Polarization and the Way of Jesus

Ask pastors and church leaders what their greatest concerns are in these latter days, and one of the words that will float to the top is “polarization.”

There’s little doubt that our society has become more polarized, more afflicted by extremes, less attuned to compromise and middle ground. And the church has followed suit, as it often does, sometimes even leading the way. The political partisanship and the culture clash of left versus right has permeated our congregations and denominations.

Any follower of Jesus worth their salt and light who wants to address polarization is faced with two conflicting beliefs.

On the one hand, we believe that Jesus came to heal divisions, to bring peace between people. Unity is one of our loftiest goals, a unity of the Spirit grounded in Jesus, a unity which does not erase diversity but celebrates it. Jesus “has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us,” so that he might “create in himself one new humanity…thus making peace” (Eph 2:14-15).

On the other hand, we believe that following Jesus sometimes provokes hostility, even revealing divisions. “Do you think that I have come to bring peace to the earth?” Jesus asks his stunned disciples. “No, I tell you, but rather division! From now on five in one household will be divided, three against two and two against three” (Luke 12:51-53).

What does the division-healing, division-revealing Spirit of Jesus have to say to us today in our polarized world? Let me suggest one overarching thought that then needs some explanation.

Polarization is not our enemy; injustice and oppression is our enemy.

Let’s step back even further. In case we Jesus-followers need to be reminded of this fact, no human person is ultimately our enemy. “Our struggle is not against blood and flesh,” and “we do not wage war as the world does” with its “fleshly weapons” (Eph 6:12; 2 Cor 10:3-4).

This is Jesus’ Nonviolence 101. Humans may participate with the “spiritual forces of evil” in this world, and if so they need to be resisted, but ultimate they are not our enemy. God’s desire is for their redemption, and our redemption is bound up with theirs.

When it comes to how we treat individuals, then, we treat them as Jesus did: with compassion.

Here’s a striking contrast in the Gospels. Jesus speaks harsh, public words denouncing a group of people: woes to the rich oppressors, condemnations of unjust religious leaders (Luke 6:24-25; Matt 23). Yet he still shares meals with these people (Luke 7:36-50), and when he engages with individuals from among those groups he does so with deep compassion for them (John 3:1-15). Kindness is a fruit of the Spirit, after all.

However, don’t miss this fact: Jesus does not shy away from speaking strong words against powerful oppressors, even individually. In fact, all his teaching and his healings, his whole way of life, was a subversion of the values of those powerful oppressors. And this brought division in his wake. Ultimately, it led to his crucifixion by the powers that be.

Jesus was a polarizing figure. Yet he was driven by compassion toward all, a devoted love for God expressed in compassionate love for neighbour.

Jesus’ love for all, though, had an important corollary: a strong sense of justice.

Jesus’ compassion for the powerless, impoverished crowds drove him to heal freely, to teach freely about God’s role-reversing reign of justice come near (Matt 9:35-36). The love of God compelled him to follow in the footsteps of the Prophets: denouncing injustice and oppression, pronouncing God’s judgment on unjust oppressors, and proclaiming God’s good news to the poor and liberation for the oppressed (Luke 4:16-21).

The love of God drove Jesus to walk in solidarity with the poor, the enslaved, oppressed and conquered peoples, right to the symbolic heart of that oppression: a Roman cross.

Polarization is not our enemy; injustice and oppression is our enemy.

As Christians today we look at polarization and see it as the opposite of peace. Ultimately, yes. There will be no polarization in God’s peaceable kingdom.

However, the path of peace can sometimes run through polarization, because, as Jesus’ life and death remind us, there is no peace without justice. And confronting injustice to create true peace will bring division. It will. Jesus has told us so. Jesus’ life and death has proved it to be so.

Don’t misunderstand me, or worse, Jesus. We can create division by being “jerks for Jesus.” That’s not what Jesus is talking about. That’s not the way of Jesus.

James Tissot, The Sermon of the Beatitudes

But when we patiently, persistently, compassionately seek first God’s reign and God’s justice, we will encounter hostility. Jesus doesn’t call us to a persecution complex, seeing persecution behind every opposition. But make no mistake: those who “hunger and thirst for justice” will be “persecuted for justice’s sake” (Matt 5:6, 10).

Divisions will be revealed, sometimes gaping chasms of difference in values and goals and ways and means. These divisions will cut across family lines, as Jesus directly says, so we should not be surprised when they sometimes slice through our churches.

And when this happens, we cannot soft-pedal God’s desire for justice in order to create an artificial peace.

We Mennonites are especially prone to this, because in our veneration of peace we often strive to avoid conflict. Or we look for a middle-way compromise between two extremes, mistakenly calling this a “third way.” Thoughtful, empathetic compromise is certainly an important tool for simply getting along with each other in a diverse community. But neither Jesus nor Paul nor any other Apostle advocates for a middle-way compromise when injustice or oppression is on the table.

