Tag Archives: holiness

Insiders and Outsiders: Knitting them together in love

Insiders and Outsiders — Juliusz Lewandowski

The Seminarian’s Cohort held an interesting exploration last month on a perennial subject in the church: “outsiders” and “insiders.” Sometimes the boundaries of the church are too thick and our area too constricted. Sometimes the the boundaries are too porous and undefined. So the subject of who’s inside and who is not is always interesting to those who want to be in and are bumping into the barriers to entry they perceive. And it is always interesting to people who are in and feeling threatened by newness or the loss of what they hold dear. The subject was also interesting to the Bible writers who were also forming community around the revelation of God — an enterprise that always implies that some people are moving in a common direction with God and others are not.

Here is a paraphrase of a key section of 2 Corinthians which has been used by defenders of holiness to explain their sense of the church being a new Israel on the way to the promised land and needing to be pure from outside influences. It tells us that insiders should be separate from outsiders and entry into the church means a deep commitment to becoming and staying separate.

The big temptation for God’s people has always been idol worship, being deceived, and thinking dark is light and lawlessness is righteousness. In Jesus, God has fulfilled an ancient promise to walk among His people, once in Jesus and now in His Spirit. We are the temple of God. That makes us innately holy and we dare not forget that. We need to separate ourselves from unholiness. Our goal should be to perfect holiness out of reverence for God. — 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1

Here is a paraphrase of a key section just before the previous one in 2 Corinthians which has been used by people who think the Body of Christ is intrinsically porous and has, as its main cause, including people from all the nations. It tells us that insiders remain on the earth for outsiders, persistently invade their territory, and urge them to enter into faith.

The love of Christ urges us on beyond our boundaries. We have a resurrection viewpoint we did not have before. So we see everyone as a new creation to be realized in the love of Christ. This is the basis of our new life: in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. — 2 Corinthians 5:14-21

The call to insiders and outsiders to accept one another

The dividing lines in the church (and in our culture, by and large) follow the contrasting principles derived from these verses. On the one hand there are ethics based on taboo, shame, security, tribe and tradition. See this article of the religion of Trumpism from last week.  On the other hand, the dominant ethic is “do no harm,” based on freedom, democracy, individualism, self-reliance, and progress.

Paul, while solidly one end of the spectrum, personally, worked throughout his whole ministry to keep insider-oriented people and outward-focused people in the love of Christ. In Romans 14 and many other places, we see him trying to knit the two perspectives together. Here is another paraphrase:

Accept those whose faith depends on strong boundaries, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. When it comes to eating meat sacrificed to idols, some believe in eating anything, others won’t eat idol-tainted meat or any meat. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has accepted them. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Those who find it hard to stand will be made strong in the age to come. And those who think they stand tall may find that their certainty was misplaced when they meet the judge. — Romans 14:1-12

My Christianity was inspired by radicals who were committed to fleeing the death of the world’s ways and perfecting holiness, namely Francis of Assisi and John Wesley (as well as all those people in the Jesus Movement). Unlike other monks and missionaries. my mentors were interested in getting their holiness into the lives of others, not cloistering it away for themselves. Very early on, I felt an aversion to “reactive separatists.” Gwen and I summed up what we thought the Bible meant with the term “invasive separatism.” Our term is simple. It means we know who we are and we intend to live in a community that understands what God has made them. It also means from that place we shine whatever life we have and give whatever gifts we’ve been given.

When I first watched the TV series A.D. Kingdom and Empire I was excited to see the writers displaying great understanding about the subject of insiders and outsiders. As the series shows, the Jews who became Christians had spent a lifetime perfecting holiness. Then the  Holy Spirit demanded all sorts of change and acceptance. The way the script portrays the Apostle Paul is especially good at showing this perennial challenge. The fanatical Jew becomes a fanatical Jesus follower. The more conservative and communal original disciples have to decide whether they can accept their former persecutor into the fold on the basis of his unusual experience with Jesus. Even more, Gentiles and Roman persecutors receive the Holy Spirit and receiving them an insiders seems taboo enough to make a person queasy.  In the following clip, the ultimate symbol of an outsider, the Roman centurion Cornelius, is sent as a messenger to Peter who is compelled to accept him.

