Being who and what we are, how do we live together? I had a chance to preach on that subject this week.
I had occasion to preach at Faith Community Littleton this past Sunday. When I teach people how to make disciples, I tell them I’m from the “open a vein” school of discipleship: we don’t teach in the abstract, we invite people into our own struggles and let them see God at work in real time. Well, this was an “open a vein” sermon. It may be the least polished thing I’ve ever preached.
I was recently having a conversation with a friend about generosity. She was sorting through the tension between our finitude and God’s call to do things that are frequently beyond us, and had run into conflict with another believer about how to approach such things. It’s an interesting conversation in its own right, but we’ll save that for another day. Today I want to go a level up and look at a general trend in arguments about philosophy of ministry.
In anything we do, there’s more than one way to screw it up. In generosity ministry, there’s such a thing as stinginess on the one hand, and toxic charity on the other. (Sometimes our service to others is more about how it makes us feel than it is about actually helping the others in question.) There’s a ditch on both sides of the road.
Very often, our conflicts in philosophy of ministry happen thus:
- Person A has already been in the ditch on the left side of the road, and he’s never gonna let that happen again.
- Person B has already been in the ditch on the right side of the road, and is determined never to repeat his mistake.
Put them together, and hey, whaddaya know — a fight breaks out.
It’s easy enough for each to damn the other for steering toward a ditch, and then go their separate ways. That’s tragic, because their stickiest difference is actually the reason God put them together to start with. God means for them to honor each other and listen to each other, so they will balance each other out. If they can do that, they stay on the (narrow) road between the ditches.
As a pastor’s kid and lifelong minister, I’ve seen this play out many times over many different issues. Partnerships regularly fall apart over exactly the issues where they could benefit each other most…and then the resulting ‘independent’ ministries fall apart for lack of balance.
This to say: the unity of the Body actually matters. We are impoverished — and as a result, the world around us is impoverished — when we won’t live up to it.
But are they right?
Maybe so…before the cross. But Jesus really did change everything about our relationships. Let’s look at what it’s changed already….
In traditional cultures, the blood tie of the clan trumps every other allegiance. In traditional cultures, marriage is generally about familial alliances and property. In traditional cultures, the glue that holds clan-sized small communities together is a network of family relationships around a shared economic endeavor (farming, fishing, hunting, blacksmithing, whatever.) In other words, they’re related to start with, and they need each other to survive.
In that setting, the authority of the clan is absolute. You are who your clan says you are. You marry who they say, you go into the line of work that is chosen for you. Your whole life is laid out virtually from birth…before the cross.
But the cross casts a very long shadow.
The Christian priesthood and monastic movements broke the power of the clan. A young woman fleeing a repellent arranged marriage could take vows in a convent, and be devoted to God for the rest of her life. Her family couldn’t force her to leave. A young man could choose the monastic life over the vocation his family chose for him (as a young Martin Luther did, in response to a near death experience.) Today, the choice sounds horrifying. Who wants to choose between an awful marriage and a celibate life? “Why not more options?” we think. But back then, it was revolutionary–there was a choice! That was new, and the possibility of having a choice opened the door to further options. Today, it’s rare in Western culture for anyone to face that dilemma.
Without the external pressures of the clan holding a marriage together, without the economic stimulus of property at the center of the marriage, is marriage doomed? It seems a silly question now; it wasn’t, to them. Martin and Katie Luther effectively invented (and the Puritans refined) companionate marriage, and today, we can see that with Christ at the center, marriages flourish even though considerations of property or familial alliance are now secondary at best.
Of course, marriages are also failing at significant rates today. God is sharpening the antithesis: will you have Christ at the center? If not, you may not be able to have a marriage at all.
Having broken the power of the clan, and reconstituted marriage in the image of Christ and the church, the long shadow of the cross is now reaching out to touch the clan itself and reconstitute it around Christ. Can extended-family sized small groups sustain themselves apart from blood relation and a shared economic center? It seems unthinkable…but why can’t we? Marriage has been reconstituted around the mission of God; why not the clan?
