On being the body of Christ – all 2.2 billion of us…

Posted by on Feb 2, 2016 in Blog | 0 comments

Don’t know if you are into Dr Seuss, but if so you might remember the poem, My Many Coloured Days

Some days are yellow.

Some are blue. On different days I’m different too…

On Bright Red Days how good it feels

To be a horse and kick my heels!…

On Purple Days I’m sad. I groan.

I drag my tail. I walk alone…

Then comes a Mixed-Up Day. And WHAM!

I don’t know who or what I am!

But it all turns out all right, you see.

And I go back to being… me.

–  Dr Seuss, My Many Coloured Days (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1966)

Catharine Thompson suggests that if we replace the end line ‘I go back to being…me’ with ‘It’s all just part of being… me’, the poem would be more true to life (Quoted in Olthuis, James The Beautiful Risk, p78). I rather like that. It strikes me as being a lot more realistic. Is there a static self that we return to, or are we multiple selves, each a part of a greater self that we can never fully define,and each part of which we need to acknowledge and face – some parts with satisfaction and joy, others with sadness – perhaps even despair.

Worthy though these questions are, in this post I would rather apply the insight to our thinking about the church, and what it means to be church. Let’s face it, the church has its own version of many coloured days… yellow, blue, red, purple and plenty of those mixed up days when we don’t know who or what we are.

In 1 Corinthians 12:27 the apostle Paul writes these startling words ‘Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is part of it.‘ The first you is plural, the second singular… you all together (plural) are the body of Christ, and each one of you (singular) is a part of it. What? We together are the body of Christ? Could this be true?

I realise the theologically informed of my readers might be stifling their yawns at this point – ‘hardly new’, they are probably thinking. ‘We’ve said the church is the body of Christ for a very long time.’ True, but have we really taken it in? Somehow we all together are the body of Christ on this planet. This implies that if the world wants to know what Jesus is like, they should be able to ask ‘What is the church like’- and assume that the answer to that question goes a long way towards answering their first question about Jesus. It is a weighty responsibility for we who make up church.

But who is this ‘we’ who make up the body of Christ?

It is a contested question. Some answer it in very exclusive terms… ‘well it is those who believe these crucial truths…’ and a carefully thought through list follows. Trouble is that so many versions of that list exist, and while there are overlaps between them, there really is a great deal of diversity.

So how about we take a different starting point? It’s the starting point that the world that does not claim to be Christian takes. ‘Christians are those who say they are Christians. If that is what they fill in on their census form, that is what they are.’ If we accept this line of logic, there are 2.2billion of us (give or take a few million) – roughly a third of the world’s population. It is a sizeable number, and in spite of claims that the Christian faith is declining, as a percentage of the world’s total population, it has barely shifted in a century.

Trying to unify 2.2 billion people with  the single name ‘Christian’ is daunting. What holds us together? Like Dr Seuss’s Many Coloured Days, there are just so many versions of us. Is there, as in the Seuss poem, a single version we should aim to return to – the  ‘I go back to being… me’ day – or should we resonate with Thompson’s alternate ending, ‘It’s all just part of being… me’?

Don’t answer too quickly…

For those who wish to pursue a single vision – what should it be? How much of it is culturally shaped? Would it stand the test of time? If you claim it is biblical, does it reflect the way Christians have thought about those biblical passages throughout history?

For those comfortable with the church living with many different selves, are all acceptable – or should some be excluded? And if excluded, how… subtly, gently – or should we quickly inject the H word…heresy, heresy, heresy? Are there some other options?

Some may be scratching their heads at this point… ‘not really sure what you are going on about? Are you talking about the differences between denominations? I th0ught we had got over that. No one really cares about them any more.’

No – it is not really denominational differences I am talking about. I am just very conscious that 2.2 billion of us are called to be the body of Christ in the world. And when we look over the 2.2 billion, it seems to be a body pulling in so many different directions. Like it or not, if you claim an allegiance to Jesus, you too are pushing a particular version of church. It may be one that is gaining traction, or one that is slipping out of favour, but one way or another, you are helping shape the churches ‘Many coloured days’.

