the weblog of Alan Knox

The Depths of Community

Posted by on Sep 19, 2008 in community, spirit/holy spirit, unity | 11 comments

Just over a year ago, I published a blog post called “The Depths of Community“. The point of this post is that relational friction (disagreements, personality issues, etc) should not diminish community. Instead, relational friction should strengthen community. Of course, this assumes that the community is build on Jesus Christ and complete trust in Him. However, few of our communities today – even church communities – are built on the person of Jesus Christ. So, when relational friction comes along, the community suffers. I believe that community is very important. But, as important as community is, I do not think community should be goal. Instead, community is a by-product of loving God and loving others. I hope you enjoy this post.

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The Depths of Community

Today, it is fashionable to talk about community. Everyone wants community. Followers of Jesus Christ want community. People who do not follow Jesus Christ want community. In discussing the desire of “the younger generation” for community, Dallas Willard said:

That’s an expression of their loneliness. But most of them don’t know what community means because community means assuming responsibility for other people and that means paying attention and not following your own will but submitting your will and giving up the world of intimacy and power you have in the little consumer world that you have created. They are lonely and they hurt. They don’t know why that they think community might solve that, but when they look community in the face and realize that it means raw, skin to skin contact with other people for whom you have become responsible…that’s when they back away. (HT: Provocative Church)

If Willard is correct, and I tend to think he is correct at this point, then I must qualify my earlier statements. Everyone wants community, as long as the community is comfortable for them and of immediate benefit for them. People are willing to pay the price for a certain kind of community, as long as there is a tangible return on their investment. However, once the cost becomes too high, or the return becomes too small, then we naturally return to self-sufficiency and self-reliance and leave the community to fend for itself.

What is the cause of “backing away”, as Willard calls it? What causes the cost of community to become too prohibitive or the return from the community to become too small? There can be only one answer: sin. And, not the sin in the community, although sin will always be present within the community – we should never be surprised about that. No, it is the sin of the individual that causes him or her to “back away”.

Whether this sin manifests itself in self-centeredness, selfishness, anger, impatience, etc., the root of the sin is almost always pride. It is pride that causes the individual to consider himself and his desires and his opinions above and more important than the others within the community.

There is a depth to community that can only be plumbed through the empowerment and submission to the person of the Holy Spirit. The scriptural exhortations to consider others as better than yourselves, to confess your sins to one another, to accept and welcome one another, to bear with and forgive one another, to care for and give to one another, and – as Jesus put it – to deny yourself, take up your cross, and follow Him can only be understood and realized via the work of the Holy Spirit in and through the life of a child of God.

There is a misconception that community is built around uniformity: people who believe alike, act alike, respond alike, desire alike, etc. However, uniformity will not create the type of community in which God calls us to live. This is evident in the constant exhortation for believers to bear with one another, forgive one another, have patience with one another, and consider others as more important than themselves. Thus, the authors of Scripture recognize that there would be relational frictions between believers. This relational frictions Willard describes above by the phrase “raw, skin to skin contact”. The way that someone responds to relational frictions demonstrates whether or not they are living in a Spirit-enabled, Spirit-empowered community, or if they desire to live in a uniform community.

People normally and naturally respond to relational friction with anger, impatience, divisiveness, selfishness, defensiveness, pride, etc. These responses are manifestations of sin. This type of response may reduce relational friction, but it will not maintain community.

However, through the indwelling and enabling of the Holy Spirit, it is (super)-naturally possible to respond to relational friction with understanding, acceptance, patience, humility, forbearance, perseverance, and even joy. This type of response will not immediately reduce the relational friction, but it will maintain community. In fact, true community is only possible in the presence of relational friction and a Spirit-controlled response to that relational friction.

Let me say that again: true community is only possible when those within the community – or at least a majority of those within the community – respond to relational friction through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit. Also, if there is no relational friction, then there is no community. There are either surface acquaintances, with the real friction hidden beneath, or a cult-like uniformity where those who disagree are excluded from the “community”. Neither of these is a community.

