Churches of reconciliation: the diverse church as good news for the world

Here’s the text version of the paper; the previous post offered a pdf version.

WA TEAR Conference 19 September 2009

As TEAR people, you already know that the good news is more than personal salvation after you die. You know that justice is an essential part of the kingdom of God. But have you ever heard the church itself proclaimed as part of the good news for the world?

This good news is that there is a new humanity – the church – where different races and different classes, people who were once enemies, are now brothers and sisters, are now worshipping together and eating around the same table. The good news involves reconciliation and the place it’s meant to happen is in the church.

Often when we think about justice issues, including reconciliation, we locate them out in the world. We think about how as Christians we can support programs and organisations which are promoting reconciliation. That’s not wrong, but it’s not the whole story. The church itself is meant to be a place where extraordinary reconciliation is taking place all the time. The life of the church is meant to show the world what reconciliation is all about. The life of the church is meant to offer hope to the world that it’s possible to overcome cultural differences and racial tensions. The life of the church is meant to turn on its head the status differences and oppression that occurs between rich and poor and male and female. When the church has truly swallowed the gospel, it becomes good news for the world.

In my talk today, I’m going to be arguing that diverse congregations where different groups are reconciled to each other are an overlooked but important part of the good news of the kingdom. I’m going to start with a look at these reconciliations in the early church of Acts and the letters of Paul. Then I’m going to contrast it with the homogenous impulse in evangelical churches today. From there, I’ll discuss some practical aspects of diversity and reconciliation in churches.

Biblical Basis

We see three important reconciliations happening in the early church – reconciliation between ethnicities or races, reconciliation between social classes and reconciliation between the sexes.

Paul mentions all three of these reconciliations in Galatians 3:26-29 –

You are all children of God through faith in Christ Jesus, for all of you who were baptized into Christ have clothed yourself with Christ. There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise.

Baptism is the start of reconciliation. On entering the church through baptism, converts are swearing their first loyalty to the new humanity. A convert’s new primary identity is as a member of the new humanity. They remain a Jew or Greek, a slave or free, a male or a female, but these aspects of their identity are no longer primary.

Let’s examine these three reconciliations in turn.

Jews and Gentiles

The best statement we have about the reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles in the new humanity church is in Ephesians 2:14-18:

For Christ is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups – Jews and Gentiles – into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us. He has abolished the law with its commandments and ordinances, that he might create in himself one new humanity in place of two, thus making peace, and might reconcile both groups to God in one body through the cross, thus putting to death that hostility through it. So he came and proclaimed peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near; for through him both of us have access in one Spirit to the Father.

We have to go back two thousand years and get our heads around just how amazing it was that Jews and Gentiles could be reconciled with each by coming together in the same faith community, the church. Paul wasn’t exaggerating when he calls it ‘hostility’. It was often mutual hatred. William Barclay says it like this: ‘The Jews had an immense contempt for the Gentile. The Gentiles, said the Jews, were created by God to be fuel for the fires of hell. God, they said, loves only Israel of all the nations that he has made.’ (Milne: p.21)

Here in Ephesians, Paul is claiming that on the cross, Christ put to death the hostility between Jews and Gentiles. God’s action in Christ creates a new humanity which anyone can enter by faith, rather than birth.

The reconciliation of Jews and Gentiles was a major missionary and pastoral focus of Acts and Paul’s letters. The reconciliation happened not by leaving each other alone and separating into two different types of churches. It happened by painfully staying together and sorting through issues.

Eating together was so important to the early church that it was the focus of many of the disputes. Table fellowship is critical to the church being a reconciling community. It is one of the activities the first church is listed as doing in the much quoted description of Acts 2:42-47 – ‘They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.’ They were carrying on what Jesus had instructed them to do at the Last Supper – eating and drinking together in remembrance of him. Eating together in remembrance of him meant sharing food and sharing it with people you wouldn’t normally share it with. The breaking of the bread became known as the agape – the love feast. It was critical to reconciling both race and class.

As the gospel spread beyond the Jews to include the Gentiles as well, the Jewish Christians wrestled with the legacy of strict dietary laws that made it hard for them to eat with the Gentile Christians. In the decades after Jesus, the churches were constantly struggling to work out how these laws still applied and what it meant in the life of the church. There were disputes and fights and splits, and the apostle to the Gentiles, Paul, spent a lot of time trying to resolve these. He didn’t advise them to go off and have their own separate agape; he tried to get Gentiles and Jews to give and take in love so that they could eat together (eg 1 Cor 8).

Rich and Poor, Slave and Free

Table fellowship created issues for the reconciling of different classes too. Slaves and masters, rich and poor didn’t normally eat together. In the Roman empire, slaves made up as much as one third of the total population (Finger, 2007: p.31). It was unheard of for slaves to dine with masters. Slaves were seen as property, not as equal human beings worthy of dignity. Yet the revolutionary new humanity church expected that masters would treat slaves as equals.

