Don’t go it alone!

Dear Friends,

It is no accident that so many of the commands given in the New Testament letters involve ‘one another’: welcome one another; care for one another; bear with one another; forgive one another; submit to one another; admonish one another; exhort one another, and so on. Don’t judge one another, deprive one another, lie to one another, speak evil of one another, envy one another…etc, but do comfort one another, encourage one another, edify one another, and – above all – love one another. 

The reason for all these injunctions is quite obvious: clearly, we need one another!

The apostles want the churches to understand that the duty for pastoral care (shepherding the flock of God) belongs to the whole flock. The Church is a family, and of course there is leadership within the family. Just as any family has its principal bread winner(s) Paul speaks in Eph 4 of the pastors (shepherds) and teachers whose particular calling is to bring the bread of life to the body of Christ. But in doing this their task is to equip all the saints ‘for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ.’ ‘Speaking the truth in love’ to one another ‘we are to grow up in every way’. It is ‘when each part is working properly’ that the body grows so that it ‘builds itself up in love’. 

This is very important to grasp, because it means that if the Church is to grow and be built up (in strength, maturity, grace and love as well as in numbers) then each part must be working properly; everyone must be ministering to one another. In fact, the truth is we cannot avoid ministering to one another; the question is, how are we ministering to one another? Negatively, and destructively (as in the ‘do nots’ above) or positively and constructively, in all these other commands (and many more)? Does our pastoral care of one another reflect the loving care of the Good Shepherd, who laid down his own life for the sheep, or that of the negligent and self-serving shepherds for which the bible reserves such harsh criticism, because they cared nothing for the sheep, and only for themselves?

We live in an age of extreme individualism, within a culture of consumerism, and this affects the way we think and live far more than we realise. The whole concept of community is increasingly foreign, and modern technology means that we can privatise so much of our life experience: we do what we want, when we want, on our tablets and phones; we shop the same way, listen to music privately via headphones, and even communicate with others in an increasingly private way. Texting, tweeting and ‘facebooking’ have made communication both instant and ubiquitous, and yet distant and impersonal at the same time (as well as adding peculiar verbs to the English language!). It therefore should not surprise us that by default many Christians today have an individualistic, consumerist attitude to their church life also; we can hardly help it. We come to sing, to listen, to experience…to consume. But to minister? The thought is really quite foreign; isn’t that what the staff are paid to do?

But the bible is a stark challenge to this way of thinking, to which we must listen and respond, because one thing which the New Testament makes abundantly clear is that you cannot go it alone as a mere consumer in the Christian life. Nor, for that matter, can you go it alone in Christian ministry. William Still puts it this way in The Work of the Pastor (still one of the best books any young minister or trainee could read):

 ‘... no-one is or can be saved, except through the ministry (using the word in its total sense) of the church…no-one ever does any good for God or for Christ’s sake anywhere, without other Christians…. The church is one in her work. None of us works on our own.’

In other words, the ministry, the pastoral care of the church, involves all of us. Why? Because we need one another! The Christian life is hard; ‘... it is through many tribulations that we must enter the Kingdom of God’ and we cannot travel that path without the mutual ministry we receive from, and give to, one another.

All the New Testament letters are full of this theme, but perhaps the latter chapters of Hebrews are particularly clear. ‘We have such a great salvation, and there is a such a great joy set before us, so keep running the race with endurance!’ That’s the message of the whole letter. ‘Don’t throw away your confidence…you need endurance!’ (Heb 10:35). ‘Don’t throw in the towel’, we might say. ‘Keep going!’ But, there are many reasons why we do often feel like throwing in the towel in the Christian life: there is the struggle of suffering (10:32) which comes to every true believer at some times in their lives (2Tim 3:12); there is the shame we bear (10:33; 13:13), the reproach of those who must live ‘outside the camp’ with Jesus in a hostile world; and there is the sin which so easily entangles us (12:1), and can drive us to near despair.

Nevertheless, says the writer, we can endure, despite suffering, shame and sin, because we have two great provisions of God to enable us to run the race marked out for us: we have a great High Priest in heaven, and we have one another here on earth.

‘Since we have a great high priest over the house of God’, we can ‘draw near to God with full assurance of faith’, despite all these things (says Heb10:19-22). So, ‘let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful’. But immediately it goes on: ‘and let us consider how to stir one another up to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together…but encouraging one another.’  In other words, we shall keep on drawing near to God in heaven, the source of our endurance, as we keep on drawing near to one another, encouraging and exhorting one another to faithfulness and endurance, here on earth.

Obviously the meeting together we must not neglect includes main gatherings of the church, such as Sunday services and corporate prayer meetings and so on. But it’s more than that. Heb 3:13 encourages believers to ‘... exhort one another every day…’ which surely implies the informality of ongoing Christian personal relationships rather than just larger meetings. Moreover, these relationships are assumed to be of depth and significance, because the reason given for mutual exhortation is clear: ‘…that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin’.

Sin is a great deceiver; through it we deceive one another and we deceive ourselves, and the truth is that the relative anonymity and distance possible in a larger church fellowship can be great cover for such deception. But it is much harder to pull the wool over the eyes of those with whom we share real, open and accountable (ie pastoral) friendships. That is why we need one another.

We must not either hide from, or avoid, honest pastoral relationships with one another. If we do, our adversary who prowls constantly seeking whom he may devour will deceive us, and we will easily be hardened, becoming a root of bitterness to defile and spoil not just ourselves, but others also (Heb 12:15). It is precisely to prevent such spiritual catastrophe that we are enjoined to eschew superficiality and sham, and exhibit true friendship within the family of Christ: ‘having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbour, for we are members one of another.’ (Eph. 4:25)

That doesn’t mean we wear our hearts on our sleeves with everyone, nor suffocate a few in over-intense relationships that drive them to distraction. But it does mean having a group of Christians who will notice if you are not around, and allowing them to care for you, and call you to account with honesty and candour, as you commit to do the same with them. That is simply what it means to be part of the body of Christ; we are ‘members of one another’.

Understandably, it is a challenge to our privacy and natural defensiveness to open ourselves up to others in this way. But, as we have been reminded in our recent studies, this is the very purpose of our new birth; we are redeemed for ‘a sincere brotherly love’ (1 Peter 1:22). William Still once again:

‘In certain company you dare not let people know what you are, but amongst Jesus-folk (within reason and in degree according to how Jesus-minded they are) you can and must. A true Christian fellowship is a place where stray cats and dogs can find a home. It is a hospital, where the only sin is to hide your wounds from the doctor and nurse.’ (The Work of the Pastor, p 46)

I am so thankful for those whose true friendship keeps me close to Jesus-folk, and thereby close to the Lord Jesus himself. I couldn’t go it alone. Nor can you; so let’s determine to be a truly Jesus-minded fellowship who know we need one another, and make it easy to minister to one another.

Yours, together in Christ,

William J U Philip