conceal my sin from others rather than confess it in gospel freedom, because in doing so, I seem to save face.
In church, this is not a new problem. In fact, I think it’s the main issue that Jesus addressed when he critiqued the Pharisees. Back in the—in the New Testament, in the Gospels, they were self-righteous mob that Jesus addressed because they thought they had it all together. He said to them,
“Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you also outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matt 23:27–28)
Bonhoeffer made an interesting remark about the church, where everyone saves face: he—he—he wrote,
The pious fellowship permits no one to be a sinner. So, everybody must conceal his sin from himself and from the fellowship. We dare not be sinners. Many Christians are unthinkably horrified when a real sinner [he says] is suddenly discovered among the righteous. So we remain alone in our sin, living in lies and hypocrisy. [And he concludes by saying this:] The fact is that we are sinners!7
We are sinners! We act like we’re not—we act surprised when we find one. But secretly, deep down inside, we are sinners!
One of the great challenges in realising joy in our communities is this misunderstanding that to be a part of the community, you must be without sin. That’s false. That’s false. Because it’s not who we are.
One of the more seemingly gloomy elements of our corporate worship together—if your church is like mine—is that we have a public confession of sin. We—we—we say liturgy together that actually confesses sin with our mouths as a congregation. And people will say, you know, “Why is it that we keep going on about sin? Why not focus on more positive messages of self?” Well, the answer is that we want to be realists, not idealists. And with this, never ever has our community been made up of people who are self-made. The foundational element—indeed the principle of unity in our congregation—is that we are sinners saved by God’s grace shown to us in Jesus Christ. We are a desperate people, and even after we know Jesus, we don’t ever become less dependent upon him. Our lives as children cannot be compared to—sorry, our lives as Christians cannot be compared to little children.
I have a one-year-old—or a nearly one-year-old right now who is—who is fiercely dependent upon my wife, Amy, who’s sitting here in the front row. She can’t eat without her mum, she can’t get around really without her mum, she can’t survive—she probably really get herself hurt if she were without us. She is very very dependent. But we have an eight-year-old and a six-year-old as well. They’re not so dependent. They can eat on their own, they can bathe on their own, they can walk around, they can ride a bike. They can’t cook yet, though. They can’t clean that well. There’s a lot still need us for. But one day, I hope, they will be independent.
But never will you be independent as a Christian man or woman. You will never break free from Christ. In fact, as you mature, you will only recognise more and more and more and more how much you need him and how much you need his people. Christian maturity grows us in our dependence on Jesus.
Confession of sin to a brother or sister is a prime place to express our need for God and for others. I love the practice of corporate confession that I mentioned to you a moment ago, where we all say the liturgy together and hear words of absolution together. But I believe that private confession to one another—so to one brother or two brothers and one sister, two sisters—is one of the most important steps in realising gospel joy in the community. Bonhoeffer said this:
Since the confession of sin is made in the presence of a Christian brother, the last stronghold of self-justification is abandoned. The sinner surrenders; he gives up all his evil. He gives his heart to God, and he finds the forgiveness of all his sin in the fellowship of Jesus Christ and his brother.8
Bonhoeffer—Bonhoeffer believed that the act of confession is part of bringing our sin out of the darkness where it festers and it corrupts our whole being, and bringing our sin into the light where it’s exposed and powerless.
This, of course, is humiliating! It’s humiliating to admit these kinds of things in our lives. Which is why it makes it so terrifying to do. But it’s also part of the joy, because in our humiliation over facing up to our sin publicly, we actually are identifying with Jesus, who publicly was crucified for our sin. A man who went to the cross and took it upon himself publicly in that way, and in our confession, we identify with Christ in that way that’s very rich.
I suspect that our fear of confessing our sin to others is really our fear of not being accepted. We put up a front. We work to save face because we’re deeply afraid of being alone. So we seek to be okay as we are, or rather, as we pretend to be. But this only exacerbates our feelings of fear and insecurity, because who we are as is is a lie. What if they find out what I’m really like? They’re only accepting me because I’m pretending to be like that. And ’round and ’round and ’round we go.
