March 7, 2023 • Life for Leaders
Scripture — Philippians 4:2-3
I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer once observed that idealism about church can actually hurt real churches. When we value our ideal of Christian community more than Christian community itself, we can miss the gift God wants to give to us. The New Testament reveals many times how hard it can be to get along with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Yet, God intends for us to live the Christian life in a genuine, committed relationship with others. Often this takes work!
Today’s devotion is part of the Life for Leaders series: Can’t Do It Alone.
I was in college when I first read Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s little book Life Together. Many of my friends had been reading it so I figured I should too, especially since they raved about what a great book it was.
I did not share my friends’ love affair with Life Together, however. In fact, only a few pages into the book I read passages that bothered me, such as: “Every human idealized image that is brought into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be broken up so that genuine community can survive. Those who love their dream of a Christian community more than the Christian community itself become destroyers of that Christian community even though their personal intentions may be ever so honest, earnest, and sacrificial.”
I did not like reading that! Why? Because I was a very idealistic young Christian with a powerful dream of Christian community. I did not want to think of my idealism as a “hindrance to genuine community” or even a “destroyer of Christian community.” C’mon, Dietrich! Mellow out a bit!
Today, when I read Life Together, my thoughts and feelings are different. I now understand why Bonhoeffer was so nervous about idealism related to Christian community. There have been times in my life when my disappointment in the reality of church might well have caused me to give it up. I wanted church to be like my ideal – an ideal based on Scripture, I might add. How could I hang in there when what I experienced in church fell so far short of what I had hoped it would be?
As I said above, my ideal for the church was founded on the Bible. I wanted Christians really to do the things we’re told to do, like loving our neighbors and our enemies, forgiving as God has forgiven us, doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God. All of that is in the Bible, to be sure. But there are other portions of the Bible I had neglected. Many of the New Testament writings from which I drew my church ideal, for example, were written precisely because Christians were having such a hard time getting along with each other. I wasn’t wrong to see in Scripture an inspired vision of church. But I was wrong to neglect what Scripture reveals about how hard it can be to realize that vision.
Take the case of Euodia and Syntyche, for example. We know nothing about these two women with interesting names other than what Paul mentions in his letter to Philippi. Near the end of that letter he writes, “I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion, help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life” (Philippians 4:2-3). Why did Paul call out Euodia and Syntyche in this way? Because they were not getting along with each other. Even though they had been Paul’s valued co-workers in ministry, for some reason Euodia and Syntyche had a disagreement that became serious enough for Paul to mention it in his letter. Not only did he urge these two women “to be of the same mind,” but also he asked some unnamed person (“my loyal companion”) to help Euodia and Syntyche sort things out.
A careful reading of the New Testament teaches us that God has a marvelous and moving vision for the church. God wants the unity of the church to be a demonstration to the whole universe of the truth of the gospel (Ephesians 2-3). Now that’s some vision! Yet, at the same time, the New Testament also teaches us that being the church God envisions isn’t easily done. In fact, we have ample evidence that the reality of church will often be painful, confusing, and disappointing.
If we’re more in love with our ideal for the church than with the actual church, then we’ll be likely to back away from church or, if we remain, to be endlessly critical. If, on the contrary, we accept the church God has given us, warts and all, then we will remain connected, co-laboring with our faithful sisters and brothers as we seek to be in reality what God has envisioned for us.
So, Dietrich, you were right after all when you wrote, “Every human idealized image that is brought into the Christian community is a hindrance to genuine community and must be broken up so that genuine community can survive.” I am learning to surrender my idealized images of church so that I might love the church in which you have placed me. Thanks, Dietrich, for your wisdom.
When, if ever, have you experienced strong disappointment in your church? What was that like for you? What did you do about it?
Does it make sense to you that idealism about church could keep us from investing in real community with other Christians?
When your church falls short of God’s intentions, how do you respond? What do you do? To what extent are you part of the problem? To what extent are you part of the solution?
In the next week, do something intentionally to contribute to the unity of your church.
Gracious God, thank you for Your vision for the church is revealed in Scripture. Thank you for seeing our potential and calling us to fulfill it. Thank you for the Holy Spirit who helps us to do this.
Thank you also, Lord, for the realistic picture of Christian community revealed to us in the New Testament. Thank you for helping us to see that, in practice, it can be difficult to live as your church. The fact that the early Christians struggled as we do helps us to stay engaged.
God, may my idealistic vision of the church never harm my actual church. As I see what you intend for us in Scripture, may I pray and work to help my community be more and more what you have envisioned us to be. Let this be for your purposes and glory. Amen.
Banner image by hoch3media on Unsplash.
Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project’s online commentary. Reflection on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Resolving Conflict (Philippians 4:2–9).
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Dr. Mark D. Roberts is a Senior Strategist for Fuller’s Max De Pree Center for Leadership, where he focuses on the spiritual development and thriving of leaders. He is the principal writer of the daily devotional, Life for Leaders, and the founder of the De Pree Center’s Flourishing in the Third Third of Life Initiative. Previously, Mark was the Executive Director of the De Pree Center, the lead pastor of a church in Southern California, and the Senior Director of Laity Lodge in Texas. He has written eight books, dozens of articles, and over 2,500 devotions that help people discover the difference God makes in their daily life and leadership. With a Ph.D. in New Testament from Harvard, Mark teaches at Fuller Seminary, most recently in his D.Min. cohort on “Faith, Work, Economics, and Vocation.” Mark is married to Linda, a marriage and family counselor, spiritual director, and executive coach. Their two grown children are educators on the high school and college level.