(Appeared first in August 2012, The Mennonite. Reprinted with permission.)
By Ervin Stutzman
By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.—John 13:35 (TNIV)
Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity.—Colossians 3:12-14 (TNIV)
Most people in the world long to be part of a group where they are loved, accepted and forgiven. I know I do. That’s why there is something attractive about genuine Christian community. We know instinctively that such a community is a sign of God’s presence and blessing. When followers of Jesus truly love each other, it confirms their status as disciples. Human effort also cannot bring it about.
I suspect that the church didn’t always reach the Apostle Paul’s highest aspirations for them. If they had, why would he have bothered to give them this instruction? Yet without lofty reminders of our calling, the church may never rise above the communal standards of the surrounding society.
As a Mennonite church, we take Christian community seriously. Several articles in Confession of Faith in a Mennonite Perspectiveset forth our aspirations for faithful Christian community. Most particularly, Articles 14 and 16 describe how members of the church may best relate to one another. In the same year that we adopted the confession, we also adopted a document called “Agreeing and Disagreeing in Love.” Both documents describe traits of mutual and loving accountability.
Our church has not given adequate attention to the ways these two documents enable our witness in the world. To the extent that they help us become a more loving and account-able community, they will surely enhance our witness to the presence of the living Christ among us. We bear witness to God’s grace as we practice scriptural discernment, cultivate Christ-centered unity and learn to agree and disagree in love. Such actions characterize the faithful church, as noted below:
Missional character trait: People within the community hold themselves accountable to one another in love.
Signpost: Substantial time is spent with one another, building trust and holding ourselves accountable to each other in love.
I observe that many of our congregations struggle to achieve this level of meaningful interaction. The lure of individualism, the busyness of our lives and the stresses of work prevent us from deep engagement with one another in the church. We too seldom take the time to practice mutual accountability, even in the basic form of storytelling.
Sharing the stories that have shaped our lives is one of the simplest yet most profound means of “giving an account” of our actions and motives. This is true not only of interactions between individuals but also between congregations who interact with each other.
My friend Don Jacobs once had the occasion to speak in a congregation that called itself the Calvary Independent Church. As part of his message, he commented that “Calvary” and “Independent” really don’t fit together in the same name. Since that time, the congregation has dropped “independent” to simply become Calvary Church. Don’s friendly admonition to the congregation demonstrates the value of caring counsel and mutuality.
Steven Covey has proposed that a normal and healthy growth pattern of human development shows a movement from dependence to independence to interdependence.
Members of healthy missional churches also demonstrate a high degree of mutuality and interdependence. I pray that God’s Spirit may bring about a more loving sense of interdependence throughout our church. In this way, we can become the kind of loving community that truly attracts people rather than pushing them away.