This blog post is the result of a conglomeration of thoughts from the past week or so. Therefore, I will look to pull in some links and thoughts from a few different sources to present my thesis. It will be kind of like a connecting of the dots. But, in all, I think this will be thought-provoking for anyone who reads.
I am part of a theological discussion forum known as Theologica. Back on April 25, a Theologica member posted a discussion thread about ‘specialty churches’ and their validity. What do I mean by specialty church? Simply a specific, local church that is made up of a specific grouping of people, i.e., a church for university students, cowboys, athletes, etc.
In the opening point of the discussion thread, the person who started the thread posted these words:
In my hometown, there will soon be a meeting to organize a “cowboy church.” I understand taking the gospel to Jerusalem, Samaria, the ends of the earth, etc., but the idea is sort of unsettling to me. It seems to me that society is already fragmented enough, and since the gospel broke down the wall of separation between Jew and Gentile and made all believers one in Christ (and the church), all these specialty churches run counter to that. We already have a gazillion denominations and churches catering to rich, poor, black, hispanic, poor whites, suburban whites, asians, etc. (I realize some are more or less necessary because of language proficiency, etc.) I would like to hear from others on this.
Various members of Theologica then shared the good, the bad and the ugly of such ‘specialty churches’, thoughts I am sure many of us have considered ourselves in the past.
I believe most people will recognise the call of Christ’s followers to be ‘all things to all people’ for the sake of the gospel, as Paul states in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23. What an opportunity we have in drawing people to Christ by being a Jew to Jews, a Gentile to Gentiles, as one under the law to those under the law, as one not under the law to those not under the law, a scholar to scholars, an artist to artists, and the list could go on. God has truly called people from every tribe, tongue and nation to Himself. And we get to join in with seeing a mosaic of peoples come to Christ.
Interestingly enough, just this week, I began to delve into a book entitled The Gospel-Driven Church, authored by British pastor Ian Stackhouse. Stackhouse is somewhat of a neo-Pentecostal/charismatic believer, meaning he embraces most of Pentecostal and charismatic theology, but he is not too huge a fan of a two-stage reception of the Spirit. In the book, he is specifically looking to challenge some of the over-the-top experiences of revivalism as expressed in movements like the Toronto Blessing. He wasn’t labeling such as false, but he was challenging some of the current trends and fads of such movements. While I believe Stackhouse brings a wise, pastoral insight into this arena of discussion, my point is not to consider Toronto, charismatic movements, and other such things.
But what I do want to do is share a few thoughts in regards to some words in the midst of one of his chapters. The first words I would like to quote are actually Stackhouse’s own quotation of one of Gordon Fee’s books, Paul, the Spirit and the People of God:
As Fee asserts, unity ‘requires heterogeneous people to submit their diversity to the unifying work of the Spirit. Homogenous churches lie totally outside Paul’s frame of reference. After all, such churches cannot maintain the unity of the Spirit that either Ephesians 2 and 4 or 1 Corinthians 12 calls for.’
All I can say is Wow! Such words grab a hold of my heart, and that might be an understatement. Especially these words: Homogenous churches lie totally outside Paul’s frame of reference.
Now that is quite interesting to ponder. I know many people would be ready to disagree with such words. And I do understand the impulse to disagree, especially considering Paul’s words in 1 Corinthians 9, like we did above.
But, let’s consider these words of Gordon Fee. Remember, Fee has been around for a while. He is wise, he is somewhat of a level-headed leader within the Christian community and I would say he has great insight. Though I’ve yet to crack open this particular book by him, all the while knowing it sits snuggly upon my shelf, I suppose Fee understands the importance of reaching out to all groups of peoples. He understands that which we all understand – the necessity of being ‘all things to all people’ for the sake of winning some.
Knowing that Fee has been one of the greater scholars on Paul during the modern era, I am certain he understands the call to reach cowboys, Africans, computer techs, creative artists, professional athletes, Generation Xer’s, and a whole host of other types of people. I’m sure he would concur that Christ gave His life that people from all tribes, tongues and nations might come to the cross (Revelation 5:9).
Yet, still, Fee is convinced that homogenous churches are nowhere in Paul’s framework. Nowhere. Paul can only consider that the church, in all its diversity, is called to be a heterogeneous community of faith. And Fee is convinced this understanding is solidly based in Scripture, as in places like Ephesians 2 (probably vs11-22), Ephesians 4 (probably vs1-16) and 1 Corinthians 12 (probably vs 12-31).
Paul never once encouraged the community of believers to form a Jewish church over here and, then, have the Gentiles gather over there. Paul didn’t want the followers of Apollos in one corner, those of Peter in another, and those of Paul in a third corner (see 1 Corinthians 1:10-17). He wanted the body of Christ to gather in the same corner. He wanted Jews and Gentiles together. He wanted disciples of Apollos, Peter and Paul sharing the bread and wine at the same table.
And, as a footnote to Fee’s words, Stackhouse states this:
This leads us to question, once again, the direction a great deal of the renewal movement is taking towards the principle of homogeneity. Engagement with youth culture may well permit such an approach – a missiological attempt to accommodate the preferences and dislikes of Generation X – but as an exercise in cultivating holiness it could prove ineffectual.
Again, I think these are beautifully challenging words. In his pastoral wisdom, Stackhouse is not being legalistic and he is definitely not saying that we should not consider how to reach out to particular groups (in his instance, how modern renewal movements are considering outreach to those in Generation X). But, Stackhouse’s challenge is that, with such a myopic and narrow framework, we might actually miss a cultivation of holiness within the whole body of Christ as we get caught up in an over obsession with homogeneity. And I suppose Stackhouse sees our holiness ultimately being expressed in our unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).
Again, it’s not that Stackhouse doesn’t give room for reaching out to particular sub-cultures. I, also, suppose he even realises that specific members of the body of Christ will develop better relationships with other particular members. To take license with the body metaphor, I suppose ears will get on better with ears because they have quite a few similarities and toes will get on better with toes because they are quite similar (at least in their stinkiness). Stackhouse, and us, are aware of this.
But the whole body metaphor is given to show that ears need eyes, toes need fingers, and elbows need belly-buttons. The body metaphor screams our need for one another, even our necessity of the weaker parts (1 Corinthians 12:22-24). If all the elbows got together, they would be missing out on so very much. Or, to keep it in the context of this article, if all the cowboys got together, they’d miss the importance of the computer techys and athletes and hippies and every other expression of personality and calling.
And so, I am convinced that the body of Christ is not called to congregate in sub-cultures. We look to reach each culture and sub-culture for the sake of the One who gave His life for all types of peoples. And we look to give expression to the differing sub-cultures within the community of believers. But we are to be a shining light and testimony that, in all of our diversity, we are a unified unit. We are called to fellowship at the same table with all members of the body – blacks with whites, English speakers with Spanish speakers, nerds with jocks, rich with poor, slave with free, cowboys with Native American Indians.
To play off the words of one Theologica colleague: Within the church, the body of Christ, people become Christians who are cowboys, Christians who are goths, Christians who are athletes, and so on, rather than vice versa.
If anything, the gospel calls the church, the ekklesia, the body of Christ to be heterogeneous. We are to be a community of all colours of skin, languages, and interests gathered at the same table under the headship of Jesus Christ. That is the effect of the cross. And as we begin to faithfully walk this out and move towards maintaining that unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace, I believe the world will see something they’ve maybe yet to see.