This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregations I serve.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Great Ends of the Church, Part 2

Here is the second part of my project on the traditional Great Ends of the Church.

The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.”

Who are the “children of God?” For whom it is a great end of the church to provide “shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship”?

We Christians naturally (and somewhat self-servingly) assume that this Great End refers to the members of the church itself. Reading this statement in this way would mean the people we are to “shelter, nurture, and provide spiritual fellowship” for, are… ourselves. By this reasoning, we are the children of God and we should give ourselves this “shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship.”

So we organize our churches to do this. We have educational programs, we do pastoral care and provide fellowship activities, we worship together, all in the name of providing for “the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God,” that is, each other.

And we have learned to do this somewhat introverted thing fairly well. I have never served or even heard of a church that did not congratulate itself on its own “friendliness” and “warmth.” Mostly this claim has legitimacy… as long as it had to do with the people already in the church. Even the iciest and nastiest churches when it comes to strangers and visitors, think of themselves as friendly and warm, because that’s the way they feel they treat each other. Outsiders (and some within) might offer a different opinion, but that hardly matters since they are not the “children of God,” and those already inside the church are.

How many congregational mission studies lift up “the people,” that is, themselves, as their greatest asset? No church has farther to go in realizing actual discipleship of Jesus Christ than the one that lifts up its own friendliness as its chief value, because that friendliness is too often focused exclusively within. Breaking into that circle is frequently a task beyond the energy of newcomers.

The question of the “shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God” is also expressed in our ecclesiastical politics. Like most Protestant denominations, in the Presbyterian Church “the people” have a lot of power. We carry with us out of the Modern Age this democratic bias that the will of God is somehow identical with the will of the people. Our Book of Order likes to assume that the Holy Spirit works through elections, majorities, deliberative bodies, and so on. We use some system (Presbyterians historically and somewhat infamously rely on Roberts’ Rules of Order) to discover the will of most of the people and then we easily declare this to be the will of God. Consider this from Book of Order, G-1.0400: “a representation of the whole should govern and determine in regard to every part, and to all the parts united: that is, that a majority shall govern; and consequently that appeals may be carried from lower to higher governing bodies, till they be finally decided by the collected wisdom and united voice of the whole Church.”

Now, I love our polity. In many ways it is a treasure we offer to the whole church. But it was also developed to help the church thrive in the Modern Age, and is explicitly suited to the values and understandings of authority that emerged and prevailed in that period (roughly 1500-2000). In previous historical epochs the same kinds of assumptions were made about nobles, kings, and bishops.

We have always prided ourselves in being uncontrolled by the State. And the Book of Order clearly makes a prominent point of our rejection the use of civil, coercive power by the church. “We consider the rights of private judgment, in all matters that respect religion, as universal and unalienable: We do not even wish to see any religious constitution aided by the civil power, further than may be necessary for protection and security, and at the same time, be equal and common to all others (G-1.0301).” We do like it, though, when the State listens to our concerns. And we agree that the State should have no role in our internal ecclesiastical workings and policies.

But, if the State in a democracy is the people, then we are, in a sense, directly and forcibly controlled by the State. Maybe not by the government or civil institutions, but churches are obviously controlled by the people in them. And we have lifted this up as a primary value.

The genius of our polity is that it recognizes this as a problem, and so continually reminds us that Jesus Christ is the Head of the church, and that whatever democratic habits and procedures we have are intended as ways of hearing and discerning the will of Jesus Christ for the church. We make it clear that, at least in theory, the will of Jesus may be very different from the will of the people. Ministers have to reiterate repeatedly the principles that elders serving on church sessions discern the will of God, and should not just reflect their perception of the will of the majority of the people. But the political reality is this: just as the medieval church had to make room for and account for the power of the State expressed in feudal political and economic institutions, so also the Modern church had to do the same thing, expressed in the democratic terms meaningful in that period.

