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Archive for the ‘Unity’ Category

Conflicts between groups of people plague us. Nations wage war. Neighboring cities compete. Allegiances to political and religious institutions divide.

I’m already beginning to see the havoc in the first weeks of a history class about early and medieval Christianity. Of course Christianity is not the only religion to experience conflicts. Just glance through a good introduction to the major religions (something like Stephen Prothero’s God Is Not One: The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World), and you’ll see what I’m saying. And of course we see intergroup conflict between other kinds of establishments.

Group of People Standing Holding Culture

Christianity isn’t the only conflicted religion, but its story certainly has its fair share of the mess. And I get to learn about it this semester.

(Although I haven’t always appreciated church history, I’m enjoying this course. Over the last 15 years, as I’ve seen history explain contemporary experiences and even provide some possible responses, I’ve grown to value it. For example, why do Churches of Christ typically worship with voices unaccompanied by other musical instruments? How should church leadership be done? What do I pray when my life is falling apart? Church history addresses all of these and more.)

There’s a lot of positive in the story of this religion. There’s also plenty of negative. But I want us all to understand that the negative doesn’t discredit Christianity in relation to alternative worldviews. All the options have imperfections.

Questions of Culture

One of the imperfections in Christianity (but not just here) is conflict between cultural groups. In the early church, we see this between Jews and non-Jews. (Nothing against Jews here! Jesus is a Jew.) There also was conflict in the church between Jews who wanted to welcome non-Jews and Jews who weren’t so open to that. (Remember that this kind of thing happens everywhere. If the church had started in my home state of Texas instead of Israel, I’m sure there would have been cultural conflicts between the Mexicans and the white folk and between people open to intergroup relations and those preferring monoculturalism.)

This is a struggle in the early life of the church. How can we worship and work together if we’re so different from each other in our talking and thinking and eating and other cultural practices? We still ask similar questions today. What worship songs can connect with all the cultural groups represented in our communities? Where can we find preaching styles that connect cross-culturally? How can we get past the excessive whiteness of our traditional worship styles? (Not to ignore churches that deal with other cultural limitations or have learned to worship and minister in more diverse ways.)

In response to all these questions, we need to hear two answers. One is beautiful but theoretical, and the other is more practical but not as easy as you might want.

Answer One: Jesus

The first answer is that Jesus is our peace and has broken down the dividing wall of cultural hostility (Ephesians 2:14). Some people joke that, when you’re asked in a church Bible class a question to which you don’t know the answer, the answer probably is Jesus. In a sense Jesus is the answer, but in many cases other answers might better respond to the questions. Here, however, the answer is Jesus, who has destroyed the dividing wall between people groups. The people addressed in Ephesians 2 are cultural groups. In the struggle to worship and work together as members of Jesus’ church, we should remember that Jesus “is our peace,” a peace that we are to embody and enact.

Answer Two: Ministry

The second answer responds to questions of how we live out that peace. Should we worship and work in separate communities of Jesus followers, with people of one culture in one congregation and people of another culture in another congregation? Should we strive to incorporate people of diverse cultures in the same congregation? If so, how should we navigate cultural differences? The answer is neither singular nor simple. Church leaders must wrestle with these questions, praying for divine direction, in their respective cultural contexts. What works in Memphis, where I live, might or might not work in Los Angeles or Singapore.

A Needed Conversation

Congregations of Jesus’ followers must proceed through these issues prayerfully and carefully but intentionally and actively. Choosing not to wrestle with matters of cultural reconciliation is choosing not to participate in the peace that is Jesus. When we move forward, with guidance from the Holy Spirit, in efforts to bring diverse cultural groups together in the church, we live out God’s mission of reconciliation (Ephesians 1:9-10).

This was not easy in the early church, and it’s not easy today. Not all cultural groups connect well with all styles of preaching, music, and leadership. One cultural group might benefit from sitting on pews and listening to a lecture, while another might worship more meaningfully when sitting in a circle and engaging in a conversation. One group might experience God through slow, meditative hymns. Another group might more likely encounter the Divine through energetic praise songs. A group might function well with hierarchical leadership, and another might function better with more egalitarian leadership.

And these differences exist not only along cultural lines but also along lines of age, sex, economics, education, and other demographics. There is no single answer that fits every context. I encourage church leaders to study their respective cultural contexts as they study scripture and theology. The best course of action in any situation arises from a conversation between these voices. The point here is to have the conversation, to pray about what needs to be done, and to take action in partnership with God who is reconciling the world through Jesus, our peace who has knocked down the wall.

Churches need such conversations in every generation. If a church had this kind of conversation decades ago, that’s great; but the church needs to regularly ask the questions in order to faithfully and responsibly embrace changing cultures with God’s love.

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It was my first month serving with Park Avenue Church of Christ in Memphis. As a new staff member and a new member of the neighborhood ministry committee, I sat at a table with several good people whose faces were still new to me.

One new friend suggested that we have a Friends Day in the coming year. The congregation had done a similar event annually but had stopped about a decade ago. After some discussion, the proposer solicited my opinion. I replied with something like this: “I think it’s a great idea. Since I’m new, I prefer not to be the organizer or the public voice for the event.” The committee penciled the Friends Day into the church calendar for April 21.

