07 Oct God’s Counterintuitive Calling for a “Contaminated” Church
Here is one question that won’t leave me alone: How can we relate to one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, and our neighbors in love, in our sharply polarized cultural moment?
In terms of coming to understand polarization, I’ve found Charles Taylor to be helpful in A Secular Age. He unpacks many different levels of what constitutes “identity” in our cultural moment. Taylor recently joined my former professor Miroslav Volf for a podcast interview to discuss the problem of “entrenched tribal factions” within our broader political culture.
But the question, as it relates to the church, is even more subtle. The church is not a democracy, but a people who find their life in the Head, Jesus Christ, and have been incorporated into God’s household. This forces us to grapple with our identity differently. But often, we have been shaped by our culture to approach others in the church as “threats” rather than members of God’s household. It’s a phenomenon that applies as much to the Southern Baptist Church as to the United Methodist Church, to the Reformed Church in America as to some nondenominational congregational networks.
Shortly before the pandemic hit the United States in 2020, I interviewed one pastor-theologian that I’ve found to be very insightful on this topic: Rev. Dr. Joseph Small, author of Flawed Church, Faithful God: A Reformed Ecclesiology for the Real World. The interview is all the more relevant now, after 20 months of the pandemic, in which our patience with one another has often worn thin:
In light of this, I recently published an article trying to discern…how to make sense of all of this in light of the gift and calling that God gives us as the church. The article should be relevant for Protestants from a wide variety of ecclesial locations, though I do briefly weigh in on some of the challenging facing my own denomination, the Reformed Church in America, in its upcoming General Synod (#RCASynod).
I don’t have it all figured out. But I hope that you find this article helpful in the process of discerning how to live into our identity in Christ — abiding in Christ and his household — in our cultural moment that often shapes us to view one another with suspicion and contempt.
What follows is from “God’s Counterintuitive Calling for a ‘Contaminated’ Church.” You may access the full article by clicking here, at The Reformed Journal website.
When I pray with my adopted daughter each night, I thank God for adopting her, and us, into God’s own household. While we were far away, when we had no people, God graciously welcomed us: as children of God in Jesus Christ, we have communion with the Father through the Spirit, in the covenant community. I thank God for bringing us into fellowship with him, and into fellowship with a family of brothers and sisters in Christ, the church.
Yet, leaving her room, sometimes I wonder: what is going on with this “family” we’ve been adopted into? How am I to make sense of the dissension and conflict among God’s household, God’s people, the church—the bride of Christ, the temple of the Holy Spirit, people of God’s covenant of grace?
I should be clear that these thoughts are not about my local congregation, in particular, but the larger body of Christ, of various denominations and fellowships. In our divided and polarized age, it would be nice if I could extract myself, completely bypass the scores of ways that we self-sort into different competing groups, groups with conflicting perceptions of what is real, what is important, and who to trust. But like the rest of us, I always reflect as a small mortal who is shaped and formed by larger polarizing forces in our cultural moment.
Perhaps such forces are among the “principalities and powers” over whom Christ has ultimately triumphed, but continue to plague us until Christ’s kingdom comes in fullness. But if I am honest, my automatic thoughts, walking from my daughter’s room, are often far less sublime: why are so many people in the church so annoying, self-serving, and blind, and how can I entrust my children to being shaped by these people?” In our cultural moment, I find myself struggling to see how God’s promise of household fellowship and unity in Christ—both a gift and call for God’s people—can be manifest in our context.