God loves you; you are special in His sight, for He made you, and He sent His Son to die so that you might receive the forgiveness of sin and a share in eternity with Him (John 3:16, Romans 5:6-11).
Such is a familiar message, not only to Christians, but also to many people in the world: this is the presentation of the Christian message which has gained the most traction in the Western world over the past few generations. Millions have heard it; millions have even accepted its message to some degree or another, “got saved” with a prayer, and carried on with their lives.
Presenting the Gospel as God’s love and care for a person as an individual is not wrong, but it is certainly incomplete; therefore, its results have not borne the kind of fruit God intended from the beginning. God absolutely loves each of us as individuals, and we are all valuable in His sight; yet God’s purpose has never been to save each of us as individuals in some kind of vacuum. God has delivered us from bondage to sin and death not only to be reconciled to Him but also to one another (John 17:20-23).
God expects the Christian to see him or herself as part of a greater whole: the church, the people of God. At no point in the New Testament is the salvation of the individual Christian envisioned as an end unto itself: Christians are saved to begin jointly participating in Christ with fellow Christians (1 John 1:7). Christians are invited to see themselves as the people of God, the recipients of the promise made to Abraham, having obtained standing before God through faith in Jesus (1 Corinthians 10:1-12, Ephesians 2:11-22). Eternity is pictured in terms of God having glorified the heavenly city, the Bride, new Jerusalem, that is, the church, the collective of the people of God (Revelation 21:1-22:6).
Christianity, therefore, cannot be reduced to a mere individual journey in spiritual development. Any message which would promise individual salvation without any reference to connections and associations with fellow believers is not the good news of Jesus of Nazareth; to suggest a person could be a Christian without the church is to deny the one coherent, connected body of Christ (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Ephesians 4:4-6). If people walk away from hearing a message believing that a quick prayer can solve all their problems so they can get on with life, they have entirely missed what God has sought to do in Jesus.
God’s eternal purpose in Jesus is to display His manifold wisdom to the powers and principalities in the church (Ephesians 3:10-11). Thus, in the church, people who would otherwise be separated and alienated from each other are made into one man through their faith in Jesus (Ephesians 2:11-18). The mystery of the Gospel involves the inclusion of Gentiles as full participants in the Kingdom of God (Ephesians 3:1-6). God has given gifts to His people so they might work to equip one another and build one another up in their faith (Ephesians 4:7-16).
And so in the New Testament emphasis is placed on the Christian’s responsibility to “one another,” or to his or her fellow Christians, their brothers and sisters in Christ. Christians will be known as disciples of Jesus by their love for one another (John 13:35); John’s wonderful description of love in 1 John 4:7-21 drives home the imperative to love one another. At some point in every New Testament letter the Apostles provide encouragement and exhortation regarding how Christians treat one another.
Christians thus unapologetically prefer and prioritize one another (Romans 12:10). Christians do so not because they have no care or concern for their fellow man, but because fellow Christians are recognized as fellow members of God’s house (Ephesians 2:18-22). Family bonds have privileged all others throughout time and place; such is thus true for the Christian and his or her spiritual family in Jesus (Galatians 6:10). If we do not take care of one another, why should anyone in the world expect us to take care of them? Instead, when unbelievers see Christians taking great care of each other on account of their shared identity in Jesus, they testify to their love for one another, and may find it a compelling reason to serve the Lord Jesus!
Christians prefer and prioritize one another because of their shared faith and confidence in Jesus (1 John 1:7). The church displays God’s manifold wisdom to the powers and principalities because within it all the worldly barriers of division are broken down in Jesus (Ephesians 2:11-18). Christians are therefore not to rebuild what God tore down in Jesus. Christians hail from all sorts of nations, ideologies, cultures, comforts, and preferences; Christians must not be deceived by the powers and principalities into thinking less of their fellow Christians or to divide into various sects on account of these differences (Galatians 5:19-21, Ephesians 4:1-23). Christians must discern truth from fiction, human philosophy from divine decree, and uphold both the truth and the value of fellow Christians, even though they may not share the same cultural heritage. The church should never be as divided as the world; “Christendom” has all too often reflected the world and not not Jesus with all of its divisions and fractures.
Christians strive to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3). Unity in Christ comes from the work God has accomplished in Jesus and through the Spirit: we have been made one body in Him, baptized into one Spirit, reconciled from all that alienated us from God and each other (Romans 5:6-11, 1 Corinthians 12:13). We must prove as willing to strive to maintain the unity God has designed for us as we are to defend the truth which He embodied in Jesus (cf. 2 Timothy 2:15). While unity without truth is a lie, truth without unity is contrary to the very nature of the God who is truth and one in relational unity (John 14:6, 17:20-23). God has joined us in Christ; what God has therefore joined man ought not separate.
Christians will be saved in and as the body of Christ (Romans 12:3-8, 1 Corinthians 12:12-28). Christians partake of the Lord’s Supper to embody the communion we share as fellow members of Jesus (1 Corinthians 10:16-17). None of us are sufficient in and of ourselves; we need each other, just as different body parts need one another for the healthy functioning of all (1 Corinthians 12:12-28). To be one we must be around each other; hence the need for frequent assembling (Hebrews 10:24-25). We must care for each other, strengthening each other, building up, caring, rejoicing together, weeping together, sharing in life together (1 Corinthians 12:12-28, Ephesians 4:11-16).
Do Christians live up to their calling? No. We all fall short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). Such is not a failing of God’s purposes in Jesus: we have been created to share in life together. Accepting alienation and isolation as the way to go is to capitulate to the forces of darkness in the heavenly realm. May we instead uphold God’s purposes in Jesus and seek to be one with one another as God is One in Himself, and share in the glory of the resurrection of life!
Ethan R. Longhenry