Restorationist Christians – people who hope to recapture the form and/or spirit of New Testament Christianity – often find themselves on either side of the purity or unity pendulum. We want to break down the barriers dividing Christians – as Jesus prays in John 17 – that we might be one together, called out of the bondage of human prejudice and the dogmas that divide. On the other hand, we want to really be God’s people, visible to the world, uncompromising in our expectations that every member radically reorient their whole lives to this shared way of life: “Be holy.”
Sometimes our wide welcome to receive Christ’s invitation draws people from very different convictions, who have to negotiate their shared place at the Lord’s Table. This creates concerns that, although we become a fellowship with a lot of breadth, we challenge our depth as a community. Sometimes our passion for holiness sets us against those who see faithfulness differently. Some are concerned that this can result in a narrow fellowship, and although we may go deep together, our outward mission may suffer.
As some folks are responding to a question this week of which churches are viable and which are faithful, I find two ideas from scripture tugging at my heart through the conversation.
One is the model of Jesus’ response to these kinds of questions. Professional arguers and representatives of various religious groups and factions come to him often, asking for clarity, asking for endorsement. And, most of the time, Jesus just won’t play along. “Jesus, which one of us is right?” leads to a parable about greed; “Jesus, what consequence does the law require?” leads to a teaching about judgment. Jesus calls those who would utilize the enemies’ methods against others “against me,” but calls those who use Jesus’ methods outside of Jesus’ trusted circle “for me.”
As I look through the Gospels, I find repeatedly that what Jesus most says about boundary making is “woe to you, boundary makers,” not because Jesus doesn’t have anything to say about how to live or love, but because those most concerned with making boundaries have wielded that power against those whom Jesus has come to seek and to save. The announcement of God’s Kingdom asks me to place my heart under his reign, but seems to call me out of the outward borders I’ve held rather than in to new, more certain, boundaries of institutions or tradition. I am no longer of anything; I am in Christ.
It’s interesting that when the Samaritan at the well asks Jesus about whether to worship with this group or that group, his answer is neither here nor there, but “in Spirit and in truth.”
Unity and purity both matter. Unity of shared purpose and single heartedness; purity of life together and the soul of each believer. But, and this is the other thing getting me right now, it seems that both of these desires are the work of the Spirit.
It is the Spirit who unites.
It is the Spirit who refines.
I’m leaning into my catch-all phrase-of-the-year here, but it strikes me that if we want to do the most possible good for God and others, our best strategy is to receive the Spirit. If I’m looking to the New Testament church for hints about who’s in and who’s out, I find all kinds of surprise and gradual acceptance of the fact that the Spirit is showing up in the least likely places. There’s human work to be done in joining together in sharing God’s work, but, for the most part, it starts with surrendering our borders so that God can march in and start directing things.
When we channel our energy towards pursuing the Spirit, rather than defining purity and unity on our terms, we may still find disagreement and broken fellowship. We are called to be discerning and wholehearted. When Paul notes that Peter is not living with purity of heart towards what the Spirit has revealed about the unity God’s calling Jews and Gentiles to practice, Paul confronts him on the basis of Peter’s life not showing the fruit of what they both know God is doing. When Paul and Barnabas disagree about John Mark, they part company without any declarations about who was right, and continue in ministry. And, we still end up with Paul, Peter, and (by most traditions) John Mark as three of a handful of authors of the New Testament. The canon, and the church, through the Spirit, have room for all three.
So, just a thought. The church is the Lord’s. I am wondering which questions I need to ask in order to know how to walk with the Spirit today. If you get more clarity on the matter, I’ll be glad to hear about it.