Thus it frequently happens that something wildly, explicitly, and obviously contrary to the will of God becomes or remains the practice if the people want and like it. Forms of exclusivism and self-righteousness, glorifications of violence and war, examples of racism, nationalism, sexism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, Capitalism, imperialism, and many other moral cancers have, over the years, driven down roots deep into our worship and mission. Some remain nearly impossible to excise.

All of these malignancies are based on the understanding that some people are better, more worthy, more holy, more chosen, more blessed, more privileged and rightly so, than others. This is where we are inexorably led if we begin with the assumption that “the children of God” is a narrowly defined class of people, necessarily including us. This is what happens when we think that “shelter, nuture, and spiritual fellowship” means giving us, this narrowly defined class of people, what we need and want. When we become the definition of the children of God, disaster ensues.

Clearly, the New Testament understands the importance of healthy group dynamics and interaction. Jesus’ great commandment that the disciples “love one another as I have loved you” resonates here. Paul, James, and John go to great lengths to encourage relationships of love and inclusion in the communities they established and worked with. Jesus’ commandments, and most of Paul’s admonitions, are primarily about life within the believing community. Neither one had any influence whatsoever over society in general. Their concern was for the life shared together by those who follow and believe in Jesus.

Indeed, the formation of a discipling community has to be the first task of faith. Certainly it was for Jesus. He does not send his disciples out on missionary, which is to say healing and welcoming, journeys until they are fully trained and thoroughly incorporated into his gathering of disciples. Paul has the same priority. In fact, the whole New Testament may be read as a guide for the formation of a revolutionary and alternative community. The values and practices of the Kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus have to be embodied in real relationships in a real group of people. This then becomes the content of the healing and liberating message it is the church’s mission to extend to all. This is the “work in the vineyard” to which the Father calls the two sons in Jesus’ parable.

To that extent, “the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God” does have to do with the quality of relationships and practices of people in the church. Jesus calls the church together as a place of healing and growth, sharing and generosity, honesty and equality, remembrance and prayer. And this new revolutionary and alternative community must explode into the world with a joyful invitation to all to participate.

It must not implode into an impenetrable knot of insiders. I find no sense in the New Testament that the building up of the church has to do with creating a special and exclusive club providing merely for itself. On the contrary, the church is a representative gathering drawn from all humanity, and living in mission to all humanity. We must imperatively avoid all kinds of “rapture” thinking, as if God’s intention is to destroy the world, saving only a handful of specially chosen survivors, “the children of God.” God wishes to redeem and save the whole world, and has chosen a few to witness to this truth. They are called to spread and share this good news with everyone.

The way out of the sour understanding that the children of God are just some people, is to begin to realize and articulate that the children of God are all people, everyone on the planet. That is the message around which the few gather together, in order to be reshaped by it and then spread it to all the world.

The church knows that the “children of God” are not just themselves, those in the visible church; it refers to all people, especially the poor, the outcast, the suffering, the weak, and the diseased. When called to shelter, nurture, and provide spiritual fellowship for the children of God, the church is called to reach out to everyone with these gifts. That is its mission. It is not about gathering, feeding, and protecting believers only; it is about gathering, feeding, and protecting everyone… beginning with those who most need to be gathered, fed, and protected.

Thus there is no essential division between church and world. All are God’s children. It may even be argued that this inclusion extends even to animals (Psalm 36:6) and rocks (Luke 3:8; 19:40)! The church is the gathering of those whom Christ has called to receive this knowledge: that God loves us and we are all God’s children, and to witness to it by our words and actions.

As such, the church is a challenge to the exclusive, parochial, xenophobic, and divisive attitudes that prevail in so much of the world. It always has the character of a contrarian, alternative, counter-cultural movement. The establishment was angry with Jesus because he included the “wrong” people, thus diluting the power and privilege of the “right” people.

And as he sat at dinner in the house, many tax-collectors and sinners came and were sitting with him and his disciples. When the Pharisees saw this, they said to his disciples, “Why does your teacher eat with tax-collectors and sinners?” But when he heard this, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” (Matthew 9:10-13, and parallels)

They were angry with Paul for the same reason. The point of Christianity, for both Jesus and Paul, is erasing distinctions between insiders and outsiders. Paul expresses this perfectly in Galatians 3:28:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

If there is no longer any distinction between classes of people in the gathering of believers, it is clear that this radical inclusion is to be extended to all.

