Additional Thoughts on Our Theological Vision: Pursuing Real Community

“Additional Thoughts on Our Theological Vision:

Pursuing Real Community”

Various Texts

April 24, 2022

Faith Presbyterian Church – Evening Service

Pastor Nicoletti

The Reading of the Word

We return tonight to our theme from this morning: relationships and community.

This morning we focused on our relationships – talking about the types and the nature of Christian friendship and how it develops.

Tonight our focus is on the theme of community, and what it means to pursue real community as a church.

With that in mind, we will hear once again from several texts.

Please do listen carefully, for this is God’s word for us this evening.

First, from Galatians 3:23-29:

23 Now before faith came, we were held captive under the law, imprisoned until the coming faith would be revealed. 24 So then, the law was our guardian until Christ came, in order that we might be justified by faith. 25 But now that faith has come, we are no longer under a guardian, 26 for in Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. 27 For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. 28 There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.

Then, from Ephesians 2:13-22:

13 But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. 14 For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility 15 by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, 16 and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. 17 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. 18 For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. 19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

Next, from Ephesians 4:1-7:

1I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ’s gift.

And finally, from 1 Corinthians 12:12-26:

12 For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. 13 For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit.

14 For the body does not consist of one member but of many. 15 If the foot should say, “Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear should say, “Because I am not an eye, I do not belong to the body,” that would not make it any less a part of the body. 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? 18 But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. 19 If all were a single member, where would the body be? 20 As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.

21 The eye cannot say to the hand, “I have no need of you,” nor again the head to the feet, “I have no need of you.” 22 On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, 23 and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, 24 which our more presentable parts do not require. But God has so composed the body, giving greater honor to the part that lacked it, 25 that there may be no division in the body, but that the members may have the same care for one another. 26 If one member suffers, all suffer together; if one member is honored, all rejoice together.

This is the word of the Lord.  (Thanks be to God.)

Introduction

There is much we could say about the topic of the church as a community, but tonight I want to focus on just one aspect of the church as a community: I want to focus on the diversity that the church is called to, and the temptation to sameness.

In the passages we have just heard from, we must recognize that the early church was repeatedly tempted to organize itself by sameness, but the Apostle Paul – along with the Spirit of God – kept urging it to diversity in Christ.

We see that in our text from Ephesians 2. Possibly the biggest challenge the early church faced was the diversity of having both Jews and Gentiles in the early church. It led to all kinds of difficulties. And the fact is that everyone’s lives would have felt easier if the church had just split into Jewish congregations and Gentile congregations. But Paul, and the early Church, and the Holy Spirit, insisted that they must not separate, but must remain in congregations that would have been striking for their diversity. Paul explained that though they once were hostile to each other, Christ had now made “one new man in place of the two, so making peace,” reconciling “both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility” and so now, whether Jew or Gentile, they were all together “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God.”

Of course, Jew and Gentile were not the only social divisions among those in the early Church. But even among those other distinctions, Paul urged a unity in Christ among a diversity of people, writing in Galatians 3 that ultimately, in Christ, “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. 29 And if you are Christ’s, then you are Abraham’s offspring, heirs according to promise.”

And we should not that the diversity of the early Church was not limited to demographic background, but to all sorts of aspects of life. In First Corinthians 12, as he employs the metaphor of various members united in a body, Paul is stressing just how different the members of the church in Corinth were from one another – how different they felt from one another. After all, an eye and an ear are actually very different things. We may associate them together because we so quickly think of them as members of a united body (which is, after all, Paul’s point), but taken in isolation they are so different from each other. And if we didn’t know better, we might ask what one really has to do with the other. Paul admits this tendency towards separation and distinction. But then he urges them that though “there are many parts, yet [there is] one body.” And really, “If all were a single member, where would the body be?” In the end, they need each other, for: “If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell? But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose.”

The community of the church is supposed to be diverse, in many different ways. This is God’s intention, and, in fact, if the church is to be healthy, it needs this level of diversity.

But though it is diverse, the Church is also united. It is united not by sameness of background, or sameness of gifting, or sameness of worldly status. Instead, it is united, Paul says in Ephesians 4, by “one body and one Spirit […] one hope […] one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.”

This is the unity in diversity that Paul says is part of what it means to be the church – the Body of Christ. In Paul’s day, that approach to the community of the church faced many challenges. But Paul fought them all. And today, it continues to face challenges. Challenges which we must fight.

