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It’s been nearly seven years since I’ve preached in a church of Christ.  And on certain nights I lose sleep, suffering through the nightmares that occasionally haunt me as scenes play out from old elder’s meetings, and the negativity cranky members spewed out.  So, I’m really not sure why I still engage in conversations surrounding the churches of Christ, in person or on social media.

While I was saved worshiping in a mainline church of Christ, and I preached for about 15 years in churches of Christ, presently I’m preaching in a “non denominational” congregation.  It seems weird, nearly sacrilegious, saying I have a love-hate relationship with the C of C, but that sums it up for me.  

I love many of the people and the core ideals that are foundational to the acappella branch of the Restoration Movement, but I’m emotionally exhausted and repulsed by the latent legalism and judgmentalism that is corroding her.  It seems like I can’t shake off my past completely, since apparently I still care.  

Someone recently asked me in a Facebook thread after I pointed out Paul’s practices, why the “brethren” in the C of C ignore Paul’s continued ties to his judaistic roots as Luke records in the book of Acts, and it struck me, if you pull one thread too much, the whole fabric unravels.  In other words, if we accept that Paul worshiped with instruments (thus offering an “example or inference” of New Testament believers worshiping with instrumental music), then maybe we are wrong about our acappella stance, and if we are wrong about that, what else might we have been mistaken about?  It’s too scary to even contemplate for some.  

No matter how firm the foundation is, a house of cards is doomed to failure.  The fragile-faith of many of the well-intending but ever so fearful members of the C of C is the crux of the issue.  If one gray area can hold complete sway over us, then we are in trouble.  There I go, using “we” when most of the folks I know wouldn’t consider me as part of the fold, based on my understanding of the non-essentials.  

It’s unhealthy to claim “who’s in and who’s out” because of doctrines that are argued mainly through the silence of the Bible on those topics.  To come back from the brink, it’s time to reassess how “we” will deal with gray issues.  Simply quoting, “In the essentials unity, the non-essentials liberty, and in all things love” isn’t enough and it has to become more than a platitude, if people are going to grow and mature.   

Jesus didn’t say all men would know we were His disciples, if only we would understood every doctrine correctly.  He said love was the ultimate testimony.  Therefore a good starting point in interpreting and applying the Bible would be to focus on developing love, instead of attempting to prove we are the only ones who are right.  Love is the only way to build on the firm foundation.  

 

A young woman preaches grace and truth and receives death threats from other Christians.

College students are hurt by their school and then wounded even more on social media by other Christians.

A preacher spends weeks agonizing over a sermon, praying it will bring glory to God and encourage the Kingdom only to be criticized, isolated, idealized, or treated as an office manager or building keeper by other Christians.

We wonder why we’re losing our children, why no one wants to talk to us about religion, and what we can do to make things better in this world. Maybe we need to take a long look in the mirror.

We are the holy people of God which means he should be influencing our actions, reactions, and words regardless of whether they are spoken or typed.

What does holy look like when you’re faced with someone who doesn’t interpret Scripture the way you do? It looks like laying down your stones and choosing grace instead. That may mean withdrawal but it never means cruelty.

What does holy look like when someone has been offended? Regardless of your opinion on the subject, holy looks like listening and trying to understand someone else’s viewpoint and story.

What does holy look like for a church and her minister? It looks like an adequate salary for the vital role served. It means making sure they can afford quality health insurance for them and their family. It looks like good communication from and with the leadership. It means walking alongside them in their work for the Lord and not expecting them to carry the entire congregation. It means friendship, encouragement, and love.

In every relationship holiness looks like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. It’s thinking Jesus and inviting him into every situation.

Church, it’s time we step up. We are God’s people. We know holy. Let’s start living it. The world is watching.

 

 

 

I received this note from a kid at school the other day. I especially like the second line. “I love God and Jesus so you have to love God and Jesus.” I can hear her attitude loud and clear and it cracks me up. This sweet, innocent child of God has some bad theology to sort out. But don’t we all?

