The Church OF Christ: Part 4

  • Read Romans 8:28-39 here.
  • Follow the rest of this discussion here.

On 30 May the Lawson Rd Church of Christ celebrated our 2nd annual “HARMONY Sunday”.  While the impetus for this annual event arises from the number of races, nationalities and cultures that make up our membership, we also use the day to acknowledge the truth of 1 Cor. 12.  The church consists of people with many differences.  Each church must address the question of whether those differences will enrich the church or tear it down.  In musical terms we might ask will the different notes work together to create music, or noise?

Calvin Bacon from the Northside Church of Christ in Syracuse, NY, was our guest speaker.  The Northside congregation was only planted a year ago and serves one of the poorer areas of Syracuse.  I appreciated Calvin’s story of the church’s conception and first year as they seek to represent Christ in that community.

The theme for the day, Harmony, still fits within the series I’ve been teaching that asks the question, “What are the implications of having the name The Church of Christ, rather than another name?

In merging these two thoughts, my mind turned to Romans 8:35 which asks, “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” The answer is no one! Nothing! It’s impossible!  Nada!  Zilch!  Hardships, persecution, famine, nakedness, danger, or sword nor any other circumstance in which we may find ourselves, can separate us from Christ’s love!

However, the sad truth is, that while we can’t stop Christ from loving people, we can impose barriers that prevent  people experiencing His love through us.  The church can sometimes function as a filter determining who will receive God’s love.  I believe that God will find a way of still touching these people’s lives, but my point is that the church was never intended to act as a filter!  Which brings me to today’s thesis:

Since we’re the Church OF Christ, we don’t the determine membership.

It’s my understanding that most people have a natural urge to associated with others who look, sound, and act similar to ourselves.  While that urge may be a natural, subconscious means of providing comfort and security to a person, it unwittingly erects barriers between those who look, sound or act differently than we do.

This separation may be as obvious as those in the first 3 chapters of 1 Corinthians who claimed allegiance to Paul, Peter, or Apollos.  It may be as obvious as black and white churches meeting at the same time in the same small town.  It may be as obvious as one church having many professional members, and another having many members unemployed or working for minimum wage.

At other times the separation may be as subtle as that found in 1 Corinthians 11 where the wealthy and poor at the congregation were “sharing” a meal together, but eating at different tables and eating different food, even to the extent that some didn’t eat at all!  I suspect that the tables at many church fellowships also function in this way at times.  The same people eat together each time, thus leaving little, if any, space for newcomers to the church.  We might have all this diversity in the building on Sunday morning, but that doesn’t mean we’re really working together or fellowship during the week and creating Godly harmony.

I don’t know of any churches that deliberately exclude people with particular characteristics.  But I do know churches that establish particular social standards that make “different” people uncomfortable, and therefore unwelcome.  It might be a formal church culture that frowns on someone wearing a t-shirt to worship.  It might be a “family friendly” church that has few opportunities for singles, or childless couples to get involved.  It might be a male dominated church that gives women few opportunities outside the kitchen to explore their spiritual gifts.

On the flipside, I know of some (not lots) of churches that make deliberate efforts to include different cultures and characters.  The difference in my mind is often one of awareness and purposefulness.  The barriers we at times erect are more often a consequence of lack of thought, that deliberate hostility.  It’s easy to become consumed by our interests, relationships, needs etc. and overlook the opportunities we have to extend God’s love to others.

When we take seriously the mission Christ has given us to embrace the people God sends our way, then we are living up to our name, The Church of Christ.  When we consciously reach out to those who are different from us, to those on the margins, we ensure that Paul’s words become the message of Christ’s church.

In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loves us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither hight nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, [not even self-absorbed churches] will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

  • Have you attended a church where the culture subconsciously excluded you?  What could the church have done differently?
  • How much responsibility does the individual coming to the church have to adapt to the culture of the church?
  • What are some ways churches can embrace different cultures without compromising their beliefs regarding Biblical worship or church structure?


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12 comments

  1. K. Rex Butts

    Any church that thinks an outsider must conform to the church to find a welcome has misunderstood the gospel. If God took that approach with humanity, there would be no gospel.

