Dr. Peter Marty: Part Mystery, Part Mess

Unity over uniformity in the church

Something in human nature has us wanting to be around other people who resemble us. We make strenuous efforts to group ourselves with people who like the same things we do. There is, of course, nothing wrong with banding together with like-minded people. It just happens to suit the formation of a political party better than it does Christ's church. It aligns more closely with a club where one pays dues than a fellowship of forgiven sinners who ponder deep realities.

Those who give it a serious piece of their lives quickly discover that the church is often 51 percent mystery and 49 percent mess. They also find out that no matter how flawed the individuals within it may be, the church still happens to be the garden of God's grace. Adherents begin to delight in this strange menagerie of people who often come from a dizzying variety of backgrounds, experiences and perspectives.

"A Christian congregation is the least specialized gathering of human beings on the planet," said Eugene Peterson, a Presbyterian pastor and author. "Where else can you find yourself bracketed by nursing infants on one side, nodding octogenarians on the other, and rubbing shoulders with so many people whom you acknowledge, however grudgingly, as brothers and sisters, and with whom you have nothing in common except your common humanity ... and God."

The significance and risk of this togetherness is too much for some. Plenty of people take one look and opt out. They prefer believing in themselves, or at least more in their own story. Freelance discipleship sounds a lot better than attaching oneself to some older story, however wiser it may be. Who wants to trust in a God whom they can't see? For individuals who can't handle the nature of this faith journey, there is always ad-hoc living. A make-up-your-own-spirituality-every-day sounds more tantalizing than hanging around some unholy assortment of people who refer to themselves as Christ's body.

For those of us who bend our lives around God's decision to be the head of this odd-shaped body, Christian community delivers incredible joy and meaning. We find something extraordinarily beautiful in following a light that is brighter than the flicker of our own little light. 

We discover through the foibles and faith of one another that we become better people than if we were left merely to ourselves. In fact, we learn that a truly spirit-filled community is one where we can come as we are, yet be loved into being who we get to become. We gather in our inadequacy, yet scatter with new boldness. Anything less means something is probably amiss.

Healthy cells in a body always function with their own unique purpose, yet in interdependent fashion. Cancer cells are the only ones that insist on being independent and autonomous. True Christian community prizes this same interdependence that is at work in our bodies. People who believe the answer to their deepest need comes from outside themselves cherish this interdependence. They begin to count on the provocative idea that church is the primary expression of the embodiment of God.

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer liked to speak of the privilege of being in active fellowship with believers who are different. His words helpfully suggest that there is more than one way to be authentically Christian. An incomparable joy arises when people of faith recognize the image of God in those who aren't constructed exactly in their image. We might say, "Blessed are those who do not leave a church simply to find one where everyone else thinks like they do."

Jesus' new commandment on the last night of his life wasn't a promotion of tribal solidarity or like-mindedness. His interest was the bringing together of followers on the basis of something other than complete agreement. "Love one another just as I have loved you" (John 13:34). There is no mention of agreement with one another. His own spirit and love would be the basis of unity - not some neat ideological conformity.

So where do we find this unity in the church? We find it in a love that is born when people believe more in God and each other than in themselves. It is God helping flawed people breathe grace together.

[Taken with permission from The Lutheran magazine, July 2011 issue.]