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15. You were formed for God`s family

BQ15

 OUR DAILY BREAD

L`OSSERVATORE ROMANO

 I am the vine, and you are the branches.

John 15:5 (CEV)

Christ makes us one body ... connected to each other.

Romans 12:5 (GWT)

God is the one who made all things and all things are for his glory. He wanted to have many children share his glory.

Hebrews 2:10a (NCV)

See how very much our heavenly Father loves us, for he allows us to be called his children, and we really are!

1 John 3:1 (NLT)

 You were formed for God's family.

God wants a family, and he created you to be a part of it. This is God's second purpose for your life, which he planned before you were born. The entire Bible is the story of God building a family who will love him, honor him, and reign with him forever. It says, "His unchanging plan has always been to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ. And this gave him great pleasure."

Because God is love, he treasures relationships. His very nature is relational, and he identifies himself in family terms: Father, Son, and Spirit. The Trinity is God's relationship to himself. It's the perfect pattern for relational harmony, and we should study its implications.

God has always existed in loving relationship to himself, so he has never been lonely. He didn't need a family-he desired one, so he devised a plan to create us, bring us into his family, and share with us all he has. This gives God great pleasure. The Bible says, "It was a happy day for him when he gave us our new lives, through the truth of his Word, and we became, as it were, the first children in his new family. "

When we place our faith in Christ, God becomes our Father, we become his children, other believers become our brothers and sisters, and the church becomes our spiritual family. The family of God includes all believers in the past, the present, and the future.

Every human being was created by God, but not everyone is a child of God. The only way to get into God's family is by being born again into it. You became part of the human family by your first birth, but you become a member of God's family by your second birth. God "has given us the privilege of being born again, so that we are now members of God's own family."

The invitation to be part of God's family is universal, but there is one condition: faith in Jesus. The Bible says, "You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus."

Your spiritual family is even more important than your physical family because it will last forever. Our families on earth are wonderful gifts from God, but they are temporary and fragile, often broken, by divorce, distance, growing old, and inevitably, death. On the other hand, our spiritual family-our relationship to other believers-will continue throughout eternity. It is a much stronger union, a more permanent bond, than blood relationships. Whenever Paul would stop to consider God's eternal purpose for us together, he would break out into praise: "When I think of the wisdom and scope of his plan I fall down on my knees and pray to the Father of all the great family of God-some of them already in heaven and some down here on earth."

BENEFITS OF BEING IN GOD'S FAMILY

The moment you were spiritually born into God's family, you were given some astounding birthday gifts: the family name, the family likeness, family privileges, family intimate access, and the family inheritance!? The Bible says, "Since you are his child, everything he has belongs to you."

The New Testament gives great emphasis to our rich "inheritance." It tells us, "My God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus." As children, of God we get to share in the family fortune. Here on earth we are given "the riches ... of his grace . . kindness ... patience ... glory ... wisdom ... power ... and mercy." But in eternity we will inherit even more.

Paul said, "I want you to realize what a rich and glorious inheritance he has given to his people." What exactly does that inheritance include? First, we will get to be with God forever.' Second, we will be completely changed to be like Christ. Third, we will be freed from all pain, death, and suffering. Fourth, we will be rewarded and reassigned positions of service." Fifth, we will get to share in Christ's glory. What an inheritance! You are far richer than you realize.

The Bible says, "God has reserved a priceless inheritance for his children. It is kept in heaven for you, pure and undefiled, beyond the reach of change and decay.' This means that your eternal inheritance is priceless, pure, permanent, and protected. No one can take it from you; it can't be destroyed by war, a poor economy, or a natural disaster. This eternal inheritance, not retirement, is what you should be looking forward to and working for. Paul says, "Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for men, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward." Retirement is a short-sighted goal. You should be living in light of eternity.

Your spiritual family is even more important than your physical family because it will last forever.

BAPTISM: IDENTIFYING WITH GOD'S FAMILY

Healthy families have family pride; members are not ashamed to be recognized as a part of the family. Sadly, I have met many believers who have never publicly identified themselves with their spiritual family as Jesus commanded-by being baptized.

Baptism is not an optional ritual, to be delayed or postponed. It signifies your inclusion in God's family. It publicly announces to the world, "I am not ashamed to be a part of God's family." Have you been baptized? Jesus commanded this beautiful act for all in his family. He told us to `Go and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit.'

For years I wondered why Jesus' Great Commission gives the same prominence to baptism as it does to the great tasks of evangelism and edification. Why is baptism so important? Then I realized it is because it symbolizes God's second purpose for your life: participating in the fellowship of God's eternal family.

Baptism is pregnant with meaning. Your baptism declares your faith, shares Christ's burial and resurrection, symbolizes your death to your old life, and announces your new life in Christ. It is also a celebration of your inclusion in God's family.

Your baptism is a physical picture of a spiritual truth. It represents what happened the moment God brought you into his family: "Some of us are Jews, some are Gentiles, some are slaves, and some are free. But we have all been baptized into Christ's body by one Spirit, and we have all received the same Spirit."

Baptism doesn't make you a member of God's family; only faith in Christ does that. Baptism shows you are part of God's family.

Like a wedding ring, it is a visible reminder of an inward commitment made in your heart. It is an act of initiation, not something you put off until you are spiritually mature. The only biblical condition is that you believe.

In the New Testament, people were baptized as soon as they believed. At Pentecost, 3,000 were baptized the same day they accepted Christ. Elsewhere, an Ethiopian leader was baptized on the spot when he was converted, and Paul and Silas baptized a Philippian jailer and his family at midnight. There are no delayed baptisms in the New Testament. If you haven't been baptized as an expression of your faith in Christ, do so as soon as possible, as Jesus commanded.

LIFE'S GREATEST PRIVILEGE

The Bible says, `Jesus and the people he makes holy all belong to the same family. That is why he isn't ashamed to call them his brothers and sisters." Let that amazing truth sink in. You are a part of God's family, and because Jesus makes you holy, God is proud of you! The words of Jesus are unmistakable: "[Jesus] pointed to his disciples and said, `These are my mother and brothers. Anyone who does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother!" Being included in God's family is the highest honor and the greatest privilege you will ever receive. Nothing else comes close. Whenever you feel unimportant, unloved, or insecure, remember to whom you belong.

Being included in God's family is the highest honor and the greatest privilege you will ever receive.

THINKING ABOUT MY PURPOSE

 Point to Ponder: I was formed for God's family.

Verse to Remember: "His unchanging plan has always been to adopt us into his own family by bringing us to himself through Jesus Christ." Ephesians 1:5 a (NLT)

Question to Consider: How can I start treating other believers like members of my own family?

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17. A Place To Belong

L`OSSERVATORE ROMANO

OUR DAILY BREAD

BQ17

You are members of God's very own family, citizens of God's country, and you belong in God's household with every other Christian.

