Saturday, May 16, 2015

The Danger of Conceit in a Missional Community

In the book of Romans, Paul presents in extended fashion his understanding of the Gospel of Jesus Christ (Romans 1-11).  The book moves explicitly to exhortation in Romans 12.  Paul calls the Christians in Rome to present their bodies corporately as a living sacrifice (Romans 12:1-2).  Transformation begins with the individual but always involves the community as a whole.  God created us to live in authentic community with one another (Genesis 1:26-31).  When we experience the salvation that God has offered to us in Jesus Christ, God calls us to be part of the body formed by followers of Jesus Christ.  Corporately, we become a "living sacrifice" to God.  We are called to no longer be conformed to the patterns of the world, but rather be transformed.  The life transformation occurs in community.

It is striking therefore that the first specific direction about the community is a warning:

NIV Romans 12:3 For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the measure of faith God has given you. 4 Just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, 5 so in Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others.

1) Paul writes not as a person with positional authority.  He writes as a person who has experienced the grace of God.  Paul could have written: I am an Apostle and this is what I say, or I saw Jesus Christ personally on the road to Damascus or I have been a student of Scripture for all of my life.  But he doesn’t.  He writes as one who has received grace.  Isn’t this the position of us all?  None of us can stand on our own merits.  As we begin to think about community, this is the starting point.  The community of followers of Jesus Christ is a community who owes its existence to the grace and mercy of God.

Paul reminds us of this elsewhere in 1 Corinthians 1:26-31

1:26 Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. 28 He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things-- and the things that are not-- to nullify the things that are, 29 so that no one may boast before him. 30 It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us wisdom from God-- that is, our righteousness, holiness and redemption. 31 Therefore, as it is written: "Let him who boasts boast in the Lord."

2) Don’t be self-centered.  Paul’s admonition is so basic, but so profound.  Too many of us are infected with the disease of conceit.  Conceit robs us of our ability to function as healthy members of the body of Christ.  If we are puffed up, we will limit our ability to serve.  If we happen to be leaders, we will model conceit to our communities and create (unintentionally) centers of narcissism rather than the centers of outreach and evangelism.  We need constantly to remember the words of Jesus, “For the son of man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life a ransom for many.” 

3) Conceit is a community killer.  Our world is plagued by division: racial, economic, geographic, sex, age, and so on.  From early childhood, human beings form insular groups and cliques.  The new community created in Jesus Christ, however, is called to be radically different.  There is a profound unity in Jesus:

Gal 3:28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Nothing kills the community that God created us to embody more than conceit.  The Church that God dreams about is an oasis in which everyone is welcome to receive God’s grace and find his or her place in the only institution that exists for something greater than itself.

4) Conceit throttles mission.  If we don’t value others and privilege our own self-interests, we will never be able to reach out beyond ourselves.  All our talk about missional church, missional reading, and radical outreach will prove to be vacuous if our communities are filled with conceit.

How do we move forward as a community?

Value the diverse gifts of the community.  Although this is obvious, it is not so easy to practice.  It is not merely a matter of mouthing the acceptance of various gifts and talents which persons possess; we must actually invite and unleash each member to deploy his or her gifts fully.  We must therefore put away “cookie cutter” and/or “fill in the blank” ways of filling out ministry teams.  Instead, we need to ask ourselves constantly, “How does our community need to change in order to utilize fully each member’s gifts?”  Leaders need to focus on mobilizing and training.

Recognize that we need one another.  In healthy communities of faith, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts.    Too many communities of faith never experience this reality.  Too many pastors function as the paid servants of the whole.  Yet pastors need every single member more than any single member needs the pastor.  We need one another.  

Consider the words of Bonhoeffer:

Let him who is not in community beware of being alone.  Into the community you were called, the call was not meant for you alone; in the community of the called you bear your cross, you struggle, you pray.  You are not alone, even in death, and on the Last Day you will be only one member of the great congregation of Jesus Christ.  If you scorn the fellowship of the brethren, you reject the call of Jesus Christ and thus your solitude can only be hurtful to you. (Life Together, 77)

Recognize and show gratitude for the contributions of each member.  As leaders we need to model gratitude and show value to each person.  The cure for conceit is the creation of a culture of gratitude.  Saying “Thank you” acknowledges the presence, value, and contribution of another member and pushes the one who shows gratitude further and further away from a self-centered life governed by conceit.

Practice a gift-based ministry.  We must learn to encourage, equip, and empower each individual in our communities to unleash his or her gifts.  This is a more difficult leadership challenge than merely trying to fill-in the blanks on some pre-packaged leadership structure, but in the long run, it will yield much more fruit.  You will gain a maximum benefit from each member.  This is the heart of Paul’s exhortation in Romans 12:6-8 –

We have different gifts, according to the grace given us. If a man's gift is prophesying, let him use it in proportion to his faith. If it is serving, let him serve; if it is teaching, let him teach; if it is encouraging, let him encourage; if it is contributing to the needs of others, let him give generously; if it is leadership, let him govern diligently; if it is showing mercy, let him do it cheerfully.

What do you think?

© 2006 Brian D. Russell (Revised 10/2010 and 5/2015)

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