One of the striking differences between the way the Jews related to one another in the Old Testament and the way followers of Christ related to one another has to do with (for lack of a better term) social structure. In the Old Testament, there was a clearly laid out chain of command for both religious and social settings. In the New Testament, followers of Jesus had a much more egalitarian, communal, flat social structure.
All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and posessions to give to anyone who had need.Acts 2:44-45
That's not to say that there wasn't any kind of leadership in the first century Christian church. Early on the need to appoint people into organizational positions was dealt with (Acts 6:1-6). However, these positions were meant more to maintain order and fairness than to create structures of hierarchy and power. In my previous post about the church, I talked about one common metaphor the Bible uses in reference to those who follow the example and teachings of Christ - the body of Christ. Another common metaphor is that of a family.
Jesus constantly referred to God as father. Not just that, Jesus instructed his followers to refer to God as father as seen in the Lord's Prayer. On top of that, in Mark 14:36, Jesus uses the Aramaic word, "abba," when addressing God - a word that basically translates as, "daddy."
This is a radical shift from the Old Testament (and orthodox Jewish practice today) where writing or speaking the word for God is taken very seriously. There's a hilarious story told by Shalom Auslander on NPR's amazing, excellent show, This American Life. In his story, he is told by his rabbi that his name, Shalom, is one of the names of God (there are dozens of them) and that he must never write it again. According to orthodox Jewish teaching, any piece of paper with any of the names of God on it is considered sacred - it "must never be thrown away, it must never touch the ground, it must never be covered." Instead, he is instructed to henceforth write his name, Shalo', with an apostrophe in place of the final letter.
Shalo''s is a contemporary story set somewhere in the US. Can you imagine how much more seriously Jews in Israel in the time of Jesus took the name(s) of God? It's easy to understand why the religious leaders went nuts, started pulling their hair out when they heard Jesus refer to God as his father, his dad. And I don't think Jesus did that just to taunt the rabbis. He was modeling a new way of relating to God and to one another - a way that looked a lot less like a political power structure and more like a family.
One more item before I get to what I want to get at. Take a look at this bit from John 17:20-23:
My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one - I in them and you in me - so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.
Some say that this is the only recorded prayer of Jesus that has yet to be answered. Because if you look at the church at large today, I'd say it's pretty clear that we are not unified or one. And I wonder if many parts of the US (and the world) do not believe in Jesus because of our lack of unity.
Anyone who has been in the church for any length of time knows what this disunity looks like. Couple examples from my own experiences:
Before I started attending the house church I was a part of before moving to Seattle, I attended a couple different churches that belonged to the Foursquare denomination. Churches in Hawaii that were a part of Foursquare fell into two broad camps: the Hope Chapels and the New Hopes. Both camps were very successful - lots of people came (and continue to come) to know Christ through these churches. But the pastors who were at the head of these two camps had very different leadership styles.
In general, the Hope Chapel churches were very bottom-up. They believed in raising up leaders from within the church by helping them discover what their gifts were and helping them find ways to use those gifts in the church. The New Hopes were more top-down. They believed in recruiting top talent in various fields because they believed that the people of God deserved the best.
Both styles of Foursquare church had explosive growth in Hawaii - both leadership models turned out to be wildly successful. So much so that Foursquare headquarters wanted to make Hawaii into its own district but when it came time to decide who would head up this district, the head Hope Chapel pastor and the head New Hope pastor were both candidates for the position.
Long story short, they created two divisions in Hawaii - one for the Hope Chapels and one for the New Hopes. I've been away from Hawaii for two years now and away from Foursquare churches for even longer than that so I don't know how much collaboration and reconciliation has taken place since then but looking at the Foursquare website, I see that there is a Mid-Pacific Division with Hope Chapels under them and a Pacific Rim Division that has the New Hopes. Of course I don't know all the details but come on, Hawaii is not that big of a place - the Foursquare churches there should be able to fit under one umbrella.
Okay, example number two:
One of the largest churches (if not the largest) in and around Seattle is Mars Hill Church. The lead pastor of this church is Mark Driscoll and he's been known to be something of a lightning rod. He's got strong opinions on a wide range of topics and he's not afraid to voice them. Of particular note is his emphasis on his own brand of Christian masculinity which he has called, Ultimate Fighting Jesus. Driscoll's hardline stance on this and other topics has made him a target of harsh criticism from churches near and far.
Both these examples show the lack of unity within the Body of Christ and there are tons of others out there. And this is unfortunate because this is not what he had prayed for on the night before he was crucified.
But how do we work towards this unity?
That's a huge and complicated question but there's one answer I know is wrong. We don't work towards unity by striving for conformity.
One of my favorite verses in the Bible is Romans 1:20 where Paul says, "For since the creation of the world God's invisible qualities - his eternal power and divine nature - have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse." I find this verse striking because part of what it is saying is that God reveals aspects of himself through the world that he created. And this makes sense because just as one can learn things about an artist by examining the art that he/she makes, one can learn bits of what God is like by examining his artistry as displayed in the world around us.
Any cursory survey of the universe will certainly have this to say about God: he loves diversity. Nothing comes in just one shape or size or color. Stars, rocks, clouds, trees, birds, atoms - they all come in variations: yellow giants/red dwarfs (stars), granite/obsidian (rocks), stratocumulus/cirrostratus (clouds), oak/maple/fir (trees), lark/swallow (birds), lead/gold (atoms). There are over 900,000 known insect species and it's estimated that that's probably only about one or two percent of what's actually out there (stat source). Should I go on? On the grand scale of things, some theoretical physicists think that there are multiple universes (and there are multiple versions of this multiverse theory). Then on the smallest scales of things, there's a whole orchestra of elementary particles that make up any one of the 7*10^27 atoms in the average human body. It seems that God never makes anything in just one form or kind. Even God himself is understood as the Trinity - three in one.