The Christian community at its heart is one where everyone is desperately needy always. There can be no posturing in Christian community, nor can there be any sort of ranking. Christ is the one in whom we all stand. I’m not there because of my righteousness. You’re not there because of your righteousness. We all are there because of an alien righteousness—Jesus’ righteousness, which is given to us. And this is what Bonhoeffer was capturing in a lot of the quotes that Tony was talking about—about Jesus’ meditation of our relationships. So we must confess our sins rather than conceal them if we’re to capture joy in our Christian communities.
Second, joy eludes us because our communities are guilty of envying rather than encouraging others. In today’s society, the great Australian virtue of equality. Right? It’s something I love about Australian society. You—you are—you’re really really on about equality. It actually serves, I think, as a mask for the vice of envy. I’ll explain. Seeing others have what we want is unbearable. So we just cut the tall poppies down. As soon as you seem like you’re getting ahead of me, [cutting sound]! I’ll find a way to bring you down to my level. Equal.
I fear in our churches, we can’t stand others promoted, if you will, above us. For me, personally, my sin shows through in how I feel about how a well—a well-respected speaker or maybe even a colleague is critiqued for something they present publicly.
One of the most exposing moments in my own Christian life of my own envy was when I was working as a student minister in a church. I’d been put on a staff of a church where the pastor—the senior minister there—was five years older than me—the youngest mega church pastor in America. He was a really gifted preacher. But all the while, five years his junior, I just kept thinking, “Why him? Why not me? What does hehave that I don’t?” I’d listen to his sermons and I would be severe in my critiques—not publicly, just privately in my own heart.
It dawned on me one day that I had nothing—nothing that I could fault him for. He was one of the humblest men that I knew—one of the most godly men with outrageous integrity. And the Lord had given him a position beyond his years with supernatural ability that he had supplied—the Lord—and this man was faithfully committing his time, well aware that he was in over his head, prayerfully dependent on God. And here I was, all the while, burning with r—envy. It was a disaster! His gifts were recognised; mine weren’t.
In the mid-twentieth century, Dorothy Sayers shrewdly reflected this:
Envy … hates to see other men happy. … Envy is the great leveler. If it cannot level things up, it will level them down; and the words constantly in its mouth are “my rights” and “my wrongs”. At its best, envy is a climber and a snob; at its worst, it is a destroyer; rather than have anybody happier than itself, it will see us all miserable together.9
That’s devastating. I fear that in Australia, we have this problem of envy as much as anybody anywhere. And it’s built into the fabric of our society. And we say, “Oh, we just cut the tall poppies down. That’s Australian, mate!” And I say, “You know what? Maybe so, and it’s deeply un-Christian.” It really is. And I can do it with the best of them. And I’m not from Oz.
Here are two things at the heart of my concern about this. First of all, it leads to destruction, rather than edification. The culture is oriented towards deconstructing rather than constructing, and in church, that’s toxic. You keep taking things apart—taking things apart—taking things apart—where the most prominent biblical pictures that we have for community are building up.
Second, it leads to joylessness, rather than thankfulness and rejoicing. It leads to joylessness, rather than thankfulness and rejoicing. When we always look for what’s wrong, it’s hard for us to appreciate what’s right. And if our orientation is towards discovering all that’s bad, will we actually appreciate what it’s—what is good? Can I tell you something? It’s not hard to find things that are bad. It’s not that hard. You could do it in my talk tonight. That could be very constructive for me, actually, if you do it well. But for you to walk away even maybe disagreeing with a lot that I say and find something good in it, that’s much harder. It’s much harder to do it with people that you really disagree with, and I hope you don’t disagree with me that much.
Remember Paul’s exhortation to the Romans?
