In the last article, we considered how union with Christ transforms how we think about and form our identity. This time, we’ll consider how union with Christ produces new community. In a 2014 article in The Atlantic, Julie Beck recounts the findings of a study published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior that examined the phenomenon of oversharing online, especially on Facebook. Her conclusion is that oversharing is an attempt to project to our friends and acquaintances something about us that we wish were better appreciated. However, the desired results—inclusion and acceptance—are rarely achieved:
Posters sought attention and a feeling of inclusion, but were seemingly less interested in expressing caring for others. They treated Facebook like a drive-thru window, seeking a quick and easy dollar-menu pick-me-up.
And it seems their friends could tell.
“Those who express the true self do not receive more wall posts from others in response to their greater expressiveness,” the study reads. “Their self-oriented motives may be apparent to their Facebook friends, causing them to not respond in kind.”
The study also acknowledges another, sadder possibility: “Alternatively, there could be a disconnect between the levels of self-disclosure with which these users and their friends are comfortable.” Oversharers might just be reaching out for a human connection, and we slap their hands away because we’re uncomfortable with their need.1
That last line, I suspect, speaks to something very common in the experience of most of us. Here it is again: “Oversharers might just be reaching out for a human connection, and we slap their hands away because we’re uncomfortable with their need.” It’s poignant, isn’t it? People want to belong. I want to belong. You want to belong. But we don’t do it very well. It’s not that easy to find community, to find our people, among whom we just seem to fit. We crave it, but we don’t know where to turn to find it. To be sure, social media offers one type of community, but it is necessarily superficial and illusory, and it is ultimately profoundly unsatisfying. John Stott once said:
The modern technocratic society, which destroys transcendence and significance, is destructive of community also. We are living in an era of social disintegration. People are finding it increasingly difficult to relate to one another. So we go on seeking the very thing which eludes us—love in a loveless world.2
Deep down, we know we were made for face-to-face, life-on-life, loving community.
That’s why at the heart of the Christian gospel is the promise not just of a new life or a new identity but of a new humanity. What Jesus brings is never solely a private, individualistic thing. It is also a corporate salvation, a salvation known and enjoyed in the fellowship of the church. When we get Jesus, we get a fellowship, a koinōnia, a communion and a community. When we get Jesus, we get all those who get Jesus too. That’s why the Westminster Confession of Faith makes the staggering claim, first articulated by Cyprian of Carthage in the third century, that “outside of the visible Church there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.”3 It’s why Calvin, in an equally famous statement speaking of the church as a mother, said:
There is no other way to enter into life unless this mother conceive us in her womb, give us birth, nourish us at her breast, and lastly unless she keep us under her care and guidance until, putting off mortal flesh, we become like the angels. Our weakness does not allow us to be dismissed from her school until we have been pupils all our lives. Furthermore away from her bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation.4
The church, the community of Christ, isn’t incidental to the gospel. We don’t get a personal salvation if by personal we mean individualistic and private. We are grafted into the church when we are grafted into Christ.
One fruitful way to see how the New Testament makes that point is to consider the major metaphors it uses for our union with Christ. None of them are individualistic. They all focus on a community of people who are united in Him. So, for example, in John 15, Jesus uses the image of the vine and the branches. He is the true vine, He says. We are the branches. We must abide in the vine and so bear fruit. If we abide in the vine, we will be pruned by the vinedresser, God the Father, who will train and discipline us by His Word and Spirit and in His sovereign providence. If we do not abide in the vine, we will be cut out, thrown away, and burned. It’s a sobering picture, but we miss essential truth if we miss the fact that this image was used with the disciples, who are “branches” together united to one common vine. The sap of the vine, the same life, the life of Christ, flows from the vine to each of the branches.
Another image of our union with Christ is the temple. Jesus said, in speaking about His death and resurrection, that He is the true tabernacle, which if it were destroyed would be rebuilt in three days (John 2:19). He is the true temple where God came down to meet with us. The Apostle Peter in 1 Peter 2 adapted the metaphor. Christ is the stone the builders rejected that God makes the capstone. We are living stones, and as we come to Him we are being built up into a spiritual house. The heart of the image is the doctrine of union with Christ. We are stones fitted into Him, finding our dimensions in reference to Him. But we are all being fitted to one another as well, as we are made to fit into Christ. So, the whole edifice, this temple that God is building, is the church—not the physical church building, but the lives joined together into Christ, a dwelling place for God by His Spirit.
Or, try another key metaphor for union with Christ. In 1 Corinthians 12, Paul uses the image of the body:
For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit. For the body does not consist of one member but of many. (vv. 12–14)
In union with Christ, by the Spirit, the church is one body with many members. When Paul develops the image, he describes two absurdities. The first is the absurdity of one body part ruling itself out, declaring, “I don’t belong, because I’m not a hand, or I’m not an eye” (vv. 14–19). The second absurdity is each body part denying a place to the others because the others are different (vv. 21–26). A body that is all ear or all foot would be absurd. There is diversity and pluriformity and complexity—a place for all sorts of people with all sorts of gifts and personalities and backgrounds in the body of Christ. Paul concludes his argument in verse 27: “ Now you are the body of Christ and individually members of it.” We are the body of Christ. We are one, and we belong together in Christ, only because we are in Christ.
We could go on piling up New Testament images and expressions that highlight our union with Christ and with one another, but the basic point is clear. If we come to know Jesus, the Bible cannot conceive of us as refusing to belong to His church, which, of course, is one important reason that refusing to join a local church is so wrong. We don’t get to say Jesus: “I love you—but the church? Not so much!” To be sure, the church is a messy place, full of screw-ups and failures. It will often let us down, it’s true. But isn’t it clear that Jesus loves that church? This Jesus whom we say we love and want to follow, haven’t we seen in the Scriptures how committed He is to His messy, sinful, compromised church? He loves His church and calls her His bride. He gave Himself up on the cross for her (Eph. 5:22–32). It’s really not possible to say we are committed followers of Jesus Christ and not to be committed members of the church for which He lived and bled and died and rose again.
To be united to Christ is to be united to the whole church, on earth and in heaven. It is to be called into fellowship with Jesus and in Him with all His people. We are to love and be patient with the church, all her faults and failures notwithstanding, knowing that we ourselves belong to her, and Christ, who loves His bride, is patient with us. Union with Christ creates true community, and this doctrine calls us to love the church.
Editor’s Note: This post is part of a series on union with Christ and was originally published on January 28, 2019. Previous post. Next post.
- Julie Beck, “Study: People Who Overshare on Facebook Just Want to Belong,” The Atlantic, June 16, 2014, accessed September 6, 2018, https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2014/06/study-people-who-overshare-on-facebook-just-want-to-belong/372834/. ↩︎
- John R.W. Stott, The Contemporary Christian, (Leicester, England: IVP, 1992), 232–33. ↩︎
- Westminster Confession of Faith 25.2. ↩︎
- John Calvin, The Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 4.1.4. ↩︎