The Art of One-Anothering

How the Church Loves Like Christ

I sometimes think I could be very holy if, after doing my morning devotions, I just stayed in my room all day long. I find that patience, for example, comes easier by myself. Peace, too. I feel a general kindness and goodwill when I’m alone. I imagine myself ready to bear others’ burdens.

But then I leave my room and begin interacting with some of those “others” face to face. And before long, I wonder where my holiness went. Patience now feels fragile; peace goes on the retreat. My theoretical kindness finds itself unprepared for real annoyances, and my shoulders seem too weak for real burdens. People, it turns out, have an irritating way of poking the spiritual fruit on my table, only to reveal just how many of those apples and pears are plastic.

I might prefer holiness to be a more private affair, a halo that hangs over my solitary head. But “holiness,” John Stott helpfully reminds me, “is not a mystical condition experienced in relation to God but in isolation from human beings. You cannot be good in a vacuum, but only in the real world of people” (Message of Ephesians, 184). True holiness may begin between God and the soul, but it finds full expression in community with other people — other wonderful, glorious, frustrating, and sometimes offensive people.

“True holiness may begin between God and the soul, but it finds full expression in community with other people.”

Which explains why, again and again, the New Testament describes the authentically holy life using two simple words: “one another.”

The One-Anothers

Around fifty times in the New Testament, Jesus and the apostles tell us to feel, say, or do something to “one another.” We are to care for one another and bear with one another, honor one another and sing to one another, do good to one another and forgive one another. And then there is the grand, overarching, most-repeated one-another, the command that “binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:14): “Love one another.”

The one-anothers do not exhaust our obligations to other Christians (many communal imperatives do not include the phrase “one another”), but together they offer a brilliant picture of life together under the lordship of Christ — and not only under the lordship of Christ, but also in the pattern of Christ. For, rightly grasped, the one-anothers are nothing less than the life of Christ at work in the people of Christ to glory of Christ.

Consider, for example, how even in a community-oriented passage like Colossians 3:12–17 (which includes three one-anothers), Paul can’t stop talking about Jesus. Our new character — compassionate, kind, humble, meek, patient (verse 12) — reflects “the image of its creator,” Christ (verse 10). We forgive “as the Lord has forgiven [us]” (verse 13). Our unity reflects “the peace of Christ” (verse 15); our words flow from “the word of Christ” (verse 16). In fact, whatever we do in community, we do “in the name of the Lord Jesus” (verse 17). For here, “Christ is all, and in all” (verse 11).

The one-anothers, then, are earthly dramas of heavenly realities; they are the love of Christ played out on ten thousand stages. So, with this pattern in mind, we might fruitfully consider the one-anothers in five categories: have his mind, offer his welcome, speak his words, show his love, and give his grace.

1. Have His Mind

Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count [one another] more significant than yourselves. (Philippians 2:3)

Clothe yourselves, all of you, with humility toward one another. (1 Peter 5:5)

We might easily launch into the one-anothers wondering about all we should do for our brothers and sisters in Christ — and indeed, the one-anothers call us to do much. But before we say or do anything for one another, God calls us to feel something toward one another. “Have this mind among yourselves,” he says, “which is yours in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5). And this mind, or attitude, can be captured in one word: humility.

It is possible — frighteningly possible, I’ve discovered — to externally “obey” the one-anothers with a mind utterly at odds with Christ. It’s possible to greet one another with a smile that hides bitterness; and encourage one another with a grasping, flattering heart; and bear one another’s burdens with a messiah complex. In other words, it is possible to turn the one-anothers into subtle servants of Master Self.

Humility, however, clothes us with the others-oriented attitude of Christ. Humility puts a pair of eyeglasses on the soul, allowing us to see others without the blurring of selfishness. And humility, in its own miniature way, follows the same descent Christ took when he “humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death” (Philippians 2:8). It goes low to lift others high — and doesn’t scheme for how it might lift self too.

In a Spirit-filled community, we all (no matter how tall) look up at each other, not down; we jostle to kneel and hold the towel; we choose the seat of the last and the least — because we remember how Jesus did the same for us.

2. Offer His Welcome

Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. (Romans 12:16)

Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you. (Romans 15:7)

Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. (1 Peter 4:9)

The one-anothers, having begun with a humble mind, now move outward to eyes, mouth, and outstretched hand. The “mind of Christ” led our high and holy Lord toward us, not away. He came to us with a welcome, drawing us near through the door of his humble heart. His was a fellowship-creating love, a love that turned strangers into brothers (Ephesians 2:14–17). And now we, his people, walk in that same love and offer that same welcome.

“Welcome one another” (Romans 15:7), like all the one-anothers, sounds nice in theory. But the real-life application of this command may stretch our preferences and personalities beyond the breaking point. For “welcome,” of course, means more than “nod and say hello,” and “one another” means more than “those others whom you like.” Rather, the command calls us to warmly embrace, gladly associate with, and readily invite into our homes every other in our church — including those who seem “lowly” (Romans 12:16), and those we feel strongly tempted to judge or despise (Romans 14:3).

