42 They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer. 43 Everyone was filled with awe at the many wonders and signs performed by the apostles. 44 All the believers were together and had everything in common. 45 They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. 46 Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, 47 praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.
Recently I found myself at a busy intersection, trying to make a left-hand turn at a stop sign. I tend to be a pretty safe driver. The only accident that I was ever in was when I was 16-years-old, and my truck was the only vehicle involved. So I admit right up front that I don’t like to push it; it’s better safe than sorry.
After waiting at that intersection for what was probably 10-15 seconds, there was a clearing to my left and a small break to my right. I debated trying to fit my Subaru into that small break in the traffic, but decided that I would wait for the next opportunity. Just because my car will fit into a break in the traffic doesn’t mean that I need to make it fit. But as soon as it became obvious that I was not going to stomp on the accelerator and pull out into traffic, the driver of car behind me made sure to offer his opinion on the matter, and he thought that I should have tried it. He made it known by laying on his horn. And it wasn’t just a little “beep, beep.” No, he held down the horn until I went, “beeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeep!”
Of course, when we came up to the next stop light, he pulled right up next to me. That’s always awkward. I smiled at him and nodded. I think he waved at me with a special, secret wave that only involves one finger. I can’t say for sure, because I was too busy looking at his car. What I noticed about his car was that it was a fairly-modern car, with a dented front fender, cracked bumper, and I would describe the color as a combination of Bond-o and primer gray.
Please don’t misinterpret what I’m saying. I’m not laughing at his busted-up car. I’ve had my share of rough vehicles in my life as well. What I’m saying is that maybe this guy isn’t the best person to be offering me driving tips. If your car looks like it’s been through a war zone, perhaps you shouldn’t be telling people when it is a good idea to pull out in front of oncoming traffic.
Today we are concluding our sermon series on Christian community. So far we have addressed learning in community, fellowship, prayer, sharing bread, and sharing goods. We conclude today with giving and receiving counsel.
Here’s the thing about this mark of the Christian community: we really like half of it. We really like to give counsel. The guy driving the car behind me really liked telling me when to pull out into traffic. We like to tell people when and what they should or should not be doing. You shouldn’t eat that! You don’t want to go there! This job is perfect for you! You really shouldn’t treat your wife like that.
But that’s not how we do things in the Christian community. I have two words that I think describe that kind of relationship, one of which is a little nicer than the other. When all we do is tell other people what to do, that’s more like being a coach, or worse, like being a dictator. Players don’t tell a coach what she should be doing; subjects don’t tell a dictator how to run a country. We like to give counsel, but in the Christian community we both give and receive counsel.
The giving and receiving of counsel is so important in our faith tradition that it is often a part of our baptismal vows. We know how difficult life can be. And it doesn’t necessarily get easier when you become a Christian. So when we receive a new member and we ask if they are willing to give and receive counsel, we are essentially saying, “This world is really challenging. I need help, and I assume you do, too.”
Before we look at a biblical argument for this mark of the Christian community, I want to break things down a little further. There are two main areas where we as a community are called to give and receive counsel: in the discernment of God’s will and in mutual accountability. You could probably convince me of others, too. I am, it would seem, open to your counsel, but this will have to do for now.
How do we discern God’s will? You might say things like read the Bible and pray about it. And I would say that you are right, those are very important parts of the discernment process. But we as a church also discern together.
Remember that this is not a dictatorship. I cannot simply tell you what you should be doing and shouldn’t be doing. I’ve tried that in my own household, and I have failed miserably! Even Jesus—if anyone had the right to just sit there and tell us what to do, it was Jesus—entered into discernment with his disciples. He asked questions like, “Who do you think that I am?” He told stories and parables. Jesus engaged his disciples so much through dialogue that when he would say things like he had to die and rise again, his disciples thought that this too was up for debate!
This process is probably most clearly presented to us in Acts 15. This is a story about the early church and how they had to make some decisions, how they had to discern God’s will, about what was to be required of converts to Christianity. Essentially, the argument was about whether a person had to practice Jewish rituals in order to be a Christian. It really came down to two concerns: Jewish food laws and circumcision. One group of really godly, well-intentioned men said that converts had to keep all of the Mosaic Laws to be a Christian. Another group of really godly, well-intentioned men said that these Laws were keeping people from becoming Christians.
So they called each other heretics and started their own churches.
No, they got together. They formed a committee, which we call the Jerusalem Council. They studied the scriptures. They discussed what Jesus taught. They prayed about it, and against all odds, they came to an agreement. In Acts 15:28a, we read this in their final letter: “It seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us not to burden you…”
This wasn’t a decision that one person made on his or her own. They discerned together what God’s will was.
How many times do we try to discern God’s will on our own without consulting the body of believers around us? I believe that God can speak directly to an individual, but I also think that more often than not, God speaks to us communally.
I heard about a pastor who was invited to go on a study trip to Israel. It was a several-week-long trip, which meant that he would be away from church duties for those weeks. This sort of thing isn’t uncommon for pastors to participate in. You just need to use vacation time, scratch up the funds, and plan accordingly.
But this pastor didn’t approach this scenario in the way I would suggest. He really wanted to go to Israel and was excited about the chance to go with this group. So when he met with his church council, he said to them, “God is calling me to Israel, and for the church to pay for it.”
I have a lot of respect for what the church council did. They said, “Let’s pray about it.” And after they spent some time discussing it, they said that it did not seem good to them and the Holy Spirit. This pastor just was excited about the chance to go on a great trip and wanted the church to cover the significant cost associated with it.