I hope a kind soul gently breaks it to her someday that not everyone is going to love God and Jesus. I hope they go on to tell her that regardless of what others choose to believe about God (even choosing to live against God) doesn’t negate the way God expects her to respond to them. She still has to be kind to them. Still has to protect them, go the extra mile for them, feed them, visit them, walk alongside them, and help them. She still has to show them Jesus even if they refuse to see him because loving someone doesn’t mean accepting the choices they make, it means accepting the Christ and his wildly, radical call to love your neighbor.

I hope someone opens a Bible and shows her that Jesus died for us while we were still enemies so we have no excuse to exclude or mistreat ours. Maybe they’ll also show her the Gospels and she’ll realize that our Savior built a church on relationships not rules and regulations. Maybe she’ll strive to be a friend to others regardless of how or what they choose to believe. Maybe she’ll be so moved by the way Jesus loved, healed, and associated with sinners that she’ll eagerly welcome them and do the same. Maybe she’ll be so busy she won’t have time to protest, oppress, or ignore others made in the image of God.

I hope she chooses not to listen to some in the church when they say love is a nice idea but won’t work in the real world. Jesus certainly thought it would. I hope she sits with the outcasts and hears their story. She might find out they loved God and Jesus all along.

More than anything, I hope someone gently teaches this sweet kid that loving God and loving other is what we have to do and we have to do it in a way so genuine, others might even decide to love God and Jesus, too.

 

In the 1980s the Black Student Association at Fresno State displayed this slogan, “We have a SIN problem, not a SKIN problem.” It’s a true statement that sounds overly simplistic. Skin problems are still here because sin is still here. Some briefly thought we might be living in a post-racial world. We now realize that sin hasn’t gone away—and with it tensions about race have resurfaced with a vengeance. We live in what could best be described as “a post post-racial world” where distrust & division are rearing their heads in places we thought we’d made great progress.

In Romans, Paul argues that sin is responsible for a divided world. (See my earlier posts.) Sin weaves its way among us: idolatry, greed, arrogance, sanctimoniousness, sexual immorality, bigotry and racism. These divide nations and people. They even wreak havoc in the minds of Christians and in churches. Sin is powerful.

God’s power is stronger still, and the church should be a force for unity. Paul’s words in Rom 15:4-13 summarize the great Romans epistle and its passionate treatise to bring all creation together under the Lordship of Jesus Christ.

If all creation is to live under Jesus, shouldn’t the church be working toward that goal even now? Yet how are we to bring people together in a world afflicted by a sin problem? Where do we begin?

We see in Rom 15 that Paul has the answer. If sin is today’s problem, then God’s righteousness is tomorrow’s answer. This was Paul’s conclusion back in Rom 11:26, And so all Israel will be saved; as it is written, “Out of Zion will come the Deliverer; he will banish ungodliness from Jacob.” “And this is my covenant with them, when I take away their sins.” This is a challenging text to say the least. I can give you a nutshell version of what Paul is saying: God is so just and God’s plans are so right that God’s promises of salvation for all will eventually come true—in spite of the apparent rejection of these plans by hard-hearted people. How is this possible? How can God accept those who appear to reject his plans?

That’s why Rom 15:4-13 is so helpful. It lays out the explanation which is essentially a summary of Romans: For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the circumcised, on behalf of the truth of God, in order that he might confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy (Rom 15:8-9a). CliffsNotes’ version: All people now receive God’s mercy.

This is the central thesis upon which Paul builds his most important instruction. This is the foundation for what he tells us to do—and for how he explains his ministry to those who scoff at his love for Gentiles. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God (15:7). This has been Paul’s concluding exhortation since chapter 12: Present your bodies as a living sacrifice. Let love be genuine. Bless those who persecute you. And in chapter 14, Welcome those who are weak in the faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. In other words, live your lives to God’s glory by welcoming others.

