The Church Gathered
by Scott Thomas
In ancient Athens, Aristotle, a Greek philosopher of the fourth century BC, wrote about a custom in which, at age eighteen, young men submitted to an examination by fellow citizens and subsequently started physical and military training. Three fathers from each tribe supervised the training of these young men. At the conclusion of two years of training, these young men, clad in full armor, each holding a shield and spear in his left hand and clasping the hand of an older man with his right, recited an oath before an assembly of fellow citizens. This oath is known as the Athenian Oath or Ephebic Oath, and it was required for a young man to become a citizen of Athens:
I will never bring reproach upon my hallowed arms nor will I desert the comrade at whose side I stand, but I will defend our altars and our hearths, single-handed or supported by many. My native land I will not leave a diminished heritage but greater and better than when I received it. I will obey whoever is in authority and submit to the established laws and all others, which the people shall harmoniously enact. If anyone tries to overthrow the Constitution or disobeys it, I will not permit him, but will come to its defense single-handed or with the support of all. (The Classical Journal, Vol. 13, No. 7, April 1918, pp. 495– 501)
This oath made me think about how the church functions as gathered believers on a mission together. The Athenians knew they needed to unite under this oath to survive the ongoing enemy onslaughts. A Christian who fails to unite with a community of believers is vulnerable to an all-out demonic siege. As believers, we are in a spiritual war and are oftentimes undertrained, unprepared, and unguarded by fellow Christians. Each one of us functionally stands alone, exposed to the attacks of Satan and his bloodthirsty legion of demons: “Be sober-minded; be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour” (1 Peter 5:8).
We cannot fight the good fight of faith alone for prolonged periods of time. The Athenian army of the fourth century BC knew they could not face the formidable Persian empire without a unified oath of commitment to their constitution, to their land, and to one another. The apostle Paul warns us: “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).
We face a problem in the church because we are often too busy fighting with each other and failing to fight for each other. To defend against enemy attack, we need to unite under a divine oath and perseveringly stand side by side with our fellow believers. We need to fight for one another with every weapon in our arsenal. In the midst of confusion, destruction, and the threat of enemy attack, Nehemiah said: “Do not be afraid of them. Remember the Lord, who is great and awesome, and fight for your brothers, your sons, your daughters, your wives, and your homes” (Neh. 4:14).
Before we can fight for one another, we need to obtain information about the tactics of our enemy. We must defend against seven common strategies of war:
1. Doubt. An attack on a rogue believer generally begins with doubt over the authority and reliability of God’s Word: “Did God actually say?” (Gen. 3:1). Without others around us to challenge our unbelief, we fall quickly into reliance on our own wisdom.
2. Diversion. Without an army of friends fighting alongside, a lone wolf often turns aside from the primary mission and foundation of the faith to focus on ancillary issues instead of principal doctrines.
3. Deception. All war is based on deception. A believer lacking real friendships in the local church is susceptible to the tricks of Satan. Satan is the father of lies (John 8:44). We are easily deceived into believing that the proverbial Trojan horse is harmless, so we open the door to attacking forces.
4. Division. Jesus asked His Father for the unity of believers (John 17). Jesus wants Christians to give themselves to one another completely in community, just as the Father, Son, and Spirit enjoy true community.
5. Disruption. This occurs when the Commander in Chief is questioned and mutinous gossip is unleashed without forethought. Submission to Christ as the head of the church is crucial for a believer’s effective defense against demonic craftiness.
6. Dominance. The believer, living outside of the protection of a community, is swarmed under heavy spiritual and physical attacks.
7. Destruction. Devastation overcomes believers in many ways. Jesus said, “Every kingdom divided against itself is laid waste, and a divided household falls” (Luke 11:17).
The Athenian oath emphasized responsibility prior to citizenship and community over individuality. The Bible emphasizes these as well:
So I exhort the elders among you, as a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed: shepherd the f lock of God that is among you, exercising oversight, not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you; not for shameful gain, but eagerly; not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the flock. (1 Peter 5:1–3)
To defend against the strategies of war, elders are instructed to shepherd responsibly those people in their “charge” — those God has entrusted to them to lead and care for their souls. While the instruction in the passage is primarily for elders, the application can be extended to all believers, who should exercise spiritual care for others as gospel friends.
The apostle Peter identifies four key characteristics of gospel friendship that are necessary as we fight for one another:
1. A gospel friend initiates a reproducible example as an image-bearer of Jesus. “Shepherd the flock … not domineering over those in your charge, but being examples to the f lock” (vv. 2–3). Jesus provided a pattern for His disciples to follow. He did not control their actions. He modeled worshipful obedience to the mission of God. As leaders, we are undershepherds — submissive agents of our Chief Shepherd, Jesus Christ. Making disciples is the mission of the church, and it includes relating to unbelieving neighbors, relatives, and friends in such close proximity that they may observe us imaging God, and joining with other believers to bring community within the context of daily living. It is ordinary life with extraordinary gospel intentionality, as Steve Timmis puts it.
2. A gospel friend initiates relationships with the people near him or her. God has placed us in relationships where we can care for those around us. We do not have to look for others to befriend. They are all around us: homes, neighborhoods, offices, classrooms, and churches. “Shepherd the flock of God that is among you, exercising oversight” (v. 2). People tend to escape or wander into isolation. A sheep left alone will starve, be ravaged by wolves, or wander into danger.
3. A gospel friend initiates relationships in spite of his own needs. The glory of God motivates this interaction. “As a fellow elder and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as a partaker in the glory that is going to be revealed” (v. 1). An authentic gospel friend is first a believer who recognizes that he is laboring for the King alongside others who are likewise in need. He is simultaneously a shepherd and a sheep. Often we have to fight as wounded soldiers because the mission and the defense of others’ lives demand it.
4. A gospel friend initiates caring acts of service for others. “Not under compulsion, but willingly, as God would have you” (v. 2). In the gospel of John, Jesus talked about the shepherd who abandoned his sheep when trouble arose: “He who is a hired hand and not a shepherd, who does not own the sheep, sees the wolf coming and leaves the sheep and flees, and the wolf snatches them and scatters them. He flees because he is a hired hand and cares nothing for the sheep” (John 10:12–13).
In our self-centered culture (and churches), we often discard people in our lives without much thought. If we are not being forced to care for them or if we are not paid to care for them (“not for shameful gain”), we do not shepherd them through their difficulties because it costs us too much. This is not a model for gospel friendship.
Gospel friendship in the church displays Jesus’ love for us and our validity as His disciples (John 13:34– 35). When we love one another with brotherly affection, we make a commitment (or an oath) to care for others and be cared for by others, to fight for others and to be fought for by others. We must take this divine gospel friendship oath seriously, initiating true community with those whom God entrusts to us as comrades and standing by their sides to fight for the glory of God.