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by Elizabeth Hardeman
Steve Mathonnet-VanderWell is away today. We welcome and thank guest blogger Elizabeth Hardeman.
If you attend a worship service this Sunday, I invite you to look around and really look at the people who sit around you. What differences will you notice? Hair texture? Eye color? Body size and stature? When you go a little deeper than outward appearance, does everyone in your church like the same kind of ice cream that you like? Does everyone listen to the same kind of music or read the same genre of books?
Most likely, the place you worship is full of people who are different in appearance, style, likes and dislikes. These kinds of differences abound, and we have a high tolerance for them in our communities of faith. Nobody leaves a church over arguments about whether brown hair is more Christian than blonde hair. Nobody spends hours in church board meetings debating whether people who prefer science fiction should be included in the church. These differences we can embrace.
But start throwing around the labels Democrat and Republican…start discussing theistic evolution versus seven-day creation…start conversations about hot-button social issues and our ability to embrace difference finds itself strained. We leave churches over these sorts of differences to seek places where these differences don’t exist.
Findings of the Pew Research Center’s 2014 Religious Landscape Survey reveal that church membership and attendance are declining but highly Evangelical churches that have created a like-minded subculture are declining at a slower rate. David Campbell, author and professor at the University of Notre Dame, proposes:
Evangelicalism can hold on to its adherents because it is as much a subculture as a religion. While evangelicals are typically defined by more than the church they attend on Sunday, they are also bound by mutually reinforcing expressions of culture—the schools their children attend, the movies they watch, the websites they visit, the music they listen to. The deeper someone’s immersion into such a subculture, the more their religion is an integral part of their identity, and thus hard to leave.
It appears that we are more comfortable huddling up in like-minded churches with like-minded people led by like-minded pastors and leaders.
Individuality and diversity in hair color? Yes! Favorite ice cream flavor? Of course. Choice of book? You bet! Throw in individuality and diversity in politics, social issues, socioeconomic status or cultural practice…and division and disunity aren’t far behind.
It’s true…we live in diverse times. Political diversity. Cultural diversity. Economic diversity. Theological diversity. And because diversity is all around us in the world, we tend to look for sameness inside the walls of their churches.
If we take a close look inside the pages of our Bibles, we will find out that we aren’t the first people ever to live in diverse times. We aren’t writing a new story that’s never been written.
The world that the Apostle Paul lived and worked in…the world that the church took shape in…was a world full of diversity. Political diversity. Cultural diversity. Economic diversity. Theological diversity.
In other words, the fledgling church of Christ was full of Jews, Greeks, Romans, poor, wealthy, the circumcised, the uncircumcised, the educated, the illiterate, and more.
This church was diverse. In diversity, division arose. Time and time again, we find poor Paul dealing with this division.
* people who are fighting over baptism
* educated people who are lording it over uneducated people
* people who are arguing about which leader to support
* people who are debating the importance of the physical body over the soul
* people who are arguing over whether or not it is better to be married or single
* people who are debating if the uncircumcised are as good as the circumcised
* people arguing over the proper food to eat
* people who are arguing over proper worship
* people arguing about what women should or should not wear on their heads
* people debating the correct way to take the Lord’s Supper
You can’t make this stuff up.
This is the first century church.
Truth be told, it doesn’t sound dramatically different from the twenty-first century church. I’m willing to bet that statements like, “You can’t be a true follower of Jesus if you aren’t circumcised.” “You can’t come to worship if you don’t cover your head.” And “You can’t fellowship with us if you don’t support Apollos,” were thrown around like weapons.
In the midst of all these arguments, all these debates and all these divisions, Paul writes these words: “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in the one Spirit we are all baptized into one body–Jew or Greek, slave or free.”
These are words that speak of one body with many members. These are words that speak of individuality and interdependence…diversity and unity. I wonder what kind of witness the church could make if we could actually “agree to disagree” on some pretty major topics; yet, still worship together and serve together because we are united in Christ. I wonder what would happen if we stopped drawing lines in the sand and started actually loving the world together. I wonder…
Elizabeth Hardeman is a pastor of American Reformed Church in Orange City, Iowa.