One of the things the world is quite good at creating are communities of competence.
Communities of competence are little informal societies of people who associate with one another for the primary purpose of demonstrating their individual competence in whatever endeavor has joined them together.
Thus communities of competence come into existence to exhibit, to evaluate and to confirm individual success. They are, by definition, communities always ripening toward great risk and great reward. The risk is for those who fail. They will be judged and condemned. The reward is for those who succeed. They will be vindicated and exalted.
These communities of competence are not the same as a business corporation but they can exist within one. They are not the same as an athletic team but they can exist within one. They are not the same as a school or a classroom but they can exist within a one. They are not the same as a family, but they can exist within one.
Communities of competence are not discerned simply by the existence of organizational structure and institutional standards. Communities of competence are rarely so blatantly obvious that one can spot them by merely reading their public charter or mission statement or documents of incorporation.
On the contrary, communities of competence are smuggled into the corporation, the team, the school or the home by disordered human hearts that can see no justification for human existence outside of personal success.
Case in point. The fantastic 1981 film Chariots of Fire tells the story of the 1924 Olympian runner and Christian missionary, Eric Liddell. But the movie also tells the story of another Olympian from that year, Harold Abrahams. Like Liddell, Abrahams is a 100-meters runner for the British team. Unlike Liddell, Abrahams knows of no other way to validate his life in the world except by winning the race.
Not long before the race begins Abrahams is in the locker room contemplating his future: "And now in one hour's time, I will be out there again. I will raise my eyes and look down that corridor; 4 feet wide, with 10 lonely seconds to justify my existence. But will I?"
Abrahams was on the same Olympic team as Liddell but for Abrahams it was a community of competence where existence rises or falls. Something beautifully human and benign - a foot race - had become unbearably loaded with risk and reward, judgment and justification. A 100-meter stretch of creation had become an altar of worship where atonement could be performed by a mere mortal. Idols can be made from anything.
That raw anxiety of soul depicted in the film activates in the hearts of millions everyday as they awake and step up to the line of parenting, learning, thinking, writing, designing, selling, drawing, speaking, doctoring, teaching and even preaching. "This is it," the soul whispers, "competence here will justify my existence."
When men ask these little earthly societies in which we live and move and have our being to declare us legitimate, to declare us worth keeping, to declare us justified, then and there we have created a community of competence. And when our sphere of duty has become a community of competence it is impossible for us to look upon others with the love of God. In a community of competence I secretly relish the weakness of those who are falling behind me and I secretly disdain those who are well out ahead.
89 years ago Harold Abrahams took gold in the 100-meters at the Olympics. No community nor stage of greater consequence can be imagined where he could demonstrate his athletic competence. He succeeded. Or did he? What if we could resurrect Abrahams and bring him into our day? What genuine admiration could he muster for Usain Bolt whose world record 100-meter run from 2009 was a whole second better than Abrahams' best?
The good news for all of us is that God has a plan to both justify our existence and to reform our love for neighbor. That plan is the gospel and the church the gospel populates.
The gospel is a justification by grace as opposed to a justification by performance. The church is a community of grace as opposed to a community of competence. The gospel declares to incompetent parents and incompetent students and incompetent professionals and incompetent people that their incompetencies will not be counted against them. And, yes, the gospel also declares that our perceived competencies will not be counted either. This is a blessed exclusion because on closer scrutiny - divine scrutiny not human - even our best game was not so good.
How does the church the gospel populates reform our love for neighbor? In the church of grace we learn that it is not uniformity of competence or uniformity of skill or uniformity of intelligence that binds us together. In the church of grace it is the uniformity of mutual wretchedness and corruption covered by the blood of redeeming love that binds us together. So in the church of grace we see even in the weakest Christian our own biography of weakness. In the church of grace we see even in the strongest Christian the power of another - the omnicompetent Lord Jesus. In the church of grace then we look on stragglers without the haughtiness that thrives in communities of competence and we look on the mature without the envy. All is from grace and there is grace available for all.
Does this all mean that Christians are slugs and have theological grounds for maintaining low standards in all of life? Of course not. Paul answered this question at the top of Romans 6: "What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound? By no means! How can we who died to sin still live in it?"
The gospel of grace that populates the church of grace not only pardons it empowers. But as it does, it never permits us to look at even our life-change as grounds for our acceptance with God or one another. We will always credit God's grace for any competency people mistake as our own. We will regularly confess as did Paul: "But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me." (1 Corinthians 15:10).