Slaves, at least, had enough food to eat. Former slaves and the working class were often poor and hungry. The table fellowship had a real economic meaning for them: it was where they got fed. The rich would have brought the food to provide for them. It was a form of justice – the poor could rely on getting at least this meal. The pattern in the first church in Acts is that the disciples started by sharing food and then stepped up a level and started sharing everything, selling off property to provide for everyone. In Acts 4:34 we read ‘There was not a needy person among them’. The common meal was the start of an economic reconciling where the differences between rich and poor were overcome socially and even abolished (Yoder, 1992: p.20-21). Reconciliation between classes involves redistribution.

In 1 Corinthians 11:17-33, Paul rebukes the church at Corinth for letting the divisions between poor and rich show themselves in the agape. The poor and the slaves were probably later getting to the gathering because they had more work to do and by the time they got there, the leisured rich had already eaten the good food and got drunk. Instead of being a reconciling, equalising meal, the agape was reinforcing the divisions. Paul tells them it is not the Lord’s Supper they are observing; they are not respecting the body of Christ, that is the believers in all their diversity.

From where were stand in the twenty-first century, it’s easy to think that Paul didn’t go far enough in reconciling master and slave. He didn’t insist that Christians free their slaves. Yet the life of the early church was more effective at reconciling Christian slaves and masters than the abolition of slavery in the USA in the nineteenth century. Abolition has been followed by more than a century of racism and inequality in the USA. To this day a gulf exists between blacks and whites. Don’t get me wrong – legal solutions are a necessary part of reconciliation. But the early church had no hope of influencing the empire to abolish slavery. What it could do – and what was good news for the world – was to bring Christian slaves and masters around the table as equals. No such respect and dignity would have been given slaves if they were simply declared free and sent out into a society where they had no status and no money.

Male and Female

The reconciliation of the power imbalance between male and female in the church is something that was started in the New Testament, but not brought to completion. Unfortunately, present day conservative readings of the New Testament read it in the opposite direction to which it is headed and use the New Testament to reinforce the patriarchy rather than critique it.

One commentator writes

It is hard to imagine how badly women were treated in antiquity, even in Judaism, and how difficult it is to find any statement about the equality of the sexes, however weak, in any ancient text except those of Christianity. The Jew prayed, ‘I thank God that thou has not made me a woman’ (common morning prayer). Josephus wrote, ‘Woman is inferior to man in every way’ (Contra Apion, 2.24). The Gentile world had similar expressions. But Paul reverses this. Indeed, in this statement [Galatians 3:28] we have one factor in the gradual elevation and honouring of women that has been known in Christian lands. (Boice : 469)

At a time when women’s participation in society was much more restricted than it is today, we see signs of an early church giving unheard of responsibility and participation to women. We are told in Luke 8 that the community of Jesus’ disciples was funded by a group of rich women. In Romans 16:7, we have a female apostle, Junia.  In Acts 18:26, we have Priscilla, the house church leader who taught the faith to Apollos and with her husband Aquila was a ‘co-worker in Christ Jesus’. We have Phoebe, the wealthy benefactor who delivered Paul’s letter to the Romans and read it out, no doubt interpreting it and explaining it on Paul’s behalf (Finger, 2007: 61-62).

The assumption of one of the most sexist passages in the New Testament, the head-covering passage of 1 Corinthians 11:2-16, is that women have a role in the church prophesying. Paul’s concern is that they do it in a way that doesn’t make others think they are behaving scandalously, with loose hair like prostitutes. In all the heat generated by his sexist justifications for this, we lose sight of the fact that he doesn’t challenge their right to prophesy.

It is this giftedness of all believers in the body that has an important reconciling effect. The gifts of the spirit for the building up of the body are poured out on every believer, not just the powerful ones. The fact, for example, that slaves and women will be given prophetic words to speak to the rest of the body keeps everyone humble.

Some of the most troubling passages of the New Testament, the household codes which call on wives to submit to their husbands, are actually empowering in their context. They are based on secular household codes which were addressed only to those in power. The New Testament codes first address the people who were not in power – wives, children and slaves. For the first time, subordinates are being addressed as moral agents, called upon to make moral decisions, to choose submission even in the knowledge of their equality in Christ. Slaves and wives are called to win their masters and husbands to faith by their strange voluntary, revolutionary subordination (Yoder, 1994: 162-193).  It was likely the new found freedom in the gospel for wives and slaves was causing scandal and disrepute for the gospel. Paul and Peter’s call for submission is not a timeless decree but a pastoral strategy, an intervention for reconciliation in that context.

The reconciling intent of the household codes is seen in the call for husbands to love their wives at a time when love had little to do with marriage. Masters are called in Colossians to provide their slaves with what is right and fair.

