- Absence of Trust (Invulnerability)
- Fear of Conflict (Artificial Harmony)
- Lack of Commitment (Ambiguity)
- Avoidance of Accountability (Low Standards)
- Inattention to Results (Status and Ego)
I haven’t had much time for blogging the past week or so. I’ve been conducting a series of church services every evening. I focused on the Gospel of John and learnt some really remarkable stuff as I did thorough exegesis of the parts I wanted to preach about.
Tomorrow morning I will be wrapping up the series by looking at John 17. One of the things that I’ve realized since I started preparing for these sermons, is that John gives the impression that it is fairly easy to understand and then, the deeper you delve, the more difficult it becomes until you eventually discover the actual meaning of what John was trying to say to his readers.
John 17 is no exception. On the surface it is a prayer of Jesus for His disciples. I’ve done a lot of research on John 17 in the past within the context of church unity. With eleven language and almost as many race groups in South Africa, the church in South Africa is seriously suffering from the effects of disunity. Even within language and race groups, there are denominational groups which are very close to each other but which still consider those not part of their church as the opposition.
I once read the following story which illustrates in a humorous way what is happening between Christians:
I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. I immediately ran over and said “Stop! Don’t do it!”
“Why shouldn’t I?” he said.
I said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!”
“Well…are you religious or atheist?”
“Me too! Are you Christian or Jewish?”
“Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?”
“Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”
“Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?”
“Baptist Church of God.”
“Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?”
“Reformed Baptist Church of God.”
“Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?”
“Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!”
To which I said, “Die, heretic scum!” and pushed him off.
In 1981 my wife and I had the chance to visit Zimbabwe. This was just after many years of civil war in the country. As we sat down to speak to church members about their experiences during the years of war, we struggled to understand how it feels to leave your house or farm in the morning, knowing that you are being watched through the scopes of a missile launcher which could be triggered at any moment if the soldier carrying the launcher feels like it. People were killed at random and everybody were living in fear every single day of their lives.
In those days many pastors left Zimbabwe and new pastors were not granted work permits for Zimbabwe. Under those circumstances the “right” church was not the one with which you agreed doctrinally, but the one which had a pastor. And I can still remember that I asked myself where things will need to lead to in South Africa (but not only South Africa) before a desire will grow amongst Christians to really accept one another in love and to demonstrate their unity. If this is what it cost to get the churches in Zimbabwe to work together, what will it cost us?
I am blessed that, in the town where I live, pastors from across virtually the entire spectrum of doctrines, have expressed the desire to come closer to each other. Pastors from different races and language groups and from different denominations (Charismatic, Pentecostal, Reformed, Methodist, Lutheran and a number of others) meet each other for breakfast once a month. During these gatherings, doctrinal issues are put aside in favor of reaching out to each other in love. In fact, over the years (and it literally took years to build this trust between the churches) we have developed the ability to make jokes about our own or even the other churches and to laugh at the way in which we used to protect our domain in the past. We still have a long way to go. But I’m truly thankful that I can experience something of what Jesus prayed for in John 17.
Tomorrow, as part of the Global Day of Prayer, most of these churches will be gathering to unite in prayer. Perhaps we need to pray the words of John 17 more regularly in our churches: “My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”
This past Sunday I was invited to speak at a church on the outskirts of Johannesburg. A few years ago this was an exclusively White community and church membership and attendance clearly indicated the demographic pattern of the community. This was the situation all over South Africa before 1994. But with the new democratically-elected government which came into power in 1994, things started changing. Exclusive White communities in certain areas, especially within the centres of the larger cities like Johannesburg, Pretoria and Durban, started being replaced by other ethnic groups. This had a great effect upon churches, as churches which catered exclusively for the needs of White, Afrikaans-speaking people, experienced a sudden and tremendous decrease in church membership and attendance. Churches which had thousands of members and packed buildings during their regular worship services on a Sunday, suddenly struggled to survive. After a time the inevitable happened when the church buildings were sold, sometimes to shop owners needing storage place and even to people of other faiths which then changed the buildings to make it a place of worship for people of their religion.
One particular church in Pretoria has always been a sad example for me of how a church failed to use the new opportunities that had come their way. This particular church followed the route described above. Fortunately, when they decided to close doors, they sold the church building to a another evangelical church group which then opened the doors again and started to cater for the needs of the people who were then occupying the apartments in that area. And as far as I know, the church is doing well. It’s not a White, Afrikaans-speaking church anymore, but then, the community does not exist out of White, Afrikaans-speaking people anymore!
On this past Sunday I spoke at a church which, if the leader had not persevered, would probably also have had to shut doors a number of years ago. Except for the fact that he saw the change in demographics, not as a threat but rather as an opportunity. When I entered the church, I was immediately struck by the multi-cultural atmosphere within the church. People from different ethnic groups mixed in a friendly and comfortable manner. The church leadership also reflects the diverse cultures of the area. They have two worship services – one in Afrikaans and one in English. The second service was, in a sense, even more diverse than the Afrikaans service. Those attending were mostly non-South Africans. They included people from countries such as Zimbabwe, Nigeria and other African countries. But they also come from a diverse religious background, including Roman Catholic and even traditional African religions. Some came in the traditional clothing of their own country. The only common denominators are that they are all interested in the Christian faith and that they all understand English.
When I left the church after speaking at both these worship services, I thought about Eric Bryant’s excellent book, Peppermint-filled piñatas, which I had reviewed here. And I thought about lost opportunities, where churches had been sold to shop owners or to people from other, non-Christian religions, while many people who are still interested in Christianity have nowhere to worship on a Sunday. Which further led me to the topic of this blog: Becoming a church for and in your community!
