As we’ve been working our way through Ephesians this summer at Bloom, I found this little snippet out of chapter 4 pretty compelling:
1 As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. 2 Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. 3Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. 4 There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; 5 one Lord, one faith, one baptism; 6 one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
It’s intriguing to me, and I think highly significant, that Paul doesn’t say “make every effort to achieve…” or “make every effort to create…” or “make every effort to establish…” or something of that nature. Rather, he says, “make every effort to keep/retain/preserve the unity of the Spirit in/through the bond of peace.”
Fascinating stuff. Apparently Paul thought that the “unity” of the Church – what the apostle John would call “koinonia” in another context – was ontologically prior to any single member of the Church’s feelings about it. That is to say – it is REAL. Even if we don’t think it is. Or feel it is. Or believe it is. It just is.
Which is perhaps the reason that the unity of the Church is an article of both the ancient Apostles’ and Nicene creeds – because if we didn’t have to confess it every week, odds are we wouldn’t believe it. And if we didn’t believe it, odds are we wouldn’t order our lives according to it. Much like marriage. Christians believe that the act of marriage is creative – that something (the union) has come into being that is greater than anyone’s feelings about it. “What God has joined together…” after all. And it is the confidence that the union is deeper than our feelings about it that helps order our desires and passions in the right direction. As the great Dietrich Bonhoeffer put it to a couple about to be married: “From now on, it is your marriage that will sustain your love, and not your love the marriage…”
Frankly, however, in our culture of radical individualism, autonomy, and consumerism, and of course in the wake of the Protestant Reformation, which shattered Christendom into a billion little pieces, the primal confession that “we believe in one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church” has fallen on hard times. Now, it is the empowered “user” who through the dynamism of her personal choice gets to construct her social and religious world, “unity” be damned… And, as it turns out, Queen Choice is an awful tyrant. I see three places where this is perverting our individual lives and corporate witness:
1) On the interpersonal level, we are more flippant about our relationships within the body of Christ than perhaps we’ve ever been. Aided and abetted by our transience and by the plenitude of communal options before us, we simply don’t “make every effort” to fight for deep, meaningful, lasting interpersonal relationships within the body of Christ. We enjoy the bliss of community for a season, but the moment things get difficult or conflicts arise, we bail out. Everyone loses here.
2) On the corporate/communal level, we are more flippant about our relationship to total communities of faith than we’ve ever been. Pastors, you are much to blame for this. The degree to which we’ve acted as an accomplice to this conspiracy of the autonomous choosing individual and user-empowered church experiences in the name of attracting people to our communities is appalling, and is actually destroying our communities. Like madmen, we’ve cut off the branch we’re sitting on in the name of getting people through the doors, forgetting that churches aren’t built on consumers – they’re built on the backs of collectives of people who have covenanted together to live out the deep meaning of “ekklesia”.
3) On the “universal” level, we’re more eager to excommunicate each other than we’ve ever been. The Rob Bell fiasco of this spring was a perfect case in point. Before the book was even released to the public, Rob was being denounced and condemned as a heretic. The witch hunt was on. But then – and here’s the crazy thing – before too long, the hunters became the hunted. Pretty soon the “pro-Rob” faction was denouncing and condemning the “anti-Rob” faction. What we forgot was that in times past, when someone would teach/preach/write something controversial, the Church would labor – often for YEARS – trying to parse out exactly what so-and-so was saying, measuring it against the canons of received faith, before issuing some broad judgment. And in the process, they’d (a) preserve unity and (b) grow much wiser. After all, the great creeds and confessions of the church were BIRTHED out of theological controversy. And their birthing, make no mistake, was a “labor” from beginning to end. We’d prefer to microwave the process by tweeting our denunciations. What a weird world we now live in.
In all of this, the Pauline injunction is dismissed or overlooked entirely – make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. That is to say, to reiterate, our connectedness as members of the body of Christ is ontologically prior to our feelings, and therefore must be fought for. And from where I stand, by and large, we’re just not doing this.
How do we fix it?
In small but profound ways…
By fighting for relationships within the Body, even – and especially when – they get complicated. Actually, it has been my experience that the eruption of conflict within relationships can be the doorway to deeper friendship. But most of us never get there because we’re afraid of conflict. Stick with relationships.
By fighting for our sense of commitment to particular communities of faith. It’s ludicrous to me that many from my generation scorn and scoff at our parents’ churches, but don’t have even an ounce of the character that our parents had – many of whom took out second and third mortgages to help pay for the buildings we now laugh at, because they believed that in so doing they were helping to spread the gospel. However misguided in retrospect that might have been, at least they bled for something they believed in. Sadly, we don’t. We mock and criticize… and then wander back off into our private little consumeristic ghettos. Shame on us. Time to do better. Let the Spirit lead you to a community of faith, and then STAY THERE and CONTRIBUTE, until the Spirit leads you elsewhere (and don’t mistake being bored with a community or having the romantic feelings for a community wear off for the Holy Spirit).
By fighting for unity within the broader Body of Christ. And when I say this, SO THAT I’M PERFECTLY CLEAR, I’m not advocating some kind of fuzzy “Let’s just all get along because in the end it doesn’t really matter anyway” idiotic Christianized “tolerance.” I think we need to think. I think when Rob, or anyone else, writes something or says something that’s challenging or controversial, we ought to subject their work to rigorous, thoughtful, deep, careful scrutiny WITHOUT AUTOMATICALLY ISSUING CONDEMNATION in the hopes that in so doing we’ll edify each other and clarify what we actually do believe. After all, one of the postures that Paul commends in the passage above is “patience”, and there was nothing patient about how the Bell controversy was handled. Foolishness I say. We will be less than we could be as the Body of Christ for failing to heed the Pauline injunction in ALL areas of our lives.
Well, there it is… a bit of a rant : )
Grace to you.