Let love be genuine. Abhor what is evil; hold fast to what is good. Love one another with brotherly affection. Outdo one another in showing honour. (Rom 12:9-10)
Likewise, remember Paul’s challenge to the Thessalonians: “encourage one another and build one another up” (1 Thess 5:11). That’s crucial to community. Envy is a spoiler of joy, because it is severely self-interested. It uses others for personal gain, rather than serving them in love, and most importantly, it isn’t what we have learned from Jesus himself. And in view of Jesus’ example of self-sacrifice and love, Paul encourages us, “Do nothing from rivalry or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Phil 2:3). New life in Jesus means a certain kind of contentment about place: we are in Christ. That’s our identity. When we envy, we betray our sinful desire for something more—something more than Jesus.
Is what he’s give you enough? Absolutely! But do you believe it? Because when you don’t, you envy others for things that they have that you don’t. And Bonhoeffer, again,
Because God has already laid the foundation of our fellowship, because God has bound us together in one body with other Christians in Jesus Christ, long before we entered into common life with them, we enter into that common life not as demanders but as thankful recipients.10
So, we must encourage, not envy one another, if we are to capture joy in our Christian communities.
Thirdly, joy eludes us because we have set compatibility, rather than communion, as the focus of our gatherings. Compatibility, rather than communion, as the focus of our gatherings. Just so you know, my—my—my B on the outline is really just a very brief conclusion. This is really my last main point.
I suspect that this point, though, will be the most controversial of what I’m making this evening. And just let me be forthright about what I mean by this. The regular pattern for ministry in our churches—the regular pattern for ministry in our churches—is such that I think it structurally undermines the gospel. In most parishes, congregations are organised according to demographics. And I think what—I think of one church that I’ve been a part of amongst many churches very similar to this, where you begin in crèche and then you graduate into kids ministry, and then you move into the, you know, sort of younger youth ministry—into the older youth ministry, you move into the evening service, which is the, I quote, “A place for tertiary students, young workers and young marrieds without children, but all are welcome”. Then you have kids, and you move to church that’s just for families. And then your kids get a bit older so you move into kind of the adult contemporary service, which is blended. Then you go to the traditional service either when you really want to get up early, or you can’t avoid getting up early, and you need to get home for your mid-morning nap. And then you die. And we’ve got a service for you for every stage of life.
I don’t know if this sounds familiar to you. And of course, there are many other varieties of how this is done—how we can and how we do split the people of God. We’ve historically done this, I think, for some very seemingly good practical reasons—that is, that like attracts like. And we want people to come to Christ, we want them to be able to join in the community that they can relate to, so let’s bring together the most amount of people we can around that kind of demographic to make it a place they want to be a part of. That makes good sense!
But what’s wrong with this picture? You ever ask that? I think we’re afraid to ask it. I am certainly afraid to raise it right now, so I’m a little nervous. But I’m just going to do it anyways.
The subliminal message that’s received is that church is all about me! It’s a place where I can find people I like. I can find me! If you aren’t offended yet, get ready. This structuring of our communities I think absolutely undermines the gospel. Oh, we may preach the gospel faithfully, and I love the way we preach the gospel faithfully. We may give people wonderful programs for growth, etcetera, etcetera, etcetera. But our form—our form—our structure actually communicates something different about what we believe. We communicate that Jesus—that Christian community is just like the world. Christian community is about superficial affinity. We can’t get past the talking about the football at church because that’s what we brought people together around.
Christian community is a place where we can find what you like—be around people just like you in a place where you’ll be feeling comfortable. But all these messages aren’t the gospel. True Christian community breaks barriers. We heard that already from Ephesians. It brings together young and old, allowing older members to impart wisdom to the younger, allowing younger members to stoke enthusiasm in the more mature. It brings together single and married, providing a space for mutual service and love—for brothers and sisters to relate to each other in gospel fellowship. It brings together people of varying needs and gives them a place for care. It’s a body of believers that says, “No member is insignificant.”
But for too long now we’ve allowed our ministry structures to cut our legs out from underneath us. We’ve made compatibility the focus our gatherings, rather than the communion that we share in Christ, and in doing so, we’ve made church a place where, in all of our efforts to give people a place to belong, we’ve actually excluded them. There are times—there are seasons in life where people have to leave church now. There is a place where you won’t be welcomed. Or you’ll just simply feel you can’t belong.
