Sunday, June 14, 2009

Reflecting (On) What's Wrong

(Part Eleven of an ongoing series. Started long ago, way down below)

Releasing Ourselves from Labels

Words of M. Scott Peck deeply effected me when he wrote about living with the tension between two polar opposites.

If you want to think with integrity, and are willing to bear the pain involved, you will inevitably encounter paradox . . . . If a concept is paradoxical, that in itself should suggest that it smacks of integrity and has the ring of truth. Coversely, if a concept is not in the least paradoxical, you may suspect that it has failed to integrate some aspect of the whole . . . .
If no pieces of reality are missing from the picture, if all the dimensions are integrated, you will probably be confronted by a paradox. When you get to the root of things, virtually all truth is paradoxical. The truth is, for example, that I am and I am not an individual. Thus to seek the truth involves an integration of things that seem to be separate and look like opposites when, in reality, they are intertwined and related in some ways. Reality itself is paradoxical, in that while many things in and about life seem simple on the surface, they are often complex – although not always complicated . . . .
To understand paradox ultimately means being able to grasp two contradictory concepts in one’s mind without going crazy . . .

The Road Less Traveleled & Beyond, M. Scott Peck, pp. 59-60 (emphasis added).

Lest we worry that embracing paradox as truth is somehow un-Christian, remember that Jesus Himself spoke of paradox as being truth: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it,” Matthew 10:39; “For whoever wants to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for me will find it,.” Matthew 16: 25. Paradox rings true in the Old Testament as well:

There is a time for everything and a seas for every activity under heaven: a time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot, a time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build, a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them, a time to embrace and a time to refrain, a time to search and a time to give up, aa time to keep and a time to throw away, a time to tear and a time to mend, a time to be silent and a time to speak, a time love and a time to hate, a time for war and a time for peace.

Ecclesiastes 3:1-8

Of course, sometimes polar opposites are just polar opposites (good and evil). But we tend to divide so many things into polar opposites, embrace one of those opposites, and then define our lives by that extreme. It makes life easier because we can say we are “for” this list of things, yet “against” this list of things. Everything is easy because everything is black and white and easy to define. Yet life isn’t really so simple.

I have come to believe that part of our freedom in Christ is the freedom to embrace certain polar opposites and live in the healthy, yet difficult, tension between the two. It is the more honest and integrity-filled way to live.

Limited by Labels

And it has dramatic implication for us as Christ followers. We are accustomed to so many labels.

I grew up Protestant. Being Protestant made things so easy. It meant that I was automatically for everything that Protestants were for and be against everything that Catholics were for. It was a black and white that was just a given. Yet I no longer embrace this false dichotomy.

I grew up Evangelical. That means we were the kind of Protestants that weren’t liberal, or socially conscious. That meant that I was automatically for certain things, and, once again, automatically against certain things. It was black and white with lots of good proof texts to establish why. It was almost as if those other protestants were not even real Christians or something. That made it easier. Yet I no longer embrace that false dichotomy, either.

I grew up in the Christian Church, which is the non-denominational denomination. I think that means we are non-denominational, or un-denominational, yet in so being, we became quite denominational. Or something. There is much to like about this group. And being a member of this . . . group made things so easy. It meant that I was automatically for a certain set of theological tenants, which were just right, and it meant I was automatically against certain other sets of theological tenants. We knew exactly why we were different than the other evangelical denominations. It was black and white. Although this group of people are my spiritual heritage, which I respect, I no longer embrace that false dichotomy either.

And once I came to see that these were false dichotomies, it changed everything. Once I saw that there were some aspects of the Catholocism that were right on, or some aspects of socially responsible denominations that were right in line with what Jesus taught and did, or the beliefs of some other evangelical denominations were just as based on a proof text as the beliefs of my own heritage; once I saw that my own spiritual background had flaws and strengths, just like the other groups had differing flaws and differing strengths, I became free to let go of the labels and false dichotomies and to be a Christ-follower without labels. I no longer considered myself Catholic or Protestant, and yet at the same time I considered myself both. I no longer considered myself evangelical or main line, yet I felt the freedom to be both. I no longer considered myself “Christian Church,” yet at the same time I felt fee to be in unity with those of a variety of denominations.

What's the Deal With Church Membership?

What clouded this all from my eyes for many years was the whole idea of church membership. Since I had always been a member of a church, it was impossible to see how I could be in unity with other Christians, in a real sense, because I was a member of a certain kind of church. But my long journey through what was wrong with the church caused me to examine the whole idea of church membership.