What I think this story illustrates is that discerning God’s will isn’t just about the huge things, like observing the Mosaic Law. We can come together to discern God’s will about other things, things that are still important, but on a different level. People have come to me and asked me to pray for them when they are considering changing jobs, moving, or changing their kids’ school. I think that this is really important because sometimes our judgement can be clouded by our excitement, our fear, and our other emotions. The pastor that I spoke about thought that God was calling his church to pay for his trip, but maybe he was just excited about the idea of fulfilling a dream of visiting the Promised Land on someone else’s dime.
One part of the giving and receiving of counsel in the Christian community is to discern God’s will. But what about the accountability part?
Don’t judge me, you don’t know me!
That’s right! Judging people is wrong. Jesus says that if we judge others we will be judged ourselves. Take that plank out of your eye! But there is a difference between judging and keeping one another accountable. Judging goes one way. You don’t even need to know someone to judge them. But the mutual accountability practiced in Christian community involves knowing someone and knowing why they do what they are doing.
I say right now for you all to hear, if you see me doing something that is harmful to myself, to others, or to my relationship with God, please say something to me. You are my friends, you are my church. You know me and my story, and I want you to help me live as best as I can. If you see me acting inappropriately, please say something. If I say something or do something that offends or hurts someone, please let me know.
I don’t say this because I like to be told when I do something wrong. I say it because I want to be better. I want to be a better father, husband, pastor, and Christian.
But why is this different from judging? It’s important to know someone to practice mutual accountability. First of all, I just invited you to comment on my life. So you aren’t judging, you are doing what I asked. Second of all, you know my situation.
If you saw me stealing a loaf of bread, I hope that you would stop me. You know I have a job and can pay for that bread. But if you didn’t know me, you wouldn’t know if I was stealing that bread to save the life of my starving children. That doesn’t make it right, but maybe it makes it a little less wrong. Mutual accountability requires us inviting other people into our lives, inviting them to speak into our situations, inviting them to give us feedback, even when that feedback is negative.
Let’s move from the hypothetical to the real. I’ve always encouraged people to come to me with any questions or concerns that you may have about my teaching and preaching. I’m accountable to you about what I say. Some of you have taken this invitation quite seriously and frequently approach me after a sermon or Sunday school lesson. And that’s a good thing. I grow through challenges. I am forced to go back and dig deeper, asking what I really believe and why I believe it.
Often when I am approached it is about small things, like the way I word something or how you interpret something that I said based on your own experiences. Sometimes I can clarify things a bit by restating something in a different way. Other times we just don’t end up agreeing on a subject. But I hope that you always know that I don’t come to my theological convictions lightly. And I’m never trying to intentionally mislead you. I’ve grown through our conversations, emails, and letters.
As many of you know, my sermons are also available through our church’s website. You can click through and read what I intended to say or listen to my sermon audio, what I really did say. People are free to leave comments after my written sermons, which I imagine should have a similar effect to allowing you all to respond after a sermon on a Sunday. And many people have responded, leaving questions, voicing concerns, and occasionally even agreeing with me.
Recently, however, I arrived at church and found a letter in the church mailbox. The letter was addressed to me, and there was no return address on the envelope. I get all sorts of things in the mail here, so I didn’t think too much of this, except that the letter, including the envelope, was all written on a typewriter. This is the kind of thing that you do when you don’t want to be recognized, when you want your identity to be concealed. And sure enough, inside I found an anonymous letter, criticizing something that I had preached about several months earlier.
There were a number of things about this letter that bothered me, but I can handle that. I know that when I say something a little controversial that people will push back, and that’s okay. What bothered me the most about this letter is that it was sent anonymously, and I did not have any way of responding to the writer. How am I supposed to be able to have a dialogue or enter into a conversation with someone if they don’t offer any contact information or even give their first name?
The writer of this anonymous letter wasn’t interested in the giving and receiving of counsel. He just wanted to give counsel.
This example doesn’t quite fit perfectly with Jesus’s teaching in Matthew 18, but I still think it applies. In Matthew 18 Jesus teaches what we should do if a brother or sister sins against us. Verses 15-16 from the NIV read like this: “If your brother or sister sins, go and point out their fault, just between the two of you. If they listen to you, you have won them over. But if they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses.’ If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church; and if they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector.”
If a brother or sister sins, write them an anonymous letter? Nope, go to them in person and talk about it.
The thing that bothered me the most about receiving the anonymous letter had nothing to do with the criticism offered in the letter itself. I was ready for that. But I felt like a failure as a Christian because I felt like another brother or sister in Christ didn’t feel comfortable approaching me in person.
I am dedicated to the idea of giving and receiving counsel, no matter how uncomfortable it might make me. This includes both discerning God’s will together and holding one another accountable. When we voice our opinions to a stranger, when we write anonymous letters, or when we tell someone what they should do and refuse to hear back from them, we are not being a Christian community. We are judging.
My friends, this world is tough, and sometimes we make it tougher on one another. That’s not the role of the church, and that’s not our reason for living in Christian community. The giving and receiving of counsel isn’t supposed to make life harder or more difficult on someone. If it does, you’re probably doing it wrong. Together, we discern God’s will. Together, we hold one another accountable. Together, we can do better.
The Christian community learns together, fellowships, prays, shares bread, and goods. We also give and receive counsel, because there is strength in numbers. We are stronger together. Or as Jesus says, anywhere two or three are gathered, he is with us.