Toward a More Robust Unity

One of the things I love about my Stone-Campbell heritage is its emphasis on unity. I’ve grown up hearing sermons about unity, participating in classes about unity, reading books on unity, articles about unity, and surrounded by people who are genuinely passionate about unity. This is good, after all, as we are quick to point out that Jesus claims the world will know who he is by witnessing our unity.

For all this talk of unity, however, there is one particular danger we have sometimes fallen into. Namely, we are often guilty of promoting unity without first understanding what the New Testament means by the notion, which can lead in some unhealthy directions in spite of our (very) good intentions.

We often want to talk about unity as if it were a horizontal thing brought into being when we agree with one another. This view of unity is problematic for a variety of reasons, not least of which is that agreement with one another does nothing to guarantee we’re agreeing on the right things. On the whole, if our view of unity entails us agreeing on everything we’re talking about uniformity, not unity.

For Paul, we didn’t create unity and it was rooted in something rather more robust than fanciful notions of comprehensive agreement. For Paul, Jesus creates unity on the cross and it falls to us to live in light of the reality he created.

This is a major theme in Ephesians. For instance, in 1:9-10, Paul says God is revealing the “mystery of his will … a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth,” and that he is doing this in Jesus. He returns to this theme, discussing it at more length beginning in 2:11-22. Jesus enacts God’s plan by going to his cross. Take a moment and read this text slowly. Take note of the division language in the text (e.g., “… aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenant of promise …”) and notice the language of unity (e.g., “For he is our peace, in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall …”). Who reconciles? Who makes peace? Who tears down the walls of hostility? Who reconstitutes disparate groups as one new humanity?

Jesus.

On the cross, Jesus unifies his people, tearing down walls and bringing them together in a new reality. In chapter 3:9-10, Paul discusses his role in God’s plan climaxing with the declaration that the very existence of God’s unified people – Jew plus Gentile, plus slave, plus free, plus female, plus male, plus rich, plus poor, plus young, plus old, plus “blue collar,” plus “white collar,” plus Republican, plus Democrat, plus, plus, plus … – is the demonstration of “the wisdom of God in its rich variety” to the divisive powers of the world.

This discussion is prerequisite to understanding the more explicit discussion of unity beginning in chapter 4. (After all, it begins with the crucial word therefore.) Having already established that Jesus creates unity, note carefully what Paul says. With humility and gentleness and patience, we are called to bear with one another in love. In so doing, we make every effort to maintain the unity we have in the Spirit.

This union is not the same thing as uniformity. It is more robust. Notice again that Paul says the sort of unity that Jesus creates among his people will require humility and gentleness and patience with one another. Perhaps even more tellingly, he calls us to bear with one another on the basis of our unity in the Spirit. In Tennessee, we say “bear with one another” this way: put up with one another.

That’s exactly what we’re called to do at times. We are not united because we agree on everything – or even on a smaller number of essential things. (And this is a notoriously difficult list to make, these essential things.) We are united because we are all in Christ – because we’ve each given ourselves to Christ. He is the one who tore the walls down. He is the one who ushered us into a new reality. He is the one who left us with the Spirit that holds us together. That’s perhaps especially true when we are disagreeing with one another. For Paul, unity can’t be reduced to agreement, but it does shape the way we treat one another in our disagreements.

Oh, and about agreement. I think agreement’s fine even if it isn’t the primary way of talking about unity for Paul. If you think about it for a second, when we’ve each committed ourselves to Jesus and we move toward him each day we also move closer to one another. A good many of our disagreements will be worked out over time because of this mutual movement toward Christ. Other disagreements won’t – and some won’t need to be. Either way, Jesus will teach us how to be agreeable and that makes a difference as we maintain the reality Jesus has brought us into.

