Why Divide and Conquer Won’t Work

battle map
Image credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/thqinsider/5471549614/">THQ Insider</a>

Galatians 2:6-10

Moreover, those so-called leaders – I say so-called, because I don’t care what they really are, and God doesn’t make distinctions – they didn’t add conditions to my endorsement. Instead, when they saw my mission was to take the Jesus story to the heathen, just as Peter’s mission was to Jews, and that Jesus was working through Peter’s efforts with Jews and also through mine with pagans, and when James and Cephas and John, who everyone agreed were the “pillars of the church” gave their okay, they gave Barnabas and me their endorsement to go to the heathen, while they tended to the Jews. The only thing they wanted was for us to take care of the poor, which I readily agreed to do.

It’s a simple plan. Paul goes to convert the pagans, and Peter (with the old guard in Jerusalem) takes care of the Jews. You do your thing, we’ll do ours. Maybe we can get together and talk about how it’s going every couple years, but otherwise we’ll just stay out of each others’ way.

The fly in the ointment is that little side remark about “God doesn’t make distinctions.” Paul means it as a backhanded insult to the Jerusalem leaders, who Paul sees as having gone back on the deal. But Paul says more than he knows. It’s the reason a deal to parcel out different kinds of folks as being the exclusive domain of a certain faction just won’t work. As much as Paul opposes adherence to “Law,” this deal merely legislates that certain people are fair game and others are off limits. It’s no better than any other kind of competitive “empire building.” It’s the first church arms race, and Paul is determined to win it.

If God doesn’t make distinctions, though, you can’t expect people to follow that God from different walks of life, and remain only theologically, theoretically equal. At some point they have to mix in real life. And if Jesus is really about setting people free, you can’t build a Jesus movement on the assumption that people are pawns that can be shuffled around on a denominational battle map. You have to treat them like – well, people.

The same is true for any strategy to grow a movement. Those who insist that the only way forward is “divide and conquer,” will eventually end up divided against themselves.

The Renegade Disciple

Please lock the door. Unauthorized people have been coming in.
Photo credit: <a href="http://www.flickr.com/photos/doctorow/4171379513/">Cory Doctorow</a>

Mark 9:38-41

John said to him, “Teacher, we saw this guy casting out demons on your behalf, but he wasn’t one of us, so we told him he had to stop that.”

“Don’t stop him,” Jesus replied. “If people are doing great things on my behalf they’re not going to be two-faced and curse me. If they’re not against us, they’re for us. I swear, if someone gives you a cold drink because you’re part of the movement, they’ll be rewarded.

The Jesus movement is not copyrighted. If anything it’s explicitly anti-copyrighted. Anyone can do it. Everyone is welcome to be a part of it. You don’t need anyone’s permission.

If John and the first disciples are any indication, Jesus followers have always had trouble with this concept. Today, there are thousands of groups claiming to follow Jesus. That’s a good thing. People all over the world are giving the Jesus movement a go. Unfortunately, many of those groups are trying to claim that they are the only “real” or “true” Jesus followers. That’s not such a good thing.

I once heard a story about a woman who claimed to be following Jesus. When asked where she had been baptized, said, “I baptized myself in my bathtub.” The person who told the story was of the opinion that she was certainly not a real Christian. She was unauthorized to carry out this kind of ceremony. She was not a member of any “real” church. She was a renegade, a “new ager,” an imposter.

I suppose she might have been all those things. But, if she was doing great things for Jesus, the truth is Jesus doesn’t care. She’s for the movement. She’s probably more for the movement than a lot of “official” church people. Maybe she’s not for the institution of the church, but again, the evidence from Mark suggests, Jesus doesn’t care. Leave her alone. Don’t stop her.

You might even try to be a little more like her. I’ll drink to that.

“Tell No One”

Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say that the Son of Man is?” And they said, “Some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets.” He said to them, “But who do you say that I am?” Simon Peter answered, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” Then he sternly ordered the disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. From that time on, Jesus began to show his disciples that he must go to Jerusalem and undergo great suffering at the hands of the elders and chief priests and scribes, and be killed, and on the third day be raised.
– Matthew 16:13-21

Biblical scholars have debated for centuries about why Jesus would have ordered his disciples not to tell anyone that he was the Messiah. The most obvious reason, though, is apparent once we strip away the accretions of church dogma: Jesus never intended that anyone outside the church should think of him that way.

This is, as I’ve said before, one of only two places in all the four gospels that Jesus says anything about church. Jesus’ blessing Peter for making the assertion and tying that assertion to Peter’s cornerstone foundational position in the building of the indestructible church indicates that the messianic understanding of Jesus is tied specifically to the church. It was never intended that it should apply to anyone else’s. Jesus is specifically the church’s messiah, who in turn passes exclusive messianic power to the church.

The consequence of this connection is, however, that the only legitimate basis for the church’s existence is the community carrying out the messianic purpose of God’s. In today’s world, that messianic purpose is often misunderstood, even by the communities claiming to be the church. (Indeed, it’s an open question, given Peter’s objection to Jesus’ next pronouncement about going to Jerusalem to suffer and be killed, whether even Peter knew what he was talking about.) God’s messianic purpose is misconstrued to confer powers and privileges that are unintended.

Inasmuch as Jesus embodies God’s messianic purpose, that purpose is self-sacrificial, as his subsequent statement indicates.  Therefore, the church referred to here, unlike most churches we’re familiar with in North America, is the community that really and correctly understands its basis for existence in its self-sacrifice. Over the years, the so-called marks of the true church have been misplaced in piddling arguments about correct worship and observation of rites and sacraments and ordinances and all manner of arguing over polity. On the basis of this passage, some have claimed that to really be the church there has to be some kind of linear decent from Peter. It’s all crap.

The only way to tell that a church is really the church in the sense Matthew’s Jesus is talking about is when you see it die to give life to someone else.

It’s not glorious or triumphant. It makes no claims about what anyone else should do to achieve salvation. It seeks no worldly recognition or consideration or privilege. Nor does it ask for anyone’s approval. It simply goes wherever people need saving and gives everything it has away in the faith that binding what it does on earth, it will find its reward in heaven. A church that really understands messianic power doesn’t talk about it. It just does it.