That’s us on TV!

Circle of Hope, although certainly turned toward “outsiders” has a lot of dialogue like those shown in the TV series. Social action people protect our morality against the powers that be and fight people who won’t do justice as they see it. Circle of Hope purists are suspicious of and resistant to change or just blithely set in their ways. Immigrants who are banging on the walls of the nation do not always find a place in the church, easily. The oldest rituals are maintained, like Sunday meetings at 5 and 7; just last week the pastors  had to argue that other meetings are also “public meetings.” Radical Christians sometimes shake the dust off their feet because they are tired of our uninspired compromises.

The Cohort soon realized that we had a subject that was much larger than we anticipated. Most of the time we don’t have much consciousness about people who are not “us” even if we just made the most recent rendition of “us” last week! When we got to thinking together, we had some important revelations to collect. Here is a sampling:

  • The call to the church to be separate is central to inclusivity. If there is no substance, just diffusion, there is no “in” in inclusion. If we pay attention to being inclusive too much we can undo what we are actually talking about. We want to welcome people into our life together with Jesus. If we protect people from the pain of change, thinking that is kinder than helping them over the boundary, we can leave them alone, “free” to be unconnected.
  • True alternativity requires self-awareness about the inevitable exclusion someone will feel. Unlike the present philosophy running the world, we do not believe that individual identity is a starting point. Inclusion is not granting the justice of everyone’s personal godhood or even assuming the personhood they bring to body will find a place to rest. They’ll certainly find love and acceptance, but a relationship with Jesus and his people is all about transformation.
  • People need to choose. We can make that easier. There is a call from God to every person in our not belonging. That means when we realize we are out, that painful experience calls us into something else. We have to choose to be in. The question is, “Can you accept belonging?”
  • People are filled with shame and naturally feel issues about how to attach and how they are not accepted or acceptable. There is really no way to avoid excluding someone, since they have already been excluded, at some level, long before they get to the church. Our strong desire to not be responsible for excluding anyone or making them feel bad can be self-serving and unhelpful.
  • We may need to reteach our long-held assumptions stemming from the process of reconciliation outlined in Matthew 18. The process of inclusion includes carefrontation. So much of what people fear is confrontation. Our world daily reinforces how depressing constant confrontation can be. Our resistance to adding to confrontation unwittingly leaves people out, since we won’t deal with their experience of being unreconciled because it might confront them and hurt them.
  • We noted that our document about atonement explanations is a characteristic, generous way we do theology that allows the several ways the Bible describes the work of Jesus to be OK. We encourage people to develop, and to assume the fluid nature of their faith. Some people may need a careful, boundaried period (like people in recovery, or people who have experienced trauma). Others may relish the ability to have different elements of themselves dialogue in safety about what are often mutually-exclusive thoughts. This kind of acceptance is reflected in the movement we note from Earth to Wind to Fire to Water along the Way of Jesus.

Fascinating subject, isn’t it? We just scratched the surface. Once again, daring to bring up subjects that are too big for us to handle helped us to trust God and not lean on our own understanding. At the same time, our dialogue demonstrated just how much confidence God has built into us — and we know stuff, too!

Blessings and Curses from Perky Christian Radio

I was driving somewhere in the Poconos in that other world beyond the Philadelphia city limits during our vacation. I decided to turn on the radio which was set to the usually-blue-state NPR. However, the frequency beaming in from Honesdale was not NPR, it was WZZH coming at us with The Word FM. I don’t listen to “Christian” radio very often, so it is usually rather enlightening for me to dip into the subculture. This dip was unusually so.


mandisa and janeWhen I first heard Mandisa singing Overcomer I was a little taken aback because she reminded me of Jane Fonda’s workout song from the 80’s. But then I decided, “No, this is a very encouraging song and you need to go with the positive flow of this perky radio station.”  Immediately, I could imagine one of my most positive friends doing her signature wedding-reception dance moves to Mandisa.