If we want to determine whether or not we are living in a Spirit-led, Spirit-enabled community with other believers, we can begin by examining how we respond to relational friction, that is to “raw, skin to skin contact”. If we respond by demanding our rights, privileges, wants, expectations, etc. then we are not living in community, but we are allowing sin to hinder our relationship with other believers, which demonstrates that sin is also hindering or relationship with God. If, on the other hand, we respond to relational friction in Spirit-created humility, joyfully allowing others to usurp our rights, privileges, wants, expectations, etc. then we are demonstrating that we are maintaining the community of the Spirit.

One thing before I finish this post: It is not the goal of the believer or a group of believers to create or maintain community. Instead, it is the goal of believers to demonstrate their love for God by loving others. As believers demonstrate their love for God by loving other believers in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, then Spirit-created community will ensue. Also, as believers demonstrate their love for God by loving non-believers in the presence and power of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit-enabled mission will ensue. Either way, the goal is to love God by loving others.


11 Comments

Comments are closed. If you would like to discuss this post, send an email to alan [at] alanknox [dot] net.

  1. 9-19-2008

    Alan,

    You said:

    “Whether this sin manifests itself in self-centeredness, selfishness, anger, impatience, etc., the root of the sin is almost always pride. It is pride that causes the individual to consider himself and his desires and his opinions above and more important than the others within the community.”

    I think you drove the nail through the other side of the board here. In my own life I have seen much of this. It is funny that God brings those whom you would not neccessarily befriend outside of the Body of Christ right into your life. Their quirkiness can become a detourant early (or other personality traits that are not sinful but things you wouldn’t paticularly care for either)and it much easier to walk away.

    I hate to say this but I think I see it more between does of different pigmentation or cultures. It is much easier to hang out with, have dinner with, pray with, and build relationships with those who look like you with similar backgrounds and simliar taste, I wonder what the 12 must have looked like. It scarey that we are so easily detoured from cultivating these relationships.

    You are correct, we don’t love people for the sake of loving them, but we love them as a direct result of loving God, Paul says it best “put on love” it is what unifies.

    Finally to rest this all on the Spirit is critical. Apart from Him I believe we can be disingenuous and when the road gets rough we will bail. Thanks again for this one because I believe the focus is to love God not to have community for the sake of community, Gangs, Country Clubs, PTA’s MADD and others are a unified front and have community, but a community that glorifies the Lord Jesus as a result of love is what we aim for.

  2. 9-19-2008

    Alan,
    Thanks for this timely post. This is very helpful for me as I continually seek to guide not only myself but also those with whom I gather on Sunday through some issues that we are dealing with presently. We are dealing with some friction pertaining to the ‘skin to skin contact’ that you speak of.
    Thanks,
    Chris

  3. 9-19-2008

    Lionel,

    Great comment, brother! Thanks for your thoughtful response.

    Chris,

    That type of “skin to skin contact” friction is not pleasant. But, if we can learn to love and accept one another in spite of the friction, then I think we’ll learn more about the love of God.

    -Alan

  4. 9-21-2008

    Not sure what kind of community you’re speaking of here but it would seem that the line between the real and the ideal have been blurred a bit. In the real there are many reasons why people back away. One very legitimate one is the loss of spiritual purpose and identity. In order to “fit” in many communities a “common” denominator is sought that causes us to lose sight of individual purpose and function and “blend in”. In other words, that God given unique part that is in you when suppressed by the community eventually creates the pressure of “fight or flight”.

    At the core of the problem are leaders who don’t or can’t lead in “equipping the saints into their specific work of service”. (Eph. 4:12 my translation) The result is that only one gifting is ever really modeled for the body and that’s the pulpit ministry, and when the body comes to believe that the pulpit ministry is the only “real ministry” they attempt to stifle their own personal giftings and reshape their lives after an unnatural and unspiritual mold. It’s kind of like that “conformed v. transformed thing”. I suppose my conclusion would be that the real is stifled for lack of the ideal.

