Friday, September 8, 2023

On Prophets Outside the Camp

 I was reading this week about a church in my fellowship, the Churches of Christ, that has been dwindling in membership, shrinking by about 7/8ths over the last few decades. They’ve had hard decisions to make recently, most specifically what to do with a building that was bigger than they needed and could support. The church, like many churches of all stripes, had gotten considerably older and had largely become a “commuter congregation,” with fewer members who live in the neighborhood in which they’re located. They were weighing options: merge with another church? Sell their building and find something smaller?

     What they decided, however, was neither of those things.

     Recently, the church announced plans to become a new neighborhood campus for a multi-campus church.

     Maybe you’re not familiar with that concept. It’s been made possible in the last few years with the advent of technology, but what it boils down to is a church with multiple locations in a city or a metropolitan area. One church, but with worshipers attending in more than one building, usually hearing the same sermon simulcast from the live location through live streaming.

     The interesting — and somewhat controversial — thing about this particular case is that the Church of Christ is becoming a campus of a community church from a different denomination.  

     Churches of Christ have had for most of our history a somewhat antagonistic relationship with other tribes of Christianity, to the degree that some of us wouldn’t even consider people in many other denominations Christians in any real sense. (In my experience that’s not the majority view, but it’s not unheard-of.) For many of us, our understanding and practice of baptism is the dividing line. An even more practical issue is the use of instruments in worship; most of “us” still prefer vocal music only, and for some it’s much more than a preference.

     There are varied reasons behind all these things, but a large part of it is our conviction that we are to be “New Testament Christians” who reject denominational divisions and unite around what the Bible says. Suffice to say that it makes the idea of one of “our” churches becoming a campus for another denomination hard to imagine for many of us. (Some of us will even object to my use of the phrase “other denominations.” For them, “the denominations” refer to everyone but us, who are “the Lord’s church.”)

     Most of us, I suppose, are on some part of the spectrum of these views. While I think most of us appreciate the faith of people who aren’t “us,” and affirm their desire to please the Lord and be shaped by the Bible, at heart some of us — maybe even most of us — would see the decision of this church as a compromise of some sort. Even if we might understand the reasons for it.

     I was struck by the diversity in the comments section of the post. Some praised God that the work of his kingdom would continue in that place. Some, with kindness and compassion, expressed sentiments that they would struggle with the decision of whether or not to remain a member of that congregation. Both, I think, reasonable responses. Some attacked the publication of the article — not so reasonable, and a classic case of shooting the messenger! 

     But one sentiment — repeated more than once — has stuck with me. Some said that they’d rather that church had closed than make the decision they made. 

     Don’t get me wrong: there are valid reasons for churches to close. Most every local expression of the church has a starting date and ending date, and it’s important for churches to make good decisions about their life cycle. I know of churches that have sold too-large buildings to provide affordable housing, and I think that’s amazing. Some churches at the end of their life cycle are able to give their resources to other churches and ministries to help them grow.

     But, with love, I struggle to understand an outlook that says it would be better for that church to have closed, for the site to have become a shopping center or what have you, than for the work of the kingdom to continue in that place with a new sign on the side of the building. 

     I see it as similar to the attitude of Jesus’ disciples when they met up with a guy who was using Jesus’ name to drive out demons. If there’s anything that looked like what Jesus was already doing it was that, right? It was what those disciples were told and empowered to do as well. But when they see this guy, doing Jesus’ work in Jesus’ name, they shut him down. He wasn’t one of them, see. 

     I wonder if they stopped to think of Eldad and Medad, who didn’t make it to a meeting with Moses where 70 “elders” were filled with the Holy Spirit to help Moses. When the Spirit came, though, it also fell on them, even though they didn’t get to the official meeting. Someone told Moses, and Joshua advised him to stop their unsanctioned prophecy.

     Moses, though, disagreed. “Are you jealous for my sake? I wish that all the Lord’s people were prophets and that the Lord would put his Spirit on them!”

     And Jesus said the same thing about the non-sanctioned exorcist his disciples were so worried about. “Do not stop him….For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us.”

     This squeamishness about people “prophesying outside the camp” is an aspect of my heritage that I reject. It doesn’t make me love and appreciate the good any less. But I don’t understand how we can so readily embrace an attitude that neither Jesus nor Moses seemed to have. Neither of them, apparently, felt the need to dictate to God how he does his work. Both recognized that he could give varied gifts in varied circumstances to different people and raise up servants who operate in different circles and in different ways to do the work of his kingdom in the world.

     Paul talked about how the very Jewish Jerusalem church gave his work among Gentiles “the right hand of fellowship.” He refused, over and over, the tyranny of those who wanted to shackle his churches with their expectations. He welcomed the preaching of the gospel even when he had doubts about the preachers’ motives!

     If Jesus, Moses, and Paul were comfortable with the idea that God can work where and with whom he pleases, I think it’s safe for us to be as well. That doesn’t require compromising anything we feel strongly about. It’s just recognizing that God doesn’t use anyone because we get every doctrinal “i” dotted and “t” crossed. He just might place his Spirit on folks outside our camp too, and that’s all right. Someone working in the name of Jesus is more likely to be an ally than an antagonist.

      To think that if it’s not “us” following Jesus, then the doors might as well shut, is to give in to the same sectarian, divisive impulse that we claim to believe has been a shame to Christianity. 

     How about this, instead? Let’s be faithful to the tasks God gives us. Let’s preach the gospel to the best of our ability, every chance we get. Let’s serve with love to roll back the darkness in our world. And let’s pray for and encourage other servants of Jesus to do the same.

      And when our time is done, let’s bequeath our efforts to those who will follow us, with all confidence in God.

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