Take a breath.
Don’t forget.
Hang on to his promises.
He wants you to know
you’re an overcomer!”

Good sermon, and it has a beat.

Good to Be Alive

But Mandisa is not all that is happening out there. I was less impressed by Jason Gray’s Good to Be Alive. Not only is the video terrible, but the catchy chorus is laced with that strange “holiness” theology that makes me kind of crazy.

jason grayI want to live like there’s no tomorrow,
Like I’m on borrowed time.
It’s good to be alive.
I won’t take it for granted.
I won’t waste another second.
All I want is to give you a life
Well lived to say, “Thank you.”

Now before I sound critical, I think there are some good reasons to sing Jason’s song:

1) I  won’t take it  for  granted. You realize how entitled you think you are and you want to live like you recognize that whatever you have is given to you (1 Cor. 4:7).
2) I want to live. You are tired of being low-level depressed, are changing your focus, and allowing yourself to live your life (John 10:9-11).
3) I won’t waste another second. Your have decided to work with Jesus on his redemption project and you understand how brief the time is to do that before he returns or you die (Romans 13:10-12).
4) Say, “Thank you.” You want to be mature enough to base your life on gratitude and receive each moment with praise (1 Thess. 5:17-19).

It is good to be alive and God has showed his goodness by making us and redeeming us!

The curse of bad thinking

There are blessings on the radio to be received from good-hearted people with good singing voices. But there are a couple of viewpoints in Jason’s catchy lyric that I don’t want stuck in my head. They are kind of cursing me.

1) I’m not sure Jesus freed me from death so I would feel like I was living on “borrowed time” (that is, time after one would normally expect to be dead). I was dead in sin, true, but that’s the fact of my old life. Likewise, I don’t think Jesus wants me to live like “there’s no tomorrow,” as if today were all I have. Isn’t that the condition from which I was rescued? I think he wants me to ease right into eternity and fearlessly be eternal. Yeah.

Is there some reason we are supposed to think that we don’t deserve the grace we have been given? Isn’t it a bit insulting to God to think he would come for undeserving creatures who he says he loves but doesn’t really need or respect? Are we redeemed to keep acting like unredemption is a short step off our tight rope?

2) The more dangerous aspect of this song is the promise not to take life “for granted” or “waste” any of it, thereby proving that I am worthy of it. I’m not sure I am supposed to give myself a rubric for successfully operating the Jesus life. I think some people misconstrue the idea of living as an act of worship (Romans 12:1-3) to mean that they are giving their life back to God as a sacrifice – something like: Jesus gives me himself; I give myself back, and we’re even. This reminds me of an even more subversive song covered by Kurt Cobain – he got the problems with the theology.

Is there some reason we are supposed to be perpetually getting over the hump with the amount of thankfulness we are expressing for our salvation? Is Jesus so insecure that he will be offended if you don’t turn to him, as he is walking beside you all day, and say, “I’m walking beside you to give you a life that says ‘thank you?’”  I think he’d be more moved if we just lived with a thankful heart and didn’t think we were proving it by doing something that pointed to how we were doing it. When I hear another “asprirational” song that says “I want to” do something, I often want to yell at the radio, “So just do it! And quit talking about yourself!”

OK, let’s settle down. I just want to object enough so we don’t start thinking that our actions produce the worthiness we long for. We can’t say thanks enough. Let’s accept that, say thanks, and live like we have an endless amount of tomorrows to be our true selves.

Sing as you go, if you like. You’re an overcomer.

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Well-centered hope: The alternative to a new oppressive holiness

Circle of Hope is among the co-conspirators behind Conspire magazine, brought alongside by our covenant-pal, Shane Claiborne. I like the passion. An article in the first issue by Nate Buchanan gives me an opportunity to talk about something I have been meaning to work on for quite a while.