I’ll tell you that story to explain how I arrived at my theory. In the mid 1990’s we launched Apex as a church-within-a-larger-church in Las Vegas to reach a younger generation. Eventually, we became independent of our mother church, with their blessing, and de-centralized into a network of simple house churches. Amid all of that transition, we had to wrestle with and figure out what the process was for becoming a member of Apex. After all, churches had members, we were a church, or group of churches, or something, at least as we understood it at the time, so we assumed we had to have church membership. Yet we had to figure out what it meant to be a “member” of a church in our unique situation. So we began to think, pray, and study what church membership really was all about.

We were initially shocked by what we learned. Church membership was another “non-profit” organization idea, really. You join a club or an organization. So, since church had adopted the “place where” assumption discussed above and understood itself primarily as a non-profit organization, it understood church membership as membership in the organization. One became a member by doing certain things, jumping through certain hoops, to “sign up” for membership. It really isn’t that different from becoming a member of any other organization.

At the Y.M.C.A.

For example, one morning I looked into what it would take for my family to join the local YMCA. To join, we had to fill out a form, agree to abide by some policies, and pay certain membership fees. Then we would be members of the YMCA. Joining a church really isn’t all that different if we are honest about it. In many churches, one attends a class or goes through some other similar process to learn what the beliefs and purposes of the organization are. Then one does whatever is necessary to adhere to those beliefs (get baptized or re-baptized, make a public profession of faith, get affirmed, etc.) and, in some kinds of churches, sign an agreement to do certain things, then one becomes a member. Though dues may not be collected, giving money is usually among the expectations.

There is nothing bad in and of itself of this process to become a member. It’s just that it is really organizational-centered thinking. There isn’t any New Testament precedent for such a process. We discovered this as we tried to figure out what it meant to become a member of Apex. And we were shocked by our discovery. We came to the conclusion that church membership, from a theological point of view, was really about being a member of the Universal church, which is ultimately a determination that only God makes, though He certainly may allow us to be involved in it.

Church Membership Back in the Day

The church in the New Testament was often referred to as the church at so and so’s house, or even more often than that, the church in such and such city (which assumedly was made up of a number of house churches). To be a member of the church, which was not language that was even used, would have meant to be involved in the relational communities that were known as the church in a given community. We endeavored to apply that to our understanding of “church membership” at Apex.

What we concluded was that membership was not an official list to be kept in a church office. To be a member of Apex meant to be in real relational community with others who were following Christ. It meant to be involved in one of the “house churches.” And since we are not God, and we don’t make the ultimate determination of who is “saved” or who isn’t, we really determined that we don’t draw an exact line of who is or who isn’t a member of the universal church.

We decided that each house church knew who its “members” were based on who was following Christ together in relational community, and that those members, though difficult to list on an official list at any given moment, were in fact the members of Apex.

This worked quite well since we didn’t vote as a whole on anything (which is one of the reasons that non-profit organizations have membership roles to begin with). We made decisions by consensus at various levels, within our house churches, and occasionally, by our elders for decisions of the network as a whole. There were never any all-member votes, and yet our members, in one way or another, made almost every decision, at least in the days after our de-centralization was complete.

This explains how I arrived at my view of church membership. It is a misleading term that really isn’t needed. Yet I think we redeemed the term in many ways to mean those who are part of the church universal who are actively expressing the church relational.

One Step Further

But to take it further, I consider myself to be a part (even if not an officially recognized member) of every denomination and every “church.” If I am in fellowship with all true believers of Christ, then I am really a member of the same body they are. I am free to worship with and unite with Catholics, Protestants, evangelicals, main-liners, of all denominational stripes, on any given Sunday. Yet usually I don’t, because I am instead meeting in relational community with other Christ followers who have also abandoned such labels. We must, of course, be careful lest we become, in our simple house church meetings, yet another “kind of Christian,” another division within the divisions. Yet we really don’t think of ourselves that way. We are members of all the other groups, not members of some new group. We are free to move in and among all others, if they will have us. We are “members’ of the church universal as we express this by being the church relational.

The labels fade as we focus on following Christ together. We become known for what we are for, not for what we are against.

Church history teaches that this is exactly how many well-intended groups of people began, only to solidify into denominationalism. Perhaps only God working through His people will be able to put an end to division within the body, which seems to be happening already as denominational labels, though still present, seem to be less and less meaningful than they were in previous generations.

So I am free to follow Christ. I am catholic in that I am part of the Church universal, but not in the more limiting sense. I am protestant in that I protest against theological error both in belief in practice, but not in the more limiting sense. I am evangelical in that I aspire to proclaim the gospel to all peoples, but not in the more limiting sense. I am mainline in the sense that I take the whole gospel to the whole person and serve the needs of the poor and oppressed locally and globally, but not in the more limiting sense. And on and on.

And it is difficult to live in the tension between the polar opposites. And it feels free and like the only way to really live.


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