“Universalism,” they say. We know the scripture says that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek…” But what if we seek to apply this to our relationships with everyone in our communities? Does “in Christ” mean just for those in our fellowship, or does it also mean we should treat everyone the same way, because that is the way of Christ? Can this “in Christ” ethic Paul spoke of be applied to pulling down walls within our larger communities and building a healing, cohesive society?
“What fellowship can light have with darkness?” is a term you might hear on this matter. Meaning, that we should draw away from those in society who aren’t in Christ. However, Paul was applying that to our forming closer relationships where agreement on certain ethics in Christ was more essential. He wasn’t applying that to our general relationships within society, where we are to be present as an influence for good.
We all know the injunction of Jesus for us to be salt and light. “You don’t light a candle and then hide it in the cupboard.” This then means that the ethics God gives to us “in Christ” are to be lived out in our general society, for the witness they give, as well as for the common good they bring to all.
If we have an ethic about breaking down divisions within our Christian body, so we of different backgrounds can come together freely and serve each other, then this ethic is to be shared with our general society. When our society becomes divided and hostile in its relationships, the church can be a voice for cohesion and healing, because Christ has taught us to live this way in our own relationships.
It isn’t universalism to teach that the ethic of receiving and caring for each other, not minding our differences, can be shared within our community as a whole. The society, even though many are not in Christ, can still learn from us that to receive and care for others is better than to shun and mistreat them. It’s better to love than to hate. Some might say the world can’t love. A brief reply is that others can have their attitude changed by the example they learn from the church. The church can have a very positive impact, “salting” the society around us.
Not only can we have this positive impact, that can change our society towards peace and cohesion, but through this impact the church is “preaching the gospel.” It’s better to preach the gospel by this living example than just by words. If the church is preaching the love of God for all mankind, then the church living that themselves towards all mankind is the best way of preaching this message. Not only can it influence the society for good, but it can bring many to Christ. And when these people come to Christ, they come with a very good foundation of what their faith means. They have seen the sacrificial love of Christ is others.
The church going into the community to live its ethic of care and cohesion across cultural and religious distinctions isn’t blurring the boundaries between Christ and the world, but it is bringing Christ to the world. We are called to love others and display unifying care among all in our communities, to build a unified nation, because this is the ethic of the church. In Christ, God has pulled down the walls among us, not to make us the same, but to bring us together in mutual service. If the church doesn’t show this among her neighbours, then she is not “preaching” it.
The world around us today is very divided. People are largely separated into ethnic, religious, political and national camps. This is producing an alienation that is not good for our communities. Some people are “winning,” and others are suffering. God made us to be each other’s keeper. Our communities need a bold and courageous witness of neighbourliness. This witness won’t only help restore communities, but it will also show the world what our God is like. His cross was his neighbourly care for the world. Our treatment of others should reflect the same image.
When Jesus came, the wider community was very similar than we see today. If Rome represented the then globalism, then many Jewish fascist interests were represented by the different sects of Jerusalem. Jesus had no time for either pole on their political spectrum. He walked all over their camps, walls and distinctions, and brought the message and opportunity of the love of God to all.
How people responded to that love was up to them, but Jesus made sure that he lived out that love across all boundaries. And his message was that this was how the community, city and nation would find salvation from their coming destruction. If they gathered in each other in need, and treated them as family, no matter their background, caring for each other, their society would be saved from hatred and the violence it would bring.
He said God was offering each one reconciliation freely and that they would become stakeholders in God’s kingdom if they also shared that reconciliation freely with others, no matter who those others were. Reconciliation has to flow through us to truly flow to us.
Why don’t we sometimes see this today? Why do we sometimes withdraw, saying the ethics of unity are for the church only? Why do we say God hasn’t called us to build unity into the secular world around us, bringing help and a witness? Why do we even preach sectarianism as God’s ethic? Is it that we misunderstand Christ? He said he would bring division, but by this he meant those who would reject us for loving our enemies. He said this about the sectarian people.
