Continued from “Lifesaving Stations – The Parable“.
In listening to the scripture in the first part of this post, we heard Paul’s hope for a particular church. Yes, it was written to a gentile church almost a couple of thousand years ago, but I think it still expresses some things that are valuable for churches today.
Churches, like any human organizations, can become exclusionary when they seek to insulate themselves from ideological or theological differences. Churches can accomplish this in at least a couple of different ways.
One way is to aim for homogeneity. This church says, “We have the answer – the only right answer. Come on in and we’ll tell you what to believe about God and life. That’s right; just check your brain at the door. We want you to be just like us. Don’t listen to them – they’re wrong-headed.” Wait a minute – what was verse 2? Oh yeah, “with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love”. Hmmm.
Another way we exclude theological differences is to have the doors open to a wide range of thoughts and beliefs – but to discourage open discussion. After all, theological discussion about real life issues could be divisive. What if we disagree – our numbers might go down. No, let’s discuss those issues at the regional and national level, so we don’t have to trouble the people in the pews with them. That way we can just say our church is “liberal”, “conservative”, “traditional”, or whatever other label we want to fill in the blank with. The people don’t actually have to decide where they stand.
We Christians are a strange lot – most actually believe in something called the “priesthood of all believers”. What that means is the ministers of the church are you – the people in the pews. Yes, the church has the other positions mentioned in the scripture reading, but their job is to equip the laity to minister to their brothers and sisters.
I wonder if you can imagine how difficult it might be to minister with someone else’s theology tucked under your arms. How about if we’ve been left out of the conversation altogether because we need to be coddled and protected? Either way, we’re children – we’re dependents. Whether spoon-fed or unfed, we’re still susceptible to being “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming.” No, being “ministers” means we have to participate in the discussion.
We have to deal with the various perspectives of life’s issues as they relate to faith and belief in the lives of real people. To do this effectively, we have to actually be out in the world around us a great deal of the time, serving those that are in poverty, are sick or are oppressed. Churches are called to doing ministry and doing mission. The first educates and cares for our family inside the church, while the latter serves our neighbors – those who aren’t, and may never be, church family. As we are reminded in James chapter 2 – without mission, without putting our boat in the water, our faith dry rots and becomes dead.
There’s another aspect to the “priesthood of all believers”. When the discussion is engaged by the select few – when doctrine is limited to the elite – there are fewer people charged with perceiving God’s call. The priesthood is also about discernment. More people in the discussion – more chance that God just might be heard.
When you look around I am sure you can see people who know how to engage their head with their heart; people who aren’t afraid to discuss the tough issues. You can also see, in some of those faces, people who might just be able do that in love and patience. When that can be done, unity is entirely possible.
Unity, it seems to me, is a useless concept without diverse ideas. Unity in a cookie-cutter environment isn’t unity at all – being enforced, it looks more like control or oppression. Unity in a place where deep discussion is discouraged as divisive isn’t real either. If we view dialogue as something to avoid because it’s divisive, then abstinence from dialogue is just “delayed division”. Somehow, that doesn’t ring true to the meaning of unity.
Unity in the sense it was written, I think, comes from humbly, gently, patiently and lovingly engaging the differences that exist. Daring to try to understand the ideas and beliefs of another. No matter our particular theologies, all Christians do share some common ground – “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.” These are the common elements of our faith – our one boat, so to speak. I would like to point out that nowhere does it say there is one right way to express these common elements – just a reminder to keep these essentials in the midst of your Christian life.
Within the parameters given by the text, there are an immense range of possible theologies and beliefs. Many times the difference between unity and discord is in the level of understanding that exists between the individuals or groups that hold various views. Understanding won’t necessarily bring acceptance, nor should it. But it might bring empathy and compassion for the position held by another.
It can easily be understand how someone’s life could color his or her choice in ministry. It would be assumed by most people that the life experiences and world-views of a third-world mission worker and a Christian counselor might be significantly different. These lives would, of course, be unlike those of people who are called into urban lay missions or rural pulpit ministries. These differences of call seem to be quite easy to accept.
The same differences in theology, however, immediately indicate a need to classify someone as “conservative” or “liberal”. In Ephesians 3: 10 it is written: “… so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known …” “The wisdom of God in its rich variety” or, in some translations, “manifold wisdom” seems to indicate that God’s wisdom might not be one dimensional or linear. Why, then, do we limit talking about God to one point on one line in one plane running from right to left, or left to right? We’re not in that case stuffing God into a box, but into a tiny point contained along an imaginary line.
We tend to take heavily politicized topics like abortion, gay rights, or economic justice and assume that the proponents’ or opponents’ entire theologies are reflected in their stand on any one of these particular issues. From one tiny piece of a puzzle, we can create an image of the theologies and beliefs of individuals, groups or churches that may or may not be accurate. Is this any less harmful than creating an entire theology out of one snippet of scripture taken out of context?
Of course, then we have the people who tend to consider each issue individually and attempt to arrive at a theological stand that is independent and comfortable for them. Both ends of the linear right-left scale tend to blast these folks as wishy-washy or uncommitted.
All of these tendencies, by the way, are not new. I am sometimes quietly amused at churches that want to return to the unity of the early church. It seems to me that the early churches were the recipients of Paul’s epistles generally because of their disunity. Eighteen times in Ephesians alone, the writer discusses disunity. I really don’t remember one of these letters saying, “Way to go, you bring new meaning to harmony.”
What’s necessary are ways of humbly, gently, patiently and lovingly conversing about our belief in God and the functions of God’s church that don’t hinge on “either/or” concepts, but rather “both/and”. Both mine and yours. Both theirs and ours.
In my opinion, the end of the story I read in the beginning is wrong. Yes, shipwrecks still happen. People still drown, but that’s always been true. The story is wrong because it assumes that the same thing will happen over and over and over again. You – right here and right now – represent a different ending. You represent a range of theologies and traditions. Just remember, when we take our faith out into the world, it can’t rot away into some rote and useless verbiage.
I haven’t written a new ending for this story – that’s your job.
You might want to discuss amongst yourselves what a new ending might look like. Maybe try writing in the comment section.
If it helps, I’ll just add this last bit of detail to the story:
Meanwhile, Paul, the original entrepreneur who had started the first station, had been writing newsletters. He sent one out to each station he knew about to remind them of the basics of life saving. In these, he told them some very simple things:
- Remember your one purpose – lifesaving.
- You only need one boat but, for heaven’s sake, store it inside, keep it well maintained and get it out in the water once in a while so it doesn’t rot and it’s useful for your one purpose – lifesaving.
- If you are humble about your ideas, and show respect for others, you can work together to serve your collective calling as lifesavers.
Hmmm. If only the people in the story had read the newsletter.