Human institutions are fragile. We desperately need them, so when they are not working we worry about tampering with traditional forms and losing them entirely. In spite of this fear, there are a growing number of churches that are intentionally setting out to embrace a precarious social strategy. These Liberal-Evangelical churches are intentionally embracing core message pluralism, even if it goes by some other name. Liberal-Evangelical Christians reject the simple portrayals of the Gospel on the Left and on the Right, though they recognize that a simple core message can yield social cohesion. They also reject the bland moderation of churches that refuse to probe too deeply for fear upsetting the precarious social balance. Instead, Liberal-Evangelicals opt for the difficult adventure of embracing core message pluralism openly and honestly. They embrace the challenge of running against the sociological odds and live in the hope that Christian love is powerful enough to hold a community together even as its diverse members embrace different versions of the Gospel. Thus Liberal-Evangelical congregations hope to stand as a witness to the inclusiveness of Christ’s love.
The sometimes shocking truth is that social unity is easy to achieve. This may come as a surprise to many people, but it is true. Small social units of a dozen or so members are often bonded through direct family ties. Larger units of several dozens are sometimes organized as a kinship group or tribe. Some social units are held together through common purposes – think of military units, work committees, or political parties. For some social groups ideology is the tie that binds. Others are ritually united through common meals, dress, or worship forms. In times of war an entire nation can be united to combat a common threat. Social unity is sometimes easy to achieve, but there is a catch, a price to be paid.
Chapter 11, “The Curious Social Strategy of Liberal-Evangelical Christianity” explores several of the different strategies available to human societies and organizations as they strive to build strong social bonds. The central thesis of the chapter is as follows. Liberal-evangelical Christian groups are uniquely hamstrung in that they cannot use several of the most effective social strategies available to other social groups. For example, both the witness of Jesus Christ and our moderate intuitions preclude demonizing out-groups or narrowly restricting membership. But these very limitations make us uniquely positioned to offer a compelling testimony to the power of divine love to unite across human differences. We pursue unity in our creatively inclusive churches in a distinctive way. By swimming against the sociological current and forging loving communities despite our differences, we bear witness to the redeeming love of God in Jesus Christ in a way that simpler kinds of unity never can. Liberal evangelicals truly are a curious bunch.
This chapter explores several models of social unity that different branches of Christianity have utilized over the centuries. Many have been phenomenally successful, some have been successful for a short but intense period and then lost their relevance, while still others have been successful in circumscribed niches and therefore lack broad applicability. Every strategy has its drawbacks.
Over the course of the chapter several key approaches emerge. Some groups attain unity through the articulation of a common goal using a compelling story, a charismatic figure, or a central practice to rally diverse elements around a shared purpose. Others find themselves required to band together out of necessity in order to stand as one against a common enemy, which might be social chaos, another group, an alien ideology, or merely a caricature embraced as a catalyst for social unity. Another common strategy for forging social unity involves the expulsion or exclusion of aliens or outsiders so as to form a closely bonded society of true believers or loyalists.
Most groups generally utilize some version of all three of these strategies. The important point is that both today and in centuries past Christians have freely used these social strategies because they are effective means of forming and maintaining social bonds.
Moving beyond these traditional methods of social bonding is not easy. It is never easy to leave the well worn path or to abandon time tested methods. But our moderate instincts drive us to try something new. What is more, Christ calls us to form inclusive communities of love, and for this task the old and secure methods and strategies will not do.
In the far left column below is a list of groups, each of which make use of different social strategies for forming close bonds, reinforcing common goals, and creating cohesive group identities. In the second column, make a list of the internal and external forces or motivations that drive or compel the group to remain unified. In the far right column list several specific unity-preserving strategies these groups enact or behaviors in which they engage. Some members of your study group may belong to groups of these kinds. Take some time to share your experiences with one another, paying particular attention to the things that your group does to build social bonds that are particularly successful. Several boxes have been completed as examples.
|Group||Internal and external pressures toward unity||Unity-preserving strategies or behaviors|
|College Sororities/Fraternities||Wear matching clothing so as to be identified with the group|
|Veterans of Foreign Wars||A need to be around people with common experiences|
|Extended Family||Annual family reunions|
|Basketball Team||Competition from other teams|
In a moment of honesty and transparency, Chapter 11 warns us that “the liberal-evangelical church must run against the sociological odds” (page 154). This means that many of the sociologically effective strategies that were listed in the far right column are not available to us as liberal-evangelical congregations, despite the fact that internal and external social pressures similar to those listed in the middle column remain.
Take a few minutes as a group to go back over the particular strategies in the far right column and think about which of these seem to violate the spirit of radical empathy that pervades moderate Christianity, or undermine the stress that liberal-evangelicalism puts on Christ-centered radical inclusiveness.
We seem to be playing with fire, or at least with matches. We are committed to diverse congregations because we know that we must provide a witness to Christ’s example of overflowing love. We must resist the tendency to flock together merely with “our own kind,” and instead make the strenuous effort of building deliberately diverse congregations. And we must take up this challenge without falling back on the time-tested strategies of uniformity through enforced conformity, the demonization of others, or the expulsion of dissenters. It seems as if we are being asked to do the impossible. If this really the kind of community Jesus Christ had in mind? Can God’s love really overcome the sorts of human differences that routinely destroy the unity of other groups?