Ephesians 2:19b (LB)

God's family is the church of the living God, the pillar and foundation of the truth.

1 Timothy 3:15b (GWT)

 You are called to belong, not just believe.

Even in the perfect, sinless environment of Eden, God said, "It is not good for man to be alone.' We are created for community, fashioned for fellowship, and formed for a family, and none of us can fulfill God's purposes by ourselves.

The Bible knows nothing of solitary saints or spiritual hermits isolated from other believers and deprived of fellowship. The Bible says we are put together, joined together, built together, members together; heirs together, fitted together, and held together and will be caught up together. You're not on your own anymore.

While your relationship to Christ is personal, God never intends it to be private. In God's family you are connected to every other believer, and we will belong to each other for eternity. The Bible says, "In Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others."

Following Christ includes belonging, not just believing. We are members of his Body-the church. C. S. Lewis noted that the word membership is of Christian origin, but the world has emptied it of its original meaning. Stores offer discounts to "members," and advertisers use member names to create mailing lists. In churches, membership is often reduced to simply adding your name to a roll, with no requirements or expectations.

To Paul, being a "member" of the church meant being a vital organ of a living body, an indispensable, interconnected part of the Body of Christ. We need to recover and practice the biblical meaning of membership. The church is a body, not a building; an organism, not an organization.

For the organs of your body to fulfill their purpose, they must be connected to your body. The same is true for you as a part of Christ's Body. You were created for a specific role, but you will miss this second purpose of your life if you're not attached to a living, local church. You discover your role in life through your relationships with others. The Bible tells us, `Each part gets its meaning from the body as a whole, not the other way around. The body we're talking about is Christ's body of chosen people. Each of us finds our meaning and function as a part of his body. But as a chopped-off finger or cut-off toe we wouldn't amount to much, would we?'

If an organ is somehow severed from its body, it will shrivel and die. It cannot exist on its own, and neither can you. Disconnected and cut off from the lifeblood of a local body, your spiritual life will wither and eventually cease to exist. This is why the first symptom of spiritual decline is usually inconsistent attendance at worship services and other gatherings of believers. Whenever we become careless about fellowship, everything else begins to slide, too.

We discover our role in life through our relationships with others.

Membership in the family of God is neither inconsequential nor something to be casually ignored. The church is God's agenda for the world. Jesus said, "I will build my church, and all the powers of hell will not conquer it."' The church is indestructible and will exist for eternity. It will outlive this universe, and so will your role in it. The person who says, "I don't need the church," is either arrogant or ignorant. The church is so significant that Jesus died on the cross for it. "Christ loved the church and gave his life for it."

The Bible calls the church "the bride of Christ" and "the body of Christ." I can't imagine saying to Jesus, "I love you, but I dislike your wife." Or "I accept you, but I reject your body." But we do this whenever we dismiss or demean or complain about the church. Instead, God commands us to love the church as much as Jesus does. The Bible says, "Love your spiritual family." Sadly, many Christians use the church but don't love it.

 YOUR LOCAL FELLOWSHIP

Except for a few important instances referring to all believers throughout history, almost every time the word church is used in the Bible it refers to a local, visible congregation. The New Testament assumes membership in a local congregation. The only Christians not members of a local fellowship were those under church discipline who had been removed from the fellowship because of gross public sin."

The Bible says a Christian without a church home is like an organ without a body, a sheep without a flock, or a child without a family. It is an unnatural state. The Bible says, "You belong in God's household with every other Christian.'

Today's culture of independent individualism has created many spiritual orphans "bunny believers" who hop around from one church to another without any identity, accountability, or commitment. Many believe one can be a "good Christian" without joining (or even attending) a local church, but God would strongly disagree. The Bible offers many compelling reasons for being committed and active in a local fellowship.

 WHY YOU NEED A CHURCH FAMILY

 A church family identifies you as a genuine believer. I can't claim to be following Christ if I'm not committed to any specific group of disciples. Jesus said, "Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.

When we come together in love as a church family from different backgrounds, race, and social status, it is a powerful witness to the world.You are not the Body of Christ on your own. You need others to express that. Together, not separated, we are his Body.''

A church family moves you out of self-centered isolation. The local church is the classroom for learning how to get along in God's family. It is a lab for practicing unselfish, sympathetic love. As a participating member you learn to care about others and share the experiences of others: "If one part of the body suffers, all the other parts suffer with it. Or if one part of our body is honored, all the other parts share its bon or:" Only in regular contact with ordinary, imperfect believers can we learn real fellowship and experience the New Testament truth of being connected and dependent on each other."

Biblical fellowship is being as committed to each other as we are to Jesus Christ. God expects us to give our lives for each other. Many Christians who know John 3:16 are unaware of 1 John 3:16: `Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers.' This is the kind of sacrificial love God expects you to show other believers-a willingness to love them in the same way Jesus loves you.

The church will outlive this universe, and so will your role in it.

A church family helps you develop spiritual muscle. You will never grow to maturity just by attending worship services and being a passive spectator. Only participation in the full life of a local church builds spiritual muscle. The Bible says, "As each part does its own special work, it helps the other parts grow, so that the whole body is healthy and growing and full of love."

Over fifty times in the New Testament the phrase "one another" or "each other" is used. We are commanded to love each other, pray for each other, encourage each other, admonish each other, greet each other, serve each other, teach each other, accept each other, honor each other, bear each other's burdens, forgive each other, submit to each other, be devoted to each other, and many other mutual tasks. This is biblical membership! These are your "family responsibilities" that God expects you to fulfill through a local fellowship. Who are you doing these with?

It may seem easier to be holy when no one else is around to frustrate your preferences, but that is a false, untested holiness. Isolation breeds deceitfulness; it is easy to fool ourselves into thinking we are mature if there is no one to challenge us. Real maturity shows up in relationships.

We need more than the Bible in order to grow; we need other believers. We grow faster and stronger by learning from each other and being accountable to each other. When others share what God is teaching them, I learn and grow, too.

The Body of Christ needs you. God has a unique role for you to play in his family. This is called your "ministry," and God has gifted you for this assignment: "A spiritual gift is given to each of us as a means of helping the entire church."

Your local fellowship is the place God designed for you to discover, develops, and use your gifts. You may also have a wider ministry, but that is in addition to your service in a local body.

 Jesus has not promised to build your ministry; he has promised to build his church.

 You will share in Christ's mission in the world.

When Jesus walked the earth, God worked through the physical body of Christ; today he uses his spiritual body. The church is God's instrument on earth. We are not just to model God's love by loving each other; we are to carry it together to the rest of the world. This is an incredible privilege we have been given together. As members of Christ's body, we are his hands, his feet, his eyes, and his heart. He works through us in the world. We each have a contribution to make. Paul tells us, "He creates each of us by Christ Jesus to join him in the work he does, the good work he has gotten ready for us to do, work we had better be doing."