We saw the beginnings of the re-formation of the clan already in the life of Jesus, in two ways: repurposing the existing structure, and forming entirely new structures around a superior blood tie.
When Jesus healed Peter’s mother-in-law, she got up and made food for them…and then the village brought their sick to the house, to be healed. Peter’s home, Peter’s oikos, became ground zero for the Kingdom of God coming to his city. Paul similarly turned Lydia’s home into a base of operations (following Jesus’ instructions in Matthew 10).
Similar things could happen today. An economic engine may be part of the new clan in the same way that familial alliance and property are still possible considerations in marriage. Sure it’s possible; the dominion mandate is part of the missio Dei, after all.
But Jesus is up to more than just repurposing existing social institutions. He’s remaking them all. What happens when we allow the blood tie of the clan to be supplanted by a superior blood tie? Jesus showed us a glimpse of that when He looked around the room at a devoted group of His followers and said, “these are my mother and my brothers” — and again, “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:49-50) He is showing us a new family–not a postmodern “family of choice,” but a family that is born, “not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of the husband, but of God.”
Who is in this family? All the devoted Christ-followers — “whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.”
Notice that: “and sister.” There it is. Cross-gender, same-generation, familial relation in the family of God. I cannot live a Jesus-shaped life unless I learn how to live in a clan that is united — this side of the cross — by our common relation in the blood of Jesus and our common devotion to doing the will of God. And that clan will, of necessity, include both men and women. We have to be able to relate to each other, seek counsel from each other, encourage each other, care for each other. In other words, we have to be able to be friends.
Since moving to Englewood, I have been blessed to be involved in the nuts-and-bolts practice of Church unity. The pastors here talk about the One Church in Englewood, and mean it. They love each other, pray fervently for each other, and long for the unity they enjoy to spread to their congregations. Among the participants are Messianic Jews, Dutch Reformed, Anglicans, Southern Baptists, Assemblies of God, nondenominational folks. It’s not every tribe, tongue and nation, but we’re getting there.
As I observe discussions in the wider Christian world about unity across churches and denominations, I see some key points being overlooked, and so I’d like to offer the following seven theses on the practice of unity:
- The unity of all God’s people is internal to the gospel, not simply a natural downstream result of it.
- Jesus prayed for His people to be visibly unified in a way that would induce the world to believe in Him. Unity has been essential to our testimony and evangelism from earliest days. (John 17:20-26)
- Paul rebuked Peter for failing to eat with some of Christ’s people, and described it as “hypocrisy,” a failure to be “straightforward about the gospel.” Unity is essential to our confessional and practical faithfulness to justification by faith. (Galatians 2:11-21)
- Since practical, visible unity is so important, we must obey as far as we can. Like perfect sanctification, perfect unity will have to await the last day, but we can and should anticipate the unity of the last day now, as Paul insisted and Jesus prayed for.
- Jesus told us to love our neighbors. A mentality that defines “neighbor” as “those like me” (ethnicity, confessional agreement, denominational ties, or something else) is exactly what Jesus was speaking against in the parable of the good Samaritan. Loving our neighbors starts with whoever is physically closest. Loving our Christian neighbors starts with whatever Christians are physically closest. (Luke 10:25-37)
- Therefore, your neighbor churches are the churches that, in God’s geographical providence, are right down the street. Confessionally allied churches further away are also your neighbors, and you ought to love them too — but not at the expense of the churches nearby. “A friend nearby is better than a brother far away.” (Proverbs 27:10)
- The task of the moment is to meet the folks in nearby churches and start getting along with them. Institutional unification of the denominations–and all the problems that will attend it–is not a necessary prerequisite; it will be the last thing that happens. The zipper starts at the bottom, not the top.
I can tell you from experience that when you dig into practical unity, you will have problems. Of course you will. We’re all sinners, and on top of that, we have an enemy who hates what we’re doing. I can also tell you from experience that the overwhelming majority of the problems you think you’re going to have–those are never going to happen. (And of course, many of the problems you do have will be surprises. Such is life; we are not as good at prediction as we think.) Bottom line: future problems–real or imaginary–should not stop us from obeying the Scriptures to the extent that we can, right now.
