[In previous posts on this point I have explained how the Pharisees became preoccupied with excluding others, with maintaining and observing outwardly observable traditions and laws, and using the Bounded Set paradigm for understanding their own community. This led to their two-fold error of failing to be a blessing to outsiders and losing sight of the heart of God. I have explained how this is a reality for many Christian communities. In this post I want to present an alternative that I think followers of Jesus should take when they think about their community and pursue God together.]
(Sidenote: To be clear, in this post I use family a lot. I use “family” in a very Eastern/Asian/Biblical sense. I see “family” as a web of interconnected, mutually supportive relationships that extends to a rather broad range or relationships. For many Westerners, it may be best to think of “tribe” when I say “family.” I am by no means invoking, supporting, or endorsing the concepts of “family values” or the idolization of a very particular sort of nuclear family that is idol in the hearts of certain political/religious groups, some of whom explicitly claim Christianity or the Bible as their foundation.)
My alternative vision for the community of followers of Jesus is simply this: I believe followers of Jesus should understand and organize themselves as a family and adopt a Centered Set way of thinking about their community.
In regards to being family…
I believe God’s heart is for His followers to be an invitational family, not an exclusive religious system.
Humans were always meant to be in community and it appears to me to be common sense that we always do better when in community. I’m fairly certain advanced psychological and sociological studies have thoroughly confirmed conventional wisdom and the common human experience on this point. We were not meant to live independent from one another.
Followers of Jesus are no exception and there should be no “lone-ranger” followers of Jesus. Jesus, me and my Bible is not what we are called to. But how then are we to be gathered together and understand ourselves? As a business? As a club? As a collection of service oriented programs? As a non-profit? As a private, invite only, gathering?
I think we should relate to one another as a (healthy) family. There are two subpoints to this:
- Understanding our community as a family prevents an exclusive mindset; in the Family of God, just like in biological families, you do not get to decide who you are related to. If someone believes that Jesus Christ is their Lord, they are in your Family. This means that there will be people who do not act, think, dress, behave or approach God like you do. This can be a wonderful thing as people grow and learn from the perspectives of others, but this also means that your Family will include some very odd characters at times. But what biological family does not have the odd character here and there? While you might be tempted to pressure people to conform to your way of faith, resist this temptation! You do not have the right and you are most likely pressuring them into a cultural, social, or political value that you yourself have not even examined. This is also adding to the Gospel of Jesus Christ because what you are saying is, “To be a follower of Jesus Christ you need to follow Jesus Christ…and these other things…” This is a very bad idea but it is tempting. DO NOT DO THIS! The Jews were no doubt dismayed that after centuries of enduring oppression at the hands of foreigners and seeking to worship the LORD, the LORD decided it would be a good idea to include uncircumcised foreigners who worshiped Him into His Family. Some Jews suggested new believers had to become more Jewish in order to be the people of God despite what the LORD had already done. They began to require circumcision and in this they added to the Gospel. They were severely rebuked for this attitude.
- Families are not a free-for all but have a structure. However, the roles in this structure is determined by relationship, not tasks. There are to be fathers and mothers who act as leaders in the community; older people who provide guidance, teaching, leadership, empowerment, encouragement, comfort, discipline etc. for those under their care just as a healthy parent would provide these for their own children. There are brothers and sisters who get to do life together as they encourage, admonish and celebrate one another. There are also younger brothers and sisters or children in the family who are being invested in by their spiritual mothers and fathers and older brothers and sisters. Just as in biological families, these roles are not exclusive. Even the oldest most wisest spiritual mother or father still has brothers and sisters who are their peers and even a young brother or sister can be an example and invest in people younger in the faith than them. While biological families have blood-ties, the Family of God should have ties based on a covenant to be family together, through thick and thin, through disagreements and major problems, through the good times and the bad. Followers of Jesus should not just cease relationship when someone fails them, when someone disagrees with them, or they are frustrated in some way. The Family of God should very intentionally talk about and work through these issues like a healthy biological family would. I should also point out that the various ages (both physical and in Christian maturity) should not be segregated. A recent speaker reported a friend as saying, that we need the wisdom of the old, the resources of the mature, and the zeal of the young. I believe this is very true.
This family should also be an invitational family.