 A church family will help keep you from backsliding.

None of us are immune to temptation. Given the right situation, you and I are capable of any sin. God knows this, so he has assigned us as individuals the responsibility of keeping each other on track. The Bible says, `Encourage one another daily ... so that none of you may be hardened by sin's deceitfulness." "Mind your own business" is not a Christian phrase. We are called and commanded to be involved in each other's lives. If you know someone who is wavering spiritually right now, it is your responsibility to go after them and bring them back into the fellowship. James tells us, "If you know people who have wandered off from God's truth, don't write them off Go after them. Get them back."

A related benefit of a local church is that it also provides the spiritual protection of godly leaders. God gives shepherd leaders the responsibility to guard, protect, defend, and care for the spiritual welfare of his flock. We are told, "Their work is to watch over your souls, and they know they are accountable to God." Jesus has not promised to build your ministry; he has promised to build his church.

Satan loves detached believers, unplugged from the life of the Body, isolated from God's family, and unaccountable to spiritual leaders, because he knows they are defenseless and powerless against his tactics.

 IT'S ALL IN THE CHURCH

God created the church to meet your five deepest needs: a purpose to live for, people to live with, principles to live by, a profession to live out, and power to live on. There is no other place on earth where you can find all five of these benefits in one place.

God's purposes for his church are identical to his five purposes for you. Worship helps you focus on God; fellowship helps you face life's problems; discipleship helps fortify your faith; ministry helps find your talents; evangelism helps fulfill your mission. There is nothing else on earth like the church!

 YOUR CHOICE

 Whenever a child is born, he or she automatically becomes a part of the universal family of human beings. But that child also needs to become a member of a specific family to receive nurture and care and grow up healthy and strong. The same is true spiritually. When you were born again, you automatically became a part of God's universal family, but you also need to become a member of a local expression of God's family.

The difference between being a church attender and a church member is commitment. Attenders are spectators from the sidelines; members get involved in the ministry. Attenders are consumers; members are contributors. Attenders want the benefits of a church

without sharing the responsibility. They are like couples who want to live together without committing to a marriage.

Why is it important to join a local church family? Because it proves you are committed to your spiritual brothers and sisters in reality, not just in theory. God wants you to love real people, not ideal people. You can spend a lifetime searching for the perfect church, but you will never find it. You are called to love imperfect sinners, just as God does.

In Acts, the Christians in Jerusalem were very specific in their commitment to each other. They were devoted to fellowship. The Bible says, "They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers." God expects you to commit to the same things today.

The Christian life is more than just commitment to Christ; it includes a commitment to other Christians. The Christians in Macedonia understood this. Paul said, "First they gave themselves to the Lord; and then, by God's will, they gave themselves to us as well." Joining the membership of a local church is the natural next step once you've become a child of God. You become a Christian by committing yourself to Christ, but you become a church member by committing yourself to a specific group of believers. The first decision brings salvation; the second brings fellowship.

THINKING ABOUT MY PURPOSE

Point to Ponder: I am called to belong, not just believe.

Verse to Remember: "In Christ we who are many form one body, and each member belongs to all the others." Romans 12:5 (NIV)

Question to Consider: Does my level of involvement in my local church demonstrate that I love and am committed to God's family?

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18. Experience life together

L`OSSERVATORE ROMANO

OUR DAILY BREAD

BQ18

 

Each one of you is part of the body of Christ, and you were chosen to live together in peace.

Colossians 3:15 (CEV)


How wonderful it is, how pleasant, for God's people to live together in harmony!

Psalm 133:1 (TEV)

Life is meant to be shared.

God intends for us to experience life together. The Bible calls this shared experience fellowship. Today, however, the word has lost most of its biblical meaning. "Fellowship" now usually refers to casual conversation, socializing, food, and fun. The question, "Where do you fellowship?" means "Where do you attend church?" "Stay after for fellowship" usually means "Wait for refreshments."

Real fellowship is so much more than just showing up at services. It is experiencing life together. It includes unselfish loving, honest sharing, practical serving, sacrificial giving, sympathetic comforting, and all the other "one another" commands found in the New Testament. When it comes to fellowship, size matters: Smaller is better. You can worship with a crowd, but you can't fellowship with one. Once a group becomes larger than about ten people, someone stops participating-usually the quietest person-and a few people will dominate the group. Jesus ministered in the context of a small group of disciples. He could have chosen more, but he knew twelve is about the maximum size you can have in a small group if everyone is to participate.

The Body of Christ, like your own body, is really a collection of many small cells. The life of the Body of Christ, like your body, is contained in the cells. For this reason, every Christian needs to be involved in a small group within their church, whether it is a home fellowship group, a Sunday school class, or a Bible study. This is where real community takes place, not in the big gatherings. If you think of your church as a ship, the small groups are the lifeboats attached to it.

God has made an incredible promise about small groups of believers: "For where two or three have gathered together in My name, I am there in their midst.' Unfortunately, even being in a small group does not guarantee you will experience real community. Many Sunday school classes and small groups are stuck in superficiality and have no clue as to what it's like to experience genuine fellowship. What is the difference between real and fake fellowship?

In real fellowship people experience authenticity. Authentic fellowship is not superficial, surface-level chit-chat. It is genuine, heart-to-heart, sometimes gut-level, sharing. It happens when people get honest about who they are and what is happening in their lives. They share their hurts, reveal their feelings, confess their failures, disclose their doubts, admit their fears, acknowledge their weaknesses, and ask for help and prayer. Authenticity is the exact opposite of what you find in some churches. Instead of an atmosphere of honesty and humility, there is pretending, role-playing, politicking, and superficial politeness but shallow conversation. People wear masks, keep their guard up, and act as if everything is rosy in their lives. These attitudes are the death of real fellowship.

It is only as we become open about our lives that we experience real fellowship. The Bible says, "If we live in the light, as God is in the light, we can share fellowship with each other.... If we say we have no sin, we are fooling ourselves." The world thinks intimacy occurs in the dark, but God says it happens in the light. Darkness is used to hide our hurts, faults, fears, failures, and flaws. But in the light, we bring them all out into the open and admit who we really are. Of course, being authentic requires both courage and humility. It means facing our fear of exposure, rejection, and being hurt again. Why would anyone take such a risk? Because it is the only way to grow spiritually and be emotionally healthy.

The Bible says, "Make this your common practice: Confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you can live together whole and healed." We only grow by taking risks, and the most difficult risk of all is to be honest with ourselves and with others.