Real Community vs a Lifestyle Enclave

There are many ways to consider and frame the temptation away from what Paul was describing in those passages, but I was struck by one way of putting it that I came across recently. In the book Habits of the Heart – which takes its title from a line from Alexis de Tocqueville – Robert Bellah and several other sociologists give a detailed analysis of American individualism (in its variety of forms) and how it affects all of modern American life. It’s a very interesting book. But tonight I want to focus on just one passage I was struck by, and that I think is relevant for us tonight, in which they distinguish between true community, and what they refer to as a “lifestyle enclave.”

Seeking to explain what they mean by “lifestyle enclave” they write: “It is linked most closely to leisure and consumption […]. It brings together those who are socially, economically, or culturally similar, and one of its chief aims is the enjoyment of being with those who ‘share one’s lifestyle.’”

They go on – they write: “Though the term ‘community’ is widely and loosely used by Americans, and often in connection with lifestyle, we would like to reserve [that term] for a more specific meaning. Whereas a community attempts to be an inclusive whole, celebrating the interdependence of public and private life and of the different callings of all, lifestyle is fundamentally segmental and celebrates the narcissism of similarity.” [Bellah, 72]

So, whereas community “attempts to be an inclusive whole” that “celebrates” “the different callings of all” and their interdependence with one another, a lifestyle enclave “brings together those who are socially, economically, or culturally similar” and “celebrates the narcissism of similarity.”

The problem, they note, is that our individualistic culture tends to push us away from community, and towards lifestyle enclaves. [Bellah, 72-74] And this is true, they note, even in sectors of life where it seems like it shouldn’t be. In fact, the sociologists note specifically that conservative Evangelicals should seem to have a solid concept of “what an interdependent organic community ought to be” … and yet they more and more seem instead to revert to churches that are really “lifestyle enclaves” instead. [Bellah, 74]

It would seem clear, from the words of Paul that we have considered, that this should not be. The church should not be united by social, economic, or cultural similarity – it should be diverse in all of those respects, and united in Christ. It should not be a place that “celebrates the narcissism of similarity” but a community that honors the different ways God has equipped and called others in the community, and that seeks to live out relationships of mutual sacrifice. And yet, the church is tempted instead to become a lifestyle enclave – to be a gathering of people united by social, economic, and cultural similarity, with Jesus added then, as a final ingredient. And that is becoming more and more the pattern we see in our culture.

In recent years the aspect of this that has gotten the most attention is the fact that the church is more and more sorting itself into enclaves politically. But this is really just one symptom of this overall tendency that Bellah and his co-authors noted in the Evangelical church decades ago.

We have a tendency to sort ourselves. And when there is social, economic, or cultural diversity within a congregation, we tend to gravitate towards those who are like us. And so when it comes to selecting a church, and retaining members, we are prone to, over time, shifting our churches from being real communities into being lifestyle enclaves with Jesus added on top.

Now, there are a number of reasons why this is problematic. Most obviously, it goes directly against the spirit of the biblical texts we have heard this evening, along with many others. But there are other reasons as well. In other words, there is a lot we can say. But I will limit myself to just three things for tonight.

Tonight, we will consider how allowing the church to become a lifestyle enclave (rather than a true community) causes:

  • alienation,
  • stupidity, and
  • an absence of the beauty God wants for his church.


An Enclaved Church is an Alienated Church

So first, an enclaved church is an alienated church.

In other words, we become alienated from one another. By which I don’t just mean that we separate over social, economic, or cultural differences, but that once we do, our differences tend to become more entrenched, and our alienation from Christians who are culturally different from us tends to grow.

Law professor Cass Sunstein described this tendency in his 1999 paper titled “The Law of Group Polarization.” [What follows is from David French’s summary of Sunstein’s paper in Divided We Fall, 63-68, 86] David French summarizes the dynamics that Sunstein describes like this: First of all, we tend to assume that one good way to counter the limitations of our own perspective, is to discuss an issue we are wrestling with, or a decision we need to make, with other people. Doing that – having those discussions – we assume, will help counteract our own personal biases, and help us benefit from the wisdom of others.

And often that is true. As Proverbs 15:22 puts it: “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.” The thinking, therefore, is generally solid.

