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Community in the Time of Culture Wars by Kirstin Vander Giessen-Reitsma

Some of us thought the culture wars might be over. One prediction I heard posited that around the time of Barack Obama’s election came the end of an era—an era when Christians were obsessed with a battle against anything perceived to be “immoral,” in politics, art, education and elsewhere. This obsession wasn’t just incidental, it was manufactured by a contingent that, whatever their intentions, inherently understood fear to be the greatest weapon of control. “Be afraid,” they said, “lest the gays/illegal immigrants/Muslims/movie stars take over and make us all their sex/welfare slaves. Drowning out the voices of the so-called enemy with a deafening roar of offendedness is the core of your faith practice.”

For those who could see this version of Christianity for the thin impostor that it is, the end of the culture wars era appeared to be a promised land flowing with civil discourse, truthful art made and embraced by fellow believers and local congregations more passionate about serving their communities than nailing down dogma.

But, oh, the end has not come.

The groggy giant of fearful, righteous anger is getting his second wind and he is totally pissed off. Whether his eye is focused on the mosque in New York City or a moralistic battle in the local school, the giant is out to swing his gnarly club around until the object of disgust is in a thousand demoralized pieces. Every week, I receive e-mail forwards and read news stories that reinforce the extent to which contemporary political and religious rhetoric is tearing our communities apart, from the nation to the family, and mangling the missional commitments of Christian institutions.

The debate is not just between conservative Christians and liberal atheists. Whether it’s instigated by the national flag in the sanctuary or social justice in the pulpit, the growing animosity among Christians who all claim devotion to Jesus Christ can make the church a hard place to be these days. Paul’s words recorded in Romans 14 seem to be a voice of reason speaking into just such a situation. “Who are you to pass judgment? … Why do you pass judgment? … Pursue what makes for peace and mutual edification.” His advice in situations of interpersonal conflict and genuine disagreement about faithful practices is to respect one another’s accountability before the Lord and to take care not to offend a weaker member who doesn’t understand.

But what about when a community needs to make a critical decision together — and not just about the color of the sanctuary carpeting, but something deeply divisive that’s integral to the mission and identity of the church? Paul’s advice for conflict proceeds on the assumption of the presence of a “weak” member, someone who doesn’t quite get it yet, whose mind and heart has not yet been fully liberated by the Good News. But does this mean churches, families and other institutions must always make decisions based on a lowest common denominator approach that panders to the thinnest understanding of faith among the bunch?

I don’t think Paul is arguing in Romans 14 for stagnant, perpetually infantile missional communities. Rather, he emphasizes the unity of the community growing toward God together in a situation that relates more to interpersonal relationships, rather than institutional mission. In the community Paul describes, believers work side by side with differences of opinion and continue to interact with one another in mutual submission to “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). Such mutual submission implies that we change and grow in our relationship with each other and with God.

In Ephesians 4, a text that speaks more directly to institutional mission than the “weak member” text of Romans, we are advised that recognizing one another’s gifts within the body of Christ leads to a mature, Christ-oriented community:

It was Christ who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (vs. 11-16)

In any conflict within a Christian community, there’s an opportunity to witness to unity in diversity of opinion, while also embracing the weaker member through respectful listening and conversation. The sticky part is discerning whether leadership in a situation is appropriately granted to the teacher or the pastor ­— to the one who advocates a good, hard decision that will require communal education or to the one who advocates acquiescence out of love and care for the individual.

Too often, misplaced pastoral decisions are the default to avoid conflict. However, in communities charged with living out an institutional mission unto the Kingdom, it betrays an institution’s calling to make a pastoral decision based on the thin argument of a weaker member, when an educational decision is what’s called for. And in fact, deference might also be a betrayal of the weaker member because the beloved and loving community ought to be leading and shaping individuals, not the other way around. As teachers, we listen with gentleness and compassion, and then speak with conviction and humility, that members of our community might be changed.

But won’t we risk losing members if the flag is removed as a reflection of our Kingdom citizenship? Won’t our financial viability be imperiled when we extend a lecture invitation to a Muslim scholar? Yes, perhaps, and such decisions are never taken lightly when they result in fractured relationships, mortgage defaults and staff cuts. Such decisions can be literally and figuratively costly.

If our allegiance is to “the Head, that is, Christ,” costly decisions should be expected.

It might be more diplomatic and financially expedient to let secular saviors like nationalism or moralism be the heads that turns the bodies of our Christian institutions, but in doing so, we slowly sacrifice our identity. We become two (or three or four) headed monsters, some with jaws strong enough and minds mean enough to devour the entire body.

Allowing Christ to be our head is an uncomfortable proposition, requiring commitment to a suffering Savior who didn’t pander to the constituency, but shared meals with social and religious pariahs and spoke against the idolatry of the established order unto death. But it’s not a proposition without hope — and I’m not referring to the small hope that all of our ideological opponents will see the light and come to our side. If we lose the debate about the national flag in church: hallelujah.

If voices of hate silence an interfaith voice: Christ is risen.

If the highest bidder wins the biggest portion of anti-missional influence: Christ is risen indeed. We continue seeking the Kingdom of God together, in all things, every day, knowing that the search will break our hearts, but chasing glimpses of the light relentlessly, foolishly. Though despair has caught our scent and cynicism obstructs our path, we pursue the love that is the beginning and end of all things because to give up is to die, but to surrender is to live forever in a world that studies war no more.