What’s the point? Paul is telling us to stop worrying about how or if God will sort things out. Why? Because God has already taken care of it. Instead of deciding who’s in and who’s out, your job is simple: Welcome people!

But some will retort, “What about 1 Cor 5 when Paul told them to kick out an immoral brother? Paul doesn’t want us to welcome sinners!” This is the go-to passage for this issue, and I understand why. But singling this out without paying attention to the bigger canonical message creates room for unhealthy interpretations. What’s a good way to read this?

When you pay attention to Paul’s bigger message, you see a trend. In 1 Cor 5, Paul is concerned—as elsewhere in the Pauline corpus—about the witness of Christ’s body and about the salvation of all creation. This man’s actions are divisive, and not only within the church. His behavior is disgraceful in the world, too, and it’s destroying the church’s witness.

So he tells them to kick the brother out so they can restore the unity of the church and the integrity of their mission. But notice an often overlooked part of this passage: Send him on his way so that his spirit will be saved on the day of the Lord (1 Cor 5:5b). The man’s salvation is not the question here. This is all about the church’s mission. Paul tells them to disassociate from him as to add no extra obstacle to the already difficult task of preaching Christ crucified.

I know this doesn’t answer every question. It doesn’t simplify hard issues like same-sex attraction or Christian-Muslim relations. But here’s what it boils down to:

God’s righteousness will triumph! In the meantime, we should welcome people! Welcome each other. Welcome your weaker brother. Welcome your neighbor. Welcome those who are different. For God through Jesus welcomed you.

Christ sacrificed everything so that we as sinful people could enter God’s house. Now, we should follow Christ’s example and welcome others. Why? Because God is just, and God’s plans are right. God will do whatever is necessary to fulfill the promises. The image of God is in each of us. If you strip away the sin that divides us—the lies, the falsehoods, the immorality, the prejudices—then we are all humble servants born into the family of God ready to receive the promises of God and to do our jobs for the sake of God’s good purposes.

Yes, we have a skin problem. We can’t help but judge based on what we see. But it’s ultimately a SIN problem. And God has given us the key to overcoming the divides of sin. You must welcome others! Since God has overcome sin through Jesus, we too ought to show welcome.

In 2017, I pray that the church will be more unified than ever as we welcome others under the Lordship of Jesus.

A strong woman feeds the hungry, gives to the needy, and visits the sick and imprisoned even when it’s unpopular and uncomfortable.

She accepts her body, her age, and her shortcomings with dignity and gives herself permission not to be perfect.

She speaks, tweets, texts, and posts words of grace from her pulpits and playgrounds knowing that words matter and people are listening.

She knows that building each other up is vital and eternal.

She realizes that the older she gets, the less she knows and she’s ok with that.

She has learned that love is a choice filled with action and the more difficult it is to give, the better it is for her and those she loves.

She’s a game changer and a trailblazer but above all, she is a peacemaker. But don’t be fooled, as a warrior of God, she will fight injustice, oppression, apathy, and hatred for the poor and marginalized. She’ll approach any action needed in a godly manner knowing she will be held accountable to the Creator.

A strong woman handles her grief and fear gracefully and refuses to let either define her.

She is a friend who will love you to your face and behind your back.

Strong women know that strength doesn’t always mean force. Sometimes it means silence.

Strong women realize that even if we vote, love, look, protest, or worship differently, loving our neighbor doesn’t come with conditions.

Strong women know that our strength isn’t our own.

I hope you have a lot of strong women in your life. I hope you mentor one. I hope you love one. I hope you are one.

 

 

If the Book of Romans is Paul’s most important letter, then we ought to hone in on passages such as Rom 15:4-13. These ten verses summarize the entire message of book: The good news is that ALL are God’s chosen people—both Jews and Gentiles. Glory be to God!

Paul’s universalist-sounding message brings up a key question. If we are all fellow recipients of God’s promises, then how well are we to get along while we wait for those promises? Shouldn’t ALL of God’s people be united in the knowledge that we ALL fall short of God’s glory in our actions yet through God’s grace we ALL receive the free gift of eternal life through Jesus? Shouldn’t unity be our calling card?

