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Friday, June 7, 2019

Belonging

     For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all the others. We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. 
-Romans 12:4-6 (NIV)


     
A friend of mine emailed me about leaving his church recently. I have a lot of conversations about things like that. I guess people figure I’ll be interested because of what I do. 
     Anyway, he didn’t have any deep theological concerns about his decision to leave. No doctrinal worries, at least none that he expressed. He did talk a little about “pastoral vision,” but when I asked him to tell me more about that he really couldn’t seem to elaborate. 
     What really drove his decision to leave this church he had been a part of for a significant number of years seemed to boil down to the fact that this church didn’t offer some things he was looking for. He’s a good guy, a strong Christian with a solid faith. But it felt like he was making the decision to leave a group of believers with whom he had served and prayed and worshipped and laughed and wept for nearly a decade, over a couple of things that weren’t to his liking. Things that I suppose he could have started himself.
     Talking with him, the phrase in that text in Romans up at the top of this page came to mind: “each member belongs to all the others.” That might be a tough sell in our world; after all, we switch cable companies every couple of years to get the promotional rates. We change employers if we see a better opportunity for advancement. We’re loyal to brands only to the point that they disappoint us, and then we’re trying something else. We even end marriages sometimes because we meet someone we like better.
     It’s a little quaint, in a world like that, to talk about being so knitted together in Jesus that we have the sense of belonging to each other.
     Paul isn’t really saying there that we’re stuck with each other because we’re part of the same group. I mean, that’s true as well, but what he’s getting at is theologically more important. The comparison he’s making is with the human body; we all know that the parts of our bodies are interdependent. The brain knows when something needs to be picked up. It sends the electrical impulses down the nerves that move the muscles of the arm and hand to pick that thing up. But if there’s no hand to grasp it, then the brain’s best efforts amount to nothing. Your right hand won’t independently cut off a finger from your left hand. Your eyes won’t close while you’re walking down the street so that you run into a lamppost because you wouldn’t let them look longer at the flowers in the park you just passed. There’s no mutiny among the parts of your body because your body has been put together for the purpose of living, surviving, and thriving. 
     Paul’s saying that in the church we belong to each other like that. We belong to each other in the sense that we’re responsible to use our gifts for one another, and for the good of the church as a whole. I know that isn’t always easy to remember, but forgetting it doesn’t make it less true. 
     Right here is where church leaders sometimes want to use this body metaphor to manipulate members by saying something like, “So you members should do what we leaders tell you to do.” (We’re rarely that explicit, but I assure you we’re sometimes thinking exactly that…) The problem with that thinking, of course, is that it assumes church leaders are “in charge” like managers or CEOs or officers. I recall, however, that Jesus said something about leadership in the kingdom being done from a position of service. So I want to start unpacking this idea of belonging to each other by saying that church leaders belong to the church, and to the people we would lead. Our job is to help the church to grow in Christ; not command them, tell them what to do, or use their efforts for our own agendas. We listen, pray, sympathize, serve, demonstrate — then we teach and talk. “Belonging” is dangerous if it doesn’t start at the top.  
     In the church, adults belong to the children. Sometimes we rationalize that there are people in church who are “gifted” at working with children, and sometimes that’s true. Mostly, though, I find that those who are “gifted” at working with children are just those who choose to invest the time and effort in doing it. It’s a shame that in the church we have to coerce people to teach Sunday school or help in VBS or whatever. It’s a shame that we adults aren’t lining up to share our faith with what is potentially the next generation of the church; and what is, at the same time, potentially not. Children in the church aren’t a distraction, an inconvenience, or a special interest group best served by specialists in segregated Sunday schools or youth ministries. They’re a part of the church, and they need we who are more mature in years and in faith to look out for them. 
     In the church, young and old belong to each other. In opposition to a world that wants to segregate young and old with individualized marketing, forced retirement, and the mutual dismissiveness and distrust with which generations treat one another, we witness to a different reality. We believe that young and old need one another, that each is less without the other. We believe that our differing experiences of the world better inform our life together and make us better able to live out the gospel of Christ.
     In the church, conservative and liberal belong to each other. We don’t believe the false dichotomy that says the church has to be one or the other, that either label can accurately represent or encapsulate God’s kingdom. We don’t bow to the cultural pressure to demonize the other side. We don’t buy into the message that one or the other is the salvation of the world. We think that both conservative and liberal believers have something to bring to the table, as well as those with no political persuasion at all. We recognize that each helps us as Christ’s body to better understand the problems in our world and act as salt and light 
     In the church, those in the minority and those in the majority belong to each other. Those of us who have advantages in the world based on where we’re born, the color of our skin, our gender, our education, or the money we make recognize those advantages. We see them as resources, blessings from God that can be used on behalf of the church and the world. We use them especially for those who don’t have such advantages, following Jesus’ command to love our neighbors as we love ourselves and the early church’s example of sharing in one another’s suffering. 
     We don’t leave when we get frustrated or discouraged. We don’t let “issues” separate us. We talk out disagreements, listen to each other, and try to understand. When we can’t agree, we go forward anyway as parts of the same body.
     It’s hard to commit to this way of thinking about one another when there are many other churches in close proximity to you. That, I suppose, is the reality my friend is running into. He’ll be a blessing, I’m sure, in whatever church he decides to attend next. I can’t help but think, though, of those believers he chose to walk away from. In what ways is that body less now because he chose not to belong?

     May we choose to belong, really belong, to the churches we’re a part of. Not as subscribers, consumers, or investors, but as indispensable parts of the body of Christ in those places.

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