Reaching into Redemption Meditations: 37. Distinctives and Differences
1 Cor 12:27 Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it.
‘Our Island’: I have this general sense of direction for these studies but each morning I wake up with not a clue what today’s study will be. I expected it will be one thing but as I prayed in the earlier slot of time I have with the Lord each morning, something else came, and came quite specifically. From nothing each day, something comes, and I trust it to be the Lord. Part of me wants to get on to confront major issues challenging us today, but it is as if the Lord is saying, ‘Go slowly, build the foundation carefully first’ and so this morning I find myself thinking about ‘our island’ that I referred to yesterday, the ‘island’ where all the inhabitants are Christians. Yet I noted that even though we all (true born-again Christians) have the main foundational beliefs, we have whole varieties of interpretation of practice, i.e. the way we do church. I said yesterday that we should be open to one another, share our hearts with one another and look for unity within diversity and that we would consider, so let’s do that now. It is all part of this ‘redemption package’, now specifically the redemption of the Church.
‘Our Distinctives’: Today my wife and I are members of a particular denomination but that is only because we are involved with this particular church in our locality. In many ways we are quite unusual because I would rather set up a new church on very basic grounds, but our community already has too many ‘churches’ so, instead, we determine to be available and serve this particular expression of Christ’s church. I have a young friend in the States who is just about to launch out with a new church-plant, and I thrill with him in the possibilities, but for now, we have joined a denominational church that would call itself evangelical with a tinge of charismatic leanings. Denominational churches tend to look to the denomination for ultimate ‘covering’ and subscribe to the same things set by the denomination. In our existing church, there are a few people who have been there for over twenty years; in the church we found ourselves establishing three decades ago, we similarly ended up being there for twenty-three years and in such times, you establish ways of thinking, ways of working, and those tend to become your distinctives, the good things (we believe) that make you different from other churches in the locality.
‘Our Differences’: And therein arises a problem, for our distinctives become our differences and the danger with differences is that they are divisive, that you can easily look down on others who are not the same as you. I have watched, over the years, various activities where local churches join together for a specific project, maybe a mission or something similar, but it seems to me that they never sit comfortably, these joint operations, and that is a shame – but quite ‘natural’. But these distinctive-differences seem to arise in three areas. First, there is our attitude towards the Scriptures as our authority. (What do we think of the Bible?). Second, there is the way we ‘do’ church, liturgical or free and, third, there is our attitude towards the Holy Spirit. I won’t bother to pause to spell those out, I’ll leave you to think them out yourself.
Our Points of Contention: In more recent decades in the church in the West, there has been discussion, debate and disagreement, first in respect of women in leadership, and then on the subject of gays in the church (what an awful way to put it!) which has moved on from acceptance of gays to ‘marriage’ of gays. In more recent days the whole issue of trans-gender has been rearing its head and is starting (very early days – mid 2018 at time of writing) to create discussion and debate and, no doubt, disagreement. Other blights on modern living in the West, marriage replacement by cohabitation, relational breakups, teenage pregnancies, are no longer actually seen as a blight but are, in society at least – and in some churches – considered normal.
Redeeming these Points: Before I return to the general subject of facing and dealing with our distinctive-differences, for honesty sake at least, I need to say that the list of things in the above paragraph are the things I believe I am going to have to consider in the studies ahead. I realise that here is both a potential recipe for disagreement while at the same time possibly creating the reaction, “Hey, where is our Bible study? Why do we have to deal with these sordid issues?” The answer to that is because these are issues that have been, are, or are about to face the church, and maybe even challenge its very existence. We need, therefore, to ask ourselves key questions about these things, such as, ‘what does the Bible say about these issues – if anything?’ or ‘what is the truth about these issues – is there ‘fake news’ polluting the discussion?’ or ‘what are the pastoral issues that arise with each of these issues and how may we face them honestly but compassionately?’ ‘Redeeming’ these issues means presenting them to God to check His wisdom in respect of them, and seeing how we may better handle them, after long and careful consideration outside the white-heat of almost political argument that sometimes appears in respect of them.
Redeeming our Distinctive-Differences: Redemption, as we have seen at length in this series, starts from a lostness and is about being saved from lostness and being saved to a place of grace and truth in Christ. The ‘lostness’ that I have just referred to in respect of our relationships on ‘our island’ is the division we perceive in our thinking when we confront denominational differences. It is there; it is the temptation we each have when we view ‘our church’ as being different (and better?) than other churches in town. Here we need to consider the theology and then practice.
The Theology of Unity: The amazing truth is that even as God loves and blesses us as imperfect individuals on a path of redemption, so He also loves and blesses imperfect church situations, but that doesn’t mean to say He wants them to stay like that! The local church (or denomination) that is run more as a business (owning property, employing staff etc. etc.) is far from the New Testament model, but that is not, it seems, the big issue with the Lord; it is our heart, for Him and for people and for each other. The little inclusive fellowship that is more like an elite club is similar; He will bless and use where He will, but that doesn’t mean He wants them to stay just like that.
Jesus’ Desire: Jesus, in his high priestly prayer in John 17, spoke first of the disciples he had with him as “those you have given me, for they are yours.” (v.9) The church is a work of God and belongs to God – all of us. He went on, “glory has come to me through them.” (v.10) i.e. the church glorifies God, that is our first role and we need to remind ourselves of that. He then asks his Father, “protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me.” (v.11a) The Message version amplifies this, “guard them as they pursue this life that you conferred as a gift through me,” which expresses well the sense of community but not so much the power of the Father’s will that constantly works to redeem and protect and take us on. The end result is, “so that they may be one as we are one,” (v.11b) or as the Message version puts it, “so they can be one heart and mind as we are one heart and mind.”
Paul’s analogy: 1 Cor 12 is Paul’s famous ‘body’ chapter where he makes the points that a) the Holy Spirit gifts individuals within the body (v.1-11) and b) the body comprises many different parts, but all are brought into being through Christ (v.12-14) and we each need each other even though we may be different from one another (v.15-26). To conclude: we are one in a single body, but different as individual members of that body, and DO we need each other, even though we may not realise it, or think about it as we get caught up in our own little church world.
The Practice of Unity: Unity starts in the mind. How you and I think about each other and each other’s churches is where it starts. Praying for one another is a good start, prayer laced with a good dose of thanksgiving for one another. Where there have been splits and divisions, working at reconciliation and seeking forgiveness where attitudes, words and actions had been less than full of grace, is a prerequisite. When we face the Lord in eternity will we have an uncomfortable conversation that starts with Him asking, “Why didn’t you go back to your brothers and sisters and seek reconciliation?” Ministers fraternals can be a good starting place as long as they are real and not just a ritual (I’ve been in them!). Sharing preachers, meeting together as a whole church from time to time, both formally and informally, can also be a good thing in steering towards a realistic redeeming of the fractured church. If you suddenly feel hostile to this idea of meeting together from time to time, is it time to look afresh at everything you think and feel about ‘your church’? Just a simple reminder: it is not yours it is God’s!
The Island of Redemption: This ‘island’ of which we Christians are a part, is to be first and foremost an island of redemption, where people are because of Jesus’ death, and the work of the Holy Spirit has lifted them out of the old self-centred, godless life and delivered them into relationship with God. Because of the things we have observed through this series, it is also an island of change where we “are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another,” (2 Cor 3:18 RSV) and because it is a process, we are all ‘works in progress’. We are one in all this. May its outworking be, as in Jesus’ words, so that “the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (Jn 17:23) Amen? Amen!