However, there is an important qualification. In order for such discussions to help moderate and correct our own personal biases, we need to have those discussions with people who won’t simply reinforce our biases, but will bring a different perspective to the discussion – a different way of viewing things, whether that different perspective comes from a different background, a difference in cultural perspective, or simply a different set of life experiences. But, Sunstein asks, what if they don’t? What if the group all begins with the same biases, rather than a diversity of perspectives?

In that case, Sunstein writes, “in a striking empirical regularity, deliberation tends to move groups, and the individuals who compose them, toward a more extreme point” of view, on the issue that they already agree on. Such discussions, in other words, tend to further polarize them.

Now, this tendency is not, in itself, always bad. For example, when members of a 12-step program battling addiction gather for a meeting, they gather as a group with a shared bias that sobriety is a good thing. As a result of their time together, they hope to leave the meeting with a stronger – we might say more “extreme”– commitment to pursuing sobriety. That is a positive result of “group polarization.”

Or, consider the intended purpose of the Church. If you love Jesus, and you attend worship, or a Bible study at a church where people love Jesus, and you hope to come out of that gathering more extreme in your love for Jesus, and that is a good thing – that is, in some ways, why you went.

So this tendency is not inherently bad. But it can be bad when it pulls us in unintended directions.

Consider the church again. When we gather with a shared perspective that the Bible is God’s word, and we leave with a further reinforced view that the Bible is God’s word, then that is a good thing.

But what if we gather as a church that is more like a lifestyle enclave – a church that is united not just by Jesus, but by a shared social, economic, and cultural background. Then we not only will tend to reinforce each other’s love of Jesus, but also the perspectives of our own socio-economic class or demographic. We, over time, will become more entrenched in the perspectives of our shared socio-economic subculture.

But a church that is a true community would do the opposite. As we think back to the early church, a church that was a mix of Jews and gentiles, of slaves and the free, of Greeks and barbarians, would challenge those Christians to hold their cultural perspectives more loosely, while reinforcing their shared Christian perspective. But, as we know from the New testament itself, a gathering of only Jewish Christians often had the effect not of encouraging their Christianity as much as encouraging their cultural Jewish perspective, making it more extreme, and over time alienating them further from Gentile Christians.

We see that pattern in the New Testament itself. And Sunstein tells us that it was not a fluke of the first century, but a human tendency that is still with us today. And it is therefore a threat to us as well, if we allow our churches to be less and less true communities united by Christ alone, and more and more cultural enclaves united by a shared social, economic, or cultural background.

When churches become lifestyle enclaves – when they self-sort by social status, economic status, cultural background, race, education level, age-demographic, and so on, then they have the tendency to become more entrenched and extreme not in their faith, but in their shared cultural perspectives.

And sadly, this is what we see more and more in the church in our country. As Christians self-sort by these sorts of things, people within congregations become more and more like one another, while congregations themselves become more and more alienated from one another.

This is so much of what we see in the American church today. We see fractures across evangelicalism, as Christians seek out churches marked by social, economic, and cultural sameness, and then become more extreme and entrenched in their demographic perspective, and therefore more and more alienated from Christians who are different from them – Christians who usually are off in another church or another denomination, marked by sameness of a different social demographic.

This picture is, in so many ways, the opposite of what we see in the passages we have heard from this evening. God intended for churches – for individual congregations – to have a level diversity that would challenge their worldly perspectives, while reinforcing their shared Christian perspective. But we have often done the opposite. The result of such an enclaved church is alienation between God’s people.

So, the first thing we see is that an enclaved church leads to alienation, but true Christian community brings deeper unity in Christ.

An Enclaved Church Is a Stupid Church

A second consequence we see of this tendency is that an enclaved church is a stupid church.

This becomes true in a few ways.

First of all, that very tendency of group polarization described by Cass Sunstein, which we just said leads to alienation, also leads to stupidity and foolishness.

Think again of that proverb: “Without counsel plans fail, but with many advisers they succeed.”

The assumption behind that proverb, we have said, is that the advisers we seek will bring different perspectives from us and from one another – they will each have something unique to bring to the table to help us challenge and refine our thinking. There are many more proverbs in the Bible which extol the need for people in our lives who will not just tell us what we want to hear, but will say difficult things to us.

But when our primary place for seeking advice is a lifestyle enclave, instead of a true Christian community, then we will not get that range of Christian perspectives. We will merely get the perspective we already hold reflected back to us.

Put another way: echo chambers not only make us more extreme, they also make us more stupid.