In real fellowship people experience mutuality. Mutuality is the art of giving and receiving. It's depending on each other. The Bible says, "The way God designed our bodies is a model for understanding our lives together as a church: every part dependent on every other part." Mutuality is the heart of fellowship: building reciprocal relationships, sharing responsibilities, and helping each other. Paul said, "I want us to help each other with the faith we have. Your faith will help me, and my faith will help you."

All of us are more consistent in our faith when others walk with us and encourage us. The Bible commands mutual accountability, mutual encouragement, mutual serving, and mutual honoring. Over fifty times in the New Testament we are commanded to do different tasks to "one another" and "each other." The Bible says, "Make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. ".'

You are not responsible for everyone in the Body of Christ, but you are responsible to them.

God expects you to do whatever you can to help them.

In real fellowship people experience sympathy. Sympathy is not giving advice or offering quick, cosmetic help; sympathy is entering in and sharing the pain of others. Sympathy says, "I understand what you're going through, and what you feel is neither strange nor crazy." Today some call this "empathy," but the biblical word is "sympathy." The Bible says, "As holy people . . be sympathetic, kind, humble, gentle, and patient."

Sympathy meets two fundamental human needs: the need to be understood and the need to have your feelings validated. Every time you understand and affirm someone's feelings, you build fellowship. The problem is that we are often in so much of a hurry to fix things that we don't have time to sympathize with people. Or we're preoccupied with our own hurts. Self-pity dries up sympathy for others.

There are different levels of fellowship, and each is appropriate at different times. The simplest levels of fellowship are the fellowship of sharing and the fellowship of studying God's Word together. A deeper level is the fellowship of serving, as when we minister together on mission trips or mercy projects. The deepest, most intense level is the fellowship of suffering, where we enter into each other's pain and grief and carry each other's burdens. The Christians who understand this level best are those around the world who are being persecuted, despised, and often martyred for their faith.

Real fellowship happens when people get honest about who they are and what is happening in their lives.

The Bible commands: "Share each other's troubles and problems, and in this way obey the law of Christ." It is in the times of deep crisis, grief, and doubt that we need each other most. When circumstances crush us to the point that our faith falters, that's when we need believing friends the most. We need a small group of friends to have faith in God for us and to pull us through. In a small group, the Body of Christ is real and tangible even when God seems distant. This is what Job desperately needed during his suffering. He cried out, "A despairing man should have the devotion of his friends, even though he forsakes the fear of the Almighty."

In real fellowship people experience mercy. Fellowship is a place of grace, where mistakes aren't rubbed in but rubbed out. Fellowship happens when mercy wins over justice.

We all need mercy, because we all stumble and fall and require help getting back on track. We need to offer mercy to each other and be willing to receive it from each other. God says, "When people sin, you should forgive and comfort them, so they won't give up in despair.”

You can't have fellowship without forgiveness. God warns, "Never hold grudges," because bitterness and resentment always destroy fellowship. Because we're imperfect, sinful people, we inevitably hurt each other when we're together for a long enough time. Sometimes we hurt each other intentionally and sometimes unintentionally, but either way, it takes massive amounts of mercy and grace to create and maintain fellowship. The Bible says, "You must make allowance for each other's faults and forgive the person who offends you. Remember, the Lord forgave you, so you must forgive others.”

Every time you understand and affirm someone's feelings, you build fellowship.

God's mercy to us is the motivation for showing mercy to others. Remember, you will never be asked to forgive someone else more than God has already forgiven you. Whenever you are hurt by someone, you have a choice to make: Will I use my energy and emotions for retaliation or for resolution? You can't do both.

Many people are reluctant to show mercy because they don't understand the difference between trust and forgiveness. Forgiveness is letting go of the past. Trust has to do with future behavior.

Forgiveness must be immediate, whether or not a person asks for it. Trust must be rebuilt over time. Trust requires a track record. If someone hurts you repeatedly, you are commanded by God to forgive them instantly, but you are not expected to trust them immediately, and you are not expected to continue allowing them to hurt you. They must prove they have changed over time. The best place to restore trust is within the supportive context of a small group that offers both encouragement and accountability.

There are many other benefits you will experience in being a part of a small group committed to real fellowship. It is an essential part of your Christian life that you cannot overlook. For over 2,000 years Christians have regularly gathered in small groups for fellowship. If you've never been a part of a group or class like this, you really don't know what you're missing.

You were created for community.

THINKING ABOUT MY PURPOSE

Point to Ponder: I need others in my life.
Verse to Remember: "Share each other's troubles and problems, and in this way obey the law of Christ." Galatians 6:2 (NLT)
Question to Consider: What one step can I take today to connect with another believer at a more genuine, heart-to-heart level?

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19. Cultivating community

 BQ19

OUR DAILY BREAD

L`OSSERVATORE ROMANO

You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.

James 3:18 (Msg)

They committed themselves to the teaching of the apostles, the life together, the common meal, and the prayers.

Acts 2:42 (Msg)

Community requires commitment.

Only the Holy Spirit can create real fellowship between believers, but he cultivates it with the choices and commitments we make. Paul points out this dual responsibility when he says, "You are joined together with peace through the Spirit, so make every effort to continue together in this way.' I It takes both God's power and our effort to produce a loving Christian community.

Unfortunately, many people grow up in families with unhealthy relationships, so they lack the relational skills needed for real fellowship. They must be taught how to get along with and relate to others in God's family. Fortunately, the New Testament is filled with instruction on how to share life together. Paul wrote, "I am writing these things to you ... [so] you will know how to live in the family of God. That family is the church."

If you're tired of fake fellowship and you would like to cultivate real fellowship and a loving community in your small group, Sunday school class, and church, you'll need to make some tough choices and take some risks.

Cultivating community takes honesty. You will have to care enough to lovingly speak the truth, even when you would rather gloss over a problem or ignore an issue. While it is much easier to remain silent when others around us are harming themselves or others with a sinful pattern, it is not the loving thing to do. Most people have no one in their lives who loves them enough to tell them the truth (even when it's painful), so they continue in self-destructive ways.

Often we know what needs to be said to someone, but our fears prevent us from saying anything.

Many fellowships have been sabotaged by fear: No one had the courage to speak up in the group while a member's life fell apart.

The Bible tells us to "speak the truth in love" because we can't have community without candor. Solomon said, "An honest answer is a sign of true friendship." Sometimes this means caring enough to lovingly confront one who is sinning or is being tempted to sin. Paul says, "Brothers and sisters, if someone in your group does something wrong, you who are spiritual should go to that person and gently help make him right again."

Many church fellowships and small groups remain superficial because they are afraid of conflict. Whenever an issue pops up that might cause tension or discomfort, it is immediately glossed over in order to preserve a false sense of peace. Mr. "Don't Rock the Boat" jumps in and tries to smooth everyone's ruffled feathers, the issue is never resolved, and everyone lives with an underlying frustration. Everyone knows about the problem, but no one talks about it openly. This creates a sick environment of secrets where gossip thrives. Paul's solution was straightforward: "No more lies, no more pretense. Tell your neighbor the truth. In Christ's body we're all connected to each other, after all. When you lie to others, you end up lying to yourself."