Yet as the past year has demonstrated in the US and elsewhere around the world, the people of God are anything but unified. People whose primary allegiance ought to be the family of faith instead have defined themselves by beliefs on gun rights, health care, questions of race, and political candidates. We’ve lost sight of Paul’s passionate plea in Romans! Why do we fail to hear Paul’s message about the unifying force of God’s grace?

Thanks to Luther and Freud, we’ve changed Romans into a psychoanalytical diagnosis of Paul’s “inner turmoil.” The division between human beings is Paul’s primary concern in Romans, but we’ve lost sight of this. Most folks today assume that Paul, like Martin Luther some 500 years ago, is racked by guilt. They assume Paul feels unworthy. The culprit, according to Luther and according to all those who read Paul through Luther’s lens, is legalism. If not for God’s rules, people would be happy and free.

Luther, needing to break free from the constraints of medieval Catholicism, discovered grace in Romans. It was a needed breakthrough for him. Luther was paralyzed by a sense of unworthiness. Romans freed him from this. While we can all give thanks that Luther discovered God’s grace, we ought to stop assuming that Luther is like Paul. We need to hear Romans without imposing upon it the burden of medieval Catholicism or even of twentieth-century legalism in Churches of Christ. Paul’s journey wasn’t Luther’s. And it certainly wasn’t the same as ours either.

So what is Paul battling in Romans? For one thing, Paul assuredly isn’t bashing God’s instruction as handed down through the Law! Listen to Rom 7:22-23, “For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members.” Paul is channeling the psalmists who write, “The Law of the Lord is perfect, reviving the soul” (Ps 19:7). There is nothing evil about the Law of God. How can there be? In the same sense that there is nothing evil about humans made in the image of God, there is no evil in the good and perfect words that come from God’s mouth.

What then is evil? What is it that Paul and all of humanity struggle with? It’s not God’s Law. Rather, it’s the law of sin and death that wages war on our bodies and on our relationships. In other words, it’s Sin with a capital S. The culprit that destroys us is Sin. Sin ruins people. Sin eats away at relationships. Sin makes us arrogant. Sin causes us to segregate and separate. Sin brings on the problems of prejudice, bigotry, insults, intolerance, narrow-mindedness, violence, greed and idolatry. Sin is the power that wrecks humanity.

When you remove the fiction of “Paul’s inner turmoil” and instead read Romans in this light, then everything changes! This is Paul’s dilemma: How can we overcome Sin that keeps on dividing us? How do we get past Sin that causes me to judge people by their skin color, their education level, their social status, their Facebook posts, or by who they voted for?

Paul is torn by the fact that Gentiles are receiving Christ, yet Jews—who should know best—are rejecting Jesus and rejecting these new believers. The problem, says Paul, isn’t religion or the Law or circumcision or ethnicity or even the Roman Empire. The problem is Sin. God’s instruction hasn’t corrupted the Jews. Sin is wreaking havoc.

When you know the real problem, you can finally look for the real answer. So what’s the answer to the power of Sin? Stay tuned for my final post in this series.

What I’ve loved about Wineskins for over two decades now, is its safe environment to exchange our new ideas, or to even stretch our comfort zone.  I would like to utilize this format now to raise an issue none of us really want to face head-on, yet this common struggle is decimating us.

Take a deep breath, and let’s be brave together.  If there’s one great weakness we’ve mutually experienced through our blessed Restoration Movement, it is the inevitable fracturing within our fellowships.  Our tendency towards fragmentation is the “elephant in the room” and it is our Achilles tendon.

The main factor contributing to our division isn’t necessarily what we typically think it is.  Our main problem does not stem from the way we individually view Scripture, or how we might understand doctrinal positions like women’s roles, or even how we chose to worship.  I think those are all red herrings.

Our inability to maintain unity is due to our lack of one very particular skill.  Conflict resolution.