That being the case, think about where you sit within the range of the common variables that shape the church into so many different forms. Here are ten that frequently come up. See if you can plot a place for yourself on the spectrum (and there is a lot of space between the two positions, though I don’t always paint the absolute extreme).

  1. From Church is about an alternate reality, and should therefore largely disengage with the issues of its time to Church is about shaping reality, and should therefore be fully engaged with all that takes place in the world.
  2. From the Bible is the literal, infallible and inerrant word of God and its teaching should be followed and obeyed without reservation or serious questioning, for without it, we wouldn’t be sure of any of the things we claim about God to the Bible is historically significant and important and helps us to understand why the church has adopted the stance it has. While its teaching should be listened to respectfully, it should not be viewed as finally definitive, and cannot trump our responsibility to engage in serious ethical reflection in the light of more contemporary knowledge.
  3. From tradition really matters and should shape the kind of church we are. We are dwarfs standing on the shoulders of giants, and our ability to see clearly is the result of what we have been gifted from the past to the church has got things wrong in the past as often as it has got them right (actually, perhaps more often wrong than right). While the past is interesting, it should in no way determine our approach for the future.
  4. From the trouble with the church today is that it lets contemporary culture shape its thinking. We therefore become a clone of our culture and have nothing to offer the world. We must be distinctly and intentionally counter – cultural to God is always at work in the world, and culture is therefore God’s gift to us. God works in an evolutionary way through culture and we must be sensitive to spot the things we can affirm as being God ordained in our present culture.
  5. From while both men and women are made in the image of God, they have different roles and responsibilities. Men are called to be the leaders of society, and thus also leaders in both the home and the church to God gives different gifts to people. Gender is not an important factor in this. What is important is that people should use whatever gifts they have. This is especially true for our life in the church.
  6. From same sex attraction is a result of the fall and should be both resisted and condemned to same sex attraction is part of the wonderful diversity of life, and as a matter of justice, should be celebrated – especially in the church so that it models an alternate reality.
  7. From conservative positions on social issues are usually right, because there is so much worth conserving in society to progressive stances on social issues are usually right because the status quo reflects the fall and the world that has to be made new.
  8. From the gospel is primarily about individuals coming into a right relationship with God to the gospel is primarily about all things being reconciled in Christ, and all things means all things, including the environment, animals and realms beyond our current awareness.
  9. From worship should be liturgical/ allow for free expression/ heartfelt and emotionally engaged/ contemporary/ traditional/ loud / reflective to worship is essentially about lifestyle. Don’t claim to worship God if your seven day week doesn’t reflect this.
  10. From people adopt different religions and customs to worship God. I happen to have chosen Christianity to Jesus is the only way to God.

It could also be that some labels are attractive to you. Which are they? Is it ‘I am… evangelical/ liberal/ conservative/ Roman Catholic/ Protestant/ Charismatic/ Reformed/ Wesleyan/ Orthodox/ Baptist/ don’t label me/ don’t label me (but if I am honest, I am most comfortable with…)?

Why do this exercise? If only to become aware that the watching world sees 2.2 billion Christians give (and live) answers at every point along these continuums. Is it confusing. Yes… Very.

Is there anything we can do about it? Probably not.

Except… except that we can think about where we sit on each of these continuums and realise that our position does shape the way we live out our faith and the kind of church we are helping to shape. It also helps to ask if those who sit at different positions to our own might have spotted something we have missed – or if we have something to offer that they might have missed. And I guess it helps to know if we believe that there is a single vision of church that we should all strive to achieve, as in Dr Seuss’ vision of reality… whatever the variations, in the end ‘I go back to being me’, or if Thompson gets our vote, and we celebrate that all this diversity is ‘all just part of being me’…. regardless of how confusing it sometimes seems to be.

Well… What do you think?

As always, nice chatting…

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