Polarization is not our enemy; injustice and oppression is our enemy.

To be more biblically precise, death is our enemy. Our sins of harm that create forms of death for others and our world, all the ways we cause harm or hinder well-being through our thoughts and words and actions, or inaction. Our systems and cultures of death that perpetuate these harms on a larger scale: economic inequity, corporate greed, militarism, colonialism, misogyny, racism, and more.

Death, we’re told, is the ultimate enemy, the “last enemy to be destroyed,” thrown deep into the fiery chasm from whence it came (1 Cor 15:26; Rev 20:14). Death is the enemy that Jesus relentlessly pursued in every healing, every teaching, every interaction with a death-struck person, right through his own death into resurrection life.

And this is our calling as followers of Jesus. This is what it means to be united in the Spirit of Christ, being one in the body of Christ, centred on Jesus. Christian unity is not a unity that merely tries to keep a group of people together regardless of what they value and how they live. Christian unity is being united in walking in the loving, life-giving way of Jesus by the living, life-giving Spirit of Jesus.

All are welcome in this family of God, yes and amen! But this means people who cannot fully welcome the ones our world doesn’t welcome—the impoverished, the marginalized, those most vulnerable to harm, those perpetually oppressed by the powers that be—people who cannot fully welcome these our world calls “least” and “last” can never be fully welcome themselves until they can do so.

When we are complicit in injustice and oppression, complicit in sins of harm and systems of death, Jesus calls us to repentance. And when we repent, when we turn from our death-dealing ways of harm and embrace God’s life-giving ways of compassion and justice, Jesus assures us of God’s forgiveness.

Polarization is not our enemy; injustice and oppression is our enemy.

I am as concerned as any church leader about polarization in our churches and in our society. But polarization itself is not the enemy anymore than flesh-and-blood people on the other side of our divides are the enemy.

I long for churches to be united in the Spirit of Christ to follow the way of Christ, being the body of Christ in the world, seeking first God’s justice-bringing, life-generating reign on earth. May we have wisdom to discern how best to speak and act to bring about this true unity in Christ, and the courage to do so—even if the path to that unity first reveals some deep divisions among us.


Reframing Unity

“Be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind” (Phil 2:2).

It’s an appeal for unity that sounds tailor-made for polarized congregations today. Churches are divided over LGBTQ+ inclusion, COVID precautions, rights and freedoms, penal substitution, critical race theory… It feels like too many things to name.

When we hear this appeal to “be of the same mind,” we probably think this means being in agreement about a set of beliefs or having the same positions on the important issues of the day. For many of us, this is what unity in the church looks like: it’s when everyone fully agrees on crucial doctrines or pressing social issues.

When there is disunity, then (meaning divisive disagreement on positions or beliefs), the typical appeal is for each side to listen to the other, to understand the other’s point of view, even to seek a compromise position or “middle way” (sometimes mistakenly labeled a “third way”—more on this later). In this understanding, both sides need to give a little if there’s going to be unity.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with listening to others and trying hard to understand their point of view. In fact, that’s crucial to living well with each other in any community. That’s also how we learn and grow.

But I’d like to suggest a different way of understanding unity, a reframing of unity that is better rooted in Paul’s language of being “of the same mind.”

Because here’s the thing: Paul never calls on divided congregations to come to a middle-ground compromise. Even more, Paul’s language of “being of the same mind” is not about “thinking the same way about doctrine or issues.” Rather, it’s about having a particular kind of “mind”: the “mind of Christ.”

The “one mind” we are to be “in accord” with is the “mind”—the way of thinking and living, the way of being—which Jesus displayed. “Let this mind be in you which was in Christ Jesus,” Paul says (Phil 2:5)—and then goes on to describe what this “mind of Christ” is.

This “mind of Christ” is a way of being that divests ourselves of our individual power and privilege for the good of others, just as Jesus “emptied himself” of his divine status and prerogatives in becoming human for our liberation (2:5-7).

This “mind of Christ” is a way of being that enters into the life and suffering of the most disempowered and underprivileged, just as Jesus “took on the form of a slave” and even died a slave’s death, a conquered and oppressed people’s death—“death on a cross” (2:7-8).

This “mind of Christ” is a way of being that does all this to bring about a divine reversal, where those who have experienced oppression by the powers of our age enter with Jesus into his resurrection life and glorious exaltation (2:9-11).

Titian, Christ and the Good Thief

This is the “same mind,” the “one mind” which Paul has called the Philippians to be “in accord” with (2:2). This is the mind which Paul himself strives to enter into, living in Christ’s sufferings in order to enter Christ’s resurrection life (3:7-14). And this is the “same mind” which Paul urges mature Christians to hold—“and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you” (3:15).