I think it’s because of the way we read the Apostles’ letters. We notice their call for holiness, and we can interpret that the way the Pharisees interpreted holiness, meaning separation. It’s like the “be separate” call of the book of Revelation. However, that was speaking of the corruption of the world, not being separate from society.
Paul, for example, spoke of our need for holiness and sanctification. People are afraid that if we go into the world too much or invite the world into our lives to receive the care we have to offer, then we will become worldly. That is, we will start to imbibe wrong values. One thing to note here is that there is a difference between empathy and compassion. Empathy sees no wrong. Compassion sees the wrong and wants to rescue the person in love. We all have wrong in us and so God wants us to be a community where our wrong can be healed in lives of self-giving.
“The sick need a doctor,” Jesus said. The sick shouldn’t be cast out. Neither do we say we don’t need a doctor. The Pharisees cast the sick out. The world says there is no need for a doctor, except for a therapeutic one, who will tell us we are alright as we are.
So, it’s a matter of walking this line between being in the world and not of the world. The world should be very sure of our love for all people and very welcome in our places. We should share love with them equally, just as we do in our own closer fellowship. People of all backgrounds should know that we are for them, just as Jesus gave himself for those the religious people rejected.
The church needs to maintain hospitality towards all, the whole wider community, no matter the sin or difference of any person, but also maintain the holiness of its faith community. It’s easy to do either of these on its own. It’s easy and common for people to take either one of these ways. It’s the doing of both at same time that is overcoming.
The church is called to share its table with the world, without changing the nature of Christ. We might have to change ourselves, but we don’t change our Lord into someone he isn’t. He said to the woman caught in adultery, “Go and sin no more.” He didn’t condemn her but offered her grace. He didn’t scapegoat or reject her. And he also didn’t condone adultery. He agreed with Moses, but he gave us a way to be renewed, in a way the law couldn’t achieve.
“Paul brought a warning and rebuke to the church,” we might say, as we drive away those whose lives aren’t right. It’s almost like Paul and Jesus were different: Jesus going into the homes of sinners, Paul driving them out of the church. However, on a closer look they were the same. Paul’s rebuke was never aimed at the weak and wounded in faith, but only at those who vaunted their self-pleasing at the expense of others. And Jesus was the same. “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.” But they both went for the proud.
“I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral people, not at all meaning the people of this world who are immoral, or the greedy and swindlers, or idolaters. In that case you would have to leave this world. But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people. What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. “Expel the wicked person from among you.” (1 Corinthians 5:9-12)
This was to do with a person in the church who slept with his mother in-law and wasn’t sorry but was rather boasting about his “exploits” in the church. The church must walk this line between pastoring ourselves in recovery, and bringing discipline where needed for the purpose of restoration. Paul was aiming at restoration for all concerned, not punishment, or “holy exclusion” from others. The person Paul was referring to was restored, as Paul’s next letter showed. The church retained its likeness to Christ in both ways, holiness and love, which are really both the same.
The church that misreads Paul ends up becoming a self-centred sect on the edge of society, having no influence on the world. We can even misread Christ this way, applying his anger at the Pharisees to our anger at the world. Christ was angry at the Pharisees because they didn’t care for the world. We should rather apply this to ourselves.
In the book of Revelation, we see what God wanted for the seven churches. It’s good to have, live and protect right doctrine (without it we have no example to emulate), but it’s also good to live out the real meaning of this doctrine, giving ourselves for one another and for the world in love. These are the two parts of holiness God lived out in Christ. And why are both parts necessary? Because together, they save us and the world from destruction.
The church is called to live out its witness within the world, sharing what Christ has taught her, bringing reconciliation to our communities while showing what God’s real nature and gospel are like. Without this salt, the world will break apart into factions and conflict. The church isn’t meant to add to this segregation, but to repair it. The church can bring healing, cohesion and hope to the world. Our faith isn’t just for ourselves. It isn’t for the purpose of “getting us to heaven.” It makes us part of a holy church that shares her holiness with the world to spread God’s healing to us all.