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Generous Orthodoxy

The Message of Jesus governs how we relate to other believers.

We have far more in common with other believers than what we don’t. And what we have in common has far greater substance than what doesn’t.

The Message of Jesus remains the answer to the chaos and division of the twenty-first century—just as it was the answer to the chaos and division of the first century.

There is probably not a single follower of Jesus who would disagree.

But … if the Message of Jesus is the answer, then we can only come to one conclusion given the escalating insanity of the day. The representatives of the King’s message have botched their job. The new humanity has tripped and fallen on its face.

Not only has Christianity at large failed to provide the solution, it is deeply complicit in the problem.

Christians—the people of unity and grace, of faith, hope and love, are deeply divided and notoriously sectarian. Put bluntly, we’re tribal. While Christianity remains the largest religion with around 2.8 billion adherents, there are globally around 45,000 different denominations!

A Tribal Faith

Yes, there’s nothing wrong with relational associations and organisational connections among followers of Jesus per se. However, our denominational distinctions are not based on doctrine, as we suppose, but our interpretations of doctrine. And if we’re honest, these denominational distinctions create “us” versus “them” divisions. Too often, we seem more concerned with flying our own flag, beating our own drum, championing our own base, advancing our own camp … whether it’s on denominational lines, theological lines, doctrinal lines … boy, we love drawing lines … lines that separate “us” from “them”.

The unspoken approach goes something like this:

“If you’re not with us, you’re against us.” 

However, that sentiment is, in fact, diametrically opposed to Jesus’ view:

…whoever is not against us is for us.”

(Mark 9:40)

Read those words again.

Jesus was disconcertingly generous and magnanimously inclusive.

The truth is this, as we’ll make clear in this article:

We have far more in common with other believers than what we don’t. And what we have in common has far greater substance than what doesn’t.

A tribal, sectarian faith is inconsistent with the Message of Jesus.

The importance of unity hardly needs motivating. Jesus’ words should be enough.

By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”

(John 13:35)

Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation and every city or house divided against itself will not stand.”

(Matthew 12:25)

While we remain divided, we lose. And we undermine the Message of Jesus.

Conviction Vs. Acceptance

Unity doesn’t equal uniformity. We don’t have to all look the same or sound the same. And unity doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything.

In fact, diversity of thought, conviction and expression is a good thing. After all, if two of us look and sound the same, one of us would be irrelevant.

Our diversity demonstrates the rich kaleidoscope of God’s Personality as His light reflects through the prism of our individual and collective experiences. And our individual contribution is often shaped by our convictions.

So, yes, conviction is important. As the saying goes, if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything. The question is,

In standing FOR something, at what point do we start standing ON someone?

Applying Paul’s counsel to the Roman believers will keep us from trampling others underfoot.

Bun Fight in Rome

It seems the believers in Rome were engaged in a good ‘ol fashioned theological bun fight. (Of course, there are no good theological bun fights.)

Paul begins the 14th Chapter of Romans with this call:

Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things.”

(Romans 14:1)

This passage is about acceptance and applying the law of love over liberty, one of Paul’s favourite topics. Paul calls us to accept one another, specifically those we consider “weak in the faith” when it comes to “doubtful things”.

The Greek word for “doubtful things” (dialogismos) refers to opinions or disputes which arise from intellectual questioning and reasoning.

What was the bun fight in Rome about?

The Roman believers were arguing over what one could eat and what days were holy (Romans 14:2-6). While these issues were particularly relevant at the time (in a community made up of Jews and Gentiles), Paul called these issues “doubtful things”—secondary matters, non-essentials.

Did he suggest that those secondary matters were unimportant and should be dismissed out of hand? Actually, no. He wrote,

Let each be fully convinced in his own mind.”

(Romans 14:5)

In other words, he encouraged them to have an opinion on the matter and to act in accordance with their convictions. To live with passionate conviction not lukewarm preference. In fact, he urged the believers in Rome to live true to their convictions as an act of worship (Romans 14:6). And Paul reminded them that their convictions were for an audience of one:

So then each of us shall give account of himself to God.”

(Romans 14:12)

In other words, live true to your convictions  because they are between you and God.

Paul then closed the loop on the theme of the passage: accepting one another.

Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way.”

(Romans 14:13)

As important as our convictions are, they’re not a yardstick by which to measure ourselves … and they’re certainly not a club to beat others.