Summing up the Biblical Picture

So what we see in the New Testament is a new humanity church, where believers adopt a new identity, a new primary loyalty to Christ that allows them to be reconciled to each other. Whereas once the divisions of the world were what defined them, now they belong to a new nation that overcomes all these differences. Paul Louis Metzger puts it like this:

The church is a power instituted by God. It was designed with the particular mission of bearing witness to God’s advancing kingdom of beloved community through participation in the crucified and risen Christ, and of being consumed by him on behalf of the world for which Christ died. As such, that beloved community should be breaking down divisions between male and female, Jew and Gentile, slave and free, and it should be confronting the demonic forces that distort and reduce people to races and classes, to rugged individuals in isolation, people whose value lies in how much they produce and consume. (2007: p.36)

Evangelicalism Today: What Mega-churches and the Emerging Church Have in Common

Unfortunately, in the name of evangelism, we have lost this good news. Evangelicals have misunderstood salvation and distorted the Great Commission to come up with too many homogenous churches which simply don’t the show enough of the good news of reconciliation.

‘Make disciples of all nations as you go, baptizing them, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you.’ Matthew 28:19-20. Many evangelicals understand the Great Commission as the most important part of their Bible, the central command with which to interpret the rest and with which to decide what our purpose as church is.

Evangelicals have tended to privatise discipleship and make it simply a case of ‘asking Jesus into your heart’. So when some evangelicals are interpreting the Great Commission, they assume that ‘making disciples’ means getting people across the line and into heaven. The more people we can convert, the better we are fulfilling the Great Commission – what could be more important than that?

This sort of thinking is behind the church growth movement. Even if you don’t hear about the church growth movement in sermons, it has strongly influenced the shape of evangelical churches over the last thirty years.

Church growth uses research to attract members, by working out sociological and marketing strategies to attract unchurched people to church. The father of the church growth movement, Donald McGavran, used the term ‘homogenous unit principle’ to describe the idea that people like to worship in churches that are monocultural. The gospel is best received when it doesn’t involve crossing cultural boundaries. To be effective, we shouldn’t try to bring together black and white people or rich and poor people into the same church – it will put people off. George Yancey put it like this:

Church growth experts argue that to spend energy putting together a church of many different racial groups detracts from the church’s main duty – to win as many souls as possible. (2003: p.30)

You can see this approach used in ‘seeker sensitive’ services and many mega-churches, where the good news is a self-help message, a way to personal fulfilment. Bill Hybels is the pastor of one of America’s biggest churches, Willow Creek, a pioneer of seeker-sensitive services. It’s interesting to see his shift in attitude. He said in a 2005 interview:

Willow Creek started in the era when, as the book noted, the church growth people were saying,  “Don’t dissipate any of your energies fighting race issues. Focus everything on evangelism.” It was the homogeneous unit principle of church growth. And I remember as a young pastor thinking. That’s true. I didn’t know whether I wanted to chance alienating people who were seekers, whose eternity was on the line, and who might only come to church one time. I wanted to take away as many obstacles as possible, other than the Cross, to help people focus on the gospel.  So now, 30 years later… I recognize that a true biblically functioning community must include being multiethnic. My heart beats so fast for that vision today. I marvel at how naive and pragmatic I was 30 years ago. (Gilbreath: p.38)

It makes it hard to know what to say when the target of your criticism has so publicly repented of his old attitude, and writers on this subject like Paul Louis Metzger don’t know quite what to do with Hybels’ turn around (Metzger, 2007: p. 57). It’s certainly good news and we can only hope that it translates into diverse mega-churches. However, I’d also say that the mega-church itself doesn’t easily fit with the diverse new humanity church I’m talking about. Even if there is a mix of classes and races, it is much harder to gather around the table and have the level of fellowship which allows the church to embody the good news.

You see an interesting echo of church growth in the emerging missional church (EMC) in Australia. I like a lot of what the EMC does in questioning the received ways of doing church and responding creatively rather than defensively to postmodernism. It also has a welcome emphasis on justice. However, despite reacting against the megachurch phenomenon, the emerging missional church seems to be built on church growth theory as well.

Some of you will be familiar with the key EMC text in Australia– Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost’s Shaping of Things To Come. Their model for mission is for what they call ‘incarnational’ living amongst particular subcultures of society. Perhaps you find a club with an enthusiasm for model aeroplanes or motorbikes and you join it, befriending the people and walking alongside them. The hope is that the whole community finds itself moving toward God together. The idea is that these communities already exist, and instead of expecting seekers to be extracted from their natural cultural setting to an attractional church and thus asking them to accommodate to church culture, we should turn their community into a church.

When I asked one emerging church leader about the homogeneity of the EMC approach, he said that the homogenous unit principle was a missional strategy, while diversity was a goal of worship and discipleship. I’m unconvinced by this – I think that if we create churches out of special interest groups, they will probably stay homogeneous.