You guessed it. For several weeks leading up to Friends Day, I was praying, brainstorming, planning, organizing, and in other ways juggling previously unexplored chaos. What should Friends Day be? What should it do? What tasks need to be done? Who should do them? These and other questions claimed much of my attention and had numerous possible answers.

Friends Day for us became a day to focus on our calling as Jesus-followers to love the world. On Friends Day, the emphasis of that calling narrowed to our immediate surroundings, giving us opportunities to extend love to our friends, family members, co-workers, and neighbors. We welcomed all guests and especially encouraged Park people to invite friends not already plugged into any faith communities.

Friends came. They came to the Bible classes. They came to the reception. They came to the worship gathering. They came to the lunch. We glorified God, and we reminded each other of the love God shows us and calls us to live out in our relationships across every line our society assumes.

The planning process intimidated me, but friends joined me as teammates, and our collaboration brought diverse people together in the name of Christ. Every aspect of the special day, from the sermon to the pasta, involved God-and-neighbor-loving teamwork (Mark 12:28-34).

Park, I’m blessed to serve with you!

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“Put on the full armor of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes” (Eph 6:11).

Ephesians is about God’s mission of reconciliation, as I mentioned in yesterday’s post. Chapters 1-3 lay out a theology of the church’s role in that mission, and chapters 4-6 give practical ways to live it out. There we find guidelines for life together in the church, in the home, and even in the workplace, depending on how you interpret 6:5-9. Then we come to the section about spiritual warfare and the “armor of God.”

Evil opposes the mission of unity, and the text gives us ways to victory in that battle. To defeat “the devil’s schemes” to thwart this mission, we need truth, righteousness, the good news of peace, faith, salvation, “the sword of the Spirit, which is the word of God,” and prayer (6:14-18).

(Day 343: Ephesians 4-6)

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God’s people should participate in God’s will (or mission), but what is it? Ephesians tells us it’s “to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ” (1:9-10). It’s a mission of reconciliation, of fixing broken relationships between God and people, between people, and between all members, human and nonhuman, of God’s creation.

Jesus has already accomplished this mission; he is “our peace” who has “destroyed… the dividing wall of hostility” (2:14). While this applies to all creation, it especially pertains to people groups. Although Jesus has accomplished it, his followers participate in bringing it to its fullness.

How can we participate in that mission of unity? Love is key (3:14-19).

(Day 342: Ephesians 1-3)

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The Lord’s Supper (or Eucharist or communion) unites us with God, with each other, and with Christians around the world and throughout time. Our unity with each other is a focus of First Corinthians 10-11.

“Because there is one loaf, we, who are many, are one body, for we all partake of the one loaf” (1 Cor 10:17). The Lord’s Supper is a unity event that strengthens our oneness with each other. All Christians are members of one body, the body of Christ. As such, we should care for, encourage, be patient with, and love each other.

In first-century Corinth, Christians were already losing that focus, as we see in 11:17-34. When Christians gathered for the Lord’s Supper, the rich ones didn’t wait for the ones who were late, possibly due to work. By the time everyone arrived, some already were full and drunk. Their concern was for themselves instead of for each other. Paul wrote into that situation, “For anyone who eats and drinks without recognizing the body of the Lord eats and drinks judgment on himself” (11:29). “Recognizing the body of the Lord” is to live out the unity that’s an inherent characteristic of that body, the church.

We need to be united when we take the Lord’s Supper, but that unity won’t survive if its just a once-a-week event. Unity in the body of Christ needs to exist more than just on Sundays. To be real and thriving, Christian unity requires daily intentionality as we live together in meaningful relationships through which God transforms us; and those relationships must stretch beyond our “comfort zones” and across divisions and differences (11:18-19).

(Day 334: First Corinthians 9-11)

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Paul challenged his readers to unity (1 Cor 1:10-31). Christianity was too young at that point to have developed religious traditions like those we see today, but the beginnings of rivalry had birthed. Christians were boasting about the teachers they followed. Some claimed to follow Paul. Some said they followed Apollos. Some followed Cephas. Others apparently found pride in their allegiance to Christ, seeing themselves as more righteous than people who followed good people like Paul, Apollos, and Cephas who taught about Christ.

Of course the proper focus of our unity is Christ; but any arrogant claim of superiority, no matter what name it uses, is divisive and inappropriate. Even those of us in unity movements must be careful not to assume that we’re the only Christians or the best ones.

When we move beyond exclusivistic claims and focus on Jesus instead of our own rightness, Christian unity across our various traditions becomes a real possibility.

(Day 332: First Corinthians 1-4)

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Two cultural groups are in conflict. They don’t like each other. They see life differently. They even eat differently. In the Way of Christ, however, those groups experience peace through God’s righteousness.

This righteousness [of] God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus. God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood…. Is God the God of Jews only? Is he not the God of Gentiles too? Yes, of Gentiles too, since there is only one God…

Notice that, according to Romans 3, the answer to inter-group conflict is not any human effort. The solution is God’s righteousness, not our own. Of course God invites us to participate in that work of reconciliation. We have roles to play, but true peace is the result only of God’s work through people.

(Day 327: Romans 1-3)

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