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2012-05-07 issue:

NEWS ANALYSIS: Naming what unites us

Nation: Not all interpretations of Scripture are inspired by Holy Spirit.

by Mark Thiessen Nation

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Menno Simons is justly famous for providing a summary of the Christian faith in a treatise whose title is taken from the opening words of one of the sentences: “For true evangelical faith is of such nature it cannot lie dormant.” The remainder of the paragraph that ensues, like most of Menno’s writings, is wonderfully holistic.

It is impossible to read much of Menno without sensing his zeal for the gospel of Jesus Christ, his passion for a loving God, a God whose desire is to redeem all of humanity through his redemptive power.  Menno boldly names that faith in—and personal knowledge of—God releases us from our self-centered bondage, liberating us from unhealthy lusts and desires in order to love God and others. The Spirit of God empowers us to serve God, clothe the naked, feed the hungry, comfort those who sorrow, reach out to the wounded, become all things to all people. The wondrous love of God makes even self-sacrificial discipleship a joy to embody. All this, for Menno, is rooted in the body of Christ, a people covenanted together to encourage, teach and admonish each other with the Word of the Lord.

My summary of Menno is simply one way of naming what I’ve seen as one of the glories of the Anabaptist tradition: a holistic understanding of the heart of the Christian faith.

Members of the household of God: John Rempel’s essay “Naming What Divides Us” (February) provided me with the impetus to share my growing conviction that it is every bit as important to name carefully what “unites us” as it is to name what divides us. To put it differently, I fear that if we name what is central to the Christian life too neatly or simply, that is, without enough spiritual depth and breadth, it will distort how we name what divides us.

I was reminded of this recently when I was assigned to preach from Ephesians 2:11-22. I assumed that one of the reasons I was assigned this text was because it highlights reconciliation and unity. These emphases were indeed important, given that my sermon was to open a day-and-a-half conference that focused on same-sex relations in the context of the church. The text is, in fact, a needed reminder that Christ has “broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us” (v. 14). We have been made “one new humanity … thus making peace” (v. 15).

This is truly wonderful, powerful and liberating good news.

But the call to unity and reconciliation needs to be seen in the context of the whole of the passage (Ephesians 2:11-22) and within the rest of the letter to the church at Ephesus. At the outset of the passage, for instance, Paul reminds the Ephesians that the Gentiles need to “remember that you were at that time without Christ” (v. 12). “All of us,” he says, “once lived among them [i.e. the disobedient] in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses” (2:3). By God’s wondrous grace, says Paul, we are being made new in Christ, “created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life” (2:10).

The passage (2:11-22) ends with Paul’s reminder to the Gentiles that although they had been “strangers and aliens,” they are now “citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God” growing together “into a holy temple of the Lord” (2:19, 21). Much of the rest of the letter is spent elaborating on what it means to be “members of the household of God.” The implications are far-reaching, encompassing the whole of life, individually and corporately.

We are now to be “imitators of God” to “live in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God” (5:1-2). Living in the love of God, Paul says, means that “you must no longer live as the Gentiles live” (4:17). More specifically, Paul implores: “Be sure of this, that no fornicator or impure person, or one who is greedy (that is, an idolater), has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and of God” (5:5).

All of this is specifying some of what Paul means when he says, I “beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (4:1-3). These are vital reminders in light of which we must always live our lives, so that we do not mistake ourselves for God. 

Nevertheless, we are also cautioned not to be “tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine” (4:14). We are not simply invited by Paul to agree to disagree in love. Rather we are to be “speaking the truth in love” because “we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ” (4:15). None of this is easy, which is precisely why Paul says we need to “take up the whole armor of God, so that you may be able to withstand on that evil day, and having done everything, to stand firm” (6:13).

A holistic sense of the Scriptures’ call to discipleship: I have become convinced over the last several years that a pattern similar to what I’ve summarized from Ephesians is present in (at least virtually) every letter of the New Testament. And it fits quite well with what is said in the Gospels and in Acts. It is what I see echoed in Menno and other 16th-century Anabaptist writers. It was a part of what led me to become Mennonite.

Aaron Kauffman, one of my students, has called this “the prepositional truth of the gospel.” As he puts it: “We are saved by Jesus Christ from a life of sin for a new way of life lived in a new community of unity and peace, empowered through the Spirit to stand against the ways of darkness in order to bless the whole world.”

Such a theologically holistic pattern helps us see the Scriptures and the Christian life differently. And we see contentious issues differently.

We don’t imagine, for instance, that the Gospels are the only place where we turn for discipleship or ethics. Neither are Paul’s letters peculiarly where we turn for spirituality or grace. No, this holistic message weaves itself throughout the New Testament.

Furthermore, we recognize the Old Testament roots of this holistic pattern. In fact, we notice that the earthy faith portrayed in the Old Testament can serve as a corrective to our too frequently Gnostic (i.e., disembodied, overspiritualized) approach to our faith.
The opening of Romans 12, for instance, reminds us that our “bodies” are to be given “as a living sacrifice,” which is our “spiritual worship” (12:1). So offering our bodies will cause us, as Paul says, not to be “conformed to this world” (12:2).