British theologian John Milbank wrote a harsh polemic against the emerging church in an article called ‘Stale Expressions: The Management-Shaped Church’:

In all this there lies no new expression of church, but rather its blasphemous denial. The church cannot be found amongst the merely like-minded, who associate in order to share a particular taste, hobby or perversion. It can only be found where many different peoples possessing many different gifts collaborate in order to produce a divine–human community in one specific location. St Paul wrote to Galatia and Corinth, not to regiments or to weaving-clubs for widows. He insisted on a unity that emerges from the harmonious blending of differences. Hence the idea that the church should ‘plant’ itself in various sordid and airless interstices of our contemporary world, instead of calling people to ‘come to church’, is wrongheaded, because the refusal to come out of oneself and go to church is simply the refusal of church per se. One can’t set up a church in a café amongst a gang of youths who like skateboarding because all this does is promote skateboarding and dysfunctional escapist maleness, along with that type of private but extra-ecclesial security that is offered by the notion of ‘being saved’. (2008: p.124)

Milbank’s tone is combative and I don’t think his criticism is true of everything done in the name of the emerging church movement. But I do think that his challenge is one that needs to be heard and grappled with.

Practicalities

What, then, does the new humanity church of reconciled peoples look like today?

It might be tempting to think that there is little scope for a local church to be diverse, that suburbs are homogeneous. But the reality is that every suburb is diverse in some ways; if your church is homogenous, it probably doesn’t reflect your suburb.

I live in Nedlands, one of the wealthiest suburbs in Perth, yet amongst the Mercedes Benz and BMWs there are also students renting houses and blocks of flats housing low income earners. There is a high population of people born in Asia. There is a wide range of ages, an aspect of identity I didn’t discuss from the Bible, but which we could apply similar thinking to. And of course, there is an even spread of men and women.

Bruce Milne pictures the new humanity church like this:

‘What should churches look like as they gather for worship?… Even if the congregation is situated in a mainly homogeneous neighbourhood in respect of ethnic origins, we would hope to see good numbers of both men and women, clearly comfortable together, with all the age groups and generations represented, plus signs of different kinds of family structure, different wealth levels, and probably indications of diversity in regard to how long the individuals or family units have been part of the congregation. Hopefully there might be also be signs of a spread of work setting between blue-collar and professional, and evidence of people who are still seeking for a personal Christian faith, as well as the mature, seasoned believers. Here and there the presence of people with physical or mental challenges would indicate a further expression of the congregation’s diversity.’ (2006: p.74)

This idea of the new humanity church which sees reconciliation between different groups as a part of the good news is no good if there’s nothing you can do about it when you return to your normal life at the end of this conference. It’s rare to be starting a church from scratch, so the practical consequence can’t be a prescription of how we might go about establishing the perfect new humanity church. Instead, you’re going to need some steps that you can start with where you are. Some of these steps are at the level everyone can do, others are at a higher level that only church leaders can do. But perhaps church leaders will listen to suggestions you have.

Worship

‘Worship wars’ are a familiar problem facing evangelical churches. The dividing line tends to be along generational lines. The stereotype is that old people want traditional, perhaps formal worship. The baby boomers want relaxed worship. And now Generation X and Y want either rock concerts or postmodern emerging worship. And so, in response, we tend to get age segregated services, with a different worship style for each.  I suspect that in today’s church the tension between generations is of as much significance as the tensions between races and classes in the early church.

Worship which disenfranchises parts of the church dishonours God. It needs to be ‘consciously shaped so that all members of the congregation can experience it as a generally meaningful vehicle for their response to God.’ (Milne, 2007: p.107) There should be a lot of give and take between generations or groups in the church, so that worship pleases our neighbours as well as ourselves.

Mosaic Church in Little Rock, Arkansas is a truly multi-ethnic church with blacks, whites and Hispanics worshipping together. They have seven different worship teams, all with different styles, who rotate leading the worship. Words to the songs are projected in both English and Spanish. To accommodate those Latinos who don’t speak English, once every two months a whole service is conducted in Spanish, with English people having to waiting for a translation, instead of the other way around (Kennedy, 2005: p.43).

For me, small, participatory churches are the best way to ensure there is reconciliation in worship. Bill Hybels’ Willow Creek makes sure there’s black and white people up on the stage, and that’s their version of diversity. But for me, giving everyone a chance to contribute to worship is closer to what Paul was talking about, perhaps best shown by 1 Corinthians 14:26:

What then shall we say brothers and sisters? When you come together, everyone has a hymn, or a word of instruction, a revelation, a tongue, or an interpretation. All of these must be done for the strengthening of the church.

Leadership

Seeking diversity in the leadership of your church is an important step. Are there men and women in leadership positions? Are there young and old? Are there working class people as well as the university educated? Is there anyone who’s not from the dominant ethnicity?