Get Caught Up
Homework (to be completed prior to group meeting)
This week’s homework is no laughing matter though it will doubtless cause some chuckles. You are to write about someone you know personally but dislike – not someone you loathe, but someone you find it very difficult to be around. Your personal aversion to this person can be due to their personality, their political beliefs, their manners, or any number of things. But please, do not share their name with the group. The goal is not to alienate or embarrass anyone, but rather to examine strategies for social cohesion in the face of genuine challenges.
Take twenty minutes this week to sit down and think about this person and the feelings or responses they evoke in you. Make a list of the things they do, say, or stand for that turn you off. Again, honesty is important but keep in mind the larger goals of our group study.
As you make your list, think about completing the following sentence.
I find it difficult to relate to or associate with this person because_______________________.
Homework Discussion (during group meeting)
Take a few minutes to share your answers to the homework question. Try not to laugh too much about this. Then ask yourselves the following extremely simple and extremely important question.
- How are we supposed to love people–serious love them in the sense of unconditional positive regard – when these negative feelings arise so quickly and easily within us?
Now translate this conundrum into the church setting, and answer the following question.
- How can we hold together as a church community when we find so difficult and distasteful some of the people who disagree with us or think differently than we do?
Bible Reading: I Corinthians 13
1 If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal.
2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing.
3 If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.
4 Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
5 It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.
6 Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.
7 It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.
8 Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away.
9 For we know in part and we prophesy in part,
10 but when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears.
11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me.
12 Now we see but a poor reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
If you are studying Lost in a busy wedding season, then you may be able to recite I Corinthians 13 from memory. Seldom does a church wedding not include a reading from this chapter. But we have become so familiar with the cadence of these verses that we seldom pause to consider their substantive point. Paul was not writing to the Corinthian church in order that they might use his words at weddings. He was writing to address a social crisis in the church.
In the opening chapter of I Corinthians Paul tells his readers the purpose of his letter.
10 I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought. 11 My brothers, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. 12 What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas; still another, “I follow Christ.”
13 Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized into the name of Paul? 14 I am thankful that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, 15 so no one can say that you were baptized into my name. 16 (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) 17 For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel, and not with words of human wisdom, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.
The church is “emptying the cross of Christ of its power” by bickering and failing to unify despite internal differences. Paul is writing not to give marriage advice but to explain a unique and transformative social strategy. The only strategy capable of overcoming internal divisions without resorting to expelling or silencing half of the group is love. But the love Paul recommends is not an emotion. It is a hardnosed tactic for generating concord.
Take a few minutes as a group to go back over verses 4 through 7 of I Corinthians 13. If possible, have each person in the group read a single phrase (“love is patient” etc.) and expand on what this might entail for communal living. How might each of Paul’s prescriptive phrases translate into real action in a social setting or congregation?
It was a hard fought election, but after the votes had been counted Cindy’s coalition still had a slim majority on the city council. She would remain as mayor for at least two more years. She had missed more than a few Sundays at her church in the past few months. When running for local office the weekends are critical, and she had had to put in an appearance at many different churches across town. She was glad the election was over and happy to be back in a familiar pew.
Sam came into the sanctuary a few minutes after Cindy and noticed her immediately. He had won a seat on the city council by defeating one of Cindy’s allies and while he had not run against her, he had certainly run against her policies and vision for the city. Nevertheless, he thought that Cindy’s heart was in the right place even though he disagreed with her on many issues. As he walked down the middle aisle he decided to extend an olive branch. They had worshipped in the same congregation for nearly four years and would now be working together on committees, so some bridges would have to be mended. As he approached, Cindy saw him and turned to offer a handshake. The handshake turned into an awkward hug and they congratulated one another before sitting down to browse through the church bulletin before the service began.
Suburban politics is seldom about the same issues that drive national or even state campaigns. Cindy and her allies advocated strict environmental controls and building codes, hoping to preserve the relatively bucolic feel of their town as well as keep property values high. Sam and his associates advocated for the less affluent residents of the town who were more worried about keeping their jobs and improving the city’s economy. In a sense, Cindy and Sam were both dedicated public servants who were genuinely concerned about representing the values and interests of their constituents, and both of them were mature enough to recognize that quality in the other. Nevertheless, they were constantly flummoxed at the inability of the other person to grasp the obvious truths that they themselves so easily perceived. How, Cindy often thought, can Sam not see that his policies put our environment at risk and threaten the health of our families? How, Sam frequently asked, does Cindy not see that our city has to have job growth if we are going to continue to feed, clothe, and educate our kids?
As the Minister opened the service in prayer and even as the kid’s choir began the worship service, both Cindy and Sam could not shake off their feelings of frustration, both with the other person and with the situation in general. Had they known, perhaps they could have drawn strength from the knowledge the other was thinking along much the same lines: “What is wrong with this situation? How can we read the same Bible, worship the same God, drink from the same Communion cup, sing the same hymns, and send our kids to the same Sunday school class, and yet not agree on what is best for our city? Can I stay in this church?”