Real fellowship, whether in a marriage, a friendship, or your church, depends on frankness. In fact, the tunnel of conflict is the passageway to intimacy in any relationship. Until you care enough to confront and resolve the underlying barriers, you will never grow close to each other. When conflict is handled correctly, we grow closer to each other by facing and resolving our differences. The Bible says, "In the end, people appreciate frankness more than flattery. "

Frankness is not a license to say anything you want, wherever and whenever you want. It is not rudeness. The Bible tells us there is a right time and a right way to do everything." Thoughtless words leave lasting wounds. God tells us to speak to each other in the church as loving family members: "Never use harsh words when you correct an older man, but talk to him as if he were your father. Talk to younger men as if they were your brothers, older women as if they were your mothers, and younger women as if they were your sisters."

Sadly, thousands of fellowships have been destroyed by a lack of honesty. Paul had to rebuke the Corinthian church for their passive code of silence in allowing immorality in their fellowship. Since no one had the courage to confront it, he said, "You must not simply look the other way and hope it goes away on its own. Bring it out in the open and deal with it.... Better devastation and embarrassment than damnation.... You pass it off as a small thing, but it's anything but that... you shouldn't act as if everything is just fine when one of your Christian companions is promiscuous or crooked, is flip with God or rude to friends, gets drunk or becomes greedy and predatory. You can't just go along with this, treating it as acceptable behavior. I'm not responsible for what the outsiders do, but don't we have some responsibility for those within our community of believers?"

When conflict is handled correctly, we grow closer to each other.

Cultivating community takes humility. Self-importance, smugness, and stubborn pride destroy fellowship faster than anything else. Pride builds walls between people; humility builds bridges. Humility is the oil that smoothes and soothes relationships. That's why the Bible says, "Clothe yourselves with humility toward one another." The proper dress for fellowship is a humble attitude.

The rest of that verse says, "... because, God opposes the proud but gives grace to the humble." This is the other reason we need to be humble: Pride blocks God's grace in our lives, which we must have in order to grow, change, heal, and help others. We receive God's grace by humbly admitting that we need it. The Bible says anytime we are prideful, we are living in opposition to God! That is a foolish and dangerous way to live.

You can develop humility in very practical ways: by admitting your weaknesses, by being patient with others' weaknesses, by being open to correction, and by pointing the spotlight on others. Paul advised, "Live in harmony with each other. Don't try to act important, but enjoy the company of ordinary people. And don't think you know it all!"' To the Christians in Philippi he wrote, "Give more honor to others than to yourselves. Do not be interested only in your own life, but be interested in the lives of others.”

Humility is not thinking less of yourself; it is thinking of yourself less. Humility is thinking more of others. Humble people are so focused on serving others, they don't think of themselves.

Humility is not thinking less of yourself it is thinking of yourself less.

Cultivating community takes courtesy. Courtesy is respecting our differences, being considerate of each other's feelings, and being patient with people who irritate us. The Bible says, 'We must bear the `burden' of being considerate of the doubts and fears of others." Paul told Titus, "God's people should be bighearted and courteous.” In every church and in every small group, there is always at least one "difficult" person, usually more than one. These people may have special emotional needs, deep insecurities, irritating mannerisms, or poor social skills. You might call them EGR people-"Extra Grace Required."

God put these people in our midst for both their benefit and ours. They are an opportunity for growth and a test of fellowship: Will we love them as brothers and sisters and treat them with dignity?

In a family, acceptance isn't based on how smart or beautiful or talented you are. It's based on the fact that we belong to each other. We defend and protect family. A family member may be a little goofy, but she's one of us. In the same way, the Bible says, `Be devoted to each other like a loving family. Excel in showing respect for each other."

The truth is, we all have quirks and annoying traits. But community has nothing to do with compatibility. The basis for our fellowship is our relationship to God: We're family.

One key to courtesy is to understand where people are coming from. Discover their history. When you know what they've been through, you will be more understanding. Instead of thinking about how far they still have to go, think about how far they have come in spite of their hurts.

Another part of courtesy is not downplaying other people's doubts. Just because you don't fear something doesn't make it an invalid feeling. Real community happens when people know it is safe enough to share their doubts and fears without being judged.

The fellowship of the church is more important than any individual.

Cultivating community takes confidentiality. Only in the safe environment of warm acceptance and trusted confidentiality will people open up and share their deepest hurts, needs, and mistakes. Confidentiality does not mean keeping silent while your brother or sister sins. It means that what is shared in your group needs to stay in your group, and the group needs to deal with it, not gossip to others about it.

God hates gossip, especially when it is thinly disguised as a "prayer request" for someone else. God says, "Gossip is spread by wicked people; they stir up trouble and break up friendships." Gossip always causes hurt and divisions, and it destroys fellowship, and God is very clear that we are to confront those who cause division among Christians. They may get mad and leave your group or church if you confront them about their divisive actions, but the fellowship of the church is more important than any individual.

Cultivating community takes frequency. You must have frequent, regular contact with your group in order to build genuine fellowship. Relationships take time. The Bible tells us, "Let us not give up the habit of meeting together, as some are doing. Instead, let us encourage one another:" We are to develop the habit of meeting together. A habit is something you do with frequency, not occasionally. You have to spend time with people-a lot of time-to build deep relationships. This is why fellowship is so shallow in many churches; we don't spend enough time together, and the time we do spend is usually listening to one person speak.

Community is built not on convenience ("we'll get together when I feel like it") but on the conviction that I need it for spiritual health. If you want to cultivate real fellowship, it will mean meeting together even when you don't feel like it, because you believe it is important. The first Christians met together every day! "They worshiped together regularly at the Temple each day, met in small groups in homes for Communion, and shared their meals with great joy and thankfulness." Fellowship requires an investment of time.

If you are a member of a small group or class, I urge you to make a group covenant that includes the nine characteristics of biblical fellowship: We will share our true feelings (authenticity), encourage each other (mutuality), support each other (sympathy), forgive each other (mercy), speak the truth in love (honesty), admit our weaknesses (humility), respect our differences, (courtesy), not gossip (confidentiality), and make group a priority (frequency).

When you look at the list of characteristics, it is obvious why genuine fellowship is so rare. It means giving up our selfcenteredness and independence in order to become interdependent. But the benefits of sharing life together far outweigh the costs, and it prepares us for heaven.

THINKING ABOUT MY PURPOSE

Point to Ponder: Community requires commitment.
Verse to Remember: "We understand what love is when we realize that Christ gave his life for us. That means we must give our lives for other believers." 1 John 3:16 (GWT)
Question to Consider: How can I help cultivate today the characteristics of real community in my small group and my church?