While we’re to live fully convinced in our own minds, we’re not to judge others based on our convictions. Instead, we’re to accept one another unconditionally, especially those we might deem weaker in faith.

Paul connected his counsel to the Kingdom of God:

…for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

(Romans 14:17)

The Kingdom of God is not essentially about matters like what to eat— “eating and drinking”— or what day is holy. In other words, it isn’t concerned with non-essentials. The Kingdom of God is about matters of substance that produce “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit”.

Let’s now look at what might constitute essentials of the Kingdom…

Essentials Vs. Non-Essentials

A famous quote sums it up so well:

In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.

Essentials Vs Non-Essentials, Diagram 1, Generous Orthodoxy
Diagram 1

The question is, what’s essential and what’s non-essential?

The question has itself kicked off a bun fight or two and deciding on an exhaustive list of what qualifies as essential is impossible and defeats the point.

Instead, the following two ideas may prove more helpful.

In Terms of Doctrine

The Apostles’ Creed (in circulation by at least AD 180) and the Nicene Creed (AD 325) capture the essential teachings of the apostles.

They help us summarise what we hold in common as believers. Since they centre on the Godhead, they demonstrate that we have more in common with other believers than what we don’t, and what we have in common has far greater substance than what doesn’t.

While the Creeds do not hold the authority and weight of Scripture—importantly, they don’t attempt to add to Scripture—they highlight and clarify what is essential in terms of doctrine.

Put simply, our common faith is centred on the Godhead. Period.

In Terms of Practices

The Great Commandments (Matthew 22:37-39) and the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20) inform our practices.

The Great Commandments call us into a love relationship with God that fuels our love for our neighbour. The Great Commission keeps this love flowing out of our communities and neighbourhoods to a world still in need of loving.

Again, we’re not after a list of indisputable points which we all sign off on or a concrete formula into which we squeeze everyone. Can you imagine how quickly such a list or formula could be turned into a whipping stick?

Instead, cherishing the Creeds can help us to see how much we have in common with other believers and to appreciate our essential and substantial common bond in the Godhead.

And cherishing the Great Commandments and the Great Commission ensures that our practices are governed by the love of God.

Keeping the Unity of the Spirit

…with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love, endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all.”

(Ephesians 4:2-6, italics added)

Notice, we are to keep the unity of the Spirit. We can’t create it or engineer it or force it.

We can only keep what the Spirit Himself creates. This is about cooperating with Him, the Source of unity.

So, how do we cooperate with the Spirit in keeping unity?

With all lowliness and gentleness and longsuffering, while we bear with one another in love. Humility, gentleness, patience. Love.

In a phrase: Christlikeness.

Yes, I realise that’s not rocket science. Then again, many answers are indeed common-sense solutions. But think about the point made here.

Unity is not fostered by uniformity or adherence to doctrinal agreement. True unity is nurtured and maintained through a Christlike attitude.

What is desperately needed today is a fresh outpouring of the love of God upon all those who follow Jesus so that, with open hearts and transparent lives, we overwhelm one another in outrageous and otherworldly displays of kindness, gentleness, humility and service.

Acts of Repentance

This is possible only…

  • as we renounce our self-serving agendas, embracing instead Jesus’ call to love.
  • as we reject the temptation to demonise others we don’t agree with, seeking instead to believe the best about them.
  • as we defect from the religious systems that separate us through structure, name or personality, engaging instead with all who love God.
  • as we denounce our tendencies to seek a “one-up” platform over others, purposing instead to put others first as Jesus Himself taught and modelled.
  • (any other suggestions?)

These four actions, in my opinion, are the “very least” steps required going forward.

Acts of Faith

However, repentance is only the first step. In faith, we ought to proactively…

  • resolve to (really) listen as much as we want to be heard.
  • admit our own weaknesses and failures while honouring the strengthens and successes of others.
  • acknowledge God’s grace that has allowed us to journey as far as we have to date while giving God’s grace to others, wherever they are in their journey.
  • seek the collective good of the whole, offering our contribution for the edifying and blessing of all.
  • build relational bridges of integrity and trust so that all feel welcome to participate in this engaging adventure of following Jesus.
  • weep compassionately with those who weep and rejoice sincerely with those who rejoice
  • realise that if the team is losing, we’re all losing even if we’re enjoying a winning performance.
  • refrain from attempting to have the final word on a matter, offering instead a humble contribution, which we make subject to counsel of others.
  • (any other proposals?)