    That being said..social barriers are one thing we errect…reliious barriers are another. For far too long, the CoC has been taught to judge who is its brother/sister in Christ based on doctrine when in fact Jesus taught us that we would recognize who belong to him by their “fruit” (Matt 7.15-20) and “Love” (Jn 13.34-35). Of course, it is less messy if we can use a fine-tuned doctrine to separate the wheat from the weeds (which Jesus warned us against – Matt 13.24-30) but in doing so, I believe hinder the kingdom will of God being done here on earth as it is done in heaven.

    What sort of good works could be done in whatever community if the local Church of Christ was willing to work with other local non-Churches of Christ towards God’s kingdom agenda? When I was in Ithaca, the church supported a pregnancy center which provided support to unwed mothers (as well as an alternative to abortion) that was ran by a local Bible Church. In turn, we ran a coffee house after-school ministry from our building to high-school students in concert with Young Life that received support from that Bible Church and some other local churches. That does not mean that every local church agreed with every church on different matters of doctrine but because we looked past that and recognized each other by fruit and love, the Kingdom of God was able to advance in Ithaca in ways that may have been hindered had we chose to separate each other based on other matters such as doctrine or other social norms.

    Grace and peace,

    Rex

    • Tom

      Now where would you draw the line? Would you work together with a Mormon church if they showed “love” and “fruit” even though they don’t have the same “fine tuned” doctrines that you hold?

      • K. Rex Butts

        Tom,

        I guess I assumed that everyone would know that I was talking about those who share the common confessional faith in Jesus (e.g., Baptist, Presbyterian, Eastern Orthodox, etc…).

        -Rex

      • Tom

        But what happened to not “judging who our brother/sister in Christ is based on doctrine” but rather “recognize who belong to him by their “fruit” and “Love””? A common confessional faith in Jesus is doctrine. Mormons have faith in Jesus. How do you decide which doctrines must be maintained and which can be compromised to have union with another group?

      • K. Rex Butts

        Tom,

        Do Mormons have faith in Jesus? That is certainly not what I have always believed about Mormonism.

        As for the statements about judging a peron by their fruit and love…those are Jesus’ words so if you have isses with it, he is your man to discuss it with :-).

        In leiu of not clogging Peter’s blog with an extended discussion of who is a Christian, if you want to know why I believe their are many Christians living faithfully to God outside of the Churches of Christ (who together with us make up the church/body of Christ) then drop by my blog and leave a brief commet. When you leave a comment, you will be required to leave me your email which will not be published on my blog. I can email you then.

        Grace and peace,

        Rex

    • ozziepete

      Rex,
      Thanks, as always, for taking the time to participate in the conversation.

      I really want to avoid the doctrine discussion with this post. I’m more interested in interpersonal relationships. I’m thinking of how we respond to guests based upon appearance, or cultural customs and values rather than their beliefs.

      How does a church consisting predominantly of white, college educated members welcome and serve Vietnamese immigrants who visit for several weeks from a nearby apartment complex? Do they have them over to their large homes for a meal? If some of these families respond to the Gospel, how can the church integrate this different culture into the congregation? Should it acknowledge the differences or just ignore them? Which of the differences should it acknowledge first: the race, the culture, the language, the education, or the wealth?

      It would be easier to keep “doing church” the way it’s always been done and eventually the immigrant families might find their way to a local Presbyterian church that has a service that’s a closer match to their demographic. I don’t believe that’s an appropriate response for Christ’s Church, but I recognise that the challenges are many and sometimes subtle.

      • K. Rex Butts

        Peter, I understand…

        To answer your questions further…the church might try taking a pot-luck type meal to the apartment complex and sharing it with the Vietnese people (and others in the complex). If some of them should become a Christian, I am not sure if I would try to assimilate them into the existing congregation but instead equip them to become their own church right in that complex…you might see more kingdom fruit yeilded that way.

        I think one of the changes in congregational ministry that existing churches are needing to consider from a missional vantage point is to let go of the “grow our congregation” bigger and think more about seeing the kingdom expand which includes seeing church growth in terms of more local churches rather than growing the existing church. So if a new neighborhood church among the apartment complex was established (which I assume would be indigenous rather than a clone of the planting church), one way to keep them “bonded” would be to have a large celebration togther every so often which is a spiritual benefit to both the planting church and the planted church(s).