I’ve been extremely busy the last few days and did not have much chance to get behind a computer. But I want to have another look at Ephesians 4:3.
In my previous post I mentioned that Paul was asking the readers to live a life which was totally strange for the people of those times (and possibly equally strange for us today): “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” And this new life-style which Paul is urging the Christians to lead will then create the climate through which there can be a feeling of real unity between the Christians.
The remarkable thing about this unity is that it cannot be created by human beings. This is a unity which comes from the Holy Spirit and our task is to maintain this unity. This, however, can only be done if we have the new life-style of which we read in 4:2.
My impression about the topic of unity is that many people are sceptic that it can work. In the process of preparing for the article I have to write, I came to the conclusion that we are afraid of allowing unity in the church, mainly because we know that most Christians still lack the characteristics described by Paul in 4:2. In South Africa, for the past 34 years, Christians in one of the main churches have been speaking about working towards unity in churches still segregated along racial lines. And the fear that I hear in the voices of those opposing it, is that they will be forced to give up certain things which are important to them – and obviously the fear will be even stronger amongst the minority groups. The same is going to happen when the Reformed Ecumenical Council (REC) and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches (WARC) will combine to form one new body, which I wrote about previously. The REC has 39 member churches in 25 countries. The WARC has 200 member churches in about 100 countries. It is clear to me that the members of the REC would be wondering whether they are going to lose out on the deal when the two organisations combine.
And then things started making sense to me. If we have the attitude that Paul writes about (humility, gentleness, patience, bearing with each other in love) then it should not be a problem. Then the stronger group should have enough understanding for the fear of the smaller group and accommodate them to the best of their ability so that their fear could be minimised.
As human beings we tend to show our power if we are stronger than our counterpart. It happens in marriages. It happens in politics. It happens in the church. But because we are Christians and because we are controlled by the Holy Spirit, God expects another attitude from us – the same attitude which was found in Christ (Philippians 2:5-8).
Coming back to Ephesians 4:3, one has to understand something about the demographic structure of most congregations in the times when Paul was still alive. Most congregations consisted of two distinct groups of people, those who had come to Christ from Judaism and those who had come to Christ from heathenism. And it is clear that there was a lot of friction between these groups. Those Christians from a Jewish background had grown up with the conviction that Jews and heathens were not allowed to mix. Peter’s reaction in Acts 10 is a vivid example of this. These two groups of Christians were constantly in competition with each other which led to a lot of jealousy between the groups. Ephesians 2:11 gives a hint of this jealousy: “Don’t forget that you Gentiles used to be outsiders. You were called “uncircumcised heathens” by the Jews, who were proud of their circumcision, even though it affected only their bodies and not their hearts.”
Keeping this in mind, it comes as no surprise that Paul urges his readers to live a life which is totally different from that which they are used to. He starts chapter 4 (the second part of Ephesians which gives more practical guidelines for the Christian) with these words: “As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” Humble, gentle, patient, love… Not really words that one would associate with the normal person of those days and even less so when these attitudes had to be demonstrated between Jews and heathens.
What seems to be clear at this point is that Paul is asking these Christians to do something which would not normally be found amongst non-Christians. In fact, I believe that what Paul is asking for is virtually impossible. Just coming back to my own background where I grew up with the extreme racial tension in South Africa, I can see how difficult it is, even for Christians, from different races to accept each other unconditionally.
But this is what Paul is asking the Christians to do. And Ephesians 4:3 reveals the secret which enables us to do this.
I’ve been invited to submit an article for World Alliance of Reformed Churches’ theological journal, Reformed World. In 2010 two ecumenical bodies, the Reformed Ecumenical Council and the World Alliance of Reformed Churches will combine to form one new body which will probably be known as the World Communion of Reformed Churches. Preparing for this occasion, the coming issue of Reformed World will be devoted to the topic of unity and in view of this, I’ve been asked to write an article on the topic of church and unity, using Ephesians 4:3 as background: “Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.”
I’m just starting to put my thoughts on paper about the topic and decided to use this blog as public forum to discuss these thoughts. So please respond to this post as you see fit, sharing your ideas about this verse and about the topic.
I remember some years ago that someone wrote a letter in a church magazine in which he attributed the reluctance of Christians churches to unite to the certainties and arrogance found in most churches. It is these same certainties and arrogance, according to this author, which drove people to war and it is the very same attitude keeping Christians apart today.
The irony in these words – and I think the author is correct in what he said – is that the most outstanding characteristic of the post-modern world is supposed to be that we cannot be sure of anything anymore. And yet, at the very point where we need to admit that our knowledge is imperfect, we find that Christians become almost inapproachable because of their certainties and arrogance.
I’ll be the first to admit that I struggle with this myself. The Reformed theology has strong viewpoints on many issues. I usually find myself fairly comfortable within this theology. But I’ve been in many situations where this theology had been attacked and where my first reaction is to defend what I believe in. I’ve changed a lot over the past decade or so, being much more willing to accept criticism and to be more willing to accept people regardless of whether they agree with me or not. In fact, some of my closest friends are on fairly opposite grounds with me regarding our theology. And while I do not necessarily agree with everything they do, I have accepted them with their differences (and they have accepted me) and we just have a great time together as Christians.
In a next post I would like to come back to Ephesians 4:3. But in the meantime I would appreciate your thoughts on the topic.