There’s no compromise sought here, no middle way between two apparently uncompromising positions. It’s a genuine “third way,” an alternative to two contrasting perspectives, and Paul expects full buy-in to this third-way “mind of Christ.”

Christian unity, then, is not about agreement with a Confession of Faith. It’s not about agreement with a set of positions on social issues. Confessions of faith are useful as theological guides, and it can at times be vital for us to take a particular stance on a significant issue in our world. But Christian unity isn’t found in our strong agreement with a set of doctrines or positions.

Being “united in Christ” is about our shared commitment to walk together in the way of Jesus, his liberating way of love. We are united in Christ when we commit together to hold our power lightly in our interactions with each other, to walk in humility and patience, kindness and compassion, with those who are different from us, especially with those who hold less power or privilege than we do. We are united in Christ when we commit together to pay attention to the marginalized and disempowered among us and around us, to walk in solidarity with these considered “last,” “least,” or “lost” in society toward justice and peace and flourishing life. This is “the Spirit of Christ” in which we are united, the Spirit who shapes us individually and collectively into the image of Jesus Christ.

Rather than asking two opposing “sides” in a congregation to get together and find a compromise position for the sake of unity, we’d be much better off with the whole congregation asking a few pointed questions:

  • What power and privilege do we hold—do I hold—within this congregation, within this community, this society?
  • How can we—and I myself—hold that power and privilege lightly as we walk with each other in humility, patience, kindness, and compassion, especially with those who are different from us?
  • Who are the genuinely disempowered and underprivileged, those who have historically or regularly been most vulnerable to actual physical and mental and spiritual harm, among us in this congregation and around us in this community?
  • How can we—and I—give up our power and privilege in order to empower these disempowered among us and around us, in order to walk in solidarity with them—knowing we will suffer with them, knowing we will be changed in the process—in order to bring about greater justice and more flourishing life for them and ultimately for all of us together?

When this is our shared stance, our shared way of thinking and living, our shared way of being—our “one mind”—then we can truly say we have discovered “unity in Christ.” May we, like Paul, “press on to make this our own, because Christ Jesus has made us his own” (Phil 3:12).

Edited since originally posted. For some thoughts on parallels in other Pauline letters, including thoughts on how diversity works within this unity, see my comment below.

“Concrete Koinonia”

As I look ahead to this coming Sunday’s lectionary readings, the reality of koinōnia stands out to me. Koinōnia comes from the Greek word for “common” or “shared” (koinos), and so koinōnia has the idea of “that which is held in common,” “that which is shared among us.”

Contrary to the way we often use the word “fellowship,” in the New Testament Christians don’t “fellowship,” as a verb. Rather, we have “fellowship,” as a noun. This koinōnia is a gift from God, a gift of God’s Spirit to us as God’s people.

1 John 1:3 describes it this way: “We declare to you what we have seen and heard so that you also may have koinōnia with us; and truly our koinōnia is with the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.” There are things we hold in common, realities we share together—in 1 John these would be things like “life” and “light” and “love”—and as we share these common realities together we discover they are in fact realities God has shared with us, realities we hold in common with Jesus.

This “fellowship,” this koinōnia, is not just some abstract truth but a concrete, lived out experience. The love, light, and life we share together in Jesus works itself out in a shared life together, a common way of life in which we come together in acts of love and deeds of light that bring life among us and beyond us.

This “concrete koinōnia” comes out in another lectionary text for this Sunday, Acts 4:32-35: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common (koinos)… There was not a needy person among them, for as many as owned lands or houses sold them and brought the proceeds of what was sold. They laid it at the apostles’ feet, and it was distributed to each as any had need.”

This is the new reality the resurrected Jesus creates among us by the Spirit: a shared reality in which we hold in common a new life of love and light, in which we live out this new reality in ways which re-order our common life so that no one is needy, no one is marginalized, no one is oppressed by forces beyond their control.

Walking Together in Unity

From December 2017 through February 2018, I wrote a series of short articles for MennoMedia’s Adult Bible Study Online. Over the next three weeks I will reproduce those here in my blog. Here is the article for December 31, 2017, based on Ephesians 4.

We live in a divided world, and it seems increasingly to be so. Where once there might have been allowance for nuanced positions that do not fit neatly into an either/or—a “third way,” even—there now seems to be a “you’re either with us or against us” kind of mindset in western society.

“Unity,” in this us-versus-them world, means “absolute solidarity,” “total agreement,” or even “complete uniformity” of belief and practice, whether we are talking about religion or politics or social issues. This “unity” is achieved through acts of power: decisive leadership giving firm direction, backroom deals and deceitful manipulation if necessary, enforced agreement with established dogma, harsh public shaming if someone steps out of line.

 You’re either with us in all things—blessed “unity”—or you’re against us—accursed “other,” beyond the pale.