We are afraid of conflict because we are unequipped to manage it.  Our anxiety levels skyrocket at the mere thought of confrontation.  We therefore repeat an unhealthy cycle, over an over again, one that almost feels like a self-fulfilling prophesy.  Conflict, to be clear, isn’t the problem, but not knowing how to deal with it is killing our brotherhood.

I know about this fallout from a painful and very personal experience.  Several years back as I ministered in what could be described as a fairly mainline church, we eventually called up the “Church Doctor” when our corporate pain was unbearable.  Yes, we reached out to none other than Charles Siburt.  Two years after our work with Dr, Siburt concluded, the pain was still too raw for a slim percentage of our congregation, and nothing would satisfy this small group short of my departure.

This is a story that feels as old as time itself.  A church has a conflict, the minister moves on or there’s a new set of elders installed, and we repeat the same scenario three to five years later.  As a result, we all limp along, somewhat wounded, somewhat cynical.  Could this be why so many of our younger people shy away from our churches?

But that’s not the end of the story.  We can write a new chapter when God happens to breathe new life into those who are open to His moving.  It seems like the Spirit is closest to us in our most difficult times, or shortly thereafter.  And, afterwards, once the healing begins, we learn to apply some of the core Scriptures that instruct us on how to live as a community, on how to get along, on how to be the Body.

If we want to thrive in our congregations and see God’s Kingdom increase, we need a new perspective on conflict.  If you attempt to implement change, you can be sure there will be conflict.  Conflict is almost necessary for growth, because at its basic level conflict is nothing more the friction that happens as two or more opinions are shared.  Conflict is neither evil nor harmful, what makes conflict healthy or unhealthy is how we manage it.

Sadly, in our Movement we haven’t had the greatest history of dealing with our conflicts very well.  The good news is, once we acknowledge our very real problem, we can turn a new page and embrace our differences, and we can overcome our conflicts through practicing the one doctrine that unequivocally bonds us together, that being, Love.  It’s only by this Love that all people will know that we are His people.

Call me old fashioned, but maybe it’s time we revive an old saying in earnest, “In the essentials unity, in the non-essentials liberty, and in all things love.”

 

 

Does religion divide people? Is it race, socioeconomic status or politics that separates us? Is our world and are the churches that inhabit that world hopelessly divided by things that we are helpless to control?

As a Jew trained by the prominent Jewish teacher Gamaliel, Paul had learned that what divided people was religion. Jews had the Law and were therefore superior. Gentiles did not have the Law and were therefore inferior. According to Jewish thinking, God’s gift of the Law separated them from others, making them superior.

A Jewish man might therefore pray, “Blessed am I, Lord, that I was not born like these pagans but rather among your chosen people who have the Law.” Or as Jesus portrays the common prayer of a Jewish leader, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I worship properly and I give a tenth of my income. Thank you, God.”

But as he reveals in Romans, Paul finally comes to a different realization. We don’t fully know what changed Paul. Did he figure this out when the bright light blinded him on the Damascus road? Did he spend seven years in the Arabian desert coming to this conclusion? Or was his heart softened by the sorrowful realization of how much he had fought against the followers of the Way?

Here’s what Paul discovered: Sin divides us. Not our birth certificates. Not our ethnicity. Not even the Law. It’s sin that divides people from one another and from God—the sins of arrogance, laziness, anger, idolatry, etc. They all build barriers that keep us apart.

This is what Paul is getting at in Ephesians 6:12, “For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.” Blood doesn’t divide us. Flesh doesn’t separate us. Sin wrecks relationships and tears the world to pieces.

Think back with me to the story of creation. Why do we have the stories of Genesis 1-2? These aren’t scientific records of how God orchestrated the details of the universe. Instead, they explain to us what’s in the heart of God and what the role of humanity in God’s glorious creation is supposed to be.

