He’d passed up the opportunity a hundred times before. But, taking himself by surprise, he decided to go for it today. He spluttered something about having something to say. Now he was beyond the point of no return. There were four other people around the table at their lunchtime prayer meeting, all looking at him warmly. He took a deep breath and told them, confessing years of sin.
For Stephen, it was the turning point. Three years later that moment is still etched on his mind. But those three years have been years of joy and freedom and growth.
God is in the business of change, and he’s placed us in a community of change. The church is one of God’s means of grace to reinforce our faith and repentance, but it’s also a channel for the other means of grace. I’m holding a book on holiness in my hand that has a picture on the cover of a person walking alone along a beach. The message is that holiness is about me and God. But change in the Bible is never a solo project. Change is a community project.
A Community of Change
Paul talks about the church as a community of change in Ephesians 4. He begins by urging us to “walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called.” Through the death of Jesus we have become a home for God (2:22) and a showcase for his wisdom (3:10). Your local church is that home and that showcase in your area. This means that change is a community project.
Change is a Community Process
Change is a community project because it’s a community process as well as an individual process. When Paul talks about becoming mature, he’s talking about the body of Christ as a whole (4:12–13). It’s the Christian community together that displays God’s wisdom. We make God known not just as individuals, but through our life together and our love for one another (John 13:34–35; 17:20–23). That’s why Paul urges us to be a united community (Ephesians 4:2–6). Our aim is to “grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (v. 15).
Imagine one of those children’s books that have pictures of different people with the pages divided so you can mix and match different heads, bodies, and legs. You flip over the pages to match up the pictures, enjoying the funny combinations as you go. Paul says the church is a body with Christ as its head. Our job is to change the body so that it matches the head. And we can’t be the body of Christ on our own. We can’t be mature on our own. Change is a community project.
This means sin is always a community concern. My sin impedes the growth of the community as a whole. It stops us from growing together as the body of Christ. It has an impact on all of us. Even our private, secret sins affect the community. No one knew Achan had kept the robe, silver, and gold from the defeat of Jericho, but his sin led to defeat for God’s people (Joshua 7). My sin stops me from playing the role God intends for me in the way God intends, and this means that the church doesn’t grow and reflect its head as God intends.
Community is the God-Given Context for Change
The Christian community is the best context for change because it’s the context God has given. The church is a better place for change than a therapy group, a counselor’s office, or a retreat center. We grasp the love of Christ “with all the saints” (Ephesians 3:18). Christ gives gifts to the church so we can grow together (4:7–13).
What does Christian maturity look like? It looks like Jesus (4:13, 15). One of the great things about the Christian community is that it gives us models of Christlike behavior. Of course, no one is perfectly like Jesus, but other Christians help us see what it means to walk with God. It’s not just godliness we model for one another, but also growth and grace. We model growth as people see us struggling with sin and turning in faith to God.
Every Sunday in our church we give people the opportunity to talk about what God has been doing in their lives during the past week—answers to prayer, comfort from God’s Word, opportunities for evangelism, help in temptation. In so doing, we reinforce our belief in a God who is alive and active among us.
One reason the ascended Christ gives the Spirit to the church is to equip each of us with a special gift—our contribution to the life of the church community (4:7). Everyone’s contribution matters. “From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work” (4:16, niv). We all have a part to play in building a home for God. We need one another in order to be a healthy, growing church. This means that everyone else needs you, and you need everyone else. You need to help others change. And you need to let others help you change.
Together we extol Christ to one another, and we each bring distinct harmonies to the song. We comfort one another with the comfort we have received (2 Corinthians 1:3–7). Our different experiences of God’s grace become part of the rich counsel that we in the church have for one another. Moreover, in the Christian community there is a collective persistence that’s stronger than any individual can manage. When I grow weary of speaking truth to a particular situation, someone else will take up the baton. We’re like a choir singing the praises of Jesus. No one can sustain the song continually on his or her own, but together we can.
Paul particularly highlights the role of those who proclaim, explain, and apply God’s Word (Ephesians 4:11). That’s because the Bible is the source of the truth about God, which counters the lies behind our sin. But notice that these leaders don’t do all the work of God in the church. Their role is to equip God’s people for works of service (4:11–12). It’s all God’s people who together build up the body of Christ. We work with one another and for one another, so that together we can be mature and Christlike.
Paul says that Christ “makes the whole body fit together perfectly” (4:16, nlt). Your church is not a collection of random people. Christ has specially selected each one to create a perfect fit. You may have chosen other people for one reason or another. But God placed these people in your life to help you change. As my friend Matt said when we were talking about this passage, “I need to give everyone in our church a new merit in my life.”
Paul isn’t talking about an idealized church with idealized people. He’s writing to a real church with real people. He’s talking about your church. You can’t say, “That’s fine in theory, but my church is never going to be like that.” God has given these people to you so they can care for you and so you can care for them. If your church isn’t what it should be, then start changing it. Start sharing your struggles, and start “speaking the truth in love” (4:15).
Verse 31 says, “Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice.” These behaviors all have two things in common. First, they all involve other people. Second, they’re all symptoms of thwarted and threatened sinful desires. Often we can’t spot sinful desires. But when they’re threatened or thwarted by other people, we respond with bitterness, rage, anger, brawling, slander, and malice. One of the great things about living as part of a community is that in community people walk all over your idols. People press your buttons. That’s when we respond with bitterness, rage, and so on. And that gives us opportunities to spot our idolatrous desires.
God is using the different people, the contrasting personalities, in your church to change your heart. He’s using the difficult people, the annoying people, the sinful people. He’s placed you together so you can rub off each other’s rough edges. It’s as if God has put us, like rocks, into a bag and is shaking us about so that we collide with one another. Sometimes sparks fly, but gradually we become beautiful, smooth gemstones. Remember the next time someone is rubbing you the wrong way that God is smoothing you down! God has given you that person in his love as a gift to make you holy. Sinclair Ferguson comments, “The church is a community in which we receive spiritual help, but also one in which deep-seated problems will come to the surface and will require treatment. . . . We often discover things about our own hearts which we never anticipated.”
This is an excerpt from Tim Chester’s book, You Can Change: God’s Transforming Power for Our Sinful Behavior and Negative Emotions.
Tim Chester (PhD, University of Wales) is pastor of the Crowded House in Sheffield, United Kingdom, and director of the Porterbrook Institute, which provides integrated theological and missional training for church leaders. Chester also coauthored Total Church (Re:Lit) and has written more than a dozen books.