Ordo Salutis: Transformation via Christian Community
For the early Christians, a relationship with Christ was even more about making a change in their social groupings than it was individual, personal salvation. Becoming a Christian had sharp consequences as they would be shunned by their Jewish brethren. While ethnically Jewish, they chose to believe in Jesus the Messiah and thus separate themselves from family members and close friends. Unless whole families converted.
This is why we read of Christians calling one another brother and sister in the Bible. They had become a new family, God’s family, and they needed the social bonds and friendship made possible in Christ and through the Holy Spirit.
Sadly, our picture of human relationships prior to coming to Christ has been affected by such things as rejection–just ask any student about the loss of a friendship or the way kids bully others at school–verbal abuse, wounds, fear, pain, the desire to belong, etc. We remember that John Wesley said that after the Fall, the political image of humanity was marred. We no longer related well with each other. We must re-learn what it means to love one another again.
The Bible says, “We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love each other. Anyone who does not love remains in death” (1 John 3:14). Love is essential. And yet love is so misconstrued as either a feeling we have or as something we are allowed to withhold from some and yet give to others.
Love is the will to seek the good for another person. It is always a choice we make. We remember that God’s vision for the world is one where He loves every person, and where we, bearing His image, love every person as well. This type of love transcends ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, age, color of the skin, history, prejudice, politics, emotions, social standing, etc.
We are called not only to love our neighbors but also to love our enemies.
Dallas Willard writes, “Spiritual formation, good or bad, is always profoundly social. You cannot keep it to yourself. Anyone who thinks of it as a merely private matter has misunderstood it…. Strictly speaking, there is nothing ‘just between me and God.’ For all that is between me and God affects who I am; and that, in turn, modifies my relationship to everyone around me” (Renovation of the Heart, p. 182).
Some may buy into the myth that “my personal relationship with God” is also a private one. Don’t. As Andy Stanley has said, “It may be personal, but it’s public.”
Part of spiritual formation is both our call to love our neighbor as ourselves as well as our wisdom in changing the people with whom we allow in our “inner circle.” Some Christians have mistakenly taught that becoming a Christian means forsaking one’s non-Christian friends. This is the wrong approach, for God has now positioned you in their lives as a witness for Him.
Joseph Myers wrote a profound book, The Search to Belong, on the ways in which people choose to belong to groups and to one another. He said that people belong in four different ways: public, social, personal, and intimate. In each space, we know people in different ways. He says we will only ever have one person in the “intimate” space, and that our capacity to belong to others in the other spaces grows (i.e., we’ll have more people in the personal space, even more in the social space, and a huge number in the public space). Here is how he defined each of these “spaces”:
Public: These are people we meet at public places, like the waiter at our favorite restaurant or the gas station attendant. They may be people we only know by name. We need more people in this space than any other. Public belonging is about connecting through outside influences–we’re all Tigers fans, all parents whose kids go to the same school, etc. People in this space don’t generally exchange personal information, and if they do, they move to a new space. People may want anonymity in this space but they don’t want to be strangers; it’s all about feeling like you fit in.
Social: Social belonging is what you think it is: It’s about small talk over coffee and donuts. This is the relationship you may have with your neighbor. You chat about the weather each time you see one another getting the mail. In this space, we know people just well enough and are perhaps evaluating whether or not we want to become better friends with them. These are the people you greet at church but don’t know much more about. You’ll have less people with whom you relate in these social ways.
Personal: This is the space that starts to get affected the most when a person becomes a Christian. It is here that we ask the question: Is it okay with Jesus if I still spend as much time with my close friends as I used to? Personal relationships are ones we share the details of life, the private stuff that maybe doesn’t get shared with too many others. These are relationships that many people term “intimate” but this is a misnomer. We are only capable of being intimate with one person–our spouse (if we are married, or another close friend if single).
Intimate: This is where we share the “naked truth” with another and are “not ashamed.” We fully trust this person to keep our secrets, to like and love us for who we are, and to never leave us. Intimacy is not only a sexual term but an emotional and informational term as well (The Search to Belong, pp. 39-51).
Thus, we seek to have a Christian spouse and a larger group of Christians in our personal friends, while maintaining relationships with others.
We can think of spiritual formation influencing relationships with our spouse, our children, our extended families, our neighbors, our close friends, our co-workers, strangers, people at church, people who have wronged us, and people who no one else seems to care about. There is not one person that we cannot love like Christ loves, though it will take his help and the help of the church.
Robert Webber writes, “The church and its worship are sources of nourishment precisely because they embody God’s story and witness to God’s divine embrace and constantly keep God’s vision of a restored people and renewed earth before us” (The Divine Embrace, p. 220). We do not attend church on Sundays because we must, but because in the church, we remember God’s plan for us and our world. Worship, Scripture, prayer and the sacraments together with other Christians form us into God’s people.
Dallas Willard points to Romans 12:9-21 gives a great list of the ways our gatherings should look:
- Letting love be completely real and sincere (v. 9)
- Abhorring what is evil (v. 9)
- Clinging to what is good (v. 9)
- Being devoted to one another in family-like love (v. 10)
- Outdoing one another in giving honor (v. 10)
- Serving the Lord with fervor and diligence (v. 11)
- Rejoicing in hope (v. 12)
- Being patient in troubles (v. 12)
- Being devoted constantly to prayer (v. 12)
- Contributing to the needs of the saints (v. 13)
- Practicing hospitality (v. 13)
- Blessing persecutors instead of cursing them (v. 14)
- Being joyful with those who are rejoicing and being sorrowful with those in sorrow (v. 15)
- Living in harmony with one another (v. 16)
- Not being proud, but fitting in with those considered “lowly” (v. 16)
- Not seeing yourself as superior or wiser than others (v. 16)
- Never repaying evil for evil (v. 17)
- Having due regard for what everyone takes to be right (v. 17)
- Being at peace with everyone, so far as it depends on you (v. 18)
- Never taking revenge, but leaving that to whatever God may decide (v. 19)
- Providing for needy enemies (v. 20)
- Not being overwhelmed by evil, but overwhelming evil with good (v. 21)
Willard says, “Just think for a moment what it would be like to be a part of a group of disciples in which this list was the conscious, shared intention, and where it was actually lived out, even if with some imperfection” (Renovation of the Heart, pp. 195-196).