One of the most important lessons from creation is that humans are made in the image of God. We are made in God’s image! In other words, the image of God is deeply implanted into each and every person. Stop and consider that for a moment. You are made in God’s image! Say it to yourself, “I am made in God’s image.” But now look around and say about those near you, “They are made in God’s image.” Each and every person has the image of God within them. How can something made in God’s image be bad or evil.

One of the things you learn when you’re married to a child development expert (as I am) is that you shouldn’t call kids bad or good. It’s common to hear even from Santa Claus, “Have you been a good girl?” Or a frustrated parent will say, “Why are you being such a bad boy?” The truth is that kids aren’t bad. They do bad things and make bad choices, but they aren’t bad.

The same is true of people. Can you really say that a human being made in the image of God is bad? Does God make bad things? This is what the creation story teaches us: When done with creation, God said, “It is good. It is very good.” Would you want to argue that God makes bad things?

Now it’s true that there are some people who do some awful things. And this is what guides Paul’s conclusion. The awful things they do that divide people are the result of sin.

But even people who genuinely do good things tend to become smug and self-righteous. This is another kind of sin that creeps in and divides people. The truth is that we are all made in the image of God. But by the same token we all sin and fall short of the glory of God. Our actions don’t match the image that is inside us. And this divides us from each other and from God.

Jane Elliott was a third-grade teacher in Riceville, Iowa. In 1968 she had the crazy idea of letting her kids participate in an experiment. “Blue-eyed kids,” she announced, “are stupid and will be second-class members of this class. Brown-eyed kids are the best.” So for the next two days she watched with astonishment as previously bright leaders who had blue eyes suddenly became timid and insecure, making unusual mistakes on their assignments. Meanwhile, brown-eyed kids found an amazing degree of confidence. Some previously quiet kids came out of their shells and began to assert themselves, feeling more confident in their roles and in their skills.

Then Mrs. Elliott switched the experiment. Blue-eyed kids were now bright while brown-eyed kids had their rights taken away. It was an astounding test that met with widespread derision—especially there in Riceville—as she began to draw acclaim and curiosity around the country. She even appeared on the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.

Elliott asked the kids to write about what they learned. One student, Debbie Hughes, said things that typify the other responses. “The people in Mrs. Elliott’s room who had brown eyes got to discriminate against the people who had blue eyes. I felt like hitting them if I wanted to. I got to have five extra minutes of recess.” When the experiment switched, she wrote, “I felt like quitting school . . . I felt mad. That’s what it feels like when you’re discriminated against.”

This clearly illustrates Paul’s great discovery in Romans. The things that divide us are artificially produced by the power of sin. They are either of our own creation or of a power beyond our control. That’s what Paul says in Romans: “You were slaves to sin.” Sin takes people hostage and through this savagery destroys what is good in all of us.

Think about it for a second. If we all stood in the presence of God, stripped of our sin and aware of being made in God’s image, wouldn’t we get along swimmingly? This is why Jesus came—to undo the damaging divide of sin. Jesus refused to separate people the way his compatriots did. Knowing this, Paul writes in Rom 15:7, “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” The glory of God as revealed in creation is visible when we tear down the divisions and welcome one another as fellow human beings made in God’s image.

So here’s my challenge for you based upon Paul’s massive discovery. What have you allowed to divide you from your neighbors? What obstacle have you empowered to stand as a divider between you and others who—like you—are made in God’s image? And what are you going to do about it? Sin is the divider-in-chief. Let’s stop feeding it.

As we leave behind the acrimonious year of 2016, can I make a plea for unity among God’s people in 2017? Paul made a similar appeal in the first century. His letter to the Romans provides us with clear markers for how to get there. In particular, Romans 15:4-13 is a text that summarizes the complex message of Romans. It reveals Paul’s steadfast hope for unifying God’s people.

This passage in Rom 15 has the capacity to literally transform the ways we understand faith, evangelism and the sovereignty of God. To grasp this beautiful and important passage of scripture in its proper light, it’s helpful to comprehend Paul’s two major discoveries shared in Romans. And in the midst of them, I have to debunk the most common misconception in Romans about Paul.

