Without the love and support of community, I would not be married—at least not to my current husband. When he unexpectedly broke off our first engagement, our friends circled around us offering prayer and comfort. But because they understood what constitutes true healing, they also pressed us to forgive. Their accountable love made it possible for us to reconnect years down the road.
Our reliance upon friends and family during that breakup foreshadowed what we have since learned to be true: If we want a healthy marriage, we must stitch ourselves into a healthy community. Though we vow to love, honor and cherish one person, being sewn into a relational quilt increases the likelihood that we will uphold our vows.
What Does a Healthy Community Look Like?
Though no two communities look exactly the same, they share notable commonalities. Healthy communities are comprised of diverse men and women—married and single—some of whom are intimate friends and others mere acquaintances, who want to grow. Because they long for transformation, they regularly confess their sins (James 5:16). In response to confession, a healthy community forgives, comforts and, if necessary, corrects (2 Corinthians 2:6–8). Rather than silencing questions and doubts, community members listen and engage (Hebrews 10:25). They do not shy away from difficult conversations, conflicting opinions or the inherent tensions of diversity (Ephesians 4:2). Healthy communities willingly sacrifice their time and resources, even when it’s not convenient (Acts 4:32–37). Finally, healthy communities accept us as we are but also call us into the fullness of Christ (Philippians 2:1–18).
Just like marriage, no community is perfect. German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer acknowledged this reality in Life Together: Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by a great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves. … Christian [community] is not an ideal which we must realize; it is rather a reality created by God in Christ in which we may participate.
Choosing to do the hard work of loving members of our community in the face of disappointment and disillusionment strengthens us to do the same with our spouse. (Occasionally, a community becomes so toxic that we need to walk away, but often staying and allowing our roots to descend yields more fruit than transplanting the tree.)
Do We Really Need Community? Yes, and Here’s Why:
The marriage script in The Episcopal Book of Common Prayer invites wedding guests to answer a simple but consequential question: “Will all of you witnessing these promises do all in your power to uphold these two persons in their marriage?” Hopefully, the guests proclaim, “We will!”
During our wedding, the response to this question rocked the sanctuary. Perhaps based on our earlier challenges, they intuited that we might need to lean on their enthusiastic support in the years to come. Christopher and I are not alone in that need. Communities serve marriage in three unique ways: They reorient us away from idolatrous tendencies, encourage us in our spiritual growth and offer us much-needed companionship.
Healthy Communities Check Our Idolatrous Tendencies.
God created us to worship. If we don’t worship the Creator, we worship the created (Romans 1). I don’t know anyone who crafts golden statues like the Israelites did, but idolatrous practices are just as common today as they were thousands of years ago. In round one of our relationship, I played the part of the idolater by refusing to acknowledge Christopher’s weaknesses and limitations. I preferred to view him as the perfect husband-to-be who would satisfy all my needs. In return, he played the role of the idol, willingly receiving my adoration. I spent two years in counseling before I understood that I was expecting things from Christopher that only God could provide.
Bending toward false gods is not unique. We live in an idolatrous age with larger-than-life personalities who beckon us to bow down at their altars. This warped dynamic always ends with the idol falling and shocked idolaters scurrying to safety.
As we become part of a functional community, those who tend toward narcissism get pulled back to the dusty earth when others refuse to bow down. Those who tend toward idolizing the narcissist are called to look beyond the object of their adulation to the God who saves. A diverse, weekly gathering that includes corporate confession, worship, and communion draws us to the holy center and calls us into a larger story that revolves around Jesus, not us.
Healthy Communities Encourage Growth
Dynamic, healthy communities foster growth and maturation. There’s a drill my college field-hockey team did that illustrates the power of community. We had to sprint from one goal line to the opposite end line and back in less than 50 seconds. If the last player did not cross the line before the coach’s timer went off, we had to repeat the drill. Because one teammate was slow, the captains devised a strategy. They moved her to the middle and then we all held hands. A church community that functions with this level of camaraderie and affection will spur everyone on toward the goal of transformation in Christ.
Healthy Communities Offer Us Companionship
When we marry, we seldom realize that we will sporadically feel a peculiar kind of loneliness. In the midst of one difficult season, I remember lying in bed less than a foot away from my husband and feeling as if we were on opposite sides of the Continental Divide. Because I had a rich network of friends, I turned to them for support and prayer. Though some needs should only be met by our spouse, no spouse is capable of providing all of our needs. If we enter marriage expecting that, disappointment will hit before the honeymoon ends.
Make It Happen
In a fully redeemed world, every community would have a finely tuned radar for distress and dispatch someone to arrive at our front door—casserole in hand—offering to pray before we’ve even tweeted our need. That’s not been our experience. Over the years, we’ve learned that we have to take responsibility for whatever support, counsel, and practical help we lack. As we take responsibility, we shape the community. There’s risk involved with expressing need—which is part of why we tend to avoid it. If we bare our souls, will others judge us and potentially avoid us at the next social gathering? Maybe. But by asking for help, we learn to articulate our needs rather than resenting others for not meeting them.
In The Wisdom of Stability, author Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove writes, “Life with the God we know in Jesus Christ is lived in community with other people. We can only grow into the fullness of what we are made to be in Christ by opening ourselves to the particular brothers and sisters who mediate Christ’s presence to us.” Though we might not always appreciate the ongoing challenges that are part of every community, they are nothing less than God’s mercy and provision for us.
This article was adapted from Making Marriage Beautiful (Making Marriage Beautiful, 2017) published by David C. Cook. Used with permission.