By Afshin Ziafat
God’s intent for everyone who comes to faith in Christ is to grow in Christlikeness as they follow Him through life, and he has intended this sanctifying work to take place in the context of community. From the beginning of time, sin has tempted mankind to withdraw into darkness and isolation. When Adam and Eve first sinned, they attempted not only to cover themselves up but also to withdraw from God’s presence into hiding. In John 3:20, Jesus says, “everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed.”
All of us are sinners and drift naturally toward isolation and away from walking in the light where our sins can be exposed. Scripture is clear in its admonition to walk in the light in community (1 John 1:7). John continues by saying, “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us” (vv. 8-10). The kind of fellowship that will sanctify us is fellowship that is transparent and authentic, where sin is not covered up but openly confessed. Being a committed member of a small group allows us to walk alongside people who know our sins, struggles, and fears and can truly hold us accountable.
But small groups don’t just help a Christian to defeat sin in his life. They also provide the arena where spiritual maturity occurs. Consider the list of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.Most of these fruits are only relevant in the context of community. They are only seen and developed relationally. We don’t grow in love, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness in seclusion, but only in fellowship with others as we learn to extend these Spirit-filled virtues toward each other.
Remember that mankind was originally created in the image of God, which has now been marred by sin. But Christ’s work of sanctification through the Holy Spirit is to restore that image to his followers. In the book of Colossians, Paul teaches that followers of Christ are to put off the old self and put on the new self that is being renewed in knowledge after the image of its Creator. “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony” (Colossians 3:12-14). Again we see that this list of qualities that reflect the image of God are only instilled in the Christian in the context of community. This list assumes not only that conflict will happen, but that such conflict is an opportunity for sin to be revealed and for growth to happen. This is why merely attending church isn’t enough. We must know and be known by people in our churches. When conflict is avoided, the work of sanctification is short-circuited. We need to be committed to community because we need to be sanctified.
Afshin Ziafat is lead pastor at Providence Church in Frisco, Texas. He is committed to proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ around the world, and frequently travels to the Middle East to train future pastors.