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Thursday, October 14, 2010

Somewhere Between Uniformity and Compromise

Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. (Romans 15:7)


You might say that Temple Menorah in Chicago is a synagogue with a split personality. Split three ways, in fact.

The synagogue was founded in 1946, a Reform synagogue that was a haven to progressive Jews moving north from Chicago's south side. It thrived for decades, until new population shifts in the eighties saw many Reform Jews leaving the city for the suburbs. As the synagogue's membership waned, they rented out their facility to an all-girls Orthodox day school to make ends meet. Then a year ago, an Orthodox Rabbi approached the leaders of Temple Menorah about sharing the space for Sabbath meetings.

Now, in the way they observe their faith, Reform and Orthodox Jews don't look much alike. But in Temple Menorah's case, the – sorry – unorthodox arrangement seems to be working. And, in fact, when leaders of another synagogue were looking for space to rent for their own services, they approached Temple Menorah and were welcomed.

By the way, they're a Conservative synangoge. Of course. They're part of the third major branch of Judaism, located somewhere between the liberal Reform and Orthodox synagogues on the spectrum.

Imagine Southern Baptists, mainstream Lutherans, and Unitarians sharing a church, and you start to get the picture.

It seems to be working, however. At least for Temple Menorah. But it's taking some accomodation and compromise.

They've added a kosher kitchen to the synagogue, for starters, and have a kosher and non-kosher fridge in the main kitchen. (Reform Jews don't necessarily keep the food laws.) Because they must observe the strict separation of meat and dairy on dishes, the Orthodox members of Temple Menorah eat off paper plates. On the Sabbath, the Reform congregation lights candles after dark and behind closed doors so as not to influence Orthodox children, who are taught Sabbath candles are to be lit at home before sundown. And the Reform members turn off the lights on Friday nights after the Orthodox, who can't use electricity from sundown Friday until sundown Saturday, have gone home.

Doug Zelden, the Rabbi of the Orthodox synagogue, explains the unusual arrangement by saying, “I don't believe in Orthodox, Conservative and Reform. I believe in Jewish. The Torah … says serve God with joy — joyous Judaism.” These three very different groups are able to get along because they're very clear about what draws them together. They're all Jewish, despite the fact that they have very different ideas about what that means and how they should practice their faith. They are able to co-exist because none of the groups insist that everyone has to do things their way, while at the same time making sure that none of the groups feel that they have to compromise their convictions to remain.

That's tricky, at best. We Christians have certainly made our share of mistakes in both directions: insisting on uniformity and compromising convictions. Frequently, churches with much more in common than these three synagogues find themselves splitting apart over one group or the others' beliefs and/or practices. A partial list of issues my own fellowship of Churches of Christ have split over would likely double the length of this article. And if you don't share a heritage in Churches of Christ with me, well, I bet your own heritage is marked with its share of silly battles.

And that doesn't even take into account, of course, the numerous issues like baptismal or eucharistic theology, or liturgy, or the role of clergy and laity, or the relationship between faith and works, that separate Catholics from Presbyterians from Baptists from Methodists.

One way to handle differences is to pretend they don't matter: to, in the name of tolerance, embrace a least-common-denominator faith that holds nothing as sacred except for what everyone can agree to. Unfortunately, that approach makes an idol out of openness and tolerance. And, besides, it only works until something comes up that people really do care about. Then the decision has to be made: is this to be a part of our collective convictions?

Another way to handle differences is to ruthlessly root them out: to, in the name of faithfulness, exclude and divide until those who are left in the fold pretty much agree on everything. The problem is, that approach makes idols of prevailing opinions. It sanctifies the convictions of whoever calls the shots, and it leaves churches bereft of minority opinions which might otherwise have created a healthy tension and acted as a corrective to an unbalanced majority view. And, besides, its logical outcome is a church of one, since nobody agrees with everybody else about everything.

There has to be another way. And, not surprisingly, to find that other way all we have to do is go back to the Lord every Christian acknowledges and the Scriptures in which all Christians hear God's authoritative voice.

“A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13:34-35)

Too simple? The fact that we think so says a lot about whether or not we've ever actually tried it. Jesus says it three times: “love one another.” He says that the way the world will know who we belong to is not by our piety or our theological prowess or our ability to cross every doctrinal T and dot every liturgical I. Our identity will start to become clear when we're seen loving each other the way Jesus loved us.

Though we Christians love to quibble until all our theological boxes are neatly organized, the fact is that Jesus' mandate to love each other leaves Christianity hopelessly messy. It's not always easy to say who's out and who's in, who's right and who's wrong. We'd like to think that just reading the Bible solves all the problems, but Christians have been reading the Bible and dividing over what we think we see since, well, I guess since Thomas doubted the Resurrection.

Paul knew it was messy, and so he just said, “Sometimes, you have to just accept each other as Christ accepted you. Sometimes right and wrong on an issue aren't nearly so important as loving each other. Sometimes you just have to let each other do what you each think best, without judging or dividing, and trust that the others want to please the Lord just as much as you do. Sometimes you have to do some things that you wouldn't normally do, or not do some things you would, for someone else's benefit. Sometimes you have to just shut up and remember that what matters in the kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” (Romans 14:10-15:7, majorly paraphrased).

That's the way, I'm convinced of it. That's the way believers of all designations can rediscover the joy of finding family in Christ. We don't have to all agree or be excluded, because Jesus has accepted us. And we don't have to give up our convictions, because convictions are a sacred thing in the body of Christ. We can still love each other, and share life with each other, and serve our Lord together, and worship him in spirit and in truth.

Last ones out of the sanctuary can turn off the lights.

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Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, Today’s New International Version TNIV (r), Copyright (c) 2005 by International Bible Society. All rights reserved.

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