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20. Restoring Broken Fellowship

L`OSSERVATORE ROMANO

OUR DAILY BREAD

BQ20

[God] has restored our relationship with him through Christ, and has given us this ministry of restoring relationships.

2 Corinthians 5:18 (GWT)

Relationships are always worth restoring.

Because life is all about learning how to love, God wants us to value relationships and make the effort to maintain them instead of discarding them whenever there is a rift, a hurt, or a conflict. In fact, the Bible tells us that God has given us the ministry of restoring relationships. For this reason a significant amount of the New Testament is devoted to teaching us how to get along with one another. Paul wrote, "If you've gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you,... Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends." Paul taught that our ability to get along with others is a mark of spiritual maturity.

Since Christ wants his family to be known for our love for each other, broken fellowship is a disgraceful testimony to unbelievers. This is why Paul was so embarrassed that the members of the church in Corinth were splitting into warring factions and even taking each other to court. He wrote, "Shame on you! Surely there is at least one wise person in your fellowship who can settle a dispute between fellow Christians.' He was shocked that no one in the church was mature enough to resolve the conflict peaceably. In the same letter, he said, "I'll put it as urgently as I can: You must get along with each other.”

If you want God's blessing on your life and you want to be known as a child of God, you must learn to be a peacemaker. Jesus said, "God blesses those who work for peace, for they will be called the children of God." Notice Jesus didn't say, "Blessed are the peace lovers," because everyone loves peace. Neither did he say, "Blessed are the peaceable," who are never disturbed by anything. Jesus said, "Blessed are those who work for peace" those who actively seek to resolve conflict. Peacemakers are rare because peacemaking is hard work.

Because you were formed to be a part of God's family and the second purpose of your life on earth is to learn how to love and relate to others, peacemaking is one of the most important skills you can develop. Unfortunately, most of us were never taught how to resolve conflict.

Peacemaking is not avoiding conflict. Running from a problem, pretending it doesn't exist, or being afraid to talk about it is actually cowardice. Jesus, the Prince of Peace, was never afraid of conflict. On occasion he provoked it for the good of everyone. Sometimes we need to avoid conflict, sometimes we need to create it, and sometimes we need to resolve it. That's why we must pray for the Holy Spirit's continual guidance.

Peacemaking is also not appeasement. Always giving in, acting like a doormat, and allowing others to always run over you is not what Jesus had in mind. He refused to back down on many issues, standing his ground in the face of evil opposition.

HOW TO RESTORE A RELATIONSHIP

As believers, God has "called us to settle our relationships with each other." Here are seven biblical steps to restoring fellowship:

Talk to God before talking to the person. Discuss the problem with God. If you will pray about the conflict first instead of gossiping to a friend, you will often discover that either God changes your heart or he changes the other person without your help. All your relationships would go smoother if you would just pray more about them.

As David did with his psalms, use prayer to ventilate vertically. Tell God your frustrations. Cry out to him. He's never surprised or upset by your anger, hurt, insecurity, or any other emotions. So tell him exactly how you feel.

Most conflict is rooted in unmet needs. Some of these needs can only be met by God. When you expect anyone-a friend, spouse, boss, or family member-to meet a need that only God can fulfill, you are setting yourself up for disappointment and bitterness. No one can meet all of your needs except God.

The apostle James noted that many of our conflicts are caused by prayerlessness: "What causes fights and quarrels among you? ... You want something but don't get it.... You do not have, because you do not ask God." Instead of looking to God, we look to others to make us happy and then get angry when they fail us. God says, "Why don't you come to me first?"

Always take the initiative. It doesn't matter whether you are the offender or the offended: God expects you to make the first move. Don't wait for the other party. Go to them first. Restoring broken fellowship is so important, Jesus commanded that it even takes priority over group worship. He said, "If you enter your place of worship and, about to make an offering, you suddenly remember a grudge a friend has against you, abandon your offering, leave immediately, go to this friend and make things right. Then and only then, come back and work things out with God.'

When fellowship is strained or broken, plan a peace conference immediately. Don't procrastinate, make excuses, or promise "I'll get around to it someday." Schedule a face-to-face meeting as soon as possible. Delay only deepens resentment and makes matters worse. In conflict, time heals nothing; it causes hurts to fester.

Acting quickly also reduces the spiritual damage to you. The Bible says sin, including unresolved conflict, blocks our fellowship with God and keeps our prayers from being answered," besides making us miserable. Job's friends reminded him, "To worry yourself to death with resentment would be a foolish, senseless thing to do" and "You are only hurting yourself with your anger.”

The success of a peace conference often depends on choosing the right time and place to meet. Don't meet when either of you are tired or rushed or will be interrupted. The best time is when you both are at your best.

Sympathize with their feelings. Use your ears more than your mouth. Before attempting to solve any disagreement you must first listen to people's feelings. Paul advised, "Look out for one another's interests, not just for your own."

The phrase "look out for" is the Greek word skopos, from which we form our words telescope and microscope. It means pay close attention! Focus on their feelings, not the facts. Begin with sympathy, not solutions.

Don't try to talk people out of how they feel at first. Just listen and let them unload emotionally without being defensive. Nod that you understand even when you don't agree. Feelings are not always true or logical. In fact, resentment makes us act and think in foolish ways. David admitted, "When my thoughts were bitter and my feelings were hurt, I was as stupid as an animal." We all act beastly when hurt.

In contrast, the Bible says, "A man's wisdom gives him patience; it is to his glory to overlook an offense.' Patience comes from wisdom, and wisdom comes from hearing the perspective of others. Listening says, "I value your opinion, I care about our relationship, and you matter to me." The cliche is true: People don't care what we know until they know we care.

To restore fellowship "we must bear the `burden' of being considerate of the doubts and fears of others.... Let's please the other fellow, not ourselves, and do what is for his good." It is a sacrifice to patiently absorb the anger of others, especially if it's unfounded. But remember, this is what Jesus did for you. He endured unfounded, malicious anger in order to save you: "Christ did not indulge his own feelings ... as scripture says: The insults of those who insult you fall on me.'

Confess your part of the conflict. If you are serious about restoring a relationship, you should begin with admitting your own mistakes or sin. Jesus said it's the way to see things more clearly: "First get rid of the log from your own eye; then perhaps you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend's eye.'

Since we all have blind spots, you may need to ask a third party to help you evaluate your own actions before meeting with the person with whom you have a conflict. Also ask God to show you how much of the problem is your fault. Ask, "Am I the problem? Am I being unrealistic, insensitive, or too sensitive?" The Bible says, "If we claim that we're free of sin, we're only fooling ourselves."