    “If we want to determine whether or not we are living in a Spirit-led, Spirit-enabled community with other believers, we can begin by examining how we respond to relational friction, that is to “raw, skin to skin contact”.
    I couldn’t disagree more unless your whole focus was the “begin by”. It would seem to me that what you appear to be describing here is a community that is attempting to respond to the Word of God (i.e. the scriptures) which is a good thing but can seldom be transforming enough unless they at the same time are also responding to the Spirit of God (i.e. the present speaking voice of the Holy Spirit).

    “Either way, the goal is to love God by loving others”.
    Not sure I could agree with your definitions of love here “Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friends”. John 15:13 Your call would appear to fall within this admonition but seems to neglect the equipping admonition of Eph. 4:12-16 Lacking help in finding their specific place and calling the community is left to the debilitating forces of “hope deferred”.
    Blessings
    don

  5. 9-21-2008

    Don,

    Thanks for the comment. To be honest, I don’t understand your concerns in most of your comment.

    For example, you said, “Not sure what kind of community you’re speaking of here… In order to ‘fit’ in many communities a ‘common’ denominator is sought that causes us to lose sight of individual purpose and function and ‘blend in’. In other words, that God given unique part that is in you when suppressed by the community eventually creates the pressure of ‘fight or flight’.” Communities can be built around many “common denominators”. For the church, the “common denominator” must be Jesus Christ, and him alone.

    Then, you couldn’t disagree more (perhaps a little hyperbole) with my statement that the way we deal with relational friction demonstrates whether or not we are living in a Spirit-led, Spirit-enbaled community. You then suggested this only happens if the people are responding to the Spirit. That’s exactly what I meant by “Spirit-led, Spirit-enabled”.

    I agree that the greatest love is laying down ones life for someone else – just as Jesus Christ demonstrated (Rom 5:8). Again, I’m not sure why you disagreed with my statement.

    Perhaps, instead of finding flaws with my post (without actually making any statement that disagree with my post), you could explain how you think a community of believers should respond to “relational friction”.

    -Alan

  6. 9-22-2008

    Alan
    I apologize for such an abrupt intrusion into your blog. I actually found your site about a week or two ago while doing some research on leadership and decided that even at my advanced age I might like to take a stab at this. However, never having done anything like this before one of my adult children set it up so I could join the community. I was greatly impressed by many of your earlier blogs and responses and especially by the gracious nature of those responses (usually in the form of a question) to disagreement. Eventually I found my way to your home page to see what was up there, only to find that the gracious Alan seemed to have gotten his “prophet” on and I couldn’t help but smile. But late into the night I was awakened (hopefully by the Spirit) with your words still vibrating in my ears so fiercely that the rebound was causing them to fairly slap together I arose around 4 AM (not my best time) to take another look and perhaps respond.

    Before I make another statement I want to say just how much I admire the work that you are doing here and especially the incredible grace that you studiously apply to those on the site. There is no pun intended here, that’s an honest assessment. And as for aussie john I wish he were my neighbor so we could share a cup of coffee 3 or 17 times a day. Grace and others also stand out as impressive and valuable members of the body of Christ.

    Alan said, quoting me… “Not sure what kind of community you’re speaking of here…”
    I felt that the real world of the traditional “church” and the ideal world of the mature body were being blurred and wasn’t sure which you intended. Some word collections seemed to point one direction while others seemed to point another so I was seeking a little direction and clarification there. To be sure the common denominator of the church is Jesus Christ, however since the reality God being the center is so highly subjective most will make their boast that He is in fact their all in all.