The Pharisees of Jesus’ day were very focused on moral and ritual purity. If only Israel would be pure enough, they believed, God would return to Jerusalem, and bless her as He had in the days of David and Solomon. They were so focused on purity that when God actually did return to Jerusalem, they missed it. Jesus wept over the city:
“For days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment around you, surround you and close you in on every side, and level you, and your children within you, to the ground; and they will not leave in you one stone upon another, because you did not know the time of your visitation.”
Where we focus is very important. It’s possible to make a serious mistake by focusing on the wrong true thing. The Law is holy and just and good, Paul says. But if you focus on the Law, you run headlong into the rocks of Romans 7. You can’t keep it, and the Law does not confer the power to keep it. Nothing does.
In my corner of the Evangelical world, we have mostly learned this lesson when it comes to moral purity. If we focus on moral and ritual purity, we will become Pharisees, and we know it. So we avoid that mistake…and focus on doctrinal purity instead.
Purity is a good thing. Doctrinal purity is a good thing. But if we focus on any form of purity as the bullseye, we will develop the same trouble the Pharisees always had. It’s just a different version of the same basic mistake. Like the Pharisees, we will make ever-finer divisions in a pursuit of ever-greater purity, and the price of our impatience will be disunity.
If we focus on love and unity–which is what Jesus told us to focus on, in the upper-room discourse–it’s been my experience that we will grow toward greater purity together. Slowly. The speeds can be glacial at times. But glacial speed has its advantages: even mountains cannot stand in our way.
Some people think of disciple-making as the ultimate MLM scheme. You find a good mentor, build a downline…but no. That’s not how it works. Jesus is not running a multi-level marketing company.
Among the followers of Jesus, disciple-making influence is more of a “one another” kind of thing. We love one another. Bear one another’s burdens. Encourage one another. Consider one another in order to stir up love and good deeds. When God gives me a newbie to disciple, part of my job is to grow him from dependent to peer, and quick. The harvest is plentiful, and I need help!
Through Paul, God gave us a genius mechanism for doing that job: “Imitate me, as I imitate Christ.” You can’t just teach people. You have to invite them into your life.
See, just teaching allows you to hold people at a comfortable distance. You can be the leader, the professional, the guru, and they are the follower, the client, the acolyte. But we’re Christians. That’s not what we do.
Paul’s example shows us another way. I call it the “open a vein” school of discipleship. We invite them into our lives, not just as learners but as coworkers, as friends, as family. Make no mistake, this calls for deep integrity. If I don’t practice what I preach, the closer they get to me, the more repelled they’ll be. Being a person who can imitate Paul’s example by calling someone to imitate me is a very high calling.
And you know what? No matter how deep my integrity goes, I guarantee you that when I invite someone into my life like this, he’s going to see my sin, my weaknesses, my failures. I’m not perfect, and my disciples aren’t stupid. The sin is there, and they’re gonna catch me out. Of course they will.
Here’s the thing: that is not a bug; it’s a design feature. The instruction and accountability do not just flow one way; we do these things for one another. God speaks to and through my disciples, and they’re worth hearing. I grow in response to their correction the same way they grow in response to mine–and *that* is a critical part of the example they’re following.
Many years ago and far from here, I once asked a roomful of older pastors, “Haven’t you had the experience of a baby Christian asking why you did something or calling you out–and them being totally right, and you being totally wrong?” They all looked at me blankly…and I permanently crossed every last one of those men off my list of advisors.
I had occasion to work closely with a few of those folks over the years, and they proved to be everything I suspected on the basis of that single interaction: professionalized, dictatorial, unhearing, unteachable. And man, were they hypocritical! The more so because no one could tell them. They wouldn’t hear anything you said if they “outranked” you.
There was no “one another” with those guys, and they were the poorer for it. Go thou, and do un-likewise.
“Let us consider one another in order to stir up love and good deeds, not forsaking the assembling of ourselves together, as is the manner of some, but encouraging one another, and so much the more as you see the day approaching.”
