Friday, June 8, 2007

1.2 more thoughts on family

Yesterday, I did some initial explanation of the idea “team is the vision.” Today, I’d like to fill in the picture with more thoughts on the topic of family.

So…without further ado: let’s dive in.

Let one thing be noted at the outset: in terms of “Christian theology”, there were only two things the first Christians knew first-hand, without a shred of doubt—

1. Jesus
2. the family he created.

These two were linked together like the earth and the moon: you never had one without the other. You could not follow Jesus and do so alone. When Jesus called you, you had no choice but to learn to live with other people who followed Jesus. And when the first followers of Christ were tempted to dispense with one another through bickering, arguing and jockeying for position, Jesus reproved them.

How far we have come today from this picture of the first Christians! Nowadays we seem to operate under the idea that the Christian faith can be an individual affair. We concern ourselves with inquiring whether or not a person is "saved" or "not saved" based on whether they have said a prayer of magic words (or what they say they believe about Jesus), but we forget that the first Christians didn’t have that concern because you could tell instantly where someone stood with regard to the “Jesus question” based on whether or not they were hanging around with the “Jesus family”. To believe in Jesus and to be a part of his family were one and the same. There was no distinction.

That’s why, historically speaking, the first three doctrinal areas that were developed were Christology, ecclesiology, and soteriology. A word of explanation:

Christology is the doctrine of Christ. Who was Jesus? And, more specifically, how is it that Jesus was fully God and fully man? Even more specifically, how did Jesus’ human nature relate to his divine nature?

These were important questions, because the early Christians believed:

1. Only God can save (that is, if Jesus was not God, then we are doomed).
2. Only That Which God Becomes can be saved (that is, if Jesus was not human, then we are doomed).

Often, when I state this second principle, people ask about it. The question usually comes packaged as something like: “Why did God have to become human in order to save us?”

My short answer (which satisfies some and not others) is this: “If you want to save a worm, you have to become a worm.” The long answer can be found by reading folks like Irenaeus or St. Anselm. I’ll spare you the details of that right now, however, to simply point out:

The doctrine of Christ was, in the end, connected intimately with the doctrine of salvation. Put another way: Christology impacts soteriology.

Second, in light of the fact that the experience of the early church boiled down to “Christ” and “family”, ecclesiology was the next doctrinal area to be developed. This is the “doctrine of the church”. Now: just as Christology touches on the field of soteriology, so ecclesiology touches on another area of doctrinal importance: the issue of authority. In other words, on what do we base our faith and practice? The answer: the church and those whom God has selected to be in authority to equip, teach, guide, and lead the church.

In fact, the early Christian doctrine of the church was so tied in to the person and work of Christ that, in the end, ecclesiology even touched on soteriology. Note Cyprian’s words on this matter: “He who has not the Church for his Mother, has not God for his Father.” That’s because, in those days, you couldn’t follow Jesus without also being part of Jesus’ family. And, to be part of his family was to be part of him, since the story of Jesus continues in the family of Jesus.

See? Everything hinges on Christ and the church. Even the historical development of Christian doctrine mirrors this foundation.

Now: fast forward to, let’s say, the 20th century. In my office, on my bookshelf, I have a one volume systematic theology (short, compared to others!). What’s most interesting to note about this particular systematic theology is the fact that, like other systematic theologies, it begins by laying foundations which are crucial to the development of other doctrinal areas. And this particular systematic theology begins, I’m afraid, in a fairly typical manner. Here’s what I mean:

In most instances, systematic theologies (and, dare I say, most modern-day doctrinal statements) start with either the doctrine of revelation (not the book in the Bible called “Revelation”, but rather: how God reveals himself to us) or the doctrine of God (not specifically “Jesus”, mind you—just “God”). See? You either start with God (as a comparatively “abstract” concept) or you start with how we know what we know of God. (By the way, this concern that “revelation” should be regarded as of primary importance reflects an epistemological crisis brought on with the advent of modernity—a crisis that says, “How on earth do we know anything about the Real World?”).

Now, with that in mind, it’s interesting to note that Christology comes somewhere down the line (say third, or fourth, or fifth, or, in some cases even sixth in a list of, say, nine or ten big topics).

And, on top of that, in every instance I can think of, ecclesiology comes…guess where? SECOND TO LAST. Interesting, isn’t it?

I’m convinced that somehow we need to get back to forming our theology (that is, our faith and practice) from a historical perspective, from a pattern that echoes the ACTUAL EXPERIENCE of the early Christians. I advocate forming a theology by starting with Christ and the Church, Jesus and his family.

Further, I’m convinced this suggests a pattern as to how disciples are called and initially formed.

It is true that, in Jesus’ day, when he called an individual person (and yes, he did call individual persons) to follow him, they had to decide whether or not they were going to do so. Once they decided, however, they had no choice but to follow Jesus with other followers. You couldn’t follow Jesus alone. It wasn’t even possible.

