get rid of all ideals of community and self

…we, who are many, are one body in Christ…

Romans 12:5

Innumerable times a whole Christian community has broken down because it had sprung from a wish dream. The serious Christian, set down for the first time in a Christian community, is likely to bring with him a very definite idea of what Christian life together should be and to try to realize it. But God’s grace speedily shatters such dreams. Just as surely as God desires to lead us to a knowledge of genuine Christian fellowship, so surely must we be overwhelmed by great disillusionment with others, with Christians in general, and, if we are fortunate, with ourselves.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

What is meant here is that we must drop all the idealizations we have of church, of others, and of ourselves. That’s not easy to do, nor does it even make sense to us. Aren’t we supposed to hold to ideals for ourselves and others? Maybe on a certain basic level, yes. We have to get up in the morning, fulfill our responsibility during the day, care for our family, take care of ourselves, etc. What is spoken of here is something else. Expecting others to measure up to some ideal we have. Or turning away when people don’t.

We’re all in this together, for better and for worse, indeed one body in Christ. None of us measure up to ideals we impose on ourselves. What God has in heart and mind will prevail. But it will be worked out in this life only if we’re committed to hanging in together through thick and thin.

What we need to be about is simply committed to following Christ together. Realizing that throughout that will be the necessary confession of sin, caring for each other, even putting up with each other at times. But believing that God is going to do it, is in the process of conforming us together into the likeness of God’s Son.

In and through Jesus.

the priority of the unity of the body of Christ, the church

To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those who are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours

1 Corinthians 1:2

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to the one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:4-6

A priority which ought to mark every church is the desire for unity among all of God’s people in Christ, among all the churches. This is a difficult task since so many churches are given to an independent mindset with more or less the idea that only churches of their kind are truly Christian, or at least are the most sound and authentic to the Christian faith. That plays right into the hands of the spiritual enemy, actually coming from its hands as well.

A church is not worth its salt which fails to make unity within its own congregation a priority, and makes expression of the unity all have in Christ a priority as well. Decades back, ecumenical for me was a dirty word. Instead, we ought to downplay our differences as much as possible, and highlight our agreement, indeed our oneness in Christ. I would think on the ground that means churches should participate in ecumenical associations: Protestants with Catholics with Mennonites with Baptists with Pentecostals with the Orthodox and so on. 

The cosmic powers of this present darkness along with sin, death and “the flesh” are out to divide and destroy. Christ by the Spirit is present to redeem, save and heal. We can hopefully learn to appreciate our differences as distinctives to be brought into the whole. Yes, we have our different theologies, and that often seems to make the push for unity strange at best, and certainly strained and sometimes it can make it seem worse than that. But we can learn much from each other if we can look past our differences. Without thinking we have to be in complete agreement. It is only in and through Christ that complete unity will be found, and completely so at his return. Until then we’re to seek to find unity where it may be found by the Spirit in and through Jesus.

Especially the first sentence of the last paragraph was written under the influence of Tim Gombis’s excellent book, Power in Weakness: Paul’s Transformed Vision for Ministry. My application of that, so that what is amiss here cannot be blamed on Tim.

one note often missing in church life: we need each other

No prolonged infancies among us, please. We’ll not tolerate babes in the woods, small children who are an easy mark for impostors. God wants us to grow up, to know the whole truth and tell it in love—like Christ in everything. We take our lead from Christ, who is the source of everything we do. He keeps us in step with each other. His very breath and blood flow through us, nourishing us so that we will grow up healthy in God, robust in love.

Ephesians 4:14-16; MSG

From [Christ] the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

Ephesians 4:16

In our individualistic culture, we Christians too often look at church as being by ourselves in silence before God to hear a good message from God’s word, from Scripture. That’s good. But what might be more vital than that for our spiritual growth, our growth in grace is the realization that we’re in this together, that we need each other, and that God designed it to be that way.

After all, we are one body in Christ, the body of Christ. We get our life and directions from the one head, Christ, by the Spirit. But that’s intended primarily to be experienced together. But it really seems hard to crack that nut in today’s individualistic culture. And sadly to some extent western missionaries have imported something of that culture all over the world, though much of the world does better in this.

What is needed is not some great knock out message, or someone greatly gifted, though those things are good in their place. But what’s essential week after week, on a regular basis is the growing awareness of the reality that we’re all in this together, no one excluded. That we all have our part, even if it is “just” a smile and silent prayer.