Eating together

Eating together was crucial to reconciliation and diversity in the early church. I think it is crucial today too. Recovering the shared agape meal of the early church as a regular part of worship would visibly bring all the different people of your church around the same table.

It is also something that you can also practice as a household, inviting people from within the church and your local community to eat with you. Eating together is surely a good way to defuse tensions within a church. If there is someone whose faith and beliefs is most at odds with yours, then perhaps that’s the person to invite back for Sunday lunch.

Reconciliation and Redistribution

In his book Consuming Jesus, Paul Louis Metzger insists that ‘reconciliation involves redistribution’. He calls for a redistribution of need, so that the affluent start realising they need to learn from the poor about surviving oppression and being poor in spirit. We achieve this redistribution by listening to the poor and spending time with them. The redistribution of resources means that churches with resources should give time and money to those without.  He also calls for the redistribution of blame, by which he means taking responsibility for the sins and injustices of the past committed by our ancestors and embedded in structures today. (Metzger, 2007: p. 143f.)

Conclusion

I want to finish my talk today by mentioning some of the unanswered questions and weak points in my argument.

Firstly, there’s the danger of hypocrisy. I like the idea of diversity across race and class. But what about across theological lines? That’s more uncomfortable. I find it difficult to worship and fellowship with many types of Christians; I get frustrated, annoyed or bored. I gravitate toward people whose version of Christianity matches mine most closely. What about reconciliation with these other people? If I can’t show them Christ’s love, if Christ’s reconciling power is not evident there, then surely the good news is not being worked out? This is one reason why I need to think of myself as blessed for being a part of a theologically diverse church where I have to at least stay in touch with other types of Christians.

Secondly, I’m not sure what to do with homogenous minority ethnic churches, like Chinese churches and Aboriginal churches in Australia. Is ethnic diversity something they should be striving for too? Rory Shiner made an interesting comment on a blog about the homogenous unit principle:

Like most Christians I suppose, I have an intuitive hostility to the idea of a homogeneous church. However, I do repeatedly come across situations where the argument against a homogeneous church/ministry comes from the people who are loving things just the way they are: e.g., the white power-holders in Australian country churches who oppose the setting up of Aboriginal fellowships because they love the expression of unity from black and white worshipping together. Problem is, of course, the same people would never dream of allowing their church meetings to become the sort of 3 hour affairs that Aboriginal Christians expect, complete with country music, altar-calls and multiple sermons. As long as those well-meaning people insist on the expression of unity (on their terms), the work amongst the Aboriginal Christians suffers. (Chester, 2006)

In terms of immigrant congregations in Australia, there is a strong argument for church services in people’s first language. For the immigrants who don’t understand English well, this is a good thing. But there is still room for involvement of people with different ethnic backgrounds as visitors and maybe even members of these congregations. And what about the next generation, who are comfortable with the English language? Often, a new service is started for them, making it both culturally and age homogenous. I think this is a mistake, and this is when the church needs to strive for greater diversity.

Thirdly and finally, I want to acknowledge how difficult diverse churches of reconciliation are. In 2006, a Harvard political scientist named Robert Putnam reluctantly released his findings that ethnic diversity breeds mistrust in communities. ‘His extensive research found that the more diverse a community, the less likely were its inhabitants to trust anyone, from their next-door neighbour to their local government.’ (Wilson, 2006) It’s findings like these that seem to strengthen the case for homogenous churches. But we can argue it the opposite way. We can see in this finding the urgent need of the good news of a reconciled people who embrace diversity, who choose to love and trust each other.

Of course, the mistake would be to think we can do it on our own. Metzger (2007: p. 91) writes:

Attempts to confront race and class divisions can be intense and overwhelming and will not bear lasting fruit – indeed, could end in anger or apathy – unless we experience the undying love of God that is poured out into our hearts through the Spirit of grace, whom God in Christ freely gives us to transform our hearts and lives. What is required is a great awakening, a turning of the tables of the heart in which the Spirit inspires within us an all-consuming passion to follow the downwardly mobile Christ in the world.

Further reading

All of these books are available from Koorong or Word or at Vose Seminary Library (20 Hayman Rd Bentley).

Milne, Bruce. Dynamic Diversity: The New Humanity Church for Today and Tomorrow. Nottingham: IVP, 2006.

A well-organised book, spending a chapter outlining the New Testament case for the importance of the new humanity church, and then a chapter demonstrating how the concept fits doctrines like the Trinity, creation, atonement and the church as the body of Christ. He outlines what a new humanity church looks like and then argues that the idea is particularly relevant to our culture because of the resemblance between the Roman Empire of the first century and the globalisation of today. A series of practical chapters follow, explaining what worship and leadership, discipleship and mission look like in the new humanity church.

Metzger, Paul Louis. Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in the Consumer Church. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.

