Fifty years ago, Sam Rayburn was in his 17th year as the Speaker of the House when he discovered that he had terminal pancreatic cancer. He then surprised everyone by announcing that he was leaving Washington D.C. to return to his hometown, Bonham, Texas. Why would someone leave Washington with its fine hospitals for a small, rural town? Because, as Rayburn had frequently noted, “in Bonham, Texas, they know if you’re sick and they care when you die.”
Rayburn voiced the reality that we need relationships. We need people who will care for us and we need people whom we can serve.
Now relationships do not always come with ease. They are difficult and we must fight to maintain them. Even Christian relationships can be a challenge, for at least four reasons, as Tim Lane and Paul Tripp have noted:
- Our relationships will never work according to our plan
- Our relationships will never live up to our expectations
- Our relationships will always grapple with some kind of difficulty
- Our relationships will always need to improve
Because of the hardness of relationships, we need relationships that are built on something more than mere affinity for one another. Common interests won’t preserve a relationship. Sexual intimacy won’t fix broken relationships. Convenience won’t hold disunified people together. Jobs and financial reward won’t harmonize individuals in conflict. Something more than external compulsion and morality is needed to maintain harmony in relationships.
For relationships to thrive, they must be distinctively Christian.
By that I mean that they must be more than “merely” Christian. They must be Christian, but they must be particularly and definitively Christian. The faith that is at the center of the relationship must unashamedly be rooted in Christ and His redemptive and reconciling work.
When Christ died on the cross, He effected the redemption of individuals who would trust in Him. But He also produced so much more. Among additional results of the cross is that those who were estranged from one another, who hated and rejected one another (Jews and Gentiles), were unified into one body belonging to one Head, Christ (Eph. 2:11 – 3:10). The unity of the church is rooted in the cross. The reason we are one is because Christ died to make it so. The compelling reason for fellowship in Christ’s body is the redeeming work of Christ.
And that also means that all fellowship must arise from the overflow of our fellowship with Christ. We care for each other because we have been united to each other in Christ.
Therefore, what we do for each other must be distinctively Christian. We aren’t merely friends like the secular world has. It’s fine to go to ball games and picnics together. It’s acceptable and good to enjoy dinners and movies together. But those activities must not dominate the lives of Christian friends. Christian relationships should be distinctively Christian. That is, our friendships should include fellowship — our friendships should be designed to encourage our faith and trust in Christ. We spend time together not merely for fun and laughter, but we spend time with one another to sharpen each other spiritually; we spend time with each other to stimulate one another to love and good deeds; we spend time with one another to admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, and to be patient with all.
For many of us, that may mean that we need to rethink the structure of our relationships. As Jerry Bridges has noted,
Take those typical times of “coffee fellowship.” We discuss everything except the Scriptures. We talk about our jobs, our studies, our favorite sports teams, the weather — almost anything except what God is teaching us from His Word and through His workings in our lives. If we are to regain the New Testament concept of fellowship, we must learn to get beyond the temporal issues of the day and begin to share with each other on a level that will enhance our spiritual relationships with one another and with God.
We need relationships. Fellowship is not superfluous. Friendships are not an “added bonus” to life. Relationships are a necessity of life. God has designed us to live in communion with Him and each other. And the reason we persevere in our relationships is not for any other reason than the fact that Christ has made us one with Him and with each other.