If you were to ask me what marks a true community, I would say that at the heart of it is the members’ prior commitment to the group and its well-being. True communities are built on the realization that we need each other, that relationships are important. The core values that tie a community are love and acceptance, loyalty and mutual support.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who suffered under the Nazi regime, wrote the classic, Life Together (1954), to show how Christians can display the richness of communal life as a major attraction to the Christian faith. It echoes the words of Jesus who once said, “By this shall all men know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”
What does it mean to be an authentic biblical (Christian) community? There are many aspects of it and the apostle Paul spells that out in the many mutuality (“one-another”) commands as well as in Romans, chapters 12-16. The one specific aspect that I’d like to highlight in this reflection is that of acceptance.
It is interesting to note that the strategic person in the family, the one who gets most attention, is often the weakest person. When babies are born into a family, for example, life revolves around them. In I Corinthians 12, Paul says the church bestows more honor on its weakest members. And, at our typical prayer meetings, the focus is on the requests of those in need – who are sick, struggling or under severe stress.
Bonhoeffer, in the last chapter of his book, made this bold statement: “Every community must realize that not only do the weak need the strong, but also that the strong cannot exist without the weak. The elimination of the weak is the death of the fellowship (community).”
He elaborates by saying that the “strong and the weak, wise and foolish, gifted or ungifted, pious or impious, the diverse individuals in the community, are no longer incentives for talking and judging and condemning, and thus excuses for self-justification. They are rather cause for rejoicing in one another and serving one another.”
It seems to me that most of us have the tendency to compare ourselves with others, and in so doing think ourselves more highly than them, as well as engage in some form of criticizing and judging others. This is not unlike the disciples who reasoned (argued) among themselves as who should be the greatest (Luke 9:46), and in so doing also sowed the seeds of discord that is enough to destroy a community.
There are several ways where we can face and overcome this enemy. And the apostle Paul has no lack of exhortation regarding this tendency. In Romans 12:3 he exhorts us to exercise meekness by not thinking of ourselves “more highly than we ought.” In Philippians 2:3,4 he goes further: “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves” and to look “also to the interests of others.”
There is also the exhortation to “hold our tongues” in not condemning or judging others. Though it is not stated explicitly in Romans 14 and 15, it is implied that we should not be condemning others or sitting in judgment of them. Instead, we should “accept” each other without passing judgment (14:1) and “bear” with the failings of the weak (15:1). In Ephesians 4:29, however, he does state explicitly that we ought not to “let unwholesome talk (corrupt communication, KJV) come out of your mouths, but only that which is helpful for building others up.” And in Galatians 6:2 he takes one step further by exhorting us to “carry (bear, KJV) each other’s burdens.”
I would like to extend these a little further by exhorting us, more constructively and concretely, to offer the gifts of listening and hospitality. One key area to facilitate acceptance and build community is the ministry of listening. Here I quote the theologian, Paul Tillich, who once said that “the first duty of love is to listen,” and to cite a poster that I have which says, “All we need is an eye to behold, an ear to listen and a heart to feel.”
In hospitality, I am not thinking so much of the physical space we show when we invite someone into our home, but the psychological and spiritual space we create in embracing someone into our inner space and lives. It is to be present for another person, and in that presence, to give them safety and love where they can be free to be themselves (without masks or pretensions) and share themselves (without fear of criticism or ridicule). It is offering them the gift of love and acceptance.