The Fullness of Christ

And He put all things under His feet, and gave Him to be head over all things to the church, which is His body, the fullness of Him who fills all in all.”

(Ephesians 1:22,23, italics added)

Paul painted the most outlandish vision possible; it’s almost scandalous. Because of Jesus’ victory, the ekklesia* contains potentially the “fullness of Him who fills all in all”.


For more on the meaning of ekklesia and the origin of the English word “church”, see What Does Ekklesia (Ecclesia) Mean?

He didn’t stop there. Paul went on to envision the ekklesia expressing the “manifold wisdom of God” (Ephesians 3:10) and spoke of the ekklesia maturing to the “whole measure of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13).

As we keep this breathtaking vision in mind, let’s clarify what we don’t mean by unity.

What We’re Not Talking About

We’re not conforming to some lowest common denominator or some colourless uniformity.

We’re not talking about a unity event that becomes cluttered with the need to give every denomination a five-minute promo slot. (Unity events certainly have value and many aren’t guilty of this hyper accommodation. That said, unity events in themselves can’t create the unity of the Spirit even if they can be an expression of the unity the Spirit creates.)

Nor are we talking about some mega mother church under the directorship of some super apostle.

What We Are Talking About

The New Testament refers to the ekklesia in three dimensions:

(1) The Church Universal

The word ekklesia was used in the universal sense to express God’s original intent manifested through Christ’s body on earth (Ephesians 1:22, 23; 3:10, 11).

(2) The Church Local

The word ekklesia was used in a local sense in referring to all the believers in a town, city or region (1 Corinthians 1:2; Galatians 1:1, 2).

(3) The Church Communal

The word ekklesia was used in referring to a specific group of believers enjoying a shared, communal life together (Romans 16:5; Colossians 4:15).

So, what are our responsibilities in regard to each?

In terms of all three, our Christlike attitude—our practice of humility, gentleness, patience and love, as described in Ephesians 4:2-6 is paramount. To quote Jesus again,

…whoever is not against us is for us.”

(Mark 9:40)

Yes, in terms of (3), the Church Communal, things get a little more grounded. And while it’s out of the scope of this article, let’s sum it up this way:

The church communal speaks of doing life with a spiritual family, a group of brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers, in which we participate in a meaningful way.

Reasoning from the Whole to the Part

Now we come to the crux of the matter. The Church Communal is a way of life and as such, it can become all we experience of the ekklesia. Given we invest so much into these relationships, and correctly so, it’s not difficult for a faith community to become inward-looking, a bubble unto itself—an echo chamber, where we only encounter thoughts that reinforce our own.

Paul used the analogy of a body (Romans 12; 1 Corinthians 12) to, among other things, teach us to reason from the whole to the part.

The PART is precious and significant, yes, but it only finds its full meaning and purpose in its relationship to the WHOLE.

This is true for an individual in relation to their Church Communal and it’s true for each faith community in relation to the ekklesia expressed in the Church Local and the Church Universal.

In other words, just as you won’t fully understand your gifts and ministry until you learn to live in community, reasoning from the communal whole to your individual part, a faith community will not fully understand their purpose until they love and appreciate the whole Body of Christ.

As individuals and communities of faith, we offer one small dimension of God’s wisdom. Together, the ekklesia expresses the multidimensional “manifold wisdom of God” (Ephesians 3:10).

And as we reason from the whole to the part, we learn to work our part back into the whole. To put it simply, “think global, act local”.

Balancing our love for the ekklesia in all its expressions is vital if we are going to uphold the Message of Jesus. Keeping the unity of the Spirit is critical if we’re going to repair our collective integrity to a sceptical world.

NOTES

What Next?

If you haven’t yet explored the Message of Jesus series, I recommend starting there first, as it provides the platform for all we cover on this website.

Otherwise, I recommend the below articles next.

Unbounded Love, Kingdom Perspectives, A Better Future Now

Unbounded Love

The Message of Jesus governs how we relate to all people.

Jesus smashed the bounds of family, communal and national love, modelling a boundless love that includes everyone: our neighbour, the stranger and our enemy.

Unto Caesar, Kingdom Perspectives, A Better Future Now

Unto Caesar

The Message of Jesus governs how we relate to government.

As citizens of a higher domain, we remain grounded in this domain through humility and servanthood, living lives of unimpeachable integrity.