That’s because, as social psychologist Jonathan Haidt put it in a recent article, this tendency to enclaves also leads to confirmation bias. And confirmation bias makes us dumb. Haidt explains it like this – he writes: “The most pervasive obstacle to good thinking is confirmation bias, which refers to the human tendency to search only for evidence that confirms our preferred beliefs. […] The most reliable cure for confirmation bias is interaction with people who don’t share your beliefs. They confront you with counterevidence and counterargument. John Stuart Mill said, ‘He who knows only his own side of the case, knows little of that,’ and he urged us to seek out conflicting views ‘from persons who actually believe them.’ People who think differently and are willing to speak up if they disagree with you make you smarter, almost as if they are extensions of your own brain. People who try to silence or intimidate their critics make themselves stupider, almost as if they are shooting darts into their own brain.”

It feels good to be reaffirmed in what we already think. I mean, I love being told that I’m right. But it usually doesn’t make me wiser. And it seems clear that in how he has designed the church to be – as a diverse community of people united by Christ alone – it seems that God has very different intentions for the church.

He intends for it to make us wise. He intends for it to be a true multitude of counselors for us. And when we are baffled by the differences among us, and when we long for the “narcissism of similarity,” and when we want a group that will just affirm us in the cultural perspectives we already hold, then he says to us: “If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing? If the whole body were an ear, where would be the sense of smell?But as it is, God arranged the members in the body, each one of them, as he chose. If all were a single member, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, yet one body.”

Real Christian community is to be made up of many parts. But – and this is key – it is still to be one body.

In other words, this is not the secular love of diversity for diversity’s sake. Rather, it is a unity in diversity that points to the gospel itself.

For the church is called to true community not only to challenge our worldly cultural assumptions – though it is called to do that. But it is also called to reinforce our shared faith: our shared commitment to Christ. And by doing those two things together, it helps give us perspective. It helps us see just how important our loyalty to Christ is, and it relativizes all our earthly commitments by comparison. It helps us see just how central our membership to the kingdom of God is, and it puts in proper perspective every other cultural membership we have in this life. And as we see that aright, and as we challenge one another where we differ, and as we wrestle together to understand the world we live in, and how to live in it faithfully, then in the midst of that process, we, as Christians, and as a church, grow in wisdom.

So, the second thing we see is that an enclaved church is a stupid church, but true Christian community brings wisdom.

An Enclaved Church Is a Less Beautiful Church

Third, and finally, an enclaved church is a less beautiful church than God intended it to be.

The whole member and body illustration makes this point, though perhaps it’s a little gross or gory.

The fact is that the human body is more beautiful than a 150 pound pile of human feet … or a 150 pound pile of eyes … or a giant 150 pound ear.

God achieves the beauty of the human form by bringing together a lot of diverse things, and then uniting them together. And that is more beautiful than a conglomerate of feet, or eyes, or ears.

In the same way, God’s intention for the church to be a unified body – a diversity of people in so many ways, united by Christ – that is an intention to form something much more beautiful than a lifestyle enclave of sameness.

But perhaps another illustration makes the point better.

I saw this video a few years ago – and I should say that I’ve mentioned it in a sermon before – back in 2019. So it may sound familiar to some of you, but I think it’s worth coming back to again for our topic tonight.

The video was from the Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles, and it was about how hand-made tapestries are created at the Gobelins [go-bell-ANN] in Paris, a tapestry-making institute established in the seventeenth century by Louis XIV and still in operation today.

The process begins with an artist’s drawing or painting – the vision from the artist for the tapestry.

Next, the right colored threads have to be created for the tapestry. A dye expert takes plain white threads and custom dyes each thread to match one of the colors needed for the specific work that will be created.

Once the different threads are the right colors, each one is wound onto a separate spool.

From the spool, the thread is then transferred to a bobbin, which is the main tool the weaver uses to then weave the thread into the warp of the loom to create the tapestry.

To do the actual weaving, the weaver takes the bobbins with the colored thread tied to them to the vertical loom. The vertical loom has strands of undyed wool running up and down (this thread is known as the warp), and the tapestry will be made by weaving the colored threads between them, running them horizontally (those colored threads are known as the woof or weft). And the weaver will often have many different threads in use at the same time, weaving them so that they interact together to create the desired image.  As the weaver does this, he or she sits and works from behind the tapestry, and they use a special mirror and arrangement so that they can look through the warp to see the reflection of both the work they have done on the tapestry so far, and right along with it, a reflection of the original drawing or painting they are trying to recreate, adjusted to the scale of the tapestry.