    Alan said… Then, you couldn’t disagree more (perhaps a little hyperbole) with my statement that the way we deal with relational friction demonstrates whether or not we are living in a Spirit-led, Spirit-enabled community. You then suggested this only happens if the people are responding to the Spirit. That’s exactly what I meant by “Spirit-led, Spirit-enabled”.
    Sorry, no hyperbole intended, I meant that straight up. My comment had to do with an earlier comment you made which was…
    “The way that someone responds to relational frictions demonstrates whether or not they are living in a Spirit-enabled, Spirit-empowered community, or if they desire to live in a uniform community”.
    I now see that I missed your later use of the term “Spirit-led”, however, I believe that we could believe we’re Spirit-enabled and Spirit-empowered while still missing being Spirit-led. My whole concern then and now is that the focus seemed equally applicable to conformation as it is to transformation and I was looking for a little help in urging that extra effort to push for the side of transformation.

    Alan said… “I agree that the greatest love is laying down ones life for someone else – just as Jesus Christ demonstrated (Rom 5:8). Again, I’m not sure why you disagreed with my statement”.
    My area of disagreement is why fall short of the mark in love. Many in the world, without the aid of the Holy Spirit, often seem better at traditional concepts of loving than we the Spirit-enabled Church. If in fact we are all a priesthood of believers then love will continue beyond a mere loving and peaceful society into one being built up into full stature as Eph. 4:12-16 illustrates. My personal history is while running the race I nevertheless have often and repeatedly failed to hit the mark for lack of understanding exactly what or where the mark was. It’s difficult to hit a target you don’t know exists and can’t see.

    Alan said… “Perhaps, instead of finding flaws with my post (without actually making any statement that disagree with my post), you could explain how you think a community of believers should respond to “relational friction”.

    Wow! Right out of the shoot we’re raw skin to raw skin! I didn’t want to expose more skin to skin here but thought I did disagree with you. None of my comments nor was my heart directed at finding flaws, I intended only to try and establish the mark as a little higher than traditional human generated efforts to be relational even though we might call it Spirit-led. I’m actually quite anal about definitions on the one hand and quite passionate about the body coming into maturity on the other, that’s why I referenced the Word and the Spirit together as our safe guards. As for offering any solutions beyond what I’ve stated, my oft repeated lament is that “anyone can find what’s wrong with something, what cuts the men and women from the boys and girls is the ability to find a solution”. Sorry to say that I’m just another one of the little boys today. I am deeply troubled over the condition of the Church that I love and the distance between it and what I perceive as the present call of God. The only answer I could offer you personally at this point is to not take personally what wasn’t intended personally, just water off a duck’s back and all that sort of thing. Hope your skin still loves me brother and that you don’t count my cost here as too high or the return as too small.
    Blessings
    Don

  7. 9-22-2008

    Don,

    I apologize. I asked another brother, and he agreed that my comment sounded harsh.

    I agree with both of you comments. I’m glad that you decided to stick around in spite of my lack of graciousness.

    -Alan

  8. 9-23-2008

    Alan
    Thanks. I think we both learned something.
    Blessings
    Don

  9. 9-23-2008

    Alan,
    This is an issue which ignites mixed passions in me, as I’ve personally observed grievous harm to the body.

    You state,”There is a misconception that community is built around uniformity: people who believe alike, act alike, respond alike, desire alike, etc.”

    How very true!

    Sadly, I am aware of churches where healthy, functioning community has been neutered by the “pastor” who demands uniformity, rejecting, and even shunning, those who dared to have a different opinion, or be different. The members of that group soon join the “pastor”, turning their back on the object of his displeasure, or face similar rejection and shunning.

    This is happening amongst orthodox evangelicals(?)from both major systematic theologies, who raise the very same questions raised in your most worthwhile writings.

    The neutering of any sense of community is “pastor” led!

  10. 9-23-2008

    LOVE that aussie john. As a one time farm boy, down on the farm we were pretty sure that “neutering” meant “incapable of reproducing life”.
    Blessings
    Don

  11. 9-23-2008

    Don,

    Yes, I know that I did. I usually learn from commentors, which is why I’m glad that so many people take part in the discussion here.

    Aussie John,

    I agree with Don. Excellent comment. There can only be one center for Christian community, and that must be Jesus Christ himself. Otherwise, it is really a Christian community?

    -Alan