This language of sacrifice and holiness may lead us to see connections to the book of Leviticus. Recent scholarship has shown that the earthy details of Leviticus are rightly seen as the integration of worship and ethics. Jesus quoted from the book of Leviticus for the second half of the greatest commandment: “love your neighbor as yourself” (19:18). Additionally, the repeated refrain in Leviticus, “You shall be holy, for I the LORD your God am holy,” resonates with the emphases not only in the Sermon on the Mount or in Romans 12 and 1 Peter but also to similar emphases in the Anabaptist tradition. 

Three other matters that also appear in Leviticus 19 are worthy of mention. Several of the Ten Commandments are reiterated in this chapter. Some of the strongest words about social justice in the whole of Scripture appear in this chapter and in Leviticus 25: words regarding caring for the poor, caring for aliens and rendering just judgments.  Granted, it is also in Leviticus 19 where the Israelites are told not to sow a field with two different kinds of seed or to wear garments made of two different kinds of materials (v. 19).

So how do we distinguish which of these teachings guide our faithful living? Here are two long-standing, honored approaches:

 1. to note whether and in what ways such teaching is reaffirmed in the New Testament and

2. to discern how the teaching has been affirmed or challenged by ongoing tradition.
Christians rightly saw, using both criteria, that caring for the poor ought to be carried out by any faithful Christian tradition. Applying the same criteria, concern about two kinds of seed or mixed garments mostly dropped out of Christian practice. (Neither was affirmed by the New Testament or the early church fathers. In fact, Paul’s writings can be seen to challenge such practices.)

Teachings about sexual practices in Leviticus 18 and 20 have been seen historically in the category with concern for the poor rather than with the teaching regarding two different kinds of seed. This is partly because the teachings are reaffirmed in many, varied and central ways throughout the New Testament. The early church fathers and Menno Simons also confirm these teachings.

A third way: I am grateful that we as Menno­nites know that reconciliation and loving relationships are inherent in the gospel. I am grateful that we are committed, as a body, to loving our enemies in the way we live our lives. Furthermore, I am grateful we care about social justice and that we know this includes caring for the poor.

However, because our fundamental identity is in Christ, none of these commitments should cause us to lose sight of the richness, the depth and breadth of the biblical teachings, including those concerning righteous and holy living. The beauty of holiness compels the New Testament writers repeatedly to warn against sexual immorality. It is the only vice to appear in the majority of vice lists in the New Testament. Is it named so prominently in the New Testament as a moral concern because moral living is inherent in the good news, the gospel?

Once we begin to see the heart of the Christian life differently, more holistically, we can’t simply ask whether our stance on a contentious issue comports with grace or inclusion, “aligning ourselves with God’s love” or justice or any other singularly named concern. Rather, we ask whether and in what ways it fits with a more holistic understanding of the heart of the Christian life. 

This does make things a bit more complex. Is God—the God known in Jesus Christ—central to my (and our) existence? Yes. Do I care about sexual immorality? Yes. Do I care about social justice and peace? Yes. Do I care about witnessing verbally to the gospel of Jesus Christ, potentially making disciples of Christ? Yes. Do I care about loving Muslims, even in costly ways? Yes. Do I believe the Christian faith is about an individual relationship with God in Christ? Yes. Do I believe in allowing others the freedom to disagree with and live differently from me (and us)? Yes. Do I believe I am to be willing to lay down my life for my non-Christian neighbor (and enemy)? Yes. 
Once we begin to spell out such implications of a holistic understanding of the gospel, it is difficult to align ourselves easily with right or left. It simply doesn’t work. Our fundamental identity is in Christ, not in political parties or any other allegiance than Christ.

Once we are clear that truth and our own humility matter, we don’t see all interpretations of Scripture as necessarily valid or inspired by the Holy Spirit.

Some—including potentially our own—may simply be wrong, perhaps even rooted in sinfulness. So, discernment in the Spirit is a serious process that seeks the truth and speaks the truth in love. Simply agreeing to disagree in love is not enough. 

Nothing I have said is intended to imply that this is easy.  This costly, challenging, sometimes painful and often fruitful journey reminds us that we follow in the way of Jesus as embodied in the Gospels, in the lives of the apostles, in the lives of the courageous disciples whose stories we read from the beginnings of the Anabaptist movement.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s opening words of the first chapter of his book The Cost of Discipleship may be pertinent at such a time as this: “Cheap grace is the mortal enemy of our church. Our struggle today is for costly grace.” I also continue to hope that other early words in his book may be true for us: “In times of church renewal, holy Scripture naturally becomes richer in content for us.” And, if so, we might say with him: “Discipleship is joy.”

Mark Thiessen Nation, professor of theology, teaching theology, Christian ethics and Anabaptist studies at Eastern Mennonite Seminary in Harrisonburg, Va. See his blog Anabaptist Nation.

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