The Universal Church

Part 1 of this series on Church is available here

When Rob Bell published his book Love Wins, John Piper tweeted a simple, “Farewell, Rob Bell.” to suggest that asking the questions Rob was asking was a departure from the Christian faith altogether. In a conversation I had with another youth minister yesterday, he told me that he had to throw away all of the NOOMA videos that he used to love showing his youth group, because he didn’t want to support Rob Bell’s later theology (even though it’s not mentioned in the videos).  Two Christian bookstore chains, Mardel and LifeWay, stopped carrying Rob Bell’s books for the same reason. It seemed like overnight, Rob Bell went from being one of the most celebrated pastors in America to being one of the most derided and hated within the Church.

The Church just doesn’t handle differences well.

Most churches (at least in the Bible Belt, where I currently live) are segregated by demographics. There are churches for white people and churches for black people. There are churches for rich people and there are churches for poor people. There are churches for young people and there are churches for old people. If you ask someone in those churches about it, they’ll usually tell you that it’s not intentional, that it just happens to work out that way. That’s true in the sense that nobody writes into their charter, “We will only have worship for rich white people.” but it’s not true in a sense, because people intentionally seek out the church that makes them most comfortable, and variety doesn’t make people comfortable.

The Church just doesn’t handle differences well.

On my morning commute to the church that I work at, I pass within 2 miles of 6 different Churches of Christ before I arrive at the Church of Christ that I work at.  And that’s just within one denomination. There are literally dozens of churches of various denominations in that same geographical area. I pass directly by 3 different churches when I drive the half-mile from my office to Sonic for a Dr. Pepper, and a different 2 churches on the drive back. Most of these churches don’t exist because of a need for a church in that area, but because people want to attend a church, but not a church that believes/does [Fill In The Blank].

The Church just doesn’t handle differences well.

And it is shameful.

It’s shameful because the Church was never intended to be a club for theologically like-minded individuals.  It’s shameful because the Church was supposed to God’s expression of love, grace, and mercy in the world and instead the church often becomes a symbol of division and disfellowship. It’s shameful because we tell the world there is Baptist, and Church of Christ, and Catholic, and Lutheran, and Nazarene, and Mormon, and Orthodox, and only some of them are the real Church all while Paul tells us there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female nor any other distinctions in the Kingdom of God.

The New Testament goes out of its way to communicate that there is One Church and it is for all people.

Now of course, it makes absolute sense that there would be various congregations. There’s no way the Global Church could all meet together in one place, and smaller bodies allow for everyone to take on an active role of service. I even think it makes sense that there are various denominations that allow for people to plug into worship in a way that they can serve best and be best served. I even understand the need for denominations based on theological difference to an extent. Some churches’ practices and beliefs may fall outside of other Christians’ practices and beliefs, and we all need to be able to serve God in a way that doesn’t violate our conscience.

But these are just different flavors. Where the Church starts to lose its identity as the Universal Church is when we start making judgments about the other flavors. We start separating ourselves from each other because my experience of God is more valid than your experience of God.

Now don’t get me wrong. There is a place for theological disagreement. The Church needs to keep itself accountable and striving after good theology and practice. That will be the topic of next week’s post. But all of that needs to come from a position of love and acceptance rather than a position of defensiveness and divisiveness. If we approach theological difference from the perspective that we need to correct or expel the people we disagree with, we’ve already sacrificed the unity of the Church.  If we approach theological difference from the perspective that we are all on the same side, and that we’re seeking Truth about God together, then we can passionately disagree without compromising the integrity of the Universal Church, because fellowship is never on the table to begin with.

And that’s the important thing. Not that we get everything right about God. Not that we keep differences out of the Church. Not that we are able to clearly define who is “in” and who is “out”, but that the Universal Church pursues God as a single, cohesive body. By seeking after that, we can embrace the incredibly diversity that is present in the universal body of Christ. In the Universal Church, We can enjoy and appreciate other people’s experiences of God, even when those experiences may not line up with our own. We can incorporate the worship practices of other cultures and peoples into the life of our congregation. We can embrace the differences that God has given us, and use those differences to grow the impact of the Universal Church in the world around us.

May we be more interested in unity than in correctness. May we seek reconciliation even when it causes discomfort. May we encourage each other in our pursuit of God as one Universal Church.

Part 4, Building the House, is available here.

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