Though the believers in Philippi had been brought together only because of the gospel, Paul knew that the gospel must continually form community. The Christian faith is and has always been an interdependent grouping of people rescued by Christ. But because of our sinfulness, we tend to drift away from that, toward either dependence or independence.
Some are more likely to move in the direction of dependence. This occurs when we find our identity, security, or worth in someone else. Maybe the pastor, a friend we feel we must have, a certain teacher, or a person we don’t feel we can do without. Unhealthy dependence is actually a form of idolatry, finding ultimate fulfillment in someone other than God.
Equally destructive and on the other side of the spectrum is independence. Some foolishly attempt to live an isolated faith, recklessly believing that the Christian life can be lived in one’s own might and merit. Independence shuns community and refuses to lean on others for maturity, growth, sharing, and serving.
The gospel says differently. It pulls us back to interdependence.
Paul reminded believers to keep the gospel as the impetus for their community. He challenged them to “[stand] firm in one spirit, with one mind striving side by side for the faith of the gospel” (Phil. 1:27 esv). He encouraged them because of Christ to have “the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (2:2 esv). He pleaded with them to submit to one another as Christ submitted to death, to have the same humble attitude as His (2:5–8). Paul knew that contrary to Jesus-centered community is the thinking that some believers are at a different level of righteousness than other believers, that some believers are “better.”
In 1983 an educational commission appointed by President Ronald Reagan released a study that influenced common practice in schools. It chronicled how America was no longer the leader in education, and that one of the reasons was because its smarter students were being held back to accommodate the ones who couldn’t keep up. Thus began an emphasis on “gifted” classes—students who were set apart to learn at an accelerated rate apart from the rest of the school population.
If you were in school during that time, you may remember the sting when particular students got pulled out of your class and assigned to special accelerated classes. The thought behind it was this: “The dumb guys are holding down our best and brightest. So we should pull out the smart ones. Let those guys color, and teach these other guys calculus.” It was a bit painful and demotivating. Perhaps you thought, They’re gifted and talented, so obviously I’m not.
Unfortunately, some of this idea has seeped into the Church. Some act as if there are levels of Christianity, and when you hit the gifted level, you don’t mingle so much with people who aren’t there yet. After all, they’re slower than you are, they’re not as motivated as you, they don’t understand what you understand, and they’re not as serious about pursuing the things of the Lord as you are. But the concept of “levels in Christianity” is not a concept built on the gospel of Christ.
Levels are only possible if there are levels of righteousness. And those levels simply do not exist, because we all possess the same amount of righteousness—none. The only righteousness any of us have is the righteousness God freely gives to us in Christ.
Some may be more mature than others in their understanding of the righteousness that’s been freely given, or in how they live in response to it. But no one in the community of faith is more righteous than another. Nobody.
Therefore, any attempt to build community on something more than the grace of Christ becomes a subtle move away from grace, a move toward pseudo-community that only puffs up and fails to transform. If something other than the person and work of Jesus becomes the foundation for a group of believers, that “other thing,” whatever it is—economic level, social manners, music preferences, common life experiences—becomes what they use to differentiate themselves from others. And it immediately becomes a point of boasting, a way to feel justified.
In the Galatian church, the issue became “circumcision.” Those who were circumcised only fellowshipped with others in the same condition. In churches today, perhaps it’s “we’re the deeper group” or “the homeschool group” or “this zip code group.” While there’s nothing wrong with people wanting to go deeper, or meet in homeschool groups, or make friends in the same zip code, we must be careful. Because of our sinfulness, these commonalities can become the bond that holds us together instead of the gospel. And worse, these commonalities can become prideful distinctions that repel others from a community that should be open and inclusive.
The commonality of the gospel is something believers share that will never change. Whether we are single or married, with children or no children, hyper-religious or irreligious, young or old, all believers in Jesus-centered community have a common place to stand together. In fact, if your small groups, journey groups, life groups, Sunday school classes, Adult Bible Fellowships, or whatever you call them are not centered on the common need for and common experience of grace, then they are actually doing more harm than good to the gospel movement. If groups are not gospel-centered and gospel-fueled, they are merely a social outlet for people, and they lack the power for transformation.
So what does community centered on Jesus and His work look like . . . practically?
The apostle Paul spent the first eleven chapters of Romans unpacking the fullness and the glory of the gospel. Then in Romans 12, he moved to our responses in light of the gospel, with the back half of the chapter containing some very practical but profound instructions that guide our pursuit of gospel-centered community. After clearly establishing that Christ is the One who forms community and places believers in one body (12:5), Paul issued this challenge:
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 honor. Do not be slothful in zeal, be fervent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in tribulation, be constant in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Rom. 12:9–13 esv)
Matt Chandler, Josh Patterson, and I are posting questions each month for church leaders to discuss with their teams. The content and questions are based on our book Creature of the Word. You can get the book here and access the monthly audit here.