Dear children, this is the last hour; and as you have heard that the antichrist is coming, even now many antichrists have come. This is how we know it is the last hour. They went out from us, but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us. But you have an anointing from the Holy One, and all of you know the truth. (1 John 2:18-20) As you have heard from the beginning, his command is that you walk in love.( 2 John 1:6)
John’s letters are great for sorting out the intricacies of relationships in the body of Christ. He seems to be having a tough time with people who push the boundaries – they say they don’t sin, they leave the fellowship to start communities based on the perverse understandings they call the truth, they don’t walk in love. Things have not changed that much, have they? We are still having trouble dealing with people who brazenly sin. We are never sure what to do with beloved friends who decide to set up shop just outside the boundaries of our church. We are not always sure whether they or us are not walking in love – or even if we like thinking about they or us. We are always sorting things out.
An image I have ben pondering is about being “under the umbrella” of someone. In John’s terms that would be under the “anointing from the Holy One,” of course, and showing that one “belonged to us.” He is writing to “dear children” so he undoubtedly thinks of them as under the protection of his authority and love. When you have someone sharing your umbrella they have a special, intimate place you provide for them.
The other night we had an intense discussion (that is not code for “argument”) among some leaders about how certain people seemed to function “under the umbrella” of a leader (particularly people who seemed to be buds with a pastor). We were sorting that idea out. Some people seem to get special treatment — when they sin (sometimes repeatedly), the patience shown them looks like it is too patient. It is like they get a “bye,” when other people get opposed. Some people even get elevated into leadership through less-than-typical ways because another leader facilitates that and one has to wonder how that happened when others go through a lot of scrutiny and function with a lot more accountability.
It was an important discussion. I had a couple of immediate reactions:
1) When the church is not having a vibrant mission — including new people who need to be fed with truth and love, they turn to the niceties of their structure and start wondering about injustices. When the “umbrella” is not expanding, people begin to squabble about getting wet.
2) Pastors and other leaders in the church are allowed personal choices and preferences about who shares their limited umbrella space. Intimacy is not unlimited and is usually subjective. It is not necessarily something one can demand. A leader might have a special interest in someone, have a history with them, or have a deeper knowledge of them than they have of others. They should not show favoritism, but certain people might be under their “protection” in a deeper way than others. It is a blessing that we all care for one another, and we have many leaders, not just one pastor.
As I thought about the conversations some more, I felt more sympathy:
1) I really feel for people who feel subject to the whims of inconsistent leaders. Leaders can often be so blind and we can so often be oppressed by their blindness. They forget that what they do usually teaches more than what they say or write. When their friends get special, even undeserved treatment, the rest of the people they oversee don’t feel much like friends.
2) I also feel for leaders who get monitored for any hint of injustice by people who never do the difficult things they are doing. Before one can criticize someone for protecting someone in a perverse way, they should have someone under their umbrella. John called people “dear children” — the people he has nurtured in faith are like family to him, so of course he is concerned for their protection. Such care is a beautiful thing; we wouldn’t want to turn it in to a commodity that should be equally available from the “pastor store.” We should all be producing that love ourselves, not just demanding it.
It is no wonder that people have deserted the capital-C-Church in droves in the last ten years. In general, the leadership is likely to be inept, unconscious or experimenting with things John would call antichrist. It is no wonder that people who manage to stay connected often resort to being nice but a bit remote, lest they have to deal with the intricacies of love in a missional community. John knows it take the anointing of the Holy Spirit to do that.
I hope we stick with it. The deep-level discussion among the leaders encouraged me. It’s not like it is typical for regular people to worry about how to help the person needing discipline while attending to the desires of people who need someone to be disciplined. Our quarterly Love Feast encouraged me even more. It was such a celebration of what John names belonging and remaining! It was so not antichrist. Though our relationships can get so sick, they are also the place we get so well. I hope we keep praying, with John, that the Holy Spirit enables us to walk in love.