While I like the direction Nate is taking when he is working on participating with God’s liberation of the oppressed, I am wondering about the theology of one of his statements. I am not rebutting his article, as much as he is allowing me to think out loud about something that has been troubling me. He says:

“Sadly, our communities often mirror ‘the powers that be’ in the dominant culture. While we profess to be counter-cultural, we are most often represented, spoken for, and led by white, heterosexual, educated males – despite the large numbers of intelligent and capable women, persons of color, and GLBT members of our communities. If we seek to follow a Messiah who, by Luke’s account, silenced a male priest and had a pregnant teenage girl proclaim the greatness of his coming, this is a crucial issue.”

Democracy does not equal righteousness

I think our communities (Nate’s and Circle of Hope’s) do often mirror “the powers that be” in the way Nate describes and that needs to keep changing. But I also think there is an even deeper change that needs to happen. We need to give up thinking that democratic rights = righteousness.

In the U.S. the dominant culture (and I am talking about the culture at its semi-God-fearing best) fully believes that when everyone is given their rights, when the marginalized are given their share of the power and wealth, when everyone is free to be their self-actualized self, then the kingdom will have arrived — or, at least, that must be what God is working on. Whether Bush is “liberating” Iraq or Obama is easing the situation of the oppressed, political “freedom” is the goal.

While I think having whatever passes for “democracy” or “human rights” in our day is better than being subject to some other philosophy — like the Taliban destroying schools, I still don’t think Jesus came merely to give teenage girls the aspiration to be president one day, as if getting one’s share of the power will save you. And I think people who believe in such aspirations so fervently should admit that they generally think it is a good thing to deprive the Taliban of their religious duty to oppress.

One Nation Under God
One Nation Under God by Jon McNaughton

Does Jesus rule or the founding fathers?

I doubt that anyone is interested in being that consistent. But I do think people unwittingly assume Jesus would have written the Declaration of Independence, if he’d had a chance. Among the Circle of Hope we have a cadre of people who spend an inordinate amount of time judging themselves and others for how well they or we meet the criteria the insubordinate-to-Jesus-world places on society for what is right these days.

The genuinely oppressed and the so-called white males, alike, (the latter who are still generally clueless about their privilege, in my opinion) end up seeing themselves through the eyes of some bureaucratized sociological definition, not the eyes of Jesus. Even in the church, somehow, Jesus does not have a right to rule the community, but the last guilt-ridden professor who assessed someone’s status, does — “If my household or church is not balanced properly, I am living in sin!” It is a strange new holiness. I don’t think it was great when the Christians were a bit like the Taliban and they thought it was holy for men to avoid women, to segregate people of color and to invisibilize GLBT folks, but I’m not sure it is that much better to live out a reaction to that and be damned if you don’t. Better to err on the side of the latter, I think, but can we skip the damning?

Our former lenses need to pass away

If we are really going to live in the kingdom, the definitions we had for ourselves when we lived in league with the passing-away world need to pass away, so we can be named and empowered by Jesus, not by our cultural status or by our rejection of cultural status. I keep thinking of these verses from Colossians as I mull over what I am being taught by the new holiness teachers:

“So then, just as you received Christ Jesus as Lord, continue to live in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught, and overflowing with thankfulness.  See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the basic principles of this world rather than on Christ. (Col. 2:6-8)

Obviously, that is just what Nate is talking about, since the church has been the lapdog of the system for centuries and it should be appropriately countercultural! My problem is that I keep getting taught a new “hollow and deceptive philosophy” to replace the previous one. I need to test out what I am hearing to see whether I am depending on Christ and not becoming dependent on the most attractive “basic principle of this world” I can find.

I fully respect people who are on the front lines of liberation, undermining the powers that be. I see myself as among their number. I was working on it last night when we were talking together about how to make a covenant of love with one another as the body of Christ, a circle of hope. In our group of thirty or so there were people of color, women and men, younger and older, professional and not so much, wealthier and poorer. I did not have all the sociological elements I prize in full bloom, although I thought we were getting closer. But I did have my hope well-centered, I think. The new humanity I long for won’t arrive merely as a result of my tireless attempts to bring it in — even through my power to give up my power! Jesus needs to reign.