Becoming God's Spiritual Person
Our society is suffering powerfully from the lack of relationship. Ask and most counselors will acknowledge they deal with many people who do not know how to form and support relationships. Ask and most ministers will confirm that they encounter too many couples who wish to marry expecting things to automatically “work out” just because “we are in love.” Ask most parents if they are concerned about the direction their children are taking, but have difficulty communicating their anxiety to their children. Ask teenaged children if their parents spend quality time with them. Ask families if they enjoyably eat together. Ask employers how many people they hire before they find a responsible, dependable worker. Ask employees if they are abused in the workplace by a superior who has power over them.
A few years ago a friend in a civic club was also a professor in a well-known university. The time for students to register for new classes arrived. He came to a club meeting shaking his head in disbelief. His teaching schedule included a required subject, and only the 8 a.m. class was available. A potential student came to him asking, “What will happen in your class if I am not present?” A bit astounded, he replied, “The same thing that would happen if you were there.” The student promptly replied, “I am not a morning person. If I take your class, I will not attend. I cannot get up that early.”
Our society is learning “the hard way” that the critical social elements cannot and will not work without healthy relationship. A healthy relationship is essential for marriages to be successful, for serving as a parent to function well, for respect to exist, for responsibility to be accepted, and for all types of abuse to vanish. When healthy relationships fail to exist, individual perspectives degenerate into concerns about self and self’s desires. Healthy relationships generate a sense of service, of concern, and of the value of people—all focused on the well-being of others. Selfishness exploits people in the self-centered concerns of the exploiter. There is a universe of differences between these views: “I am the all-important consideration,” and, “I find fulfillment in serving others.”
Need Does Not Guarantee “Know-How”
Ironically, in a period of “stressed or absent relationships” people in our society seek meaningful (not pretended or shallow) relationships. However, people seeking meaningful relationships does not mean they know how to form successful relationships. In the mistaken conviction that failed relationships can become successful relationships by changing contexts, often people abandon old contexts. If the old context failed to produce successful relationships, the person believes he or she should seek new contexts. For example, if the context of marriage did not produce successful relationships, seek a new context—associate as though you are married with someone to whom you are not married. Ironically, a new context commonly disappoints the disillusioned because the new context also fails to produce a successful relationships. That happens commonly because a failed relationship is the result of far more than context.
One abandoned context is a religious congregation. A common belief is the conviction that a change in congregations results in successful religious relationships. That depends. On what? What the person (a) seeks and (b) runs “from.” Consider: congregations are simply a collection of people dedicated (often loosely) to a system of beliefs. In any group of people, some are committed, and some are not. Some have godly motives, and some have self-serving motives. (1) If the reason for unsuccessful relationships was primarily in the person or in the person’s behavior, he or she will not find successful relationships in another congregation. (2) If the person associates with those who have self-serving motives in another congregation, he or she will not find successful relationships in the new context. Again, building successful relationships involves much more than changing contexts.
Nowhere is the importance of relationship more evident than in congregations of Christians. Have you ever attended a congregation where no one “spoke” to you even though you presented yourself as “approachable” and “easy to speak to”? If you had that experience, would you go back to that congregation? If you did, why did you go back? If you did not go back, why did you not return? If you went back, the motives likely had little to do with the people who composed that assembly. If you did not return, it likely had everything to do with the coldness of the assembled people. The absence of successful relationships powerfully influences where you go and what you avoid.
First-Century Congregations of Christians
There has been and is the temptation to idealize the first Christians. The temptation is to see them as the ideal evangelistic force who were accepted and popular as they ran around seeking to evangelize the world. Actually, those people confronted severe difficulties produced by being ostracized by their families, their people, and an idolatrous world.
When the Christian movement began, the movement caught that world by surprise. Initially, the Jews who did not believe that Jesus was the Christ did not know how to oppose the Jerusalem Christians. Initially, the idolatrous temples and religions suffered severe losses to the Christian movement. Initially, the Roman government did not know who these people were.
