If you were to compare being a Christian to playing a sport, would you say it’s more like golf or basketball? There’ve been times when I wanted it to be more like golf—or maybe long-distance running. I wanted to be on my own with God—just Him and me alone.
During some chapters of my life I’ve been a pastor. The just-God and- me-alone plan obviously didn’t work during those years, though there were times when it sure would have been nice!
Then there was another period when, for several years, I worked as the editor of a small-town newspaper. During that time, the local church just seemed to me to be a spiritual desert. Increasingly, I spent my weekends hiking rather than going to church. During that time the God-and-me-alone plan worked reasonably well.
My own authority
But one day I tangled with the Gospel of John where, in a prayer on the eve of His crucifixion, Jesus said, “My prayer is not for them [His 12 disciples] alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (John 17:20, 21).
I realized that Jesus was not praying about a solitary experience. He prayed “that all of them may be one.”
I also spent some time with Paul’s letter to the Ephesians. When I got to chapter 5, I encountered Paul’s counsel about marriage, and this brought me up short: “ ‘For this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh.’ This is a profound mystery—but I am talking about Christ and the church” (Ephesians 5:31, 32).
Wait a minute! Paul is talking about what? Well, he actually is talking about husbands and wives in this part of the letter, but he makes the point that the church is like a marriage.
I’d been working my mind over these thoughts about marriage and the Christian experience when I came across a piece by New York Times columnist David Brooks. He quoted from a book titled I Am a Strange Loop by Indiana University professor Douglas Hofstadter. The professor and his wife, Carol, were happily married—with children, ages five and two—when she was diagnosed with a brain tumor. Not long after that, at the age of 42, Carol died. In his book, Hofstadter describes his thoughts as he was looking at a picture of Carol a few months after her funeral:
“I looked at her face and looked so deeply that I felt I was behind her eyes, and all at once I found myself saying, as tears flowed, ‘That’s me. That’s me!’ And those simple words brought back many thoughts that I had had before, about the fusion of our souls into one higher-level entity, about the fact that at the core of both our souls lay our identical hopes and dreams for our children, about the notion that those hopes were not separate or distinct hopes but were just one hope, one clear thing that defined us both, that welded us together into a unit, the kind of unit I had but dimly imagined before being married and having children. I realized that although Carol had died, that core piece of her had not died at all, but that it had lived on very determinedly in my brain.”
Hofstadter’s words describe, as powerfully as I’ve ever heard it described, this experience of two becoming one. And it’s something like this fusion to which both Jesus and Paul referred when writing about Christian believers.
Boring, Offensive, Irrelevant
Some sports are focused on individual accomplishment. Take golf, which I referred to a moment ago. You can play a game of golf all by yourself. On the other hand, while the skills of each player are important in basketball, baseball, and football, alone they aren’t enough. Each player depends on the team for success.
So, can a solitary Christian—one who doesn’t regularly associate with other believers—truly come to live the Christian life and know what it means to be “in Christ”?
There’s no question that church—that experience of being with other Christians—can be very disappointing. Too often, the weekly services are uninspiring; sometimes church people are offensive; sometimes it all just seems so irrelevant. But Paul is clear: church does matter. Listen to his words:
“In Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near through the blood of Christ. . . . Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives” (Ephesians 2:13, 19–22; italics added).
In Christ, all believers come together to form God’s household, of which Christ is the cornerstone. I simply could not avoid this: When Paul says “in Christ,” he means this shared experience. He means what we call “church.”
If the example of a building and its foundation is not clear enough, Paul makes the point again with this analogy:
“There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope. . . . It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up. . . . Speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (Ephesians 4:4, 11, 15, 16; italics added).
It’s unmistakable: to be “in Christ” is to be part of the body of which Christ is the head.
Fatiguing, Impoverishing, Wonderful
Seasoned adults used to tell my wife, Donna, and me, when we were in our 20s, that having our own children would make us less selfish. So time passed, and somewhere in the ninth month of her first pregnancy, Donna laboriously rolled over in bed one night and groaned, “Oh, I’ll be so glad when this is over and things can get back to normal.”
In one of the rare moments when I was more insightful than Donna, I replied, “Normal? I think we’ve forfeited that option. I think normal is gone for good.” And so it was.
As I write this, Joel, the subject of that bedtime conversation, is 35, Sara is 32, and there are a couple of grandkids. But as challenging, fatiguing, impoverishing, and baffling as parenting was, there was never a day when we wanted to go back to being “normal.” Being a family can be terribly difficult or absolutely wonderful. Often it’s both at the same time, which is why the family is such a fine metaphor for the church.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul didn’t use the word family frequently. However, the family idea is there throughout the letter. For example, adopted (1:5), inheritance (1:14, 18), household (2:19), heirs (3:6), father (3:14; 5:20), children (5:1, 8), brothers (6:23).
In only one place did Paul actually use the word: “For this reason I kneel before the Father, from whom his whole family in heaven and on earth derives its name. . . . I pray that you, being rooted and established in love, may have power, together with all the saints, to grasp how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge—that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God” (Ephesians 3:14–19; italics added).
Now there’s an experience to aspire to! “Filled with all the fullness of God.” And notice: it comes as part of life that is “together with all the saints.”
Paul recognized that life in this family would not always be easy. He wrote: “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:2, 3). The implication is that this is hard work, and there’s no question, it takes effort.
Easier in theory
Several years ago I’d been focusing on some of these ideas in my personal Bible study. It was at that time that a disagreement erupted within our congregation. Donna and I were definitely, by strong conviction, on one side of the issue. Convictions also ran deep on the other side. (Those people were wrong, of course!)
After a particularly rancorous meeting, we went home really steamed. Though I didn’t want to do it, I felt compelled to turn on my computer and consider the notes I’d been making from my Bible study. I knew what I would find.
“Donna, come here,” I called to her as she sat working on some project in another room. “Read this,” I said when she came to stand beside me. I pointed to the portions of Ephesians 3 and 4 quoted above. After two or three minutes of silence—I’m sure it was at least that long—Donna slowly said, “Well, it’s easier in theory than in practice, isn’t it?”
That church argument was never completely resolved, but God’s Word did arouse our consciences, and it prodded Donna and me to reconsider whether winning the argument should be our chief goal. We concluded—and I tell you, this was a difficult decision—that “unity of the Spirit” was more important than winning the argument.
Family life can be difficult, but as everyone who loves parents, brothers, sisters, or children knows, it’s of priceless value. Sometimes it’s only our family that gives us the will to endure.
So is church difficult? Sometimes, definitely. Is church worth it? I’ll ask that question another way. Is family difficult? Sometimes. So is family worth it? Absolutely!
And for all the difficulty you and I may experience in associating with people who can be hard to get along with, church is definitely worth it!