Ephesians 4:1-16 gives us a very different picture of unity. It is a unity grounded in the simple one-ness of God, yet with a diversity reflected in the complex three-ness of God’s redemptive work. There is one-and-only-one Spirit at work among us all, one-and-only-one Lord to whom we owe our allegiance, one-and-only-one God who is “above all and in all and through all”—therefore we must walk in this one-ness. Yet God the Father’s work is through the Lord Jesus and by the Holy Spirit, who gives manifold gifts to all—therefore we must walk in this many-ness.

This one-yet-many unity is a gift given to us: it already is, we just need to walk in it, to live it out, to “keep” or maintain it. And we maintain this unity of the Spirit “through the bond of peace”: not through power politics or strong-arm tactics, but through Christ-like humility, gentleness, patience, and forbearance in love.

Leaders among us are not to lord it over those whom they lead; they are not “the deciders” or “the doers,” or even visionaries with great personal charisma. They are God’s gifts to us, whose sole task is to equip us to do works of service so that we might fully realize our calling to be Christ’s body in the world, continuing Jesus’ mission in the world: the unity of all things (1:9-10), including the reconciliation of all “others” (2:13-18).

What might happen in our world if we fully embraced this radical vision of unity in our churches, instead of the superficial “unity” our world promotes?

Adult Bible Study Online Supplements

I’ve not been blogging much here lately, but I have been writing short weekly pieces for MennoMedia’s online supplements to their adult Bible study curriculum. That began the first week of December and will go through February 2018.

UPDATE: These are now posted on my website. Links are updated to reflect this.

The Bible as Diverse Anthology

A key idea I’ve emphasized here and here is that whatever we mean by Scripture’s divine inspiration, it cannot mean that the biblical writings are somehow not genuinely human writings. As I said earlier:

Written in ordinary human languages and idioms, making use of conventional genres, employing scribes, relying on prior sources, edited by individuals and communities, collected by different peoples over many centuries—the fact is, these realities are the norm for the writings we have in the anthology of ancient literature we call the Bible.

This really shouldn’t bother us. If anything, we who believe that God has been revealed most clearly and fully in a human being, the man Jesus, should expect that God’s voice in Scripture is to be heard only through the utterly human voices of the biblical authors.

And it truly is a diversity of voices in Scripture. The Bible is not really a single “book.” It is, as I’ve just described it, an “anthology”—a collection of different writings by different human authors.

Consider some examples:

We have two different creation stories side by side in Genesis. The first (Gen 1:1-2:3) describes God as Elohim, the Mightiest One, who stands beyond the earth and speaks creation into existence, crafting a well-ordered and richly filled palace-temple for himself, with humans as his priest-kings and priestess-queens. The second (Gen 2:4-25) describes God as Yahweh Elohim, God in covenant with Israel, who comes to earth and gets their hands dirty in shaping the Human to care for their flourishing garden.

We have two different histories of Israel in the Hebrew Bible, the Christian Old Testament. The first (Samuel-Kings) tells the story through the lens of Deuteronomy: good kings uphold the covenant of Moses, bad kings do not, and in the end it all goes bad because the people of Israel and Judah abandon Moses’ Law. The second (Chronicles) tells the story through the lens of David: the worship established by David in the Temple built by David’s past son must continue, and the kingdom promised to David will be restored to David’s future son.

We have 150 Psalms giving a dozen different portraits of worship. The rugged individualist hanging out with God in nature? The Temple liturgist composing for antiphonal choir amidst all the smells and bells? The bibliophile scribe caught up in the wonders of the Torah? The exiled poet leading others by a foreign river, pining for a temple, doing the best they can with what they’ve got? Glorious tapestries of song, rich in theological expression? The “God, give me what I want and I’ll praise you” kind of worship? It’s all there.

We have four different biographies of Jesus in the New Testament. There’s Mark’s sparse, orally crafted story exploring what it means to claim that this crucified Jesus is “the Messiah, the Son of God.” There’s Matthew’s didactic adaptation of Mark, highlighting the Moses-like teachings of Jesus for a Jewish Christian audience. There’s Luke’s well-crafted, liturgically rich alternative to Matthew’s story, presenting Jesus to a wider audience: not just Jews but Gentiles, not just men but women, not just rich but poor. And then there’s John’s alternative to all the rest, giving the “beloved disciple’s” expanded re-presentations of Jesus’ life and teachings as the Word made flesh, come to bring life to the world.

This diversity can be problematic for Christians. For some, it’s terribly uncomfortable. We want God to speak clearly and consistently, a single voice on every issue. Some even go to great lengths to harmonize all these differences, to reassure ourselves and our communities that there is one clear biblical teaching on x and y and z. So when we begin to recognize the Bible’s diversity, especially on some central matters of Christian belief and practice, we get antsy.

This diversity can be problematic beyond just the discomfort we feel about it. For the history of biblical interpretation makes one thing abundantly clear: we can justify almost anything by appeal to the Bible, even things that are contradictory.