Consider one another. Think about what we’re being called to do here: look at the other believers you’re close to, and ask yourself the question, “How do I help move this person to be more loving, to do more good things?” And you let those people ask the same question about you, and act on their answers.
In 3DM, a “Huddle” is a small group of 5-8 people that meets for teaching, mutual encouragement, and support. One of the criticisms I see of huddles is that participants are vulnerable to inappropriate influence by the group leader, and that “groupthink” is a real danger. Uh, yeah. Any close relationship is vulnerable to inappropriate influence, and any group is in danger of groupthink. If you think that’s dangerous, try not having close relationships, small groups, or leadership. See how that works out.
Warning people away from a huddle because of the dangers of groupthink is like like warning people away from math class because they will encounter math problems. The danger is real, but quitting school is not the answer. The answer is to solve the problems, learn from the experience, and over time grow into the sort of person who can solve those problems easily. You take the math class because you want to get better at solving math problems. You join a huddle to get better at fellowship.
You will never listen to a sermon or Bible study lesson without the danger of false teaching. You will never be part of a meaningful group without the danger of groupthink. You will never have a close relationship without the danger of undue influence. You will never drive your car to church without the danger of a traffic accident. You will never eat the Lord’s Table (or anything else) without the danger of food poisoning–but consider the dangers of not eating.
You can no more avoid teaching or close relationships than you can avoid eating. You may not simply show up at church, swap small talk over coffee for a couple minutes before the service, and check off the “fellowship” box on your to-do list. You must study your fellow believers in order to stir up love and good works. The risks associated with obedience are risks we are required to run.
Do you gotta do it in a 3DM huddle? Of course not. Do it your way.
So here’s my question: who are you studying, and who is studying you?
Your answer should be a list of names. If your answer to either question is “nobody,” then something is wrong, and for you, joining a huddle would be a step in the right direction. A huddle is one way to obey the command. It’s not the only way. It might not even be the best way. But it beats the pants off disobedience, ya know?
I like the way a huddle fellowships better than the way most churches just don’t. So should you. It’s a handy means of obedience, and helps you form the habit of meaningful fellowship. (Same goes for LTGs, well-run small groups, etc.–we should cherish every form obedience takes.)
Let’s go back to those two questions: who are you studying, to stir up love and good works? Who is studying you? The names on my list are mostly not people I’m in huddle with. I make close fellowship a priority in my lifestyle. There are three families where if I don’t show up at their home unannounced a couple times a week, I get phone calls. If I don’t talk about anything consequential when I do show up, I get a raft of pointed questions. What about you? If you isolate yourself, who will call you? If you quit sharing your heart, who will ask pointed questions? If the answer is ‘nobody,’ you’re already isolated. Please, in the name of Christ, fix that.
Having made the case for close fellowship, I also want to acknowledge that human beings can screw anything up, so of course there are real dangers and temptations that come with it. Any cohesive group has the danger of groupthink. The answer to that is more fellowship, not less. Whatever you’re talking about in group, have significant conversations on those topics with people outside the group. In a multitude of counselors, there is safety.
As the group coheres, there’s a danger of the leader exercising undue influence. Same answer: get fellowship elsewhere too, so that you’ll notice if something weird is going on. For leaders, the answer here is humility. The purpose of the group is not to develop your followers as followers of you. The purpose is to develop your followers as followers of Jesus. Some of them might start very dependent on you–as Jesus’ followers started very dependent on Him–but your job is to grow them into co-laborers, as He did, as Paul grew Timothy and Titus, as Barnabas grew John Mark, and so on.
Which brings me back to an important feature of the huddles I’ve been part of: they stop. You graduate. The relationships you formed in huddle continue, but they come out of the greenhouse that is the huddle and into the wild and woolly garden that is the life of the church, which is the way it should be.
Maybe you end up leading your own huddle; I’ve done it a few times. Maybe you use other relational vehicles; I’ve done that too. But if the huddle has done its job, you have formed the habit of close fellowship with your fellow believers, and you’ll never go back to thinking that two minutes of small talk at the coffee pot is what “fellowship” really is.
And that’s a wonderful thing.