Is that true community? The only real that I can see for us needing to split our gatherings is one of language. Why? Because at the core of our gatherings is the word of God. We gather to partake in gospel truth together, and if we can’t understand one another, then there may be good reason for us to separate into groups where we can understand be understood. And that high point of community that Tony raised—about being able to speak the word to one another as part of that richness of sharing in the gospel together—so Bonhoeffer wrote,
The more genuine and deeper our community becomes, the more will everything else between us recede, the more clearly and purely will Jesus Christ and his work become the one and only thing that is vital between us.11
So we must make communion, rather than compatibility, the focus of our gatherings to capture the joy in our Christian communities.
I move now just to a very very brief conclusion, so we can get to questions. Where is joy found? The key to joy—to finding true joy in Christian community, I guess you’ll guess it, is this, and I hope I’ve made it very clear: the key to finding joy in our Christian communities is the gospel. But that’s not easy, is it. As I’ve tried to demonstrate in all these things I’ve been exploring, there are many things that we do with good intention that actually hinder us from realising joy. Joy is elusive. But when we recognise Christ as the foundation and the focus of our communities, then we can capture joy. And this requires more than just rattling off a familiar doctrine, as important as it may be, but it actually means living according to that doctrine. And just as our individual spiritual transformation involves that painful spiritual work of putting to death the flesh, so will it involve the same kind of work in our communities. We don’t want those fleshly communities. But they exist because we turn in on ourselves.
I’ve aimed to show you tonight that self-righteousness, envy and self-centredness all creep into the community in dazzling dress. And my petition has been for us to be so captured by the gospel truth that—that we are willing to expose even these blind spots and see the gospel realised in our community life and structures. This will mean change. It will call for boldness and prayerfulness. It may even mean a significant sea—sea change in your own life and maybe your own church life. But I’m very confident that the Lord is happy to give us all that we need. And I’ll offer one final word from Bonhoeffer as an encouragement just as we conclude: as he thinks about us living the life together in the gospel, we’re tempted to keep measuring success in our communities by all sorts of KPIs or whatever else you have that are measurables in your own instance. I don’t know what they may be for you. One key to success will be just getting on with the work—keeping on with the work—and doing so with a real simple thankfulness. So here’s what he says:
Just as the Christian should not be constantly feeling his spiritual pulse, so, too, the Christian community has not been given to us by God for us to be constantly taking its temperature. The more thankfully we daily receive what is given to us, the more surely and steadily will fellowship increase and grow from day to day as God pleases.12
May we be thankful for all that the Lord has given to us as we enjoy our life together in Christ.
TP: Well, thanks for joining us today, and I look forward to seeing some of you on May 25th either in person or via livestream at our next public event on “A very short course in Christian ethics”. For all the details about that event and for all the other things we do here at CCL, go to ccl.moore.edu.au.
And don’t forget also about the Moore College Open Week starting on May 13th. You can find out more details there at moore.edu.au/open.
Thanks for listening today. I’m Tony Payne. ’Bye for now.
1 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together and Prayerbook of the Bible, Volume 5 of Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works edited by Geffrey B Kelly, translated by Daniel W Bloesch and James H Burtness, Fortress Press, Minneapolis, 1996, p. 33.
2 Ibid., p. 31.
3 Ibid., p. 34.
4 Ibid., p. 43.
5 Ibid., p. 98.
6 Ibid., p. 32.
7 Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together: The Classic Exploration of Christian Community, translated by John W Doberstein, Harper One, New York, 1956, p. 110.
8 Ibid., p. 112.
9 Dorothy Sayers, “The Other Six Deadly Sins” in Letters to a Diminished Church: Passionate Arguments for the relevance of Christian Doctrine, Thomas Nelson, Nashville, 2004, p. 93.
10 Bonhoeffer, Life Together, p. 28.
11 Ibid., p. 26.
12 Ibid., p. 30.