War, even genocide? Yes. Pacifism? Yes.

Slavery? Check. Abolition of slavery? Check.

Patriarchy? Yep. Full equality of women? Yep.

Death penalty? You bet. No death penalty? You bet.

All of these things are “biblical.” All of these things are “clear from Scripture.”

The problem, again, is one of wrong expectations based on false assumptions. We assume the Bible’s divine inspiration ensures a uniformity of teaching on all things, but the biblical writings never actually claim such a thing. There are plenty of claims in Scripture about Scripture—claims of biblical writings being God’s “word” or “message,” of God “revealing” God’s self or God’s will in or through them, of Scripture being “useful for teaching” for faith and life, or of Scripture reliably “testifying” to Jesus, of Scripture being “true.” But it’s only our assumptions that make us think these claims must mean Scripture presents a clear, uniform perspective on any particular question or issue we might face.

But there is something that unites these diverse writings. An “anthology” is not just a random collection of writings, and the Bible is no exception. There is something that unites this anthology, that makes it make sense as a collection. And, I would suggest, we are indeed right to see in that “something” the Voice of God that we are searching for.

So how do we get there? How do we find that “something” that unites this inspired Scripture, this diverse anthology of ancient literature? To answer that question, let me start with a few general observations.

The unity of Scripture is not uniformity, but unity in diversity. It’s not a monochrome picture, but a whole spectrum of colours. It’s not univocal, a single voice, but polyvocal, many voices. It’s not a monotone, but a whole array of tones: sometimes discordant, sometimes harmonious, often haunting, profound, encouraging, challenging.

The unity of Scripture is not static, but dynamic. There is change in thought from earlier to later biblical books, sometimes even intentional, direct change. This change is good, we say by faith: it’s a progression, not a moving backward, or sideways. This change is even sometimes that of a trajectory that aims beyond Scripture, giving an unfinished arc that invites us to step in and complete it.

And the unity of Scripture has a significance greater than the sum of its parts. The “something” that unites Scripture is in fact a Someone. The many voices of Scripture are like echoes of their Voice in a dark tunnel, which we hear, dimly. Or they’re like the many voices of a choir that together make a single choral Voice—which is the whole point of these many voices, their very raison d’être.

In other words, the progressive unity in diversity of Scripture, the Voice through the Bible’s many voices, is rather like this:

This is an excerpt from a past post: “What is the Bible, and How Should We Read It?” This excerpt was originally published as a separate post in 2014.

Love is All We Need

Love is All We Need | Scripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

We live in turbulent times.

Everything is changing. Nothing seems certain any more.

Humans NYOur knowledge of the universe is growing exponentially, racing beyond our wisdom, outpacing our ability to tame this knowledge for good purposes.

Our globe has shrunk to a village, but it’s a village made up of thousands of distinct cultures, dozens of religions with hundreds of offshoots, and seven billion one-of-a-kind individuals.

Our world is increasingly complex, and we don’t know how to handle this. We scramble for some kind of order in all the chaos and confusion.

We’re afraid, though we don’t like to admit it. We’re afraid of change, afraid of losing what we value most, afraid of the unknown other, the unknown future, afraid of a meaningless existence.

We mask all these fears with stuff—big houses and new cars, gizmos and gadgets and mindless entertainment, all just bread and circuses. Or we medicate our fears away—whether it’s prescription drugs or spiritual highs or something else—anaesthetizing our angst until it retreats to the depths of our subconscious.

Naturally, everyone’s got an opinion on what should be done—that’s part of the mad scramble for order, and part of the chaos and confusion. We take sides on issue x or issue y, digging into our polarized positions in binary code. We shout at each other IN ALL CAPS across the internet. We react to opposition with flaming words, with shaming and scapegoating, or with bullets and bombs—betraying all those underlying fears, and giving us even more reason to fear.

We Christians have our own brands of chaos and confusion, growing from those same complex realities. Faith nomads shift from one Christian tradition to another, church attendance overall is on the decline, and Christianity’s public influence is waning even faster. And we eagerly contribute to the cacophony of opinions on what should be done about all this.

Some of us call for allegiance to doctrinal systems that lay everything out with clarity and certainty—in this we will find our stability, we are told. Others turn to the latest fandangled worship bling or revive tried-and-true forms of ancient ritual. Still others shrug their shoulders at theology or liturgy and instead focus on social justice efforts or political engagement.

Some point to charismatic speakers or compelling authors and hang on their every word—surely they will point the way forward. Others appeal for a simple return to the Bible, apparently unaware that the Christian Scriptures have in fact spawned dozens of different worldviews themselves, contributing to the complexity and chaos and confusion of our post-Christendom world.

In the midst of this chaos and confusion, standing in the complexity of our world, I join my voice to those who say this:

We need to love each other.

