Most of the Bible’s commands that translate into English as “you” are plural in their original languages: they are written to people together, not to individuals alone. So as a good Texan I’m proud to say that most of the Bible’s commands are literally addressed to “y’all!” (Yeehaw.) Contrary to some Christian pop culture, the Bible is not “God’s love letter to you”; it is not an individualistic “guidebook before leaving earth.” Rather, the Bible is the story of a unified, pursuing God (the Trinity—Father, Son, and Spirit) and His unified, multiplying family (called Israel in the Old Testament and the Church in the New Testament and after). It’s full of commands and stories, of that three-in-one God shaping that many-as-one family into His image—and often using other family members to accomplish that goal.
Look at just two introductions of Paul’s letters: “To all those in Rome who are loved by God and called to be saints” and “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours” (Rom. 1:7; 1 Cor. 1:2). Reading the Bible as it was written disallows an individualized interpretation, or an individualistic faith or life! In fact, it is impossible to fulfill many of the Bible’s commands outside of deep relationship and shared life with other followers of Jesus. We are designed to be dependent on God and others. We need help reclaiming the depth of that dependence.
The Problem of Experiential Lenses
Alternatively, church leaders and everyday Christians often assume that the life described in the Bible equates to our current experiences of “church community.” (To some extent, we likely all do this.) We might read Acts 2:42 for example (which describes the early church as follows: “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and the prayers”) and interpret it as, “They devoted themselves to the preacher’s sermon and a Wednesday group, to sharing a monthly potluck and praying for each other.” Sound familiar? Many churches’ annual vision series are even shaped around asking for commitment to a version of those things: Sundays, small groups, sharing resources, and serving each other.
But in its early days, God’s church did not equate “fellowship” (koinónia, the word used in Acts 2:42, that we assume looks like our communities today) to showing up to a church service or event, whether large or small. Being “devoted . . . to the fellowship” has much stronger connotation. Used nineteen times in the New Testament, toward both God and others, koinónia denotes intimate, ongoing participation together and deep communion for mutual benefit. The word refers to “the share which [some]one has in anything”; in other words, it paints a picture of the co-ownership and deep responsibility that members of God’s first churches had for each other’s spiritual growth, health, and discipleship. The “fellowship” God calls His people to looks more like the “commitment-to-the-death” pact seen in J.R.R. Tolkein’s Fellowship of the Ring than a Wednesday night coffee conversation I can skip if I have a headache.
There Must Be Something More
Whether we read the Bible individualistically or experientially, today’s common view of Christian community is a façade of the true level of relationship God created us for. For many followers of Jesus, our view of community reflects the kinds of flippant, surface relationships we see in the rest of the world. Australian pastor and blogger Darryl Eyb ruminated on this with me: “In a world where community is fashioned around sports teams, school associations and hobbies, we are left with incidental, surface-level encounters.”
Study after study displays a growing age of isolation, where division and loneliness are increasingly rampant. We have redefined “friends” from “people who are in our lives consistently” to “anyone who ‘liked’ a picture I posted online.” In 2020, the COVID pandemic shined an overt light on people’s loneliness and a near-universal yearning for any real connection with other people. It is beyond time to go deeper than today’s façade of community and to fight for something deeper than our cultures’—and even our churches’—forms and methods of community. God has so much more for us: we are His spiritual family, both in relation to Him and to His daughters and sons (our brothers and sisters).
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