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Toward a More Robust Unity

Stumbling Blocks, Hindrances, & Offenses

Being offensive has never been a priority for me. I know I occasionally offend others, generally other Christians, but I’ve not once rolled out of bed and said, “I think I’ll go scandalize my brothers and sisters today.” (To be clear, this is distinct from doing or saying a thing knowing it will be offensive to someone. There’s a difference between doing something in order to offend and doing something that needs to be done even though you know it will offend. If offending people has never been a priority, not offending people hasn’t been one either.)

Most of the times I’ve caused offense I didn’t realize that’s what I was doing. In two churches, I’ve followed good men who worked with their congregations for more than twenty years. In those contexts, I received occasional remarks from some who were flummoxed by my doing this thing or the other differently than it had been done before. At some point, I realized the core of the issue was that what others perceived as change was just normal to me. I was different than the guy before me, and no one was out looking for trouble, but we had come at things differently up to that point. That’s the way it goes, isn’t it? I know very few people who set out to be offensive, but somehow we get crossways with one another over things that are typically small.

This brings us to one of the challenges of being a Christ-like community in the consumer-driven world that shapes each of us (assuming you’re reading in the West!).

In my experience, the greatest number of “offenses” occur over differences of opinion. That’s true for when I’ve been offended and it also seems true when I have done the offending. In a world filtered through the lenses of economics and consumption, we are used to having things the way we want them and can be put out when that doesn’t happen.

It is tempting to appease those who are offended, because in such a culture being offensive is among the chief sins. After all, doesn’t Paul say we should resolve never to put a “stumbling block” or “hindrance” in the way of another? (Romans 14:13, cf. also 1 Corinthians 8:13)* Reading this text from the perspective of our commodity-driven culture, Paul’s words have been used by well-meaning Christians to force the scruples of a vocal minority on the whole church so as to keep from “offending.” Brother X doesn’t like movies, or Halloween, or clapping during “Days of Elijah,” or “Days of Elijah,” or the way Sister Y is dressed, or whatever, and we love Brother X so let’s give up whatever offends him on that account.

As you can imagine, this can lead to some pretty toxic situations – whether or not Brother X ever intended them to be that way. We have all probably heard the tales about loving, well-meaning churches driven by such offense.

But, what if we ask, “What does Paul mean when he uses words like ‘stumbling block’ or ‘hindrance’?” Does he really mean we ought to cede to the preferences of whoever claims offense in a situation? Is this really what love requires? I have found those to be helpful questions, not only in working with a brother or sister who comes to me offended, but more so in dealing with my own tendencies to want my way.

Both words used in Romans 14:13 are relatively rare in the New Testament, making it easy for us to see how they were used in other contexts, giving us a fuller picture of their meaning.

In Greek, “stumbling block” is proskomma and it is used six times. I will italicize the instance of proskomma in each verse.

  • Romans 9:32-33: “Why not? Because they did not strive for it on the basis of faith, but as if it were based on works. They have stumbled over the stumbling stone, as it is written, ‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make people stumble, a rock that will make them fall, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame.‘”
  • Romans 14:13:Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.”
  • Romans 14:20: “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat …”
  • 1 Corinthians 8:9: “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”
  • 1 Peter 2:8: “A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.”

In Greek, “hindrance” is skandalon. It occurs fifteen times.

  • Matthew 13:41: “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers …”
  • Matthew 16:23: “But he turned and said to Peter, ‘Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; for you are setting your mind not on divine things but on human things.'”
  • Matthew 18:7: “Woe to the world because of stumbling blocks! Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!”
  • Luke 17:1: “Jesus said to his disciples, ‘Occasions for stumbling are bound to come, but woe to anyone by whom they come!'”
  • Romans 9:33: “as it is written, ‘See, I am laying in Zion a stone that will make people stumble, a rock that will make them fall, and whoever believes in him will not be put to shame …’
  • Romans 11:9: “And David says, ‘Let their table become a snare and a trap, a stumbling block and a retribution for them …'”
  • Romans 14:13: “Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.”
  • Romans 16:17: “I urge you, brothers and sisters, to keep an eye on those who cause dissensions and offenses, in opposition to the teaching that you have learned; avoid them.”
  • 1 Corinthians 1:23: “.. but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles …”
  • Galatians 5:11: “But my friends, why am I still being persecuted if I am still preaching circumcision? In that case the offense of the cross has been removed.”
  • 1 Peter 2:8: “‘A stone that makes them stumble, and a rock that makes them fall.’ They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.”
  • 1 John 2:10: “Whoever loves a brother or sister lives in the light, and in such a person there is no cause for stumbling.”
  • Revelation 2:14: “But I have a few things against you: you have some there who hold to the teaching of Balaam, who taught Balak to put a stumbling block before the people of Israel, so that they would eat food sacrificed to idols and practice fornication.”