Soon the element of surprise ended, and effective opposition solidified. The Jewish nation said, “Jewish people can have membership in that gentile church or the nation of Israel, but not both.” Though Jewish Christians began with the favorable response from the Jewish people (Acts 2:47), they endured stiff Jewish opposition (consider Hebrews 10:32-34). Though many idol worshippers were initially attracted to the Christian message (consider Acts 13:44-48), other idol worshippers declared the consequences of believing in Jesus Christ (consider Acts 19:23-41). The Roman government opposed Christianity by declaring it an illegal new religion.
Within approximately thirty years of the beginning of the Christian movement, Christians were scattered as a result of persecution (Acts 8:1-4), gentiles were included in the Christian movement (Acts 10), James the Apostle was killed (Acts 12:2), Peter’s work in Jerusalem was marginalized (Acts 15:6-21), and Paul was executed (2 Timothy 4:6-8). A movement that began with great expectations in Acts 2 became a movement that questioned its survival in Revelation. Jewish Christian champions like Paul, Barnabas, Silas, John Mark, Timothy, and Aquila and Pricilla were exceptions, not the rule.
This opposition period was a time of martyrs, of violence, of lost employment, of outcast lives, of dislocated people, and of people cut off from their support systems. It was a time when necessity demanded that Christians band together to provide support and encouragement to each other.
Christians collectively endured. People did not give themselves to Jesus Christ because it was convenient. They belonged to Jesus Christ because they wished to live God’s way on earth as they believed the promise of living with God after death.
Early Christian “Togetherness”
There are two obvious New Testament indications that Christian-Christian bonding and relationship were considered imperative. First is the stress on the importance of Christian- Christian fellowship. Consider scriptures like 1 John 1:7; 2:7-11; 3:10-12, 14-17; and 3 John 5, 6; 9, 10. Consider Paul’s directive to the spiritually strong. The spiritually strong were to care for the spiritually weak in 1 Corinthians 8 and Romans 14:1-15:13. Consider the author of Hebrews’ statement in Hebrews 12:12, 13.
Second are the numerous “one another” passages. Consider some of the texts and their basic emphases:
Romans 12:5—Christians are members of each other
Romans 12:10—brotherly love, honor
Romans 12:16—be of the same mind
Romans 13:8—the continuing debt of love
Romans 14:13—do not be an obstacle
Romans 14:19—seek peace and build believers up
Romans15:5—be of the same mind
Romans 16:16—the holy kiss greeting
1 Corinthians 11:33—wait for each other
1 Corinthians 12:25—care for each other
2 Corinthians 13:12—the holy kiss greeting
Galatians 5:13—serve each other through love
Galatians 5:15—do not be hostile
Galatians 5:26—no boasting, challenging, envying
Galatians 6:2—bear each other’s burdens
Ephesians 4:2—forbear in love
Ephesians 4:25—do not lie to each other
Ephesians 4:32—be kind, tenderhearted, forgiving
Colossians 3:9—no lying
1 Thessalonians 3:12—love
1 Thessalonians 4:9—love
1 Thessalonians 4:18—comfort
Hebrews 10:24—stimulate to love and good deeds
James 4:11—do not judge
James 5:9—do not complain against each other
James 5:16—confess your sins to each other
1 Peter 1:22—fervent love
1 Peter 4:9—hospitality
1 Peter 5:5—humility
1 Peter 5:14—the kiss of love
1 John 1:7—fellowship is an evidence of cleansing from sin
1 John 3:11—love
1 John 3:23—love
1 John 4:7—love
1 John 4:11—love
1 John 4:12—love
2 John 5—love
Examine the list carefully and note the obvious. (Surely, context is an important factor.) Note these things:
(a) Note the enormous emphases.
(b) Note the variety of authors and books.
(c) Note the use of relationship words and phrases.
(d) Note that the amount of emphasis indicates problems with the appropriate sense of togetherness.
(e) Note that most of the emphases stress positive, action directives rather than negative “do nots” which require little activeness.
From the beginning of the Christian movement, Christians treated other Christians with love and respect. That challenge is demanding and difficult! Why? Such treatment requires relationship. It is difficult but possible to extend relationship to people who are like me. It is demanding to develop relationship with people who differ in fundamental ways from me. If we relate to people who differ from us, relationship requires thought and intent—it does not come simply and easily.
If people want to be among people who are serious in their desire to develop relationship with others who are not like them, Christians should be those people. Christian relationship building begins by building relationships within and among congregations.