All we need is love.

Love is all we need.

Yikes! Did you hear that? That was the sound of Christians shouting their objections at me. (Yes, we Christians do that, in case you haven’t noticed.)

“Love? Seriously? The world’s problems are going to be solved by holding hands and singing ‘Kumbaya’? Get real!”

“Love, sure. But we are also called by God to be holy, we are called to seek and speak truth. Love without holiness and truth is no love at all!”

“You’re just another liberal following the crowd, reducing the gospel to mere ‘tolerance,’ willing to accept anything and everything in the name of love!”

Well, before you grab your pitchforks and storm mi casa, hear me out.

I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe Scripture points us to this. I believe Jesus points us to this.

I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe all other divine commands and human virtues—including holiness and truth-speaking—are subsumed under love, governed by love, even defined by love.

I say, “Love is all we need,” because I believe the love Scripture and Jesus point to is not mere tolerance, or mere affection, but something far more, far more substantial, far more necessary.

Love is all we need.

Faith Hope LoveIf we get this one thing right, everything else will fall into place. If we don’t get this right, nothing else will matter.

Sound a little over-the-top? Well, come back tomorrow and I’ll begin fleshing this out in a series of blog posts this week.

In the meantime, here’s a little reading to get you started.

Love is All We Need | Scripture and Jesus on Love | What is Love?
Love, Above All | How Should We Then Love?

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

The Simplicity of Christian Unity

A few weeks ago I blogged some thoughts on Christian unity. I suggested that we need to have a centred approach to this unity. We need to think of Christian unity not like a fence that defines the outer limits of Christianity and protects “us” from “them,” but more like a bonfire on a cold night, drawing us toward it from all different directions, seeking out its warmth and light. I then suggested that, following the pervasive witness of the New Testament, this centre is Jesus himself, and Jesus’ way of love.

I’m well aware how problematic this might appear to be. It sounds awfully simplistic, terribly reductionistic. It seems so theologically naïve, even dangerous.

I hear my systematic theologian friends saying, “Wait a minute: where’s the triune God in all this?” I hear my historical theologian friends saying, “But you’ve forgotten the creeds!” My biblical theologian friends chime in: “Where’s the redemptive narrative of Scripture?” My New Testament scholar friends say, “But which Jesus? Mark’s, John’s, E. P. Sanders’, N. T. Wright’s?” My evangelical friends shake their heads: “The Bible must be at the centre, or we cannot know about Jesus!” My Mennonite friends smile and nod, but some think, “I’d like a little more emphasis on peace.”

PrintA few years ago I wrote a short book called From Resurrection to New Creation. I’ve always thought of it as a sort of mini-New Testament theology; it was billed in the subtitle as A First Journey in Christian Theology. In the book I describe concentric circles of Christian thought and practice, moving outward from first- to second- to third-order convictions (97-101).

At the very centre are those “core elements of the gospel, the ground and center of essential Christian faith and life: Jesus and his salvific [salvation-bringing] death and resurrection.” I go on to say:

This is the irreducible minimum of authentic Christian faith and life. That is, genuine Christianity is all about knowing and following the crucified and resurrected Jesus, living out his salvific death and resurrection in faith, love, and hope.

Notice the way I’ve framed this: authentic Christian faith is not about “right doctrine about Jesus,” a sound Christology; it’s about actually knowing and following Jesus, the crucified and resurrected Jesus who lived and taught and healed among us, who himself loved and trusted and hoped.

Beyond this inner circle is an outer one. This circle reflects Christian beliefs and practices that “directly grow out of the reality of the resurrection of the crucified Jesus, even as they in turn impact one’s understanding and experience of the crucified and resurrected Jesus.” These include an understanding of the “tri-unity” of God, the Trinity; looking to the Scriptures as witness to Jesus; participating in the community of Jesus-followers, the Church; and anticipating the future presence of Jesus and fulfillment of the gospel. I then say this:

Together, these two circles are the absolute essentials of historically orthodox Christian theology and practice. That is, historically orthodox Christianity is focused on the salvific work of the triune God through the crucified and resurrected Jesus, as witnessed by the Scriptures, proclaimed and lived out by the church, and fulfilled in the future eschaton.

This is where the primary historic creeds come in, such as the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed, each with a Trinitarian structure centred on the gospel story of Jesus’ suffering, death, resurrection, and exaltation.

But notice again how I’ve framed this: there is a distinction to be made between “authentic Christian faith” and “historically orthodox Christianity.” One might be a genuine follower of Jesus and his way of love, yet question the inspiration of Scripture or be hazy on the doctrine of the Trinity. And one might have all their theological ducks in a row so as to be doctrinally orthodox, but if they are not following Jesus in love their doctrine is like a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.