In three succeeding articles, I’d like to outline Paul’s building blocks for creating unity among God’s people. I wish I could affirm that it worked in Paul’s day. During his Christian ministry, he faced the problem of Jewish believers not wanting to accept Gentile believers. They didn’t heed Paul’s words. In the years that followed, however, we see that Gentile Christians were increasingly unwilling to accept Jewish believers. (A warning for us is that in no time the shoe can easily be on the other foot!) They appear to have not listened to Paul either.

The odds of finding unity may be no better today than they were in Paul’s time. But still, we ought to try. And I can think of no better place to begin than with Paul’s two Aha! moments that undergird his efforts for unity two millennia ago. Will you read on with me? In this New Year, I wish you the blessing of rediscovering the Father’s hope.

I suggest five (yes, count them, five) modes of visible unity that give expression to the underlying unity of the Spirit among believers. These practices not only exhibit the unity of the Spirit but are also means by which the Spirit dynamically works among believers for unity. The Spirit acts through them to manifest the unity the Spirit has already achieved. At the same time these practices are also transformative as they not only move us into a deeper experience and recognition of that unity but they also transform us as exhibits of that unity.

  1. Confession – we confess Jesus is Lord by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:3).

Paul provides the ground of this point: “No one is able to say “Jesus is Lord” except by (in) the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3). Contextually, this stands in contrast with those who say “Jesus is cursed” or who serve idols. This is an orienting confession. It is a centered-set confession, that is, we confess Jesus at the center of our faith journey. It is a directional confession, that is, we have turned our face toward Jesus and we walk toward him. But none of this is possible except by the work of the Spirit. The confession arises out of the Spirit’s work, operates within the life of the Spirit, and lives because we have all drunk of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 12:13).

This confession is made from within a story, which is essentially what is called the Apostles’s Creed or the developing Regula Fidei (Rule of Faith) of the early church. It gives shape to the confession of the Lordship of Jesus and locates believers in the flow of the history of God’s people. We confess the Father as creator, Jesus as the Son of God, and the Holy Spirit as the communion of believers.

Theologically, we acknowledge this, whoever confesses “Jesus is Lord” does so “in (or by) the Spirit.” We recognize the work of the Spirit in the confession itself. Whenever we hear Jesus confessed, or the Triune faith articulated, we confess that the Spirit is at work. We may embrace the unity of believers through this confession that is the result of the Spirit’s enabling presence.

  1. Transformation – we are sanctified by the Spirit (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8).

We all know Jesus’s saying “by their fruits you will know them” (Matthew 7:16). Sanctification belongs to the Holy Spirit who indwells, empowers, and gifts us for new life in Christ.

Theologically, transformation is the goal of God’s agenda. Transformation is an effect of communion. Through mutual indwelling, we are transformed by the presence of the Spirit in our lives. The fruit of the Spirit, then, is evidence of our union with God. The fruit of the Spirit is the life of the Spirit already present in us. We may embrace the unity of believers through shared sanctification or mutually experienced transformation that is the result of the enabling presence of the Spirit.

  1. Liturgy – we worship in the Spirit (John 4:24; Philippians 3:3).

The foundation of liturgy—not necessarily the foundation of liturgical forms—is the work of the Spirit. Our liturgical acts—not necessarily our liturgical forms—are deeply rooted in the work of the Spirit. Assembly, as communal praise and worship, is mediated by the Spirit. We worship the Father through the Son in the Spirit. Assembly, as an eschatological, transforming and sacramental encounter with God, happens in the Spirit; it is a pneumatic event. This is what gives significance and meaning to Assembly, and it is also the root of the unity we experience through Assembly as the whole church—throughout time and space—are gathered before the throne of the Father in the Spirit.