The weaver then does her work to make an intricate and detailed piece of art by weaving together different colored threads, turning the vision of the drawing into a reality in the hand-made tapestry. And this process for larger hand-made tapestries can take years to complete. [Getty Museum]

As I thought about this, I was struck by how it gives us a picture of the way God is seeking to weave his church together as a real community.

God is not aiming to make simple, one-colored tapestries. He’s not looking to make an orange tapestry here, a green one there, a purple one there, and so on. Sure, each color has a beauty to it. But from Paul’s words we learn that God’s aim in the church is not just to show forth the beauty of each color as a block of sameness, but to combine those colors and threads, weaving them together in intricate patterns. He wants them to interact with one another. And so while each color – each variety of thread – is very important … the threads were made to be woven together with other threads on the loom – with different threads.

God’s intention for his Church is to weave different kinds of people together in close relationships, united by the loom of vertical threads that is Christ. Our calling is to cooperate with that work that he is doing. But far too often, our tendency is to resist.

In several places, the New Testament authors use the Greek term koinonia to describe the community – the fellowship – of believers. The word has an interesting history. Aristotle used it to refer to communities where people “share projects, goods, and talent with each other” And this is the picture the Bible gives us of the church: it is a community, a fellowship, where God has brought together different people, with different gifts. And those gifts are then meant to be shared. Their whole purpose is to be shared. The gifts are like seeds to be sown in relationship with fellow believers. And as those gifts, given first by the Spirit, then move from believer to believer, then those Christians lives are woven together more and more. [See Leithart, Against Christianity, 26-28]

All of which means that in the church – if the church is a real community – in the church God might choose to weave our lives close to those who, in many ways other than our shared fidelity to Christ, are very different from us. And we are not to resist that, or to resent that, but to see it as his wisdom, and actually, to seek it out.

The Apostle Paul reminds us that the clay cannot say to the potter “Why did you make me this way?”

We might add that the thread cannot say to the weaver “Why did you put me here?” “Why did you weave me close to this one or that one?” “Why have you woven me into this tapestry so that I am inseparable from so many other threads now, different from me?” This is the work of God. This is the work of the Divine Weaver. We are not to resist him, but to cooperate with him.

Because the tapestry he has in mind – the tapestry he is working to make using you and me – is far more beautiful than anything you or I would ever imagine.

Conclusion

That is the kind of community we are called to cultivate in the church – including in our individual congregation: not just an enclave of those who are socially, economically, or culturally similar to us, with Jesus added on top, but a true community, where people from all different walks of life are united by Jesus, and where we rejoice in our different callings, and our interdependence in the Body of Christ.

That might sound ambitious. But surely it is what we are to strive for, just as Paul encouraged the church in Corinth to strive for it, despite all their shortcomings and imperfections.

And we don’t need to start with high and lofty goals, but a first step for each of us is simply to be more intentional about resisting the cultural pull towards letting our church become more of a cultural enclave. That resistance itself takes work – but it is work we can do. We can do that work by valuing brothers and sisters in Christ of different backgrounds, different social settings, different economic statuses, different perspectives, rather than acting out of our secular culture’s suspicion of them. We can do that work by seeking to get to know and spend time with those already here, who are different from us, delighting in the differences among God’s people, rather than allowing ourselves to drift towards the “narcissism of similarity.” We need to recognize that resisting that drift is counter-cultural right now. It will not be easy. But it will be worth it.

For it will make our church more whole. It will make our church more wise. And it will make our church more beautiful.

Just as the Body of Christ should be.

Amen.

 This sermon draws on material from:

Bellah, Robert N., et al. Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life, with a New Preface. Berkley, CA: University of California Press, 2008 Edition.

French, David. Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation. New York, NY: St. Martin’s Press, 2020.

Getty Museum. “The Art of Making a Tapestry”: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jIbu-dJuEh0

Haidt, Jonathan. “Why the Past 10 Years of American Life Have Been Uniquely Stupid.” The Atlantic. April 11, 2022. https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2022/05/social-media-democracy-trust-babel/629369/

Leithart, Peter J. Against Christianity. Moscow, ID: Canon Press, 2003.

This sermon draws some material from my June 9, 2019 morning sermon, titled “Pentecost: Cooperating with the Divine Weaver”: https://www.faithtacoma.org/pentecost/pentecost-cooperating-with-the-divine-weaver-acts-2

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