“He’s the kind of man who would plant dynamite in the San Andreas Fault.”
Forty years ago, it was a laugh line shared among a gaggle of college students about a peer of ours who seemed to revel in the prospect of the dissolution of social order and political structures. No one in their right mind, we assumed, would truly welcome a cataclysm that would undo the progress of generations or the relatively peaceful lives of millions.
A biblical generation later, however, I’m no longer laughing. Decades of terror and disruption around the globe from zealous ideologues and unhinged anarchists have grimly reminded us that there are people who actually celebrate division and chaos. They see opportunities for themselves and their causes in the pain and confusion they instigate. From jihadist warriors to neo-Nazi White supremacists, there’s no end of men or movements willing to don a suicide vest or pit one tribe against another to advance the causes to which they have dedicated their lives—or deaths. In a world where the spirit of compassion has all but dried up, a man with a lit match can appear to be a leader.
Let’s covenant to not reward the partisans who scorn the processes of dialogue and negotiation.
And if such causes—and such thinking—never infiltrated the church of Jesus, we might simply assign the awfulness to that ever-growing list of signs that we are nearing the end of the world. Not only will the love of many “grow cold,” as Jesus predicted, but the anger of many will grow hot—very hot—as they assess the gap between their singular vision of God’s church and the reality of a Body frequently bruised and bleeding, sometimes from self-inflicted wounds.
So it is that we hear thundering denunciations—from both progressives and conservatives—of those who differ in ideas or practice. The rhetoric of partisanship, once chiefly the hallmark of political campaigns, has invaded both the pulpit and the blog. On any given Sabbath you may hear your chosen diet criticized by a preacher who seems to believe that the devil inhabits the dairy case—or that you are a cold and heartless person if you don’t join the protest march demanding a guaranteed higher minimum wage in your community. A dozen websites glory in their anger: God is purifying His church, they insist, and you should join the remnant of the remnant; or you should be suspicious of everyone in leadership.
What all this unwise heat betrays is how little we have understood the spirit of Jesus or the record of the church He founded. While we rightly celebrate the book of Acts as a history of world-changing evangelism, it’s also an insightful story of how the followers of Jesus grappled with the challenges and controversies of their era. When the widows of Greek origin were unfairly denied their portion of the church’s shared goods, a Spirit-led process of assessment and inclusion led to the appointment of the first deacons, almost all of whom shared Greek ancestry. When division arose over whether the gospel could, in fact, be preached to Gentiles and these converts incorporated into the Body of Christ, a months-long process of conversation and compromise led to the wisdom of the Jerusalem Council recorded in Acts 15.
The same Scripture that teaches us to go, teach, make disciples, and baptize also insists that we make “every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph. 4:3, NRSV, emphasis supplied).1
So let’s covenant to not reward the partisans who scorn the processes of dialogue and negotiation by which the Spirit often leads His end-time people. The hallmark of believers eagerly expecting the return of Jesus is that they live the love He showed to His squabbling disciples, to Samaritans and Syrophonecians, Gentiles, and even Pharisees. It’s the glory of His church that its members listen respectfully to each other, speak gently to each other, and find the will to negotiate their differences.
“There is no law against such things” (Gal. 5:23, NRSV).