Dear James (5), Communities of the Aggrieved, Race

Dear James,

I see that I will need to explain more clearly this business of being “selective” without excluding. You are pleased to tell me that you already have a fellowship of church members who are “concerned about what’s happening” with your pastor. I am grateful that you are not alone, but that is precisely the wrong kind of community to be building together! The point of intersection for this fellowship is not Christ, but your common grievance. That fact alone sets you up for a whole host of difficulties—what happens when one member doesn’t feel the grievance to the same degree as the others? What happens when the issue causing the grievance goes away? What happens—God forbid!—if you should set your minds to do something about your grievance and get your way? Will you split your church, harm the faith of the greater community, and then pat yourselves on the back because you did it together? You must—you absolutely must—ensure that you have set your own heart on seeking Christ above all. Every sub-committee, fellowship, clique, or “group of concerned members”—however they might style themselves—if it is not meeting in the interests of forwarding Christ’s agenda is forwarding its own. And as far as I’m concerned, angling for my own personal agenda is tantamount to performing the will of Satan himself. Be on your guard! You are swimming in dangerous waters.

I wish these “companies of the aggrieved” were less common, but they are everywhere. It seems as if whole sections of the Church have given themselves over to kinds of unity that are simply the accumulations of the perceived pain of the individuals. We’re the church for the poor, the church for the downtrodden, the church for the city, the church for the sexually broken, the church for those who don’t like church, and so forth. Don’t misunderstand me—the Church ought to be a place for all those kinds of people, but when the factor that unifies a community is a sense of grievance then that community is no longer centred on Christ alone. The grievance may pass—what then happens to the faith of the community? When the very reason for faith and community is gone, what then? You see the danger, I hope, of building the Church on anything but Jesus.

It is ironic that many such communities are formed in response to perceived pretense in the church. And it is undoubtedly true that many churches in the past century had become inhospitable to struggling people. Impervious, cold, locked into man-made traditions, they were exclusive in quite a different way—exclusive because inaccessible, perhaps. There needed to be a change, a drawing-back to the centre. I only wish we were better at correction and less hasty for reaction. After all, grievances are an emotionally powerful way to attract people to fellowship. The rampant denominationalism among Protestants can be attributed, in part, to our passion for grievances. It’s worth remembering, however, that while the early reformers were certainly aggrieved, they took their stand, and stood their ground, on the centrality of Christ. We do their memory a disservice when we employ their methods (schism) without reference to their principles (Christ).

This, possibly, is a place where we can begin to touch on one of your original questions—the matters of race in the Church. It is appropriate to segue here because racial and ethnic churches can really highlight for us what it means to be exclusive and excluding. The factor that brings people together is both an ethnic profile and the gospel. Where do you fit in if you don’t match the profile? And when those two get married together, there is always some confusion about which takes priority. Are we a Church, or are we an ethnic Church? If you review the New Testament—especially the book of Acts and the letter to the Galatians—you’ll see that this business of Church and (fill-in-the-blank) was one of the biggest struggles. Are we Jewish, or are we not? If we are Jewish, how much Jewishness ought we to demand of the non-Jews in our midst? The early fight for the soul of the Church was a matter of whether or not it would be a Church or a Jewish Church. The showdown between Peter and Paul boiled down to a matter of whether or not Peter would force his Jewishness on the Gentile believers. By God’s grace, Paul prevailed—because God was the one Who had called and formed this new community out of the old divisions in race, the “new man.” The new race of the people of God is at the very heart of the gospel.

There are always going to be natural divisions in the Church according to language, region, and comfort. But whenever those factors are taken, reinforced, and redeployed as defining factors for fellowship, the people have strayed from what it means to be the New People of God. Furthermore, when ministers gather their people around ethnic and racial grievances, cultivating community around the shared experience of minority life, or oppression, or by whatever other means, they are no longer acting to gather people around Christ. Instead, they are using Christ’s name to advance their own purposes. And where the grievance is first, Christ is not.

You might ask, “What should the Church do about race issues, then?” The simple, difficult answer is this: we must be the Church, in all the fullness of what it means to be the Church. The New People of God, living so radically for Christ that Christ’s love is visible in our midst toward one another. This means that we must live out this “new people” mentality toward the people in our midst first of all. It’s no good attempting to love our “minority” neighbor when we’re doing a poor job of loving our neighbor in the pew next to us. It’s no good extending Christ’s forgiveness to strangers the world over when we aren’t working to forgive the people in our own fellowship who have hurt us in the past. And it’s no good seeking racial diversity as an end in itself within the community of the church. That may sound strange, given what I’ve been talking about, but hear me out. I’ve met my share of pastors who were eager to add the word “multicultural” to the description of their church fellowship. Toward that end they counted their members, targeted ethnic gaps, then worked to bring in others for the sake of their concept of “multicultural.” As far as I know, most of these efforts fail completely. Why? Because deep inside that “minority” person knows that he or she is loved, not because he is a child of God, but because by loving him we are trying to change our ethnic profile. Thus, the love of Christ is made to serve an ulterior agenda.

Should we ignore issues of race, then? By no means! But as followers of Christ we can never reduce any person to his or her race alone, or reduce a class of people to a cause. Our unqualified and non-discriminating love—the love of Christ in action—means that we love each individual as a person created in God’s image. Practically speaking, this means that our job is to love unreservedly, and God’s job is to shape our congregations accordingly. I shall love, and teach my people to love, and let God worry about how “multicultural” we appear.

Tell me what you think, James—because it seems to me you are confronted with an opportunity. You can gather around a grievance in your church, or you can gather with the intention to love one another, to love those who are lukewarm and complicit, and to love especially your pastor. To which option are you called as a follower of Christ?

Every Blessing,

Jeremy Rios

Discussion

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