Our national politics have become so polarized and the two major political parties so entrenched against one another that this situation may seem entirely implausible. It is hard for us to imagine a Democratic politician and a Republican politician in the same room with one another, much less the same sanctuary. It may have been similarly difficult for early Christians to imagine Jews and Gentiles worshiping together, or for nineteenth century American Christians to imagine white and black Christians worshiping together. But Paul understood that, in order for the Church to be a witness to the love and cross of Christ, it would have to find a way of being together as a single Church without resorting to the typical strategies for generating social cohesion. He recommended love.
Chapter 11 calls our attention to two different but related challenges to the full enactment of love as a social strategy: a relationship challenge and a personal challenge. Both Cindy and Sam are facing these two challenges, but we will use Cindy to discuss the relationship challenge and Sam to discuss the personal challenge.
Cindy is upset. Sam approached her and they exchanged awkward greetings and congratulations, but she is still unsettled. She comes to church on Sundays in large part to reconnect with her religious community and gain spiritual strength for the week in order to continue fighting for what she thinks is right. How can she get what she needs from the worship service, knowing that one of her main challengers is worshipping just a few rows behind her?
- If you were Cindy’s friend, how would you counsel her?
- Can any of us ever really forget the events of the week – the slights, the insults, the frustrations, the failures – and worship, if there beside us is a constant reminder of those events?
- Under what circumstances is it acceptable or desirable to worship with those with whom we disagree?
- Would you recommend that Cindy leave the church?
- If she stays, what would you counsel her to do?
Sam is upset. Despite his peace overture he remains frustrated with Cindy and her allies on the council. He comes to church on Sundays to pray for aid in his fight to help the working people of the town make ends meet. Yet, every time he glances toward the pulpit Cindy, the chief roadblock he faces in every council meeting, is there in his line of sight. How can he pray to God for help, when the source of so many of the town’s problems is praying there beside him?
- If you were Sam’s friend, how would you counsel him?
- Sam responds, “Look, I know it’s silly, but sometimes I wonder if her prayers and my prayers just cancel each other out. I don’t know that I can continue to worship here if she’s here. It’s ruining my relationship with God.” How might you respond?
But Sam has an even deeper problem. At bottom, he deeply believes in forgiveness and turning the other cheek. He just needed to vent to someone, but he actually is glad that Cindy is in church praying. Maybe God will change her mind, he jokes. The deeper problem is that when he sees Cindy praying sincerely and hugging her family to her, his faith is shaken. How can someone be so obviously filled with God’s grace in one area of her life, and yet so stubbornly opposed to justice in another? Is the Gospel transformative or not? Does it change people or not? If Cindy is not faking it – and Sam doesn’t think she is – then how is Christ realized in her actions on the city council?
- How would you counsel Sam as he faces this personal challenge brought about by worshiping in a diverse congregation?
- He is committed to staying in the church, but doesn’t know how. What advice might you offer?
For Further Thought
As we discussed at length in Chapter 10, core message pluralism is the central challenge of liberal-evangelicalism. We serve and worship one God through Jesus Christ, but when pressed to explain the detailed significance of Jesus’ life or crucifixion and resurrection we often give different answers. We have different views on the right use of scripture and church organization. We are a tremendously diverse bunch and that diversity is frequently disconcerting and confusing and sometimes downright frightening.
We have choices. First, we can deny our diversity by ignoring the reality of core message pluralism. This, however, is a fear-driven response and one that most of us will, we hope, be able to move beyond.
Second, we can recognize the reality and persistence of core message pluralism. For many of us, the mere acknowledgement of the doggedness of diversity may be a considerable accomplishment. In this case, we will have to find ways of coping with our diversity.
Finally, we can decide to move beyond coping strategies, which in some sense bemoans diversity even while choosing to acknowledge it, by embracing core message pluralism and appreciating the unique opportunity it affords us.
As liberal evangelicals it is not often that we have the opportunity to pioneer cutting edge evangelism techniques, but core message pluralism gives us such an opening. By building loving and inclusive congregations where moderate conservatives and moderate liberals are welcome, where the Gospel of Christ is preached without demanding rigid doctrinal conformity, and where we refuse to worship solely with others like ourselves, we rise to the challenge of evangelism: others will see our love and tolerance and know that the love of God in Jesus Christ has enormous relevance to the challenges of everyday life.
Jesus our teacher, we thank you for gift and the lessons of love that you taught us.
Jesus our savior, who died for our sins so that we might be redeemed, we praise you for your sacrifice.
Jesus our champion, conqueror of death, we acknowledge the power of your love to save us.
Jesus our model and exemplar, bless us that we might better follow your example.
God we pray today that we might be better witnesses to your love, that we might find ways of embracing the overflowing bounty that has come to us through Jesus Christ and the witnesses that have gone before us.
Help us to embrace the multitude of ways that you have blessed us, the many faceted gifts that you have bestowed on your servants, and the wealth of stories about your love and the love and life of Jesus Christ that we encounter in our Christian communities. Make us grateful for all of these so that, through our acceptance of this great wealth, we might better share and show your love with the world.