Metzger’s focus is on the way consumerism divides the contemporary evangelical church and the historical and cultural factors that have led to it. His solutions are more radical and more sacramental than Milne’s. His writing is perhaps more exciting than Milne, but less well organised and less accessible.

Pierce, Ronald W. and Groothuis, Rebecca Merrill, (editors) Discovering Biblical Equality: Complementarity Without Hierarchy. Downers’ Grove, 2005.

This is an excellent collection of essays arguing (biblically) for egalitarianism between men and women in the church and the home. It is thorough, covering almost every aspect of the debate, from biblical, historical, theological and practical angles.

Yoder, John Howard. Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community Before the Watching World. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1992.

This is the book which has influenced my understanding of the church most. It is short but difficult and redefines the practices of the church in terms of their radical social character, from the Lord’s Supper as a shared meal to baptism as entry into a new humanity. I have written a simplification you can download from https://perthanabaptists.wordpress.com.

Bibliography

Boice, James Montgomery, “1 Corinthians” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary Vol. 10. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1976.

Chester, Tim. “The Homogenous Unit Principle.”  http://timchester.wordpress.com/2006/12/08/the-homogeneous-unit-principle/. 8/12/2006. Accessed 10/9/2009.

Finger, Reta Halteman. Roman House Churches for Today: A Practical Guide for Small Groups. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.

Frost, Michael and Hirsch, Alan. The Shaping of Things to Come: Innovation and Mission for the 21st Century. Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003.

Gillbreath, Edward. “Harder Than Anyone Can Imagine.” Christianity Today 49, no. 4 (2005): 36-43.

Kennedy, John W. “Big Dream in Little Rock.” Christianity Today 49, no. 4 (2005): 42-43.

Metzger, Paul Louis. Consuming Jesus. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2007.

Milne, Bruce. Dynamic Diversity: The New Humanity Church for Today and Tomorrow. Nottingham: IVP, 2006.

Wilson, Peter. “Ethnic Diversity ‘Breeds Mistrust’.” The Australian, http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/story/0,20867,20554070-5001561,00.html. 10/10/2006. Accessed 17/9/2009.

Yancey, George. One Body One Spirit: Principles of Successful Multiracial Churches. Downers Grove: IVP, 2003.

Yoder, John Howard. Body Politics: Five Practices of the Christian Community before the Watching World. Scottdale: Herald Press, 1992.

———. The Politics of Jesus. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1994.

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14 thoughts on “Churches of reconciliation: the diverse church as good news for the world

  1. Dear Nathan,

    Thanks for the thoughts. One thing you may wish to think about is your terminology of “good news”. In the NT the gospel / “good news” is exclusively used for the message of salvation accomplished, not salvation applied. It is about what Christ does for us, not what Christ does in us. This distinction is critical because it means that our “good works” are not the root of the gospel per se but the fruit of the gospel. It’s this confusion that dogged the medieval church.

    Blessings,

    Marty.

  2. “Baptism is the start of reconciliation. On entering the church through baptism, converts are swearing their first loyalty to the new humanity. A convert’s new primary identity is as a member of the new humanity. They remain a Jew or Greek, a slave or free, a male or a female, but these aspects of their identity are no longer primary.”

    What? Baptism is the public testimony of one’s personal identification with the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ. It does not ensure membership in either the local church body, or the universal Body of Christ. It is not the swearing of one’s first loyalty to the new humanity. I would advise you not to base your thesis on such a shaky (false) premise.

  3. Nathan: Thank you for your entire paper. It leaves me with some thinking to do. As to one part: Being involved with what is sort of supposed to be an EMC (but I reckon isn’t), I’m very happy to read a gentle yet genuine critique. Homogeneity has always been a bugbears for me, but I’ve never thought about it quite in this light.

    Blair: Your definition of baptism agrees with what I was taught in a Baptist church some years ago. In recent years I’ve not seen any reference to that definition in the bible, so I’m now not so sure. I’d be interested to read a discussion on the topic (e.g. between yourself and Nathan).

  4. Marty – interesting point. Would you call the new humanity good works itself? I think Christ’s accomplishment in reconciling two peoples (Eph 1:14-17) is his work, not ours. Granted Paul doesn’t refer to it as ‘salvation’ or ‘good news’ there but he seems to come close. Hmm, have to think about that.

    Blair – my argument doesn’t depend on this understanding of baptism, as diversity is well attested to in many other ways. Baptism certainly has strong connatations of repentence – this was the baptism John the Baptism was preaching. However, I do think Galatians 3:26-29 has a strong sense from Paul of a new identity in Christ as part of the new humanity – ‘..baptised into Christ, you have all clothed yourself in Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free…’

    Greg – thanks for reading. The critique may not apply to your group’s theory, but it probably applies to most of our churches in practice, at least in some ways.

    1. Dear Nathan,

      The gospel includes the fact in Christ’s death the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile has been expunged and hence God’s people are now international, not only made up of Jews.