Beyond these two circles are beliefs and practices that might be significant for particular communities, they may even be seen to have solid biblical and theological and historical support, but they are simply not central to authentic or orthodox Christianity. Here one finds the particular streams of Christian tradition, with differences over everything from baptism to Lord’s Supper, from justification to sanctification, from church polity to government policy, and so much more.

My call to a simple Christian unity focused on the Person of Jesus and the Way of Love, then, is not simplistic. It’s complex. When you look at Christianity in its most compact, most basic form, it’s all about Jesus, as if the crucified and resurrected Jesus is standing before each of us saying, “Who do you say that I am?” and “Come, follow me.” But as you follow Jesus you begin to realize there’s more to God, to God’s people, to Scripture, to life, to the future, to faith, to love—to everything!—then you first thought.

Yet even in that complexity, at its centre it’s still always about Jesus, and Jesus’ way of love.

If the centre becomes more than that, it becomes other than that.

And if it becomes other than that, then truly we have lost our Way.

For more on some of these thoughts, see my posts “On Bonfires, Love, and Jesus” and “When Everyone’s Biblical and We All Disagree.” For a different angle on these things, check out my piece called “Cling to Jesus.” Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

When Everyone’s Biblical and We All Disagree

Romans 14-15 often gets quoted when Christians talk about how to handle conflict in the church. That’s the passage that deals with what has been called “adiaphora” or “disputable matters”—seen sometimes as an add-on to the Apostle Paul’s magisterial, theologically rich epistle to the Romans. In reality this passage is Paul’s pastoral response to a fragile Christian community in danger of fracturing along a Jew-Gentile fault line—and it’s the whole point of the letter.

We miss out on the significance of this passage when we think of it as about mere opinions, things that don’t really matter, as if the Roman Christians were arguing over what colour the new carpet in the sanctuary should be. Try telling a devout Jew that the kosher food laws or Sabbath observance are “mere opinions”! No, the issues causing fissures in the church of Rome—sacred days and “clean” foods (14:1-2, 5-6, 14)—were matters of deep personal, ethnic, and religious identity, grounded in Scripture and affecting both everyday life and collective worship.

Bible Bashing

In fact, I would suggest that the dispute in Rome followed a pattern we’ve seen played out again and again throughout the Church’s history—and still today:

  • We think X is an important issue, something vital, something essential.
  • We think our view on X is biblical; we can back it up from the Bible.
  • We therefore think we’ve got God on our side.
  • And then we disagree, we dispute, we argue, we fight, and often we split. Or, perhaps slightly better, or maybe worse: we simply avoid those we disagree with, we shun them, we ban them from our lives.

Note first what Paul doesn’t say. He doesn’t choose one side and say, “Look, this group is right and the other is wrong. Everybody just needs to agree with the group that’s right, or leave!” Nor does he even call both groups to compromise on their convictions, to try to find a middle position that everyone can assent to but satisfies no one. Nor does he simply give a bland answer of tolerance: “C’mon, everybody, why can’t we all just get along?”

Rather, Paul speaks a word of admonition to both sides. (Not just the “strong”—read it carefully!).

To the Jewish “conservatives,” the “traditionalists” among them (“the weak in the faith”): “Do not condemn your ‘liberal’ sisters and brothers, for God has accepted them and you are not their judge.” (Yep, I’ve done that.)

To the Gentile “progressives,” those “liberals” in the bunch (the “strong”): “Do not despise your ‘conservative’ sisters and brothers, for we all share one Lord and act out of devotion to him.” (Yep, I’ve done that, too.)

To all of them, but especially those of the majority: “Respect the convictions of others; do not compel the other to act against their convictions.” (That’s what the whole “stumbling block” thing is, not just “offending” someone’s sensibilities through our actions—see 14:23. Think about it: Paul wasn’t really all that concerned about “offending” people!).

And to all of them, both “conservatives” and “progressives”: “Welcome one another, accept the other, receive them into your circle, just as God in Christ has welcomed you.” (Strong words, these!)

And underlying these words? The true centre of Christian faith: the Person of Jesus, and Jesus’ Way of Love. Throughout the passage, at key points in his passionate plea for unity-in-diversity, Paul looks to Jesus as the basis for his exhortations (14:9, 15; 15:3, 7): the crucified and resurrected Jesus as Lord and Saviour, welcoming sinners.

