59 ‘One Anothers’
A lot is written about how church leaders can work smarter to take a ministry forward. But less is said about how members can support one another in church life. Ray Evans says we should make this a focus – because the New Testament does.
One of the key pastoral skills is to assess the tension between an emphasis on the ‘organic’ and the ‘organised’ in church life. That is, how much do leaders stress the need for individuals to own personal responsibility for spiritual growth, and how much does the church need to better organise itself?
One way of formulating this is to ask, ‘How much do we need to stress Acts 2, and how much Acts 6?’.1
Quite a few posts have looked at better structures, processes, systems, and organisation. Others have looked at developing stronger leadership skills. This time we are going to examine more of the membership, or ‘bottom-up’, emphasis of the New Testament, rather than the leadership or ‘top-down’ viewpoint.
A helpful way in is to look at the ‘one anothers’ in the New Testament. There are 59 of these, and studying them, teaching them and modelling them will help any church. Leaders would be wise indeed if they show how the ‘one anothers’ can help a church to thrive.
So, what do you find when you survey them? Five things spring to mind.
1. Church community is not optional
The ‘one anothers’ challenge any lone ranger. All too often leaders come across individual believers playing fast and loose with church commitment. Accountable to no one but themselves they presume, for example, that taking the Lord's Supper at any church they may turn up to is their individual prerogative, rather than the family meal it is meant to be. Or they see submission to any form of leadership or other members as tantamount to legalism, abuse or slavery. The 59 ‘one anothers’ in the New Testament powerfully counter that.
2. Love one another
The frequency with which we see ‘love one another’ is striking. It comes in one form or another more than 20 times. Doesn’t that sound nice, sweet and comforting? Well, yes and no! You don't repeat a command that often unless there is a problem. Sheer repetition suggests that loving one another wasn't coming easily or naturally. Such love only comes as gospel grace frees us from our terrifying self-centredness and self-absorption.
But it can be rare. Recall Paul's comments about Timothy in Philippians 2:20, 21, “I have no one else like him, who will show a genuine concern for your welfare. For everyone looks out for their own interests, not those of Jesus Christ.” Telling or what?
Such love is ‘tough-love’ too. Peter says: “Above all, love each other deeply, because love covers over a multitude of sins.” (1 Pet 4:8). People won’t be easy to love, evil isn’t easy to deal with, but God’s grace is sufficient. Leaders must constantly exemplify the sacrificial giving of themselves for the good of others if members are to keep believing this.
Other ‘tough-love’ includes, “Forgive one another as God in Christ forgives you” (Eph 4:32). How rarely that is practised. Indeed very many Christians don't really know what confession and a promise to forgive/not bring it up again really means (see the confession/forgiveness pattern in 1 John 1:9 and Matt 18:21, 22).
Another would be, ‘bear with one another’. (Col 3:13). You don’t have to say that unless people were getting on one another’s nerves!
3. One to another
In all of these it is about ‘one to another’, not ‘leader to a disciple’. There is a place for that, but this ‘organic’ emphasis encourages individual Christians to help, challenge, teach, and love other members of the body of Christ.
I have found that when members do that to each other it is often far more effective than a notice from the front, a sermon on the subject, or even a pastoral leadership conversation. There is something very powerful when a fellow member says: “There’s a special prayer meeting tonight and I'm coming round to pick you up - come on let's be there.” Or the comment from a fellow member, “You missed a cracking meeting yesterday – listen back to the message I'm sure it will really help you”. That will land with far more force than a pastor saying it (let alone thinking how conceited that would appear).
Too often the ‘awkward conversations’ are left to leaders, whereas the Scriptures encourage us all to be involved in this. Hebrews 10:19-25 is instructive here. Three ‘Let us’ are mentioned – one to do with faith (v22), one with hope (v 23) and one with love (v24). Note how brilliantly the author expands on each of these in the following three chapters – faith in chapter 11, hope in chapter 12, and love in chapter 13.
“Spur one another on to love and good deeds” involves a lot of direct – even unpleasant – energetic behaviour. Think what a spur is, and does! The Greek is not directly referring to the object per se, yet the point is moot and well made. All that striking energy is harnessed to encourage love and good deeds. Do your members ever put this into practice, or do they leave it all to you?
4. Challenging one another
Many ‘one anothers’ come but once but that doesn't signify that they are marginal. “Accept one another just as Christ accepted you” (Rom 15:7); “Submit to one another” (Eph 5:21); “Pray for each other” (Jas 5:16); “Offer hospitality to one another without grumbling” (1 Pet 4:9) are but some of the gems.
Some come with a warning, “If you keep on biting and devouring each other you will be destroyed by each other” Gal 5:15; “Let us not become conceited, provoking and envying each other.” (Gal 5:26); and, “Stop passing judgment on one another,” Rom 14:13. These remind us of the challenge of dealing with sin in our own and each other's lives.
5. Encouraging one another
Four times we hear the ‘encourage one another’ exhortation (1 Thess 4:18; 5:11; Heb 3:13; 10:25). Find something you can cheer, thank, appreciate, and bless - and make sure you do.
I think Derek Prime was dead right when he pinpointed encouragement as the key attitude and activity that encapsulates what Christian leadership is all about.2 Traditionally British Christians have been weak at this, perhaps because of the fear that it might encourage pride or man-centredness. But the New Testament isn't so reticent, and it even tells us of a man named Joseph who excelled in this grace and by so doing earned a new nickname – Barnabas - the son of encouragement (Acts 4:36).
If this became more a habit and a presence in many contemporary churches, I am sure it would pay dividends, by God’s grace, to the morale of the Christian community.
So, in all our paying attention to the structural, organisational, and leadership aspects of church life, let's make sure we don't lose the wonderful, enriching, body-life emphasis that the 59 ‘one anothers’ make.
1. See Ray Evans on Acts 2 and Acts 6 in this previous article.
2. Derek Prime, A Christian’s Guide to Leadership (Evangelical Press, 2005) p85.