      The actual working out of this fact, in bringing Jews and Gentiles together at the same table in space and time, is the fruit of the gospel, not the gospel itself. The Christian life is always a response to what Christ has done for us (i.e. the gospel)–a life of gratitude.

      Blessings,

      Marty.

  5. Hi Marty,
    Is the difference between you and Nathan on the meaning of the gospel one of a Calvinist versus an Anabaptist perspective on the meaning of the “good news”?

    Is it perhaps a difference on the meaning of the phrase “The good news of the kingdom of God” ?

    I do not think it is primarily a difference between an Anabaptist and a Reformed perspective. Do not both groups believe that the good news of salvation is solely by the “grace of God” and not by works?

    Some Reformed theologians believe that salvation is “creation healed” and that the kingdom of God is the reign of God over persons, over our
    social, economic and political relationships and over the whole creation. (Doesn’t Moltmann hold something similar to this?)

    This salvation is past (What Christ has done for us), present (What Christ is doing in and through us through the power of the indwelling Holy Spirit) and future (What he will do at the eschaton). And is it not all wholly through the grace of God: God’s free and overflowing favour so bountifully and willingly given.

    Do not most NT scholars take the view that the kingdom is God is both a present reality and a future hope? Is not the good news the good news of the coming of the reign of shalom (promised in the OT), announce as “at hand” by Jesus and partially realised this side of the second advent of Jesus but only fully realised at the last day?

    I would be interested on how you and Nathan see these issues and what really is the difference between you on the gospel of the kingdom, if any?

    Shalom,
    John Arthur

  6. Thanks for your comment John and sorry to miss you at the conference. I think your point is a good one. My understanding is that the good news is the proclamation that the kingdom of God is near – and surely the reconciliation of peoples is part of the kingdom. (I think Marty is saying that the reconciliation only happens because/after what Christ has done for us. Am I understanding you right Marty?)

  7. Dear John,

    Thanks so much for your questions. I can’t tell you what an “Anabaptist” understanding of the “gospel” is because I haven’t done a proper study of the relevant sources–so I don’t know if Nathan is faithful to his tradition or not on this point. However, from what I’ve read of the 16th Century Anabaptists most (not all) of them denied justification by faith alone (which can be different to “garce alone”), and hence this means the distinction between what Christ does for us (gospel) and in us (application of gospel) is blurred.

    My position is not Calvinist per se. I actually don’t like the word “Calvinist” because it’s become meaningless. So I won’t use it to avoid misunderstandings.

    My own aim is to use the word “gospel” in the way the NT does does rather than be a “Calvinist” etc. If there is a tradition in which I fit on this issue it is the “evangelical” position. (I’m not a great fan of parties because they all get something wrong somewhere). By “evangelical” I do not mean current American popular religion (from Joyce Meyer to Joel Osteen) but the Protestant tradition of Luther (who first used the word “evangelical”).

    The “Reformed” tradition of which you speak is perhaps the particular Kuyperian stream which may propound something like this–I’m only vaguely familiar with it. They may both say that the kingdom is about new creation, but this would mask massive differences between them, in that Moltmann doesn’t adhere to a classic doctrine of the Trinity, Christ, atonement etc. etc. In short, the words may be similar between the two, but the meaning is different.

    As I see it, the gospel is salvation accomplished not salvation applied. Salvation here is to be seen as fundamentally about putting people in a right relationship with God (position), and also the transformation of the entire creation i.e. the New Creation (condition).

    The Kingdom of God (as I see it) is the gospel by which we mean the announcement of God’s rule in Christ. That is, the gospel tells us that Christ has successfully died for sin (1 Cor. 15:3-4) and in his resurrection has now been crowned king (i.e. ruler) of the universe (Rom. 1:2-4). Hence, the gospel includes the announcement that Christ will judge the world (Rom. 2:16). In short, the new creation has been accomplished in Christ’s past cross-work.

    The application of this is now as Christ gives “repentance and forgiveness of sins” to people (Acts 5:31) by his Spirit–this is Christ’s rule. Hence, when people turn to Christ and live in repentance under his rule, this is the Kingdom of God (Christ’s rule from heaven) in action. It’s not the gospel (a past action) but the application of it (a present action). And yes Christ’s rule applies to every area of life (as the fruit of the gospel). So Christians give themselves to feeding the poor, caring for the sick, leading people to Christ, working against injustice etc. But this is the fruit of the gospel, not the gospel itself.

    However, the final new creation (including the resurrection of the body and a new heavens and earth) will not be complete until Christ’s return. It is not something we can do now, it’s only something the king can ultimately do then.

    I hope this makes sense and doesn’t confuse.

    Every blessing,

    Marty.

  8. Hi Marty,
    Thanks for your wonderful response to my questions. Do I understand you correctly when you seem to say that the gospel is about justification by faith alone through grace alone based on the finished work of Christ on the cross of Christ alone?