So, initial discipleship consisted of learning to live with the family of Jesus; indeed, it meant learning that you were a part of that family. And this was not just a feature during Jesus’ time. This continued to be the pattern in the decades and first centuries after the Christ-event. Here’s how it worked:

First, one sought Jesus through a period of inquiry in the context of the local church. Then, once you decided to become a Christian, you were discipled by the church. Later, as you learned to be discipled by Scripture, you learned to do so in the context of the church. See: learning to “do” church was first, and you encountered Scripture only in that context.

Many times today, however, we teach people who have just “prayed the prayer” to “study the Bible” and “pray”. Both of these activities, however, are often presented as personal, individual affairs: “quiet time” and “devotions.” In presenting discipleship in this fashion, we give people the impression that you can do the Christian life on your own.

But, in the ancient church, you didn’t have this option. Think about it: if you wanted to interact with the Scriptures, you had to be in community, since you didn’t have the luxury of pulling your own personal copy of the Bible off your own bookshelf.

The point is: once we become disciples of Christ, we are then to be discipled by the church.

Here’s how I put it, then: Christians today need to learn and/or be reminded that “you are a part of the family.” Further, and more specifically: “you need the family and the family needs you.”

I’d like to focus now on that last sentence. You can see it has two parts:

1. You need the family.
2. The family needs you.

I had a realization not too long ago. It hit me because, here I am, pastoring a church in Spain and “all of a sudden” I realized that, time and time again, I was sitting across the table with Christians who had been “believers” for years (mind you—years!) and—it struck me—“he (or she) has no idea that they are a part of the family of Jesus, but they believe all the right things and would say that they are ‘saved’ because they’ve ‘received Jesus personally’.”

And, if they did know that they were part of the family, they certainly had no awareness that “they need the family and the family needs them.”

It hit me that, time and time again, I was meeting Christians who thought the family was there for them when convenience suited. Or, perhaps, when they felt like they needed the family, whether that be through prayer, care, counseling, encouragement, whatever. Now, I’m not trying to be cruel or “judgmental” (and I do apologize if this is coming across that way). I’m just trying to express the kind of “epiphany” I had within the past 18 months or so. It was sort of my way of coming to grips with the fact that I needed to get my butt in gear and start teaching that “you are a part of the family.” And “you need the family and the family needs you.”

For example, I know one family who decided some time ago that getting together with the family of Jesus was just too much a hassle for them. They had to drive too many miles each weekend, so, in the end, they thought it best if they just stayed home to watch “The God Channel” (a real channel on TV, by the way) on Sunday’s with just good ol’ “Mom, Dad and the two kids”. Church: right there in the comfort of your own living room with no one else to disturb you. “Tea, anyone?” Besides, the teaching was high-caliber, so…why not?

Other Christians feel that, as long as they are praying and reading their Bible regularly and as long as they themselves believe the right things about salvation by grace through faith (and all that jazz), then…why bother with the church? I mean, who needs it, really? “I’m going to heaven anyway…”

But this way of thinking about our “need” of the family (or perceived lack thereof) ignores a couple of crucial points:

1. Whether you realize it or not: you do need the church. For starters, character can only be formed in the context of community. We can only learn to love in the way God loves as we rub shoulders with others who challenge and sharpen us from time to time. Besides, how is one to take up the call to become “ministers of reconciliation” if one is never put in positions where division is a serious possibility?

And, further: identity is formed in the context of community. The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann wrote once that we should not be afraid to dialogue with persons who are different than us, even persons of other faiths. He explains his conviction by stating that, in the process of communal dialogue, one’s identity is better understood. Unique features and lines are drawn in clearer colors by such a process, for one discovers what one is “not” (and through that, one discovers what one “is”).

In some ways, the definition of each person in the family finds reference points in God and in other believers. Think about it: in my literal family I can be defined and described as: the youngest, the least athletic, the only one living overseas, and the one with a degree in ministry. Oh, and also: I’m the funniest. These statements say something about me and, as I make them, I think of how those features stand in distinction to my siblings.

What am I getting at? I’m trying to get at the idea that we more truly become ourselves in the context of community. We find ourselves in others, to a certain degree. See? We really can’t do without the family. We actually need the family, because family is what helps define us.

But, let’s suppose that in some strange way one could say that one does not need the family. That one could do just fine on one’s own, thank-you-very-much. What then?

Well, it ignores the second crucial point:

2. The family needs you. The family is not just there to serve you; you are there to serve the family. And what happens when “you” are missing? Others suffer. This is because God has given each and every one of us the “dignity of being causes.” Our presence and action makes a difference in the world and in the church. If you are not there, acting in love, someone suffers. (Have you ever seen It’s a Wonderful Life? What happens when George Bailey is pulled "out of the picture"? The town suffers.) In other words, you make a difference.

So, remember: if you believe in Jesus, you are part of a family. And, the rule of all family is this: you need the family and the family needs you. It’s a both/and scenario, not an either/or.

See? Once again “team is the vision.” Family isn’t something “extra”, as if we could do without it. It’s the whole point.

Maybe tomorrow I’ll have the chance to write a little on the second conviction: the “being” and “doing” statement. Until then, I hope this has been helpful.

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