The Danger of Community
The belly-button is one of the child’s first discoveries. As it turns out, most do not move on from that discovery.
Real Christian fellowship faces a serious danger: itself. When sinners are brought together in Christ, the threat of sin is always at the door, ready to tear apart the community. This threat must continually be recognized, and quickly addressed. Any Christian community will naturally follow Jesus’ disciples rather than Jesus: ‘An argument arose among them as to which of them was the greatest’ (Luke 9.46).
The Sins of Community
Sin turns us inward, we become belly-button gazers, rather than outward facing — toward God and neighbor. There is a complex web of relations and positions in the community: some gifted, some not-so-gifted; some strong, some weak; some socially orientated, others not; some leaders, some followers. Sin turns these relationships, with all their differences, into occasions for self-love. Galatians 5.14-15 says, ‘For the whole law is fulfilled in one word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” 15 But if you bite and devour one another, watch out that you are not consumed by one another.’ Rather than love our neighbor, we bite and devour one another; we look for opportunities that we can gain an advantage over the other. This isn’t only true for those ‘above’ others in gifts and strength. The weak too become guilty of this, claiming and using their weaknesses as a means against those who are stronger. Each one of us, in our own different ways, seek to elevate ourselves over others. Again, this can take the form of self-pity and quiet yet false submission, or relinquishment of responsibility.
Sin in community often takes the form of self-justification. Dietrich Bonhoeffer says, ‘It is the struggle of the natural man for self-justification.’1 Comparison becomes the mode of operation in community.
9 He also told this parable to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt: 10 “Two men went up into the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. 11 The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. 12 I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get.’ 13 But the tax collector, standing far off, would not even lift up his eyes to heaven, but beat his breast, saying, ‘God, be merciful to me, a sinner!’ 14 I tell you, this man went down to his house justified, rather than the other. For everyone who exalts himself will be humbled, but the one who humbles himself will be exalted.” Luke 18.9-14
The Pharisee found justification in his comparison with others; we can always make ourselves look pious and good when we compare with others, because we can always find someone who is below us in some way. Comparison leads to contempt, for we become the standard by which we judge others, and so we make distinctions among ourselves, ‘and become judges with evil thoughts’ (James 2.4). Others become a means to accomplish my desires, things to be manipulated, used, coerced. Just as in Galatia, this can even take the form of seeking the good of others (Ga. 6:13).
Justification By Grace and Serving
As Bonhoeffer says, ‘Self-justification and judging others go together, as justification by grace and serving others go together.’2 The opposite of judging is not simply withholding our judgments, for silence can be a deadly judgment. The opposite of judging, according to Jesus, is serving. Mark’s placement of the disciples’ arguing who the greatest was is important. It comes in the middle of his teaching on discipleship, suffering, and the cross. ‘If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all’ (Mark 9.35). Paul explains the solution to biting and devouring one another as walking by the Spirit; that is, to walk by faith in Christ. Those who do that are ‘not under the law’, and will not ‘gratify the desires of the flesh.’ Relationships in the Christian community must be conducted in and by faith in Christ, the Christ of the cross. Being gripped by the cross expresses itself in loving service to our neighbor, rather than judgment.
We must be cautious and alert for this destructive ‘seed of discord’ that can come upon any Christian community. Service should always be the controlling principle. ‘One who is taught the word must share all good things with the one who teaches’ (Gal. 6.6). The different strengths, weaknesses, and gifts that God gives to his church all become opportunities to serve, not to gain some advantage over another. Through service, each one of us may find ways to minister to the body of the love and grace in Christ, no matter weak or strong, gifted or ungifted, simple or intelligent. The Gospel makes ministers out of belly-button gazers.
- Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, 91.