But if Christ left heaven to welcome sinners like us, then we can cross the church foyer to welcome difficult saints. And if he opened his heart to let us strangers in, then we can open our homes to others, no matter how strange. And if he greeted us in our lostness, then surely we can greet others in their loneliness.

3. Speak His Words

Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom. (Colossians 3:16)

Encourage one another and build one another up. (1 Thessalonians 5:11)

Exhort one another every day. (Hebrews 3:13)

Christians are a word people, a speaking people. Brought to life ourselves by “the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:23), we now seek to bring that life to others through our Word-shaped words. And we employ the whole range of our tones and vocal cords to do so: we not only speak, but teach, instruct, admonish, encourage, exhort, comfort, honor, stir up, and even sing. Whether pastors or not, we all are stewards of God’s life-giving word; we all have something to say.

So, as we welcome one another, we look for opportunities to take some portion of God’s word and apply it in a way that “fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29). We are people with a Bible always open on the table of our hearts, ready to “stir up one another to love and good works” with a well-timed word (Hebrews 10:24). So, even as we laugh and exchange small talk, a current of holy intentionality flows through our conversation: we know that God intends to use what we say to work wonders in each other’s lives.

Which means, of course, that we are also a listening people. For, first, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes, we can speak “the Word of God” faithfully and accurately only when we listen “with the ears of God” (Life Together, 76) — patiently and attentively tracing the contours of a brother’s or sister’s heart. And then, second, we also listen to the words that others have for us. No one in any local church, including its pastors, is only teacher, but always teacher and disciple, speaker and listener, exhorter and exhorted.

4. Show His Love

Always seek to do good to one another. (1 Thessalonians 5:15)

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another. (1 Peter 4:10)

Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. (Galatians 6:2)

As important as words are for a healthy Christian community, no community lives on words alone. Jesus did not just speak to people during his earthly ministry; he healed them and touched them and delivered them and ate with them. And so we, his disciples, are not mere mouths to one another, but also hands and feet and shoulders. We not only speak his love, but show it.

Now, service may often feel like a costlier form of love than speech. It’s one thing to speak comforting words; it’s another to sit for long hours as a comforting presence. It’s one thing to encourage someone carrying a heavy burden; it’s another to bend your shoulder to the load. This kind of love interrupts the day’s plans with untimely requests and lays hands on evenings and weekends.

“Let . . . the greatest account it their greatest honour to perform the meanest necessary service to the meanest of saints,” John Owen writes (Works, 13:81). In the one-another kingdom of Christ, pastors count it their high honor to visit shut-in saints. Busy fathers set up chairs before the Sunday gathering. Tired mothers listen over children’s background chaos to the quiet tears of a younger woman. College students give their Saturdays to helping church members move houses.

And all of us, like the woman in Mark 14, gladly break our precious alabaster flasks — our time, our gifts, our money, our homes — to anoint the body of Christ.

5. Give His Grace

[Bear] with one another in love. (Ephesians 4:2)

Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. (Ephesians 4:32)

The humble mind of Christ, the warm welcome of Christ, the stirring words of Christ, the helpful hand of Christ — these show, marvelously, what the Spirit of Christ can do in a community. But none displays our Lord quite so clearly as the forgiving heart of Christ. Christian communities are built, through great disappointment and heartache, in the shape of a cross.

Therefore, we never have a better opportunity to show the glory of Christian community than when Christian community feels hardest. Get close enough to any group of recovering sinners, and they will poke and prod your patience. They will say things that baffle and offend you. They will wound you without even knowing it. The worst of these moments can leave a smoking crater in our souls. But they can also become ground zero for something beautiful and new: “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).

This love will hurt. Oh will it hurt. To forgive completely — not counting others’ sins against them, not holding onto it, not allowing it to become the lens through which we see them? This love feels, in some small measure, like Calvary love. And it shines with Calvary splendor.

One Another for the World

Why, we might ask, did Paul, Peter, James, and John lay such stress on Christian community? Why did they stack up so many one-another commands in their letters, rather than promoting a more private piety?

Perhaps for the same reason Jesus said to his disciples,

A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another. (John 13:34–35)

“This Lord reconciles us not only to himself, but to each other, creating one-another love out of one-another pain.”

We live in a world with its own set of one-anothers: one-another brokenness, one-another enmity, one-another manipulation, one-another selfishness. And local churches exist to show a different way of life — a different Lord of life. This Lord reconciles us not only to himself, but to each other, creating one-another love out of one-another pain.

As such communities move out into the world — into parks and coffee shops and sports teams and neighborhoods — and as they invite outsiders in, such relational glory will not go unnoticed. “By this all people will know . . .” And therefore, Christians walking in the one-anothers not only have Christ’s mind, offer his welcome, speak his words, show his love, and give his grace. They also advance his mission.