All that to make the case that the way towards unity in the church is not through conformity. The goal is not for us to all look, think, worship, believe the same. The twelve disciples started their ministries after the resurrection of Jesus with their unique identities intact - they were free to be who God had made them to be - but they still worked together. They had their disagreements but the Gospel continued to be spread.
So if not through conformity then how does the Body of Christ work towards unity?
In the past, I've suggested that maybe we should "see the differing ideas within Christianity the way a botanist sees a garden - as a thriving system of bio-diversity. . ." (post 216). But that can be problematic because then you have to deal with the whole food chain thing - churches aren't meant to eat one another.
I think the metaphor of the body and that of the family are more useful.
I won't say a lot about the church as body because Paul has already worked that out in 1 Corinthians 12:4-31.
But the family metaphor is a really useful one because it's ripe for analogies. But it's also useful in the sense that perhaps one promising way towards unity is a kind of feigned civility - that face we put on at family reunions where we need to share a table with family members with whom we have some deep disagreement(s).
This idea of just putting our differences aside and just getting along is a nice one but the reality of the matter is far messier and more difficult.
A few months ago on my pastor's blog, he put up a post about Supporting Women In Ministry. And of course there are churches on both sides of the debate. Speaking for myself, for most of my life I've been in churches that allowed women to serve at all levels of leadership. But there are churches and denominations that do not support this view.
I won't lay out arguments on either side of the theological debate here. I site the example because it's one area where advocating for unity and body and family is particularly tricky.
See, as I often do when the topic of conflict and/or disunity in the church comes up, I try to make the God-loves-diversity-and-variety case I made above. I try to make a case for unity in the body of Christ. And so in the comments section of the blog I wrote the following:
I believe there’s room enough in the Body of Christ for both positions. Does this mean I believe scripture has no meaning? Well on foundational issues like the divinity of Christ, I believe the Bible speaks clearly and those choose to believe something else are probably outside of what it is to be a Christian. But on secondary issues I think there should be much grace and healthy debate. Maybe some will disagree, but I think the issue of women serving in ministry is a secondary issue that well meaning, sincere Christians can agree to disagree on.
Looking back now, I see that it was a pretty naive, insensitive remark - one that I could make without much thought because of the privileges I have been born with as a male. This point was driven home for me by some of the responses left by others (men and women) highlighting the dehumanizing, unjust nature of the position against women in church leadership. For example one of the other pastors at my church left this comment:
it always amazes me that so many men weigh in on whether or not women should be allowed in ministry. That you who are able to take for granted that you are called by God find it necessary to determine whether or not another person created in the image of God could possibly be given the same calling strikes me as astonishingly hubristic. That it could be said without exception or discussion that women are never gifted or called to lead a congregation is not a theological view that reflects any sort of care for women, or openness to the outpouring of the Spirit. To those who hold the opposite view, and claim to care for the women in their congregation, or to those who believe there is room for both views, I respectfully disagree. You have absolutely no idea, speaking of men here, what it feels like to have your very identity the subject of continual challenge and discussion. When I speak with someone who does not believe women should be in leadership, I feel that my humanity before God is not recognized, that my calling is invalidated, and that my ministry is seen as ‘less than’. I relate to the exhaustion of Catherine and others, and wonder if there will be a day before the Day of the Lord when we in the Evangelical church won’t have to have this discussion any longer.
I felt pretty stupid and small after reading that and deservedly so. Mine was a comment born out of the convenience of privilege. It was easy for me to put out there because neither side of the debate affected any part of my life.
And I don't know how to advocate for unity in this debate. I don't know that there is a unifying position.
And I wonder if that is what Paul is getting at in 1 Corinthians 13:9-13 (a continuation of the church as body passage I pointed to above). Until Christ returns and renews all of creation, we will see only partially, incompletely, dimly. And in this incompleteness, perhaps the only way forward is love - messy and awkward and broken.
Maybe it's like sitting at a large table at a family reunion. Maybe we put the relatives who vote Republican on one end of the table and those who vote Democratic on the other side. But we put them at the same table. Thanksgiving is coming up soon and I'm sure there will be tables around the nation where family members are dreading seeing that crazy uncle who smells like sour cabbage or the vegan aunt who will make everyone at least try a slice of tofurkey or the niece who's going to try and lure people into her latest multi-level marketing scheme or the cousin who's a registered sex offender or the in-law who just made it out of detox and so no one can have beer or wine. Do we make room for them? Do we not invite them? Or do we put them at opposite ends of the table (and do we keep the kids safely in another room)? Do we steer conversations away from minefields?
I use the table as an example because even as we are all divided and disagree, we all come to the table and take communion - a table separated by geography as well as ideology but somehow still the same table.
A few weeks ago Shane Claiborne came to my church and one of the things he shared was how he has disagreements with people in the Seattle area, alluding to Mark Driscoll who I mentioned above. He said that before coming into Seattle for this talk, he called Mark and spoke to him on the phone. Shane had wanted to have dinner with him while in the area but Mark was busy. However, he did assure Shane that he would let him know if he were ever in the Philadelphia area and that he'd make room in his schedule to have dinner then.
Driscoll and Claiborne are on opposite ends of the spectrum on a wide range of topics. I'd imagine that one of the few things they have in common is a love for Christ. If asked, they would both paint very different pictures of how they viewed Christ, but they'd be referring to the same person. Both see Christ incompletely - incompletely in different ways - but they are both looking at Christ. And I don't know what they'll talk about or not talk about if/when they ever sit across from one another at dinner (I'd love to be a fly on the wall for that conversation) but the fact that the two are open to the idea fills me with hope.