We can’t make it ourselves, indeed we’re not intended to. Or at least we won’t do nearly as well, and we’ll be like fish out of water in trying. This is why commitment to the church really amounts to commitment to each other. It’s not just something we confess or acknowledge, but something we need to put into practice. And when that’s beginning to happen, we’ll begin to see the difference and grow up together in the way that God intends. In and through Jesus.

we are one body in Christ (even when we disagree)

Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.

1 Corinthians 12:27

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:4-6

The church consists of various traditions, obviously quite a few, some of them varying among themselves, even at times sadly divided. Maybe the most notable divisions in church history are the Great Schism between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Church that still remains to some extent to this day. And the Protestant Reformation in churches splitting from the Roman Catholic Church. Within the Protestant Reformation was what is called the Radical Reformation of Anabaptists who were persecuted by both the Roman Catholics and Lutherans for not submitting to state enforced church baptism of infants. And within the Anabaptists themselves are a number of divisions, some for understandable reasons more or less circumstantial, and others for less fortunate reasons, although even some of that makes sense or seems right from their standpoint, even if not from ours, I think here of the Amish forming after leaving the Mennonites.

Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians probably refers mostly to local congregations, whereas the letter to the Ephesians is referring mostly to the church at large, Christ’s body throughout the world. The point is that there is just one body of Christ, one church, regardless of all our divisions.

Today we divide to some extent over issues which in themselves are really not a big deal, even if they once were, although we can still make them fundamental. I think of Calvinism versus Arminianism, and a whole host of other issues which gave rise to various church denominations. Sadly we have not broken racial divisions very well overall. Then there are more controversial issues today, like women in the ministry, what to do with committed gay Christians and what to make of that issue, whether or not we welcome LGBTQ into full participation in the church community. Issues that often we would rather not touch, and that are sure to cause even sharp division.

Well, we need to step back and remember one thing in the midst of all of this: Through the gospel and in Christ we are all one body in spite of all of these differences. We have to look for the signs of the life of Christ within a church, in individual lives, the fruit of the Spirit and the gifts as well. We have to keep going back to the Bible as our source of knowledge and wisdom, together by the Spirit seeking discernment especially in the more difficult issues, as well as in all of life. When we do that, we’ll come to recognize that although there are often significant differences among us, and that some and to some extent all of us will be mistaken along the way, we still are one body in Christ.

That may be hard to recognize given the sometimes marked differences in our traditions, the misunderstandings, and the problems which accompany controversial issues in which there may be error on one side or the other, or to some extent on both sides. But we must keep front and center, what is front and center. We are on body in Christ. God is faithful, Christ builds his church, and the Spirit is at work, so that we’ll be a viable witness of Christ for each other, and to the world. In and through Jesus.

None of my thoughts represent Our Daily Bread Ministries where I have done factory work for some twenty years now, and for whom I’ve never written a line.

accepting each other despite our differences

We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up. For even Christ did not please himself but, as it is written: “The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through the endurance taught in the Scriptures and the encouragement they provide we might have hope.

May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written:

“Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles;
    I will sing the praises of your name.”

Again, it says,

“Rejoice, you Gentiles, with his people.”

And again,

“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles;
    let all the peoples extol him.”

And again, Isaiah says,

“The Root of Jesse will spring up,
    one who will arise to rule over the nations;
    in him the Gentiles will hope.”

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.

Romans 15:1-13

The problem was a Jewish-Gentile one, and specifically over the major change that had come, namely that one did not become a part of God’s people through conversion in becoming a “righteous proselyte.” Circumcision for males required for that. Now all were members of God’s people through faith in Christ, baptism being the circumcision for all as one in Christ.

Fast forward to today and you no longer find as much of this problem, but you still find all kinds of issues which threaten to undermine and displace our oneness in Christ. One huge example is political differences. Here in the United States one’s partisan loyalty has become like the major marker in evaluating and feeling at home with someone. The problem probably isn’t so much the differences in opinion, but the way such differences are held. And it may be true that this is more so on one side than another, especially if that side is the majority, or in the place of influence and power. But the attitude usually cuts across both ways, so that it’s no easier for one side than the other.

Back to the time this was written: Paul at length here (click above link) tells both Gentile along with what we might call enlightened believers, and Jewish believers not to look down on each other. Those “strong” in their faith could break the old kosher rules. But those “weak” in their faith could not. Paul warned those who were strong neither to look down on their brothers and sisters who wouldn’t join them, nor to cause them to stumble by boldly doing what they themselves in good conscience could not do. At the same time Paul was working on helping those “weak” in their faith to accept the strong. Perhaps their weakness of faith was not so much if at all in their own practice of circumcision and abiding by the food laws, etc. But actually in not accepting those who had faith in Christ, but didn’t join them in their practice. They may have had good reason to continue in their Jewishness, as long as they didn’t consider that necessary for others. Some certainly could not do what they themselves with their weak conscience would not permit themselves to do.