Despite its very real problems, even my biological family gets this one right. A while back I was thinking about the positive aspects of my family life and inclusion ranked rather high up there. For example, I have an Uncle Ray. I grew up thinking he was my father’s brother, but I was 13 when I found out he was not my actual uncle. In reality, my family bought furniture from him once in the 80’s, my parents liked him, recognized he did not have a lot of family in the area, and he was promptly invited to every Thanksgiving, Christmas and birthday celebration since then. We did not invite my Uncle Ray in when he met certain criteria that we had pre-formed. We did not invite Uncle Ray in because he had certain things to offer us. We did not invite Uncle Ray into a conditional relationship with us, where if he ever offended us we would abandon him or cast him out. We invited Uncle Ray to be part of our family and apparently he liked us enough to stay.
I think the Family of God should operate like this. We should invite people into our healthy, supportive, covenant-ed family. We should not attempt to argue people into believing a certain set of doctrines and when they do invite them in, how we treat and love each other should draw people to us. And who would not want to be part of this? In this day and age I am convinced that so many problems are due to a lack of biological families that are whole and healthy. If the Family of God can provide what many people’s biological families could not (which it should) I sincerely doubt we’d ever have to worry about strategies concerning church growth. In fact, instead of scratching our head wondering why our churches are rapidly declining, if we got family right, I think we’d be scratching our head wondering how we could raise up enough spiritual mothers and fathers to meet the large numbers of people that have flocked to us.
In regards to being a Centered Set…
I really think we should be a Centered Set focused on God. This is the best way to understand our community because what is important is not where people are in terms of observable behavior or outward signs of adopting cultural or political ideals, or even the actual values of God, but which direction are they going. I do believe this not because I am a young hipster Christian who is caught up in some emergent fad. I believe this because this is presented in scripture.
The story of the Prodigal Son is really about the story of two lost sons, not one. I have written about this elsewhere but basically most Christians focus on the younger son and turn this into a narrative of victory/ascents, or a good testimony about how someone from a really dark past overcame their sin and came to experience God’s love and forgiveness. While there is truth in this, and often this story does serve to highlight the mercy of the Father, it leaves out the older son. The older son who stayed close to the Father, did what he was supposed to be doing, but had a heart far from the heart of the Father. The Father wanted to forgive, but the older brother wanted exact justness and fairness more than he wanted a restored brother.
In context, Jesus was making a point about the Pharisees and their like in contrast to the sinners and tax collectors he was spending time with and loving on. While the Pharisees might have actually sinned less than say, a prostitute, their hearts were so far from God.
In a similar vein the story of the woman who anointed Jesus feet with expensive oil and wiped it with her hair highlights this point as well. The disciples were close to Jesus. They followed Jesus even when the crowds abandoned Him when He taught confusingly that they had to eat his flesh and drink His blood. Certainly they loved Him and were doing right. Yet a “sinful woman” who probably committed more sin than the disciples loved Jesus more than they did.
The implications for adopting a Centered Set are many but I want to just highlight a few.
First, we must drop making people jump through man-made hoops before they are accepted. Instead we should value the direction of people’s lives. Are they become more or less like Jesus? Are they in more or less love with Jesus?
Second, we should always be seeking to encourage one another to follow and love Jesus more through our words and lives. We should not encourage people to be more American, or more white, or more into social justice, or more into whatever, but more in love with Jesus. This encourage people in the right direction, wherever they are at, because Jesus is at the center. While you might think that every Christian should be concerned about the poor (and you’d be right), maybe someone is at a place in their journey where God actually has something different in them that they need to work on before that concern eventually comes. If a concern for the poor is in the heart of God (which it is), and people pursue Jesus, they will get it eventually.
Third, we should respect basic Christian orthodoxy and the character of Jesus but respect that everyone’s journey will probably be different. The Centered Set is not an Unitarian position and there is a need to maintain basic orthodoxy. For example, if someone says they love God but believe Jesus was just a man who was a good moral and ethical teacher they are in error and be corrected. On the other hand we should realize that the transformation and change that comes by following Jesus will look different for other people at different times. We should seek to avoid confusing our presuppositions, our experience of Jesus, and our preferences as basic orthodoxy.
On a personal note, does anyone know of a community of followers of Jesus in the L.A. area that is like this? I do not mean a Church that says they do this, but an actual place where this is a reality?