Drawing on Paul’s words here, and just some good conflict resolution ideas, here’s my attempt to summarize how we as Christians can navigate through these disputes over significant issues, when everyone’s sure they’ve got the Bible on their side:

  • Come to your own convictions carefully, thoughtfully, prayerfully, biblically, centred on Jesus.
  • Hold your convictions humbly, loosely. Be willing to be wrong, or to give way for the good of others.
  • Respect others in their own convictions, showing Jesus’ love. Do not pressure them to act against their conscience. Do not condemn them; you are not their Judge. Do not despise them; you share the same Lord and Saviour.
  • Before speaking, listen. Hear the convictions of others, and listen to the life story that has shaped those convictions.
  • Then speak openly and honestly about your convictions. If you feel it is necessary, even speak passionately and persuasively. Always speak with gentleness and respect, with the love of Jesus.
  • As much as possible, speak face-to-face. Share a meal together, share your stories, share your prayers, share your common faith, your common humanity.
  • When a group decision is needed, strive for consensus. This means unanimity if possible, but if that’s not possible then at least come to a place where everyone is heard and the minority are willing—not coerced, but willing—to concede and support the decision of the group.
  • And at bottom, in the very centre, allow Jesus to pull you in again, to draw you to himself, to follow him in this life of love. Don’t be distracted by all the things everyone else says is so important. There are very few things worthy of our strongest conviction; anything more is vanity, or even idolatry.

I know it’s easy to be fearful of this, this pursuit of unity-in-diversity. It’s risky, this simple focus on Jesus, this walking in the way of love. It’s uncomfortable, allowing things we’ve relied upon for our whole lives to be questioned.

But the centre will hold. All else might seem shaken, but of this I am sure: the centre of our faith will hold firm. Scripture assures us that while our ways of doing things are always changing, “Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8), and that while all our oh-so-certain knowledge will one day disappear, “love will always remain” (1 Cor 13:13).

And when you come to really understand that pure and simple centre—Jesus, and Jesus’ way of love—and you come to fully appreciate it, you can have the confidence and the freedom to fruitfully engage the different views of others, even to change your mind on these issues, even to celebrate our diversity as the Body of Christ.

For more on some of these thoughts, see my post “On Bonfires, Love, and Jesus.” Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.

On Bonfires, Love, and Jesus

This Sunday we’re continuing our worship series on “Welcoming One Another.” A crucial part of this “welcoming”—this “accepting” each other, this “receiving” one another—is coming to terms with our differences, even celebrating them. In fact, that’s the key idea in Romans 15:7: we come from different backgrounds and experiences, we think and act differently, and so each must “welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed you.”

Here are a few of the thoughts in my head as I reflect this week on “celebrating our diversity”:

In order for us to accept our diversity as a church, even to celebrate this diversity, we must have a good sense of what it is that unites us. Our diversity is not without any unity, though this unity is not uniformity. We are diverse in our unity, and we are united in our diversity.

Too often Christians have a merely doctrinal approach to unity. We think of unity in terms of those beliefs that we hold in common. Sometimes that list can get quite long, well beyond any biblical or historic summary of the essentials of the Christian faith. But the longer the list the harder it is for everyone to agree, and so these lists of unity essentials become divisive.

But ignoring doctrine and taking a practical approach is not any better. Trying to determine what practices or rituals unite us as Christians can lead to the same problem. There is something else—I would say Someone—behind these beliefs and practices, in whom we are united.

Too often, also, Christians have a “fence” approach to unity. We think of our distinctive beliefs and/or practices as a fence that separates us from those who are not us, and this fence defines who we are together, it defines our unity.

Bonfire at San RiverBut it’s much better to have a “bonfire” approach to unity. The Someone who unites us stands at the centre like a bonfire on a cold night, and we are drawn to the warmth and light of the fire from all different directions. We huddle together around this fire, we tell our stories, we sing our songs, and we share our bread and wine. Our unity has a centre, but no boundaries.

And what is this bonfire around which we gather? It is Jesus, and it is love.

Read the New Testament; behind all the New Testament’s diversity stands Jesus, on every page. Jesus of Nazareth, who lived and taught and healed and suffered and died and rose again, Jesus the Christ, Israel’s Messiah-King and the world’s true Lord—this Jesus is the one to whom the Scriptures witness, he is the heart of the gospel, he is the one who shows us who the Triune God is, the one in whom we find deep, abiding life and discern humanity’s true purpose.

And alongside Jesus throughout the New Testament—in fact, only fully discerned through Jesus—is the call to love: to give ourselves for the good of the other, even if they are the different, the stranger, the enemy, even if we think they don’t deserve it, even if it costs us our very life. This Jesus-love is the sum of the Law and the Prophets; it is the mark of Jesus’ true disciples; it is the virtue that binds together all other virtues; it is the more excellent way and greatest good that always remains; it is the sign that we have truly come to know God, who is love.

When we see unity not as bordered but as centred, when we see this unity as centred on Jesus and Jesus-love, when we refuse to allow ourselves to be distracted by boundaries and walls and disputes over “who’s in and who’s out” or questions of “do they believe the right things or do things the right way,” when we see “welcoming one another” in love as at the very heart of who the eternally Triune God is, who God is as shown in Jesus, and who we are as Christians—then we can find the freedom to truly accept our diversity, and even to celebrate it.

Some of the thoughts rolling around in my head…

Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.