Back to today, I believe we have to be careful not to look down on each other, even to the point sadly sometimes of actually despising each other. Instead we’re to accept each other, just as Christ accepted us in order to bring glory and praise to God. That means we accept our differences. We don’t try to change the other to our “enlightened” point of view. We make necessary distinctions between what is absolutely essential and the many things which are not. And we try to understand the differences, something we won’t arrive at overnight, and in some ways in this life, never. But we seek to be open to better understanding not only of our differences, but also to help us see better ourselves to a necessary Christ-like change. In and through Jesus.

the gospel ultimately destroys all division

So in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Galatians 3:26-29

We in Christ all belong to the household and family of God. We’re one. That doesn’t mean distinctions no longer exist, though the seeds of abolishing slavery are clearly in the New Testament, in this passage, in the book of Philemon, etc.

The gospel destroys all division in the sense of people not being united. We are “in Christ” and therefore united as one in him. That seems so obvious, a truism even, except that it hasn’t always been played out that way. African slaves were baptized when they responded in faith to the gospel. Yet they remained slaves, as if the family status was somehow only spiritual. That flies in the face of the meaning of the gospel, the good news in Jesus. It’s essentially a family, household thing, full heirs of God’s promise in Christ, as the above passage points out. Likewise females who were often either considered inferior to males, or treated as such are equal in being heirs and members of the family.

We are bereft with deep divisions in the world today. And they only seem exacerbated as people live more deeply and advocate their own common unity, or community. It would be good if by common grace people from diverse backgrounds: racial, religious, whatever could find common ground so that they could live well together. But that kind of unity could never approach the unity that is in Christ. It is good and important in its place, but it’s certainly not a full unity.

The unity in Christ does not destroy the diversity present. Women are still women, men, men, cultures, ethnicity is not changed. And such diversity will be a challenge at times. We are one in Christ, in one household, of one family in him, the family of God. Yet living in that one family will require humility as we learn to grow together. And surely the diversity is used by the Spirit to help us grow up in Christ in ways we otherwise would not. We can see diversity as all gifts from God for the whole, similar to the thought in Ephesians 4. To help us toward full maturity in Christ. That same passage tells us that though we are united in Christ, we’re to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. So to live well within that unity, to not become divided is not automatic.

We have to let this unity have its full effect, and that is both passive and active. We receive all God gives us in Christ by the Spirit. And we contribute our part, in return. In love in the unity that binds us all together in and through Jesus.

in prayer for the Roman Catholic Church

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Ephesians 4:4-6

In a recent post, I was thinking of the early music of the Protestant Reformation, and celebrating the renewal of spiritual life God seemed to clearly give at that time. In no way was I desirous of putting down other Christian traditions, such as the Roman Catholic Church, or the Eastern Orthodox Church, or any other Christian tradition. All are rooted in a tradition which believes the church was built in a sense on the apostles, beginning with Peter, and on the apostolic teaching of the gospel. In no way do I want to exalt one tradition over another.

I was raised in an evangelical Anabaptist church. Now I’m evangelical with some Anabaptist remaining, but above all, wanting to find the common ground that is ours together as the entire church in Christ and the gospel. I have to admit that for me, while I think I mostly understand it, it seems a direct affront to Christ’s desire that we in Christ would be one before the world, that so many churches have closed communion. That is not true of just one tradition, but a number, even within the Protestant tradition. But by the Spirit through the gospel we are one in Christ anyhow, regardless our practices. Tradition by the Spirit and the word has essentially gotten the gospel right. Christ is the gospel, the good news of God. Christ in his person, life, ministry, and work of salvation through his death and resurrection, followed by his ascension, the pouring out of the Spirit, with the promise of his return.

This is an especially difficult time for the Roman Catholic Church, and for our sisters and brothers in Christ in that great tradition. The rest of us need to be holding them up in prayer: the pope, the leadership in that church, the priests and nuns and laypeople, all who serve Christ there. Christ is faithful, and the church will stand because Christ will cause it to stand. Repentance, reformation and renewal, that is a need for us all. We need to be open to understand where we are wrong now, confess that, and make the necessary changes to be confirmed over time. The evangelical church is not without its faults, sins and scandals.

So we stand with our Roman Catholic brothers and sisters in Christ. In prayer for them, and for all of the church, as we seek to follow our Lord and be faithful witnesses of the good news in him.

God’s peace together

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.