Confession is a powerful tool for reconciliation. Often the way we handle a conflict creates a bigger hurt than the original problem itself. When you begin by humbly admitting your mistakes, it defuses the other person's anger and disarms their attack because they were probably expecting you to be defensive. Don't make excuses or shift the blame; just honestly own up to any part you have played in the conflict. Accept responsibility for your mistakes and ask for forgiveness.

Attack the problem, not the person. You cannot fix the problem if you're consumed with fixing the blame. You must choose between the two. The Bible says, "A gentle response defuses anger, but a sharp tongue kindles a temper fire." You will never get your point across by being cross, so choose your words wisely. A soft answer is always better than a sarcastic one.

In resolving conflict, how you say it is as important as what you say. If you say it offensively, it will be received defensively. God tells us, "A wise, mature person is known for his understanding. The more pleasant his words, the more persuasive he is." Nagging never works. You are never persuasive when you're abrasive.

During the Cold War, both sides agreed that some weapons were so destructive they should never be used. Today chemical and biological weapons are banned, and the stockpiles of nuclear weapons are being reduced and destroyed. For the sake of fellowship, you must destroy your arsenal of relational nuclear weapons, including condemning, belittling, comparing, labeling, insulting, condescending, and being sarcastic. Paul sums it up this way: "Do not use harmful words, but only helpful words, the kind that build up and provide what is needed, so that what you say will do good to those who hear you."

Cooperate as much as possible. Paul said, "Do everything possible on your part to live in peace with everybody." Peace always has a price tag. Sometimes it costs our pride; it often costs our self-centeredness. For the sake of fellowship, do your best to compromise, adjust to others, and show preference to what they need. A paraphrase of Jesus' seventh beatitude says, "You're blessed when you can show people how to cooperate instead of compete or fight. That's when you discover who you really are, and your place in God's family."

In resolving conflict, how you say it is as important as what you say.

Reconciliation focuses on the relationship, while resolution focuses on the problem.

Emphasize reconciliation, not resolution. It is unrealistic to expect everyone to agree about everything. Reconciliation focuses on the relationship, while resolution focuses on the problem. When we focus on reconciliation, the problem loses significance and often becomes irrelevant.


We can reestablish a relationship even when we are unable to resolve our differences. Christians often have legitimate, honest disagreements and differing opinions, but we can disagree without being disagreeable. The same diamond looks different from different angles. God expects unity, not uniformity, and we can walk arm-in-arm without seeing eye-to-eye on every issue.

This doesn't mean you give up on finding a solution. You may need to continue discussing and even debating-but you do it in a spirit of harmony. Reconciliation means you bury the hatchet, not necessarily the issue.

With whom do you need to restore fellowship? Don't delay another second. Pause right now and talk to God about that person. Then pick up the phone and begin the process. These seven steps are simple, but they are not easy. It takes a lot of effort to restore a relationship. That's why Peter urged, "Work hard at living in peace with others." But when you work for peace, you are doing what God would do. That's why God calls peacemakers his children.

THINKING ABOUT MY PURPOSE

Point to Ponder: Relationships are always worth restoring.
Verse to Remember: "Do everything possible on your part to live in peace with everybody." Romans 12:18 (TEV)
Question to Consider: Who do I need to restore a broken relationship with today?

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21.Protecting your church

L`OSSERVATORE ROMANO

OUR DAILY BREAD

BQ21

You are joined together with peace through the spirit, so make every effort to continue together in this way. Ephesians 4:3 (NCV)

Most of all, let love guide your life, for then the whole church will stay together in perfect harmony. Colossians 3:14 (LB)

It is your job to protect the unity of your church.

Unity in the church is so important that the New Testament gives more attention to it than to either heaven or hell. God deeply desires that we experience oneness and harmony with each other.

Unity is the soul of fellowship. Destroy it, and you rip the heart out of Christ's Body. It is the essence, the core, of how God intends for us to experience life together in his church. Our supreme model for unity is the Trinity. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are completely unified as one. God himself is the highest example of sacrificial love, humble other-centeredness, and perfect harmony.

Just like every parent, our heavenly Father enjoys watching his children get along with each other. In his final moments before being arrested, Jesus prayed passionately for our unity. It was our unity that was uppermost in his mind during those agonizing hours. That shows how significant this subject is.

Nothing on earth is more valuable to God than his church. He paid the highest price for it, and he wants it protected, especially from the devastating damage that is caused by division, conflict, and disharmony. If you are a part of God's family, it is your responsibility to protect the unity where you fellowship. You are commissioned by Jesus Christ to do everything possible to preserve the unity, protect the fellowship, and promote harmony in your church family and among all believers. The Bible says, "Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace." How are we to do this? The Bible gives us practical advice.

Focus on what we have in common, not our differences. Paul tells us, "Let us concentrate on the things which make for harmony, and on the growth of one another's character." As believers we share one Lord, one body, one purpose, one Father, one Spirit, one hope, one faith, one baptism, and one love. We share the same salvation, the same life, and the same future-factors far more important than any differences we could enumerate. These are the issues, not our personal differences, that we should concentrate on.

We must remember that it was God who chose to give us different personalities, backgrounds, races, and preferences, so we should value and enjoy those differences, not merely tolerate them. God wants unity, not uniformity. But for unity's sake we must never let differences divide us. We must stay focused on what matters most-learning to love each other as Christ has loved us, and fulfilling God's five purposes for each of us and his church.

Nothing on earth is more valuable to God than his church.

Conflict is usually a sign that the focus has shifted to less important issues, things the Bible calls "disputable matters." When we focus on personalities, preferences, interpretations, styles, or methods, division always happens. But if we concentrate on loving each other and fulfilling God's purposes, harmony results. Paul pleaded for this: "Let there be real harmony so there won't be divisions in the church. Plead with you to be of one mind, united in thought and purpose."

Be realistic in your expectations. Once you discover what God intends real fellowship to be, it is easy to become discouraged by the gap between the ideal and the real in your church. Yet we must passionately love the church in spite of its imperfections. Longing for the ideal while criticizing the real is evidence of immaturity. On the other hand, settling for the real without striving for the ideal is complacency. Maturity is living with the tension.

Other believers will disappoint you and let you down, but that's no excuse to stop fellowshiping with them. They are your family, even when they don't act like it, and you can't just walk out on them. Instead God tells us, `Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other's faults because of your love."

We must passionately love the church in spite of its imperfections.

People become disillusioned with the church for many understandable reasons. The list could be quite long: conflict, hurt, hypocrisy, neglect, pettiness, legalism, and other sins. Rather than being shocked and surprised, we must remember that the church is made up of real sinners, including ourselves. Because we're sinners, we hurt each other, sometimes intentionally and sometimes unintentionally. But instead of leaving the church, we need to stay and work it out if at all possible. Reconciliation, not running away, is the road to stronger character and deeper fellowship.