To be thorough, there’s also the verb, skandalizo. It appears twenty-nine times in the New Testament. We’ll only look at a sampling here:

  • Matthew 13:57: “And they took offense at him. But Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honor except in their own country and in their own house.'”
  • Matthew 26:31: “Then Jesus said to them, ‘You will all become deserters because of me this night; for it is written, “I will strike the shepherd, and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.”‘”
  • John 6:61: “But Jesus, being aware that his disciples were complaining about it, said to them, ‘Does this offend you?'”
  • John 16:1: ““I have said these things to you to keep you from stumbling.”

Now, some observations:

Perhaps this should go without saying, but it often doesn’t, so let’s say it. Avoiding offense isn’t the chief virtue of Christianity. Jesus was offensive. His message was offensive. While I don’t think Jesus set out to offend anyone, it seems clear that he did regularly offend, and while he might’ve hoped for a different reaction, he was willing to let them be offended.

But what does the New Testament mean when it says someone is “offended” or that something is a “stumbling block” or a “hindrance”? Importantly, from our list, biblical offense has little to nothing to do with matters of preference among Christians. This set of words refers to the idea of falling away from or rejecting God. In John 6, Jesus’ message was offensive to his disciples and because of that they rejected him. In 1 Corinthians 1, the notion of a crucified Messiah was the point at which the Jews rejected any notion of Jesus being the Christ, denouncing God’s purposes. In Matthew 26, skandalizo is translated “deserters.” In the same vein, to be a stumbling block is to be the thing that pushes someone away from God.

(While we’re on the subject, did you notice all the times the New Testament says Jesus is the stumbling block? He was the breaking point for people who claimed to love God, but weren’t interested in faithfully following him into the fullness of his kingdom.)

This isn’t about someone not getting their way and going to the church across town because they don’t care for a budget item, or the way the preacher speaks, or the way the worship leader dresses. That’s not offense. There’s no stumbling block involved in those scenarios. Offense is given when the church acts in such a way that it drives people away from God. Sarah Bessey tells a story about a young woman who was aging out of the foster care system after a hard and traumatic childhood. A trusted counselor advised her to seek out a church that would walk with her in her struggles. She did and a week later killed herself. In her suicide note, she spoke of going to church to find belonging and hope. Instead, she received ridicule for the way she dressed, so she asked to be buried in her ratty jeans.

That is what is at stake when we talk about stumbling blocks, hindrances, and being offensive. We become the kind of stumbling block Paul warns about when we become so insistent on having it our way that we push people away from God. My prayer is that we would never get so caught up being “offended” – or responding to such “offenses” – that we become stumbling blocks for those seeking God.

So, what do we do with all those squeaky wheels that cry offense over preferences? (And, I’ve been that person more often than I care to consider.) Let me tell a parable about what I think is one of the greatest shepherding moments in recent church history:

A lady goes to one of her shepherds and complains that the woman next to her in worship wears strong perfume. She asks, “Should I sit down and talk to her? Ask her to stop wearing perfume?”

“No,” the shepherd replies, “you should find a new place to sit.”

Let those with ears hear.

* I’m using the NSRV here.

Stumbling Blocks, Hindrances, & Offenses