We talk and write a lot about community in this space with P2C-Students. There is so much purpose, meaning, and benefit to finding a community of like-minded people at college and university to befriend and get connected with. Especially in a place filled with thousands of people, where it’s easy to feel lost and alone.
Often that’s why students get involved in our ministry on campus, join a Bible study, or come out to an event that we host: they are looking for friends. And that’s a great thing! We long to be a place where people can come to develop connection and hopefully, life-long friendships. Our prayer and hope is that students will build friendships on a foundation where people can learn about Jesus and the Bible, ask questions, and grow in faith together. Friendships that are active, involving taking steps of faith together, and seeing God work in their lives and in the lives of people around them.
But what if the community we find ourselves in is unhealthy and dangerous?
Just as there’s a potential for community to be grounded, healthy, and life-giving, there’s a risk that community can have an underlying culture that can cripple us and our faith. At first, it can be hard to see and notice the difference. The differences lie in the underlying motivations of people and what is essentially passed on and communicated over time. In order to discern the difference, we need to look at the “fruit” or results of what that community produces.
Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees reveal elements of a dangerous community of faith that threatened to derail people from actually knowing God. Jesus was tender with the brokenhearted and compassionate with the poor and lowly. He served the outcasts and ate with sinners. But with the religious elite and the leaders he was tough, pointing out their hypocrisy and unhealthy approach to faith.
Learning from the Pharisees, here are three dangerous communities that we should avoid and run from:
1. Rigid in practice/process
Often unhealthy communities will foster a culture and social expectation of rigidity, where there is one clear practice or process to live or express faith. If a person were to do otherwise, or push the boundaries of what has been deemed “best,” they are often shamed and judged. Much of this may not be explicitly verbalized, but it is felt in nuance, body language, or in drawing away socially.
The Pharisees and religious leaders of Jesus’ day did this, even with God’s good gift of rest that was intended for our good and restoration. They took the biblical principle of Sabbath (resting from our labour for one day of the week to honour God with our work and time), and insisted on a specific process for how to do that. When Jesus and his disciples honoured the principle of Sabbath but didn’t follow the rigid process and practice of the Pharisees, they were judged and questioned (Mark 2:23-28).
There’s a tension with clear guidelines in Scripture and knowing how to live it out. For instance, it’s clear that God designed sex for marriage (1 Corinthians 7:8-9; Galatians 5:19-21; and 1 Thessalonians 4:3-5), and therefore in dating, it’s honouring to God to withhold from engaging in pre-marital sex.
The principle and instruction of saving sex for the marriage relationship is clear, but the process leading up to marriage is unclear. How a couple lives out their dating relationship in the context of community and hopefully, wisely pursues holiness, can look different. An unhealthy community is one that will decide which process is more “holy” and insist that others live in a way to meet their standard–instead of encouraging people to follow Jesus and trust the Holy Spirit to lead them as they live out their faith.
2. Shame as a motivator
Shame as a motivator says, “If you don’t do this _____, you are a bad person/Christian.” While guilt is an emotion we feel when we have done something wrong, and which can lead to repentance or seeking forgiveness, shame is a belief that we ARE wrong because of who we are or what we’ve done.
When the Pharisees caught a woman in adultery in John 8:3-11, they dragged her into the public eye and essentially suggested that Jesus should stone her to death. They were seeking to test Jesus to see if he would follow God’s law in Leviticus 20:10, “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbour, both the adulterer and the adulterous shall surely be put to death.”
It’s clear as the Pharisees drag this woman into the public eye in an attempt to entrap Jesus (as the Roman authorities did not allow the Jews to carry out death sentences) that they are using shame as a motivator. Personally, I’m like, “Where’s the man??” Since the law insists on both the man and woman being put to death, it’s interesting that ONLY the woman was dragged out to be stoned by Jesus. This seems to be a reflection of their poor care and attitude toward women in this culture.
Jesus’ response is one of challenge to the Pharisees, but mercy, grace, and compassion to the woman. He removes her shame and encourages her to walk in freedom. “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her,” claims Jesus to the religious elite. They know that they are not without sin–and to claim that about themselves would be considered blasphemy.
Ironically, Jesus is the only one there without sin. He could stone the woman for what she has done. Instead he turns to her, after everyone else left, and says, “Neither do I condemn you; go, and from now on sin no more.” Jesus has the freedom and power to condemn the woman for her sin, and he agrees that her adultery was sin. But he chooses to extend mercy and offer her life. He treats her with dignity and instructs her to walk in freedom and righteousness, to turn from her sin and live in holiness.
Jesus doesn’t use shame as a motivator for this woman to live a certain way. While he acknowledged what she did was wrong, he didn’t say, “Unless you honour your marriage you’re a bad person and deserve death.” He points her towards a better path of freedom based on his own grace, mercy, and love. He protects the woman from the schemes of the Pharisees and doesn’t allow them to use and abuse her for their own purposes of testing Jesus.
3. Power first, faith second
The Pharisees were not just unhealthy, but dangerous in how they worshipped God and instructed others. They were deemed dangerous based on Jesus’ authority (that of God himself), and how he called them out and challenged them.
The Pharisees were more concerned about losing their place of power and prestige over the people than actually considering who Jesus was and wrestling with the fact that he really was God:
“So the chief priests and the Pharisees gathered the council and said, “What are we to do? For this man performs many signs. If we let him go on like this, everyone will believe in him, and the Romans will come and take away both our place and our nation.”… So from that day on they made plans to put him to death.” (John 11:47-48, 53)
People who are power first, and faith second, are essentially bullies. They act as if they have been granted the power and authority by Jesus to condemn and police people around them. Like the Pharisees, these people fear losing their place of prestige in a community; and while their words and actions can seem righteous, their underlying motivation is selfish and power-centric.
A vision for healthy community
The reality is that no community is perfect. There are natural cycles and ups and downs that people collectively go through. As people have brokenness and sin inside them, it’s naturally expressed outwardly in the context of their relationships. But just as we are responsible before God to obey Christ and turn from our sin, we also live out accountability in community too. We are all active members with important voices for both the power of good and the power of evil.
Sometimes the most unhealthy action in community is to not speak up when we hear, see, or feel something that could be dangerous. As power struggles play out, it can feel rightfully scary and intimidating to use our voice in a helpful and emotionally safe way. This is when the power of God, through the Holy Spirit, can empower us to speak or act even when we are tempted to feel fearful. Paul writes, “For God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control” (2 Tim 1:7). God can give us courage and strength to ask questions, seek clarity, and respectfully confront others who have hurt us, or whose actions confuse or concern us.
That’s been my experience, especially as I once worked in ministry on a team with power-hungry men. Not all men are power-hungry, but these ones were. I felt like I was a threat to them. As a woman in leadership, who was technically in authority over them, trying to work together was painful and humiliating as I faced disrespect and meanness that was masked as godly ministry. The behaviour wasn’t just directed at me, but at other men and women too.
It can be scary to speak out against a culture like this, when we feel like we are the underdog. However, God was in control the whole time. And through speaking up in love, and in an effort to bring things into the light, change occurred. Hearts were made new, and relationships restored.
Some people and relationships didn’t change, and in the sadness of that there’s space to process and dream of what true, healthy community could be. A community based on love and grace. Willing to journey together and confess sin. A community with a culture of forgiving and asking for forgiveness.
At the end of the day, there’s great hope for God-given community. God didn’t create us to live in isolation and to do life alone. He gave us community, each other, to befriend, work alongside, and journey with as we seek to love God, and love and serve people around us.