I’ve seen the trailer for Fast and Furious 7 so many times it has taught me lessons. Like this one: Before the big stunt, one of the team mates does not understand what is going on and refuses to drive his car into a parachute jump (not kidding). Vin Diesel has a plan for this acrophobic team mate, since everyone knew he would be too afraid to do this crazy thing. Most of the team is fast at getting out of the plane; this one hold out is furious when they get him out, too. That’s the church. Some people are good at “wild,” some are less so, but we still figure out how to jump from the same plane in our hot cars. Right?
Well, maybe the church is not exactly like that. But our team is a lot like other teams. For instance, the other night at the BW Stakeholders meeting there was a brief interchange between a couple of the good people present. Their back-and-forth was another in a long line of similar conversations stretching back to the beginning of the country, even the beginning of the church! One of us said something like, “The Holy Spirit should run a cell, not some person or program.” Another of us answered back something like, “I just joined a cell that is very structured and I find it comforting.” One was ready to jump and one wondered about the plan.
Prophecy and order
Prophecy vs. order is always the balancing act of the church (I still recommend this book by one of my professors). Some people are always ready to jump — even think jumping is holy. Other people want to know the plan and think jumping all the time leads to destruction. They sometimes don’t like each other.
These days people think being one way or the other is just a matter of one’s “bias” or one’s “personality” or even “preference.” People have generally decided to not decide things in the name of tolerance. But I think there is an important issue that each growing person of faith can and should decide.
- Is having a consistent order to things (which can quickly become law) numbing my faith?
- Is having the freedom to follow the Spirit in every circumstance (which can quickly become selfish) undermining the community?
- Is there really a contest between the individual and the community, between freedom and covenant?
There usually is a contest, but should there be?
I was surprised, for some reason, that we were having that kind of argument at the stakeholders meeting. I should not have been surprised since the church has been sorting out these relationships since the beginning. Especially in the American church, prophecy vs. order has been a constant place for arguing. For instance, at the last General Conference of the BIC I wound up on the outs with some people when I questioned the leadership — their reactions to me were not unusual. In the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1600s New England, the Puritans had similar reactions when Quakers landed in Boston to preach their radical new faith. The Puritans, who had been so rebellious in England, were now in the place of protecting an order they had built in the new world from someone even further out than they were. Bernard Bailyn describes the two sides very well — you can see how the descendants of the arguers are still with us!
Quakerism had emerged as the ultimate descent from rational, Biblicist, clerical Protestantism into subjective, anticlerical, nonscriptural, millennialism that threatened the basic institutions of civilized life – church, family and social hierarchy—that they were struggling to preserve. [The Quakers] challenged such fundamentals as the sanctity of Scripture, the principles of predestination and original sin, and the propriety of religious “ordinances”: the sacraments, scripted orders of worship, structured preaching, and the formalities of prayer.
Among the church plantings popping up in the Philly region these days this divide is still being played out. The Presbyterians inherit the role of the Puritans, hang on to over-rational faith and resist women and other people who traditionally don’t have power – especially “enthusiasts” who undermine the Bible with their feelings. On the other hand are Pentecostals who, like the original Quakers, trust their personal experience and bravely attempt to get everyone into their own version of it — all in the name of following the Spirit and applying the Bible.
Isn’t there a middle?
I am aligned with the “Anabaptists,” the kind of Christians who were also kicked out of the Massachusetts Bay Colony for being disorderly and just plain wrong. But I try to force myself into the middle, when it comes to prophecy and order, somewhere between Pentecostal and Presbyterian. For one reason, I think every version of Christianity usually has some brilliance to it. We are all one in Christ. But I also have more practical reasons and scriptural reasons, as well.
The Apostle Paul was confronted with this dividing point when he was writing to young churches. In chapters 14 and 15 of Romans he does a brilliant job of forcing himself into the middle by telling everyone to accept one another like Jesus accepts them — not because they are right or have rights, but because of Jesus. In 2 Corinthians 9 he charts middle ground by telling everyone to become like everyone for the sake of the mission — not merely because of empathy or tolerance, but because of Jesus. Paul puts himself firmly in the freedom/prophecy/filled-with-the-Spirit camp. But he uses his freedom to firmly protect those who don’t feel it. There is no point in having freedom if one uses it to win a point or to dominate everyone else. Freedom is for love. At this point some people among the BIC might think I eat meat sacrificed Philadelphia idols. That doesn’t mean I need to chew it in their face all the time. We all need to stick together in Jesus. Some people in our cells need enough structure to help them feel safe enough to grow – their cell leader can provide it without writing a new set of commandments for them.
Even when Paul is very frustrated by the people who are turning the Galatians back toward the Jewish law, he is generous: “You, my brothers and sisters, were called to be free. But do not use your freedom to indulge the flesh; rather, serve one another humbly in love. …If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other”(Galatians 4:14-15). He keeps his eye on the prize, “Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible” (1 Cor 9:19).
The leader of the plane jump probably needs to be “fast.” That will undoubtedly make some team mate “furious” about all this jumping. The leader needs to consider that certain valuable members of the team are not just like him. The point isn’t feeling unfettered or secure; the point is being in love and following Jesus. Some people will always be in love and follow Jesus in a more orderly way, some will be wilder. That’s how it is. Regardless of our differences or even liking one another, we can all be one with Jesus and grow toward having generous hearts. We can recognize who we are and who someone else is — and see all of us in the light of Christ.