Liturgy might not appear to be a very fruitful approach to thinking about the unity of the Spirit since “worship” has often divided communities. The point will turn on whether or not we are able to discern the role of the Spirit in liturgy that transcends specific forms. If we take seriously the point—made in the Gospel of John—that the Spirit vivifies all life, sacrament, and worship in such a way that the reality is rooted in the work of the Spirit rather than in the specific form, then we can move beyond binding the Spirit to that form. There are no fixed forms that bind the Spirit. Rather there are gracious gifts—even specific forms—through which the Spirit offers communion and grace (e.g., sacraments). We may have preferred forms or even think some forms more biblical or more theologically coherent, but the forms are not boundaries for the Spirit.

To recognize that the Spirit is the means by whom we commune with and experience God, that this means is not dependent upon perfectionistic obedience to specified forms, and that the Spirit is not limited by forms, enables us to affirm the presence of the Spirit among those communities who do not share the forms that we think are most biblical. We may embrace the unity of believers (worshippers) through our eschatological and sacramental encounter with God in assembly by the enabling presence of the Spirit.

  1. Practicing the Kingdom of God – we minister in the power of the Spirit (Luke 4:18-19).

Spirit Christology is particularly important in the Gospel of Luke. The Spirit anoints Jesus, leads him into the wilderness, and empowers him for ministry in Luke 3-4. This is the ministry of the kingdom of God in which Jesus practices the kingdom of God by heralding the good news of the kingdom, exercising authority over the principalities and powers, and healing brokenness. Jesus is sent, and he sends a people.

This is the missional ministry into which believers are called. This praxis is an expression of the life of the Spirit within the community, and the community of Jesus, empowered by the Spirit, continues the teaching and doing of Jesus, that is, they continue to practice the kingdom of God.

When believers practice the kingdom of God, the Spirit is present. Where the Spirit is present, Jesus is present. This manifests the unity of the Spirit through praxis. It is a missional unity. We may embrace the unity of believers through shared ministry (shared participation in the good news of the kingdom of God) by the enabling presence of the Spirit.

  1. Spiritual Formation Practices – we pray in the Spirit (Jude 20).

In Luke’s Gospel the kingdom of God comes in response to prayer by the ministry of the Spirit. This connects points four and five, but it also calls us deeper into the experience of prayer itself.

The unity of believers through the presence of the Spirit in prayer is a common theme in the history of spirituality. Throughout that history we see evidence of the presence of the Spirit in communal and individual experiences. This is where an acquaintance, if not a full immersion in, the history of spirituality might open doors for conversations about unity.

Theologically, we recognize that the practice of prayer (as well as other disciplines) is rooted in the work of the Spirit. The Spirit is present to listen and speak in these moments. When a community practices them together, or each member of a community practices them in their own walk with God, the Spirit works to unite through shared experiences and shared communion. We may embrace the unity of believers through shared experience and communion in prayer by the enabling presence of the Spirit.

Conclusion

The present experience of visible unity, however, is progressive (though not always evident). The present is not a “perfect” manifestation of the eschatological telos. Consequently, we pursue unity, just as we pursue sanctification. The church is constantly undergoing a process of communal sanctification parallel to the process of individual sanctification. It should not surprise us that the church is not united in experience since we all acknowledge our own progressive sanctification.

At the same time, however, we are not left with nothing. Though we have not yet experienced the fullness of our unity with God and with each other—and we will not until the eschaton, we do—even now—experience that future when we give space to the presence of the Spirit. We are already united, and we progressively experience that reality the more the Spirit sanctifies our communities and our lives. The present practice of visible unity though marred by brokenness is healed by mercy; it is hindered by human brokenness but empowered by the gifts the Spirit offers to the church, which include the five gifts listed above.

Through the practice of these gifts, the Spirit mediates an already-but-not-yet experience of that unity. Together, we confess Jesus is Lord; together, we seek transformation; together, we participate in the eschatological assembly; together, we practice the kingdom of God; and together, we pray in the Spirit. Yes, you counted correctly. The number is five.

[For a fuller reading of this perspective within the context of Stone-Campbell history, click here.]

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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