In Part 2 of this series, we discussed the first of four practices that are fairly universal in the quest to breathe new life into established churches: Keeping the Mission, Maturation, and Ministry of the Church at the Forefront in Decision-Making. The second practice I would highly recommend is:
Pursue unity in the context of progress, not in the place of progress.
This builds on the first principle. The quest to keep people happy is often a well-intended effort to preserve unity, but it is counterfeit unity. It is unity at the expense of mission.
Established churches often misuse teachings on unity, not offending the conscience of the weak, etc. to justify their lack of progress. It is a way of sanctifying the status quo, spiritualizing our inability to move forward as a Christ-like effort to honor the sensitivities of our brothers and sisters. Although well-intended, this practice needs to be corrected. The following observations may help.
First, mission and unity should be pursued concurrently, without using the challenges of one to exclude the other. Mission underscores our need to be incarnational in our relationships with those who do not know Christ (1 Corinthians 9:19-23) and to enter into the world of others’ need. This means we must “dwell in” the lives of those we serve and devote ourselves to being Christ’s presence on their behalf. Unity underscores the need to be incarnational in our relationships with each other as we pursue mission (Philippians 1:27-2:11). This means that both those who advocate progress and those who do not must empty themselves and “dwell in” each other’s lives so that we grow in love as we engage in mission. Indeed, we must be the gospel with each other in the way we share the gospel with outsiders (Ephesians 4:1-3).
In one sense, unity is mission, both on the macro-scale of declaring and demonstrating the new humanity where human distinctions are swallowed up in our shared identity in Christ (Galatians 3:28), and on the micro-scale where our loving relationships should attest to the supernatural origin of our oneness (John 13:34-35; 17:20-23). In another sense, unity is for the purpose of mission, equipping us to “stand firm in one spirit, striving together as one for faith of the gospel” (Philippians 1:28).
However, elevating either mission or unity over the other makes our efforts sub-Christian. Mission and unity are supportive, not competitive, quests.
Second, the purpose of the weaker/stronger brother passages is to protect the weaker from the temptations of their sinful past, not to assure the stronger of their church-related preferences. Consider Paul’s instructions, “If what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall” (1 Corinthians 8:13). Some of the Corinthians came from settings where meat sacrifices occurred during idol worship. For them, eating that meat, whether served at the home of a hospitable friend or in the temple precinct itself, tempted them to sin or was too stark a reminder of the very thing they were trying to forsake. The issue was temptation to sin.
This is contrary to the way established churches often use these teachings. In a strange reversal, the “strong” (i.e., those who may have been members of the church for decades) hold up the “offended conscience card” for themselves or others to insist that the church should not pursue a direction that displeases them. These people are in no danger of losing their faith, and if the church goes ahead with its plans, they will either adjust with protest or find another church to attend. In some cases, the only “sin” they are in danger of committing is bitterness toward those who differ with them. Certainly, we must listen to everyone’s concerns (see first point above), but we should not allow people to use scripture to manipulate others toward complying with their preferences.
Third, we should exercise Christian liberty to build missional bridges (1 Corinthians 9:19-23), not to maintain missional barriers. Tucked into Paul’s teaching about how the stronger should be sensitive to the weaker is an illustration of why he relinquished his right to receive compensation from the Corinthians, all for the purpose of “becoming all things to all people, so that by all possible means I might save some” (9:22). By application, this may actually signal the reverse of our common usage of these texts, that instead of stronger people insisting on their congregational preferences as a way of preserving the status quo, that we relinquish our likings for the sake of the church’s missional progress.