        Of course, if they became a Christians and do migrate to that Presbyterian Church, they might teach someone in that “Christ church” a more biblical form of baptism. A couple of years ago, a Christian in the Lutheran church decided to be immersed and he purposely chose to stay at his Lutheran Church where he has since taught several others to be immersed as a believer. I think he has a great ministry but I would prefer the planting of more indigenous churches because I believe they can become church planting churches.

        Grace and peace,

        Rex

      • Tom

        Sorry Peter, I know that this discussion is not the direction you wanted your post to be.
        But I certainly agree with what you are saying here. It is said that Sunday morning is one of the most segregated times of the week. That is certainly a sad statement. Especially when we read that the Gospel message is for every tribe, tongue and nation and that when we get to Heaven we will be worshiping God together as one people. The church is suppose to be a place where peace between nations can be established. (Isaiah 2:2-4)
        And in a few places I think this has been established but not many. It has always been my opinion that a church’s congregation should reflect the demographic of the community that it’s in.
        It is difficult to overcome cultural barriers. More so than language barriers, in my opinion. This would be why we have predominately white churches and predominately black churches, but few with a balanced mix of both. These two groups general prefer different preaching styles and different worship styles. This is a problem that is difficult to prescribe a simple solution to. I think a good place to start is learning more about the culture of those in our area that are different culturally than us. If we know more about them, this will go a long way in this process.

  2. eirenetheou

    We can see in the New Testament and in our own experience occasions when racial or “cultural” identity and “doctrine” are commingled until they be difficult to distinguish. In the book of Acts and in Paul’s letters we can see Jewish Christians and Gentile converts to Judaism who believe that every person must first be or become a Jew before she or he can become a Christian. In Acts 9-10 Peter is disabused of this doctrine, but in Galatians 2 we have Paul’s witness to his waffling when ardent Jewish believers are present.

    Today when we attempt truly to “integrate” or to unify black and white congregations in the same city, we often discover “cultural” distinctions of “style” in worship or preaching. These distinctions are often exacerbated by another “cultural” distinction that is understood in both factions as “doctrinal.” Mature white congregations are usually led by “elders,” who may or may not decide to employ or designate “a minister” or a “staff” of “ministers.” In this relationship, the “elders” are employers, and any “minister” is an employee or assign. Black congregations are usually organized under “the minister,” who is said to be “over” the congregation and, quite specifically, “over” any “elders” that may exist. Both factions offer prooftexts (usually, of course, from the Pastoral Letters) for their different versions of congregational polity. Those who are capable of seeing the cultural roots of this doctrinal impasse may still prefer, for various “cultural” reasons, to do it their way. “The minister” will rarely give up power, and “the elders” are no more likely to give place to “the minister.” Most “doctrinal” disputes are about power in some way, but this one is all about power, and it almost always kills any concrete effort to unify black and white churches in a local community.

    May God have mercy.

    d

    • ozziepete

      Hi d,

      I agree that it is much more difficult than we usually acknowledge to distinguish between culture and doctrine. I believe it is appropriate that certain cultures will emphasise particular Scriptures and applications that may not be important in other cultures. But after a while the reason for the emphasis can be forgotten, and it just becomes “what’s right” for everyone.

      I’m certainly not advocating a wholesale merging of all black and white churches. Because of the racial barriers in our society, some of those communities need homogeneous churches as the only way they’ll initially be receptive to the Gospel.

      However, I do also believe that it’s important that integrated churches exist and prosper, and it surprises me that I don’t see more energy dedicated to this amongst the brotherhood. We probably do a better job of it in areas other than race, but I’ve never heard a church emphasise the dangers of favoritism within the church…I think it’s pretty rife.

      Rex, I know there are positives to the smaller homogeneous churches, but I’m not convinced that’s the answer. I’m not suggesting mega-churches are the only church model that works, but homogeneous churches seem an easy way to legitimise prejudice. Not that I’m suggesting at all that that’s your intent. Do I really love my neighbour best by setting them up with a separate place to meet and fellowship rather than working to get to know and serve them?

      • K. Rex Butts

        Peter,

        I was only suggesting the planting of a new “neighborhood/apartment-complex” church that is somewhat homogeneous if that would yeild greater evangelistic/missional results in the community. It may or may not. That is something that only those of you living in your community would learn by discernment of God working in your community.

        Grace and peace,

        Rex

  3. Pingback: Developing Identity « Peter’s Patter

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