Just before Jesus is executed, John tells us about the unwitting confession of the High Priest, Caiaphas.

Caiaphas, who was high priest that year… prophesied that Jesus was about to die for the nation, and not for the nation only, but to gather into one the dispersed children of God. (John 11:49-53)

The “dispersed children of God” includes more than those included in “the nation.” It includes everyone, beginning with and exemplified by those who believe/obey. This truth emerges even in the tradition of the Hebrew Scriptures. In Genesis 12:3, we hear about “all the families of the earth” being blessed “in” Abraham. Abraham and his family are to represent all of humanity, and extend God’s blessing to all. This is the original intent of God, expressed in Genesis 1:27-28, where humanity is created in God’s image, blessed by God, and commanded to “be fruitful and multiply.” This primal intent is fulfilled in Isaiah’s vision, in which all nations and people finally realize their true identity as God’s people. Psalm 48:1 talks about Mt. Zion as the possession and joy of “all the earth,” not just one nation. And Psalm 67:3-5 anticipates the day when all “the peoples” and “the ends of the earth” come to know God. Finally, the apostle Paul sums up this inclusion of all people in God’s family.

Just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. (Romans 5:18.)

What does “all” mean, except, well, “all?” This “all” means that “the children of God” extends to every living person on the planet. And this realization becomes an essential part of Jesus’ mission and that of his church. Some have noted that there is no mention of “mission” in the traditional Great Ends of the Church. Only if we understand “the children of God” in the sense of all humanity, and the mission of the church as one of including the whole world in this knowledge and blessing. The church is elected as a representative body charged with bringing the truth of God’s love to all people, informing them of their true nature as God’s children.

The world, unfortunately, does not want to hear this. It is addicted to and blinded by its convictions about the supremacy of each nation, family, race, religion, language, etc. The good news is offensive to those who want to maintain their own superiority, separation, or specialness; especially the powerful interests in human affairs. We like to think we are members of an exclusive club; Jesus’ message of radical inclusion breeds resentment among those who don’t want certain others included.

So on the one hand, the gospel is anti-democratic in that it opposes the tyranny and exclusivism of any group, even (or especially) the majority. But it is supremely and transcendently democratic in its radical inclusion and acceptance of even those the majority would deny and reject. The gospel is essential theocratic because it makes the universal love and saving will of God the primary element. Decision-making is a discernment process involving believers in creative interaction with the Word of God, Jesus Christ, as he is attested in Scripture.

This means that the life of Christians in the world is like the life of Jesus himself in that it is a matter of continually going against the grain, doing what is not popular, being a hindrance and an annoyance, even a lightning rod for rage and resentment. The world wants to exclude “illegal” immigrants; the church knows these are God’s children whom we are called to shelter, nurture, and give spiritual fellowship to. The same is true for prisoners, the poor, refugees, people suffering from AIDS and other diseases, political, religious, and racial minorities, women, children, the disabled, and others whom a society deems as losers and worthless. The church re-deems them as valuable children of the living God.

The church cannot authentically have this function if it is not demanding obedience from believers. Otherwise, it is just another group of people set on excluding, judging, condemning, rejecting, or placing conditions on others. The obedience Jesus demands begins with building a forgiving, accepting, welcoming, healing community, and it continues with extending this invitation and example into the world.

The end and purpose of the church is therefore not limited to gathering, feeding, and protecting those who profess certain acceptable opinions. Is it not just a safe harbor in a nasty world for a special group. The church is certainly a gathering, but it is a gathering with the purpose of being sent out. It is a launching pad for a mission which witnesses to and enacts the love of God for the whole world revealed in Jesus.

In the end, “the children of God” includes everything God has made. It is the mission of the church to “provide shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship” for everyone, the whole planet.

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