Colossians 3:15

God calls us, his people to unity in heart and mind. But it’s a unity that’s centered in the gospel. And always in harmony with the gospel, the good news in Jesus.

We need the ministry of the Spirit in our hearts for sure, but it’s never just as individuals. We need to work at being at peace with each other.

Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Ephesians 4:3

So many things can and do divide us as humans, even as God’s people.

We need to work through our differences, oftentimes laying them aside in agreement on what is central, and really transcends all, even though it does impact everything. God’s peace for us in this way is present and will persist to bring us into that reality. We have to let that peace have its way. It is meant to help us be united not only to Christ, but to each other. Actually to live out who we are in Christ: one body (see NET note on this verse).

It is a challenge any day, but maybe especially these days. This has to be part of our passion, so that we are satisfied with nothing less. It is a unity in the gospel. Its basis in scripture in the revelation of the Spirit to the church. In and through Jesus.

within (orthodox) Christianity thinking outside the lines

I was recently musing with someone over the thought that it would be nice if there was just one church in the world which let people disagree on a host of things, but was intact and centered in what the Bible is centered in: the gospel. The problem would end up being over matters related to the gospel, including specifics about it, and its scope. But that would be alright, if people would just get a grasp of the richness of the faith both in scripture, and in the tradition of the church, particularly in its early centuries.

Yes, lines have to be drawn. God is Triune, something like one Being in Three Persons. Jesus is human and Deity (divine in an equal to God sense, unlike the rest of us). Etc. We have been taking our grandchildren to an evangelical megachurch and have been pleasantly surprised on a number of scores, including both their passion for truth, and their indifference over nonessentials, and I take it, in letting believers disagree over a number of matters.

I get in trouble over accepting evolution and believing in creation and the Genesis account at the same time, and probably on other matters, too. At this stage in my life, I prefer to avoid debate, and trying to influence others that way, so was finding our time at the new church refreshing, because like where I work, they major on what unites us in Jesus, and not on what divides us.

But now Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision, the book adeptly setting forth the message from his massive work, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God sets me up for once again getting into something I prefer to avoid: controversy, and in this case downright disassociation from some, I suppose. And yet if people would read the work, they could choose to disagree, but see that it is not at all departing from the faith, including the truth that the Bible is the inspired, breathed out word of God, it is God’s word written.

Never should teaching like that be made a test of orthodoxy, except where it either departs from the gospel, or puts its teaching in jeopardy. Those who make some new suggestions out of the richness of scripture, and with due consideration of tradition (both very true, in Boyd’s case) should not be automatically dismissed as heretics.

I do see value in churches which emphasize this or that, and I don’t see the end of the world over the diversity of churches, like some people do. We are one in Christ by the Spirit, with one faith (Ephesians 4). While we must contend for the faith in a world of lies and blatant as well as subtle unbelief, we must also hold to it in all its wonder and glory. In the beauty revealed at the heart of it: the good news of God in Jesus.

simply Christian

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

1 Corinthians 1

It seems like it holds true to the present: there are a number of Christian denominations and traditions which remain essentially divided over this and that, sometimes what appears to be significant matters over the gospel, and yet in the end, they would acknowledge that the ones they are dividing from are likely in Christ.

What if we simply got rid of the idea that we have to be united over this or that nonessential? But for many, unless one believes that the bread of Holy Communion becomes Christ’s body, and the wine is blood, then they can’t be in any kind of fellowship and working relationship. Or churches remain divided over this or that. It seems impossible to break the division.

We need to center on the gospel, and live with our differences around that. Maybe challenge each other in the process, but make it a priority to be united, insofar as we possibly can for our witness to the world, as well as the good of our own faith.

Reports from China years back said that the church was growing exponentially until they began to get divergent directions from different Christian bodies in the free world. The simplicity of the power of the gospel, and God’s grace in that was disrupted by human made rules and tradition. The work of the Spirit was thus undermined, if not thwarted altogether.

When it’s not the gospel that is central, or when there are certain aspects of our participation in the gospel which end up dividing us, we have work to do. We need to make provision for all who are in Christ to be united as one in faith and practice.

That is what I’m coming to now. We might want to bring a believer along to understand and practice or even not think they have to practice certain things, arguably, but as long as they have faith in Christ, that should be enough for them to be fully united to us in our church body and witness to the world. The New Testament doesn’t know any believer who isn’t baptized, at least not as a rule, but differences there should not cause us to exclude each other.

What we need to press for is to maximize our oneness in Christ through the gospel. That needs to take priority over other matters. In spite of what differences we have, we ought to make provision for that. In the grace of God in and through Jesus.