Divorcing your church at the first sign of disappointment or disillusionment is a mark of immaturity. God has things he wants to teach you, and others, too. Besides, there is no perfect church to escape to. Every church has its own set of weaknesses and problems. You'll soon be disappointed again. Groucho Marx was famous for saying he wouldn't want to belong to any club that would let him in. If a church must be perfect to satisfy you, that same perfection will exclude you from membership, because you're not perfect!

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor who was martyred for resisting Nazis, wrote a classic book on fellowship, Life Together. In it he suggests that disillusionment with our local church is a good thing because it destroys our false expectations of perfection. The sooner we give up the illusion that a church must be perfect in order to love it, the sooner we quit pretending and start admitting we're all imperfect and need grace. This is the beginning of real community.

Every church could put out a sign "No perfect people need apply. This is a place only for those who admit they are sinners, need grace, and want to grow."

Bonhoeffer said, "He who loves his dream of community more than the Christian community itself becomes a destroyer of the latter.... If we do not give thanks daily for the Christian fellowship in which we have been placed, even when there is no great experience, no discoverable riches, but much weakness, small faith, and difficulty; if on the contrary, we keep complaining that everything is paltry and petty, then we hinder God from letting our fellowship grow."

Choose to encourage rather than criticize. It is always easier to stand on the sidelines and take shots at those who are serving than it is to get involved and make a contribution. God warns us over and over not to criticize, compare, or judge each other." When you criticize what another believer is doing in faith and from sincere conviction, you are interfering with God's business: "What right do you have to criticize someone else's servants? Only their Lord can decide if they are doing right. "

Paul adds that we must not stand in judgment or look down on other believers whose convictions differ from our own: "Why, then, criticise your brother's actions, why try to make him look small? We shall all be judged one day, not by each other's standards or even our own, but by the standard of Christ."

Whenever I judge another believer, four things instantly happen: I lose fellowship with God, I expose my own pride and insecurity, I set myself up to be judged by God, and I harm the fellowship of the church. A critical spirit is a costly vice.

The Bible calls Satan "the accuser of our brothers." It's the Devil's job to blame, complain, and criticize members of God's family. Anytime we do the same, we're being duped into doing Satan's work for him. Remember, other Christians, no matter how much you disagree with them, are not the real enemy. Any time we spend comparing or criticizing other believers is time that should have been spent building the unity of our fellowship. The Bible says, "Let's agree to use all our energy in getting along with each other. Help others with encouraging words; don't drag them down by finding fault. "
Refuse to listen to gossip. Gossip is passing on information when you are neither part of the problem nor part of the solution. You know spreading gossip is wrong, but you should not listen to it, either, if you want to protect your church. Listening to gossip is like accepting stolen property, and it makes you just as guilty of the crime.

When someone begins to gossip to you, have the courage to say, "Please stop. I don't need to know this. Have you talked directly to that person?" People who gossip to you will also gossip about you. They cannot be trusted. If you listen to gossip, God says you are a troublemaker. "Troublemakers listen to troublemakers.' "These are the ones who split churches, thinking only of themselves."

It is sad that in God's flock, the greatest wounds usually come from other sheep, not wolves. Paul warned about "cannibal Christians" who "devour one another" and destroy the fellowship.'' The Bible says these kind of troublemakers should be avoided. "A gossip reveals secrets; therefore do not associate with a babbler." The fastest way to end a church or small group conflict is to lovingly confront those who are gossiping and insist they stop it. Solomon pointed out, "Fire goes out for lack of fuel, and tensions disappear when gossip stops."

Practice God's method for conflict resolution. In addition to the principles mentioned in the last chapter, Jesus gave the church a simple three-step process: "If a fellow believer hurts you, go and tell him-work it out between the two of you. If he listens, you've made a friend. If he won't listen, take one or two others along so that the presence of witnesses will keep things honest, and try again. If he still won't listen, tell the church."

During conflict, it is tempting to complain to a third party rather than courageously speak the truth in love to the person you're upset with. This makes the matter worse. Instead, you should go directly to the person involved. Private confrontation is always the first step, and you should take it as soon as possible. If you're unable to work things out between the two of you, the next step is to take one or two witnesses to help confirm the problem and reconcile the relationship. What should you do if the person is still stuck in stubbornness? Jesus says to take it to the church. If the person still refuses to listen after that, you should treat that person like an unbeliever.

Support your pastor and leaders. There are no perfect leaders, but God gives leaders the responsibility and the authority to maintain the unity of the church. During interpersonal conflicts that is a thankless job. Pastors often have the unpleasant task of serving as mediator between hurt, conflicting, or immature members. They're also given the impossible task of trying to make everyone happy, which even Jesus could not do!

We protect the fellowship when we honor those who serve us by leading.

The Bible is clear about how we are to relate to those who serve us: "Be responsive to your pastoral leaders. Listen to their counsel. They are alert to the condition of your lives and work under the strict supervision of God. Contribute to the joy of their leadership, not its drudgery. Why would you want to make things harder for them?"

Pastors will one day stand before God and give an account of how well they watched over you. "They keep watch over you as men who must give an account." But you are accountable, too. You will give an account to God of how well you followed your leaders.

The Bible gives pastors very specific instructions on how to deal with divisive people in the fellowship. They are to avoid arguing, gently teach the opposition while praying they'll change, warn those who are argumentative, plead for harmony and unity, rebuke those who are disrespectful of leadership, and remove divisive people from the church if they ignore two warnings.

We protect the fellowship when we honor those who serve us by leading. Pastors and elders need our prayers, encouragement, appreciation, and love. We are commanded, "Honor those leaders who work so hard for you, who have been given the responsibility of urging and guiding you along in your obedience. Overwhelm them with appreciation and love!"

I challenge you to accept your responsibility to protect and promote the unity of your church. Put your full effort into it, and God will be pleased. It will not always be easy. Sometimes you will have to do what's best for the Body, not yourself, showing preference to others. That's one reason God puts us in a church family-to learn unselfishness. In community we learn to say "we" instead of "I," and "our" instead of "mine." God says, "Don't think only of your own good. Think of other Christians and what is best for them." When God has a bunch of baby believers he wants to deliver, he looks for the warmest incubator church he can find.

What are you doing personally to make your church family more warm and loving? There are many people in your community who are looking for love and a place to belong. The truth is, everyone needs and wants to be loved, and when people find a church where members genuinely love and care for each other, you would have to lock the doors to keep them away.

 THINKING ABOUT MY PURPOSE


Point to Ponder: It is my responsibility to protect the unity of my church.

Verse to Remember: "Let us concentrate on the things which make for harmony and the growth of our fellowship together." Romans 14:19 (Ph)

Question to Consider: What am I personally doing to protect unity in my church family right now?

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