Do you have a question, or two, that you continue to think about?
“What was the church supposed to be?” is one of mine ever since I heard the question asked at church. I wrote about this topic a while ago (2011) but I still wonder about that question. In that previous post I suggested that the church is to be a community of disciples who love God and their neighbor and that means the church is called to be the welcoming, forgiving, including, reconciling community of God. I still think that. I also said that this is very difficult to do. And I still think that.
It is difficult for people with substantially different points of view on various topics to be in community for a long time. It’s awkward and uncomfortable. I don’t have to list the difficult topics for you. You have your own list, I’m sure. I don’t know if it is comforting or depressing, but the church has always struggled with this; right from the start.
Part of the reason Paul wrote all those letters was because people had trouble getting along. Actually Jesus addresses this problem too. He warns the disciples against being stumbling blocks, he talks about what to do when there is disagreement,and how often to forgive each other (all this in Matt 18). The disciples had trouble getting along (Matt 20:20-28; see also Luke 22:24-27;Mark 10:35-45)
One of the early disagreements in the church is found in Acts 6:1 when the Hellenists complain that their widows were being neglected by the Hebrews. Then there is the problem of what to do about all those gentiles who want to follow Jesus. And there was the problem of which meat could be eaten. And the problem of who could eat with whom. Issues about what to eat and who to eat with may seem a bit trivial to us today. At that time, meals- what one ate and who one ate with- were important. They served as boundary markers telling who was being faithful to the covenant and who was not. To say, as Peter and Paul did, that covenant rules could be set aside was a very serious claim and had the potential to be divisive.
We seemed to have been inclined to divide ourselves up early on. Paul write to the Corinthians about divisions. “For when one says, “I belong to Paul” and another, “I belong to Apollos,” are you not merely human?” (1 Cor 3:4). Already we were making distinctions between ourselves, forgetting as Paul wrote, “So let no one boast about human leaders. For all things are your, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas or the world or life or death or the present or the future-all belong to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God.”(1 Cor 3:21-23)
What we forget, just like Paul’s fellow Christians, is that all things and all of us belong to God. Ultimately the distinctions we love to draw won’t matter. The Corinthians had divisions over meals. We argue over other things. Six days of creation or evolution. Same sex orientation accepted or regarded as sin. Woman and LGBT persons ordained or not. I’m not saying we shouldn’t prayerfully and seriously think about these things. I’m not saying we shouldn’t have opinions. Goodness knows, I have firmly held ideas about all these things and more.
What I am suggesting is that the church is not called to be the club of the theologically correct. We are to be people who love God and love our neighbors and our fellow Christians- whether they are “right” about the important issues of the day or not. I don’t find this easy to do. I want to be right and I think I am right. Of course, you want to be right and you think you are right. We can discuss and debate and argue for the rest of our lives with the result of just being annoyed and annoying. I don’t think that is what Jesus had in mind. But it is difficult to let go of the need to be right.
I wonder sometimes what if the church had, mostly at least, figured this out? What if we knew how to love and respect those with different beliefs? If we needed to part ways could we bless each other, pray for each other, work together to love and serve God whenever possible? What would the church look like if we could?
What if we were supposed to figure that out? What if that was supposed to be the church’s witness and gift to the world? Were we to be showing and sharing what it means to be a community of persons transformed by the love of God in Christ Jesus? We might call it making disciples.
This is difficult. And maybe that’s why it is our responsibility as Christians. As Christians we don’t do this alone. We can’t do this by willpower or ecclesiastical rules. We are only able to be this community by the grace of God.
What would the church look like? What could the church look like? What could the church be? What could the world be?