    And in the crosswork of Christ you see the basis of the renewal of creation which is accomplished but later worked out . So the outworking is not part of the good news.

    So is the church is simply a bearer of the good news, not part of the good news itself as most anabaptists claim and Nathan and I both claim? I think this may be a major difference between you.

    The Baptist church historian W.R.Estep (The Anabaptist Story has a short discussion on justification by faith among Anabaptists (pp.145-147).
    Most of them held to justification by faith but saving faith leads to a life of discipleship (i.e. a life commitment to Christ).

    John Yoder in The Politics of Jesus (ch.9) sees justification as the basis of the church as a new society. He certainly takes the view that the church is meant to be a reconciled community of disciples comprising Jew and gentile, slave and free, male and female and the church is part of the good news, not simply a bearer of the good news.

    So maybe your differences are those between mainstream evangelicals and neo-anabaptist evangelicals like Yoder?

  9. Hi Marty,
    Yoder’s discussion of a social model of justification is in ch 11, not chapter 9 of the Politics of Jesus as I incorrectly asserted. My apologies.
    Shalom
    John Arthur

    1. Dear John,

      Thanks for your gracious reply. As I see it, justification by faith alone through grace alone on the basis of Christ’s work alone is one perspective on the gospel. There’s many more perspectives: forgiveness, regeneration, reconciliation, redemption, salvation, adoption, etc. So only seeing the gospel from the perspective of justification is very limited. Most broadly the gospel is that Christ’s cross-work accomplished an entire new creation. Christ himself is a picture of this world’s destiny: he was destroyed but rose to a whole new mode of existence in his resurrection body. This is a picture of what ultimately will happen to all creation: destruction leading to new creation.

      The gospel is the announcement that Christ has accomplished this entire new creation, what he has done. That’s “good news” for some people, and “bad news” for others. The word gospel is better translated “big news” rather than “good news”. However, the application of Christ’s work is not the gospel per se, but it’s fruit. Now I don’t want to deny that what Christ is doing (as King) now is good news; it’s wonderful news! But it’s not what the NT means by the word gospel.

      Concerning the Anabaptist position on justification, yes I’ve read Estep, but also Bender, Williams, Friedmann, Timothy George etc. and they present conflicting conclusions. I haven’t had the opportunity to read the original sources for myself, so don’t want to pronounce what should or shouldn’t be the historic Anabaptist position. However, it wouldn’t surprise me if Estep is right. The reformers never tired of speaking about the necessity of a changed life, practical good works, and discipleship. Indeed, as they all said, without this one has not been saved. The function of justification by faith alone, was to provide assurance and hence love for God (which empowers obedience) but also preserve the sufficiency of Christ’s cross-work.

      Concerning Yoder’s neo-Anabaptist take on justification in the Politics of Jesus, I must confess that I’m not convinced by him. I have great respect for Yoder as a scholar, but at this point I don’t think his conclusions fit the what the NT actually says. Communal peace is an implication of justification not it’s basis. As I see it, from say the parable of the unforgiving servant, once a person gains assurance that they are forgiven by God for an offense far greater than could ever be between humans, this produces a forgiving heart for other humans. In other words, “we love because he first loved us”, justification (before God) should produce a new harmony in the church, but it isn’t that harmony itself.

      You may be interested in a talk I recently gave on the gospel in the medieval, early Lutheran, and early Reformed traditions here: http://www.ttc.wa.edu.au/Audio/Marty%20Foord%20MM%2009.mp3

      God bless you,

      Marty.

  10. Hi Marty,
    Thank you for your further response. It has given me a much better appreciation of your view and where you might differ from Nathan and why you made your original comment to him.

    I am with you 100% on your first paragraph of your second response to my questions and with the first part of your second paragraph. I’m reflecting on the second part of your this paragraph and intend to re-examine the NT with the following questions explicitly in mind.

    What is the gospel?
    Do the NT authors include what you call the fruit of the gospel in the gospel or not?

    Yes, what Christ is doing now is wonderful news as you state.

    I am also in substantial agreement with you on your third paragraph. I appreciate your comments on Yoder and your appreciation of him as a scholar in yout fourth paragraph. However, at this stage, I am with him.

    Craig Carter interprets Yoder as saying that “the church is the new society in which the gospel invites those who believe to enter” (Politics of the Cross, p192). “Reconciliation with God and reconciliation with humans are two sides of the same event”(p.193).

    Thanks for your audio and your gracious replies to me. May the God of grace and generosity continue to inspire, uplift and encourage you in work work at Trinity.

    I would also like to know Nathan’s response to your comments.

    Shalom,
    John Arthur

  11. Sweet, I was searching for something along the lines of this. I was wondering, do you think newsletters are still an effective way of marketing online? Does anybody still use them successfully and actually get readers?

    Thanks!
    Lauren

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