For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.
-- 1 Corinthians 12:3 (NASB)
A discussion on a message board has gotten me thinking. And the more I think, the more I see something I ought to have figured out earlier.
When I was growing up, my parents were constantly having Bible studies in our home. Sometimes it was Thursday night, but typically it was Tuesdays. They'd start at (I think) 7:30 PM, and go until quite late (which was probably 10:00 or thereabouts). That meant we kids were just getting ready for bed as the people were arriving. We'd say "goodnight" to everyone, then go off to bed.
My bedroom was on the other side of a wall from the "rec room" in our house. Sometimes the Bible Studies were in the living room, but more often they were in the rec room. That was probably because the woodstove that heated our house was in the rec room: it was the warm, comfortable room. I was an insomniac then as now, so I would lay awake until after everyone left, listening to the Bible Studies. I had to be quiet and not disturb the people out there; but there was a lot for a young boy to learn by eavesdropping on a Bible Study every Tuesday night.
One of the features of the Tuesday Night Bible Study was, it was totally oblivious to sectarian or denominational boundaries. It was full of Baptists, Anglicans, Lutherans, Pentacostals, Foursquares, and even "brethren". My parents let anyone in. My parents, you see, believed in One Body (1 Corinthians 12:13).
As I think back over my personal experience, there is a common thread I can't help but notice: when there is a free giving of what we have to other Christians because they are other Christians, with no attention to whether they are with our group or not (whatever "our group" might be); there are inevitable positive outcomes. And I've seen it many times: the more open-handed we are with all members of the Body, the more the Lord gives us to pass on to them.
If you spend any time at all in any but the most liberal of "brethren" groups, you hear loud wailings, bemoaning the fact that we are in unmistakable decline: assemblies are closing, whole generations are leaving to go to some mainline church or another, parking lots are empty. These are all accurate observations, but I can't help but wonder whether we are so sparse precisely because we have been self-centered. Perhaps people are leaving because we've been worried about keeping them. It might sound corny, but I am more and more convinced that the key to building up an assembly is precisely offering whatever we have to offer (I'm thinking primarily spiritually here, but I'm sure there is a physical application too) freely to any in the Body who need it, regardless of whether they intend to "join us" or not.
Notice right now I am limiting this generosity to members of the One Body. I am not thereby saying we ought not to be generous to lost sinners. But there is a very real difference between those inside and those outside. General benevolence is a good thing: but there is a much more pressing need for Christians to help one another. While we ought to do good for all men, there is the "especially those of the household of faith" (Galatians 6:10).
But I want to also caution about giving to get. Regardless of what televangelists say, you can't manipulate God. The key is not to offer a "loss leader" that lures people in. The key is to understand that the One Body transcends any sectarian or denominational ideas we might have. I am responsible for any child of God He has put in my acquaintance. If a child of God has a need, then I am to do what I can to help. If that child of God attends a Baptist church (shudder), that is not to influence my willingness to help. It might affect how I help, but it is not to affect whether I do so. If I can encourage and help a Christian who is walking with the Lord---regardless of what sort of Church she attends---then I have done work for the Lord.
We need to learn to see ourselves as part of One Body. Gifts are given in the Body (Ephesians 4:11--12), not in a gathering or a denomination. To the extent that God has given us something, we need to share it in the Body, not only in our little group. We need to develop this sense of washing each other's feet; and we need to expand it to the whole household of faith. I need to learn to be genuinely concerned how other Christians are doing: how they are growing, how they are walking. Yes, physical needs are part of it, but there needs to be a concern for the spiritual too. We need to learn to be genuinely caring for one another. And we need to learn it in the context of the One Body.
Now to get a little sectarian on you... the "early brethren" were successful, I think, precisely because of this attitude. It is true that we can't be "in fellowship" with everything out there labeled "Christian." There is heresy, blasphemy, and immorality all over; much of it is marketed inside the Church. We ought certainly to turn away from such things. But we ought to see how far we can go to help other Christians, rather than how far we can get away from them. We ought to be genuinely sorrowful when we realize there is a limit to how far we can fellowship with another Christian, rather than smug. Darby, Grant, Kelly; all these guys had precisely this attitude. They weren't forming a party, they were expressing the One Body.
One point of concern with me is the constant refrain I hear in ministry from "open brethren", a repeated call for formalizing the meetings, for having a hard and fast list of "who's in fellowship". Guys, we already tried that, it's called "denominationalism". It hasn't worked terribly well for anyone else, although it seems te be a default state towards which all Christians tend. It fundamentally denies "One Body," and certainly casts aspersion on everything you claim to believe.
I can't help but think that our attitude of hoarding is a large reason why the Lord has seen fit to ensure we have so little.