About Providence, Divine Action and the Church

In this blog, Terry J. Wright posts thoughts and shares research on the Christian doctrine of providence. This doctrine testifies to God’s provision for all things through creation’s high priest, the man Christ Jesus. However, the precise meaning and manner of this provision is a perpetually open question, and this blog is a forum for discussion of the many issues relating to providence and the place of the Church within God’s action.

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Why the Church Fears Genuine Love

‘Let love be genuine,’ writes Paul to a first-century congregation (Rom. 12:9). But I suspect that, generally speaking, the Church has little time for genuine love because it fears what genuine love might entail.

Not this kind of mask . . . unfortunately.
Let me elucidate. Earlier this year, I had what might be described as a kind of emotional breakdown. It’s not necessary for me to go into details; it’s sufficient for me simply to state that I reached a point where I felt I didn’t know who I was. For the previous eighteen months or so, I perceived people saying to me, in one way or another, that I should be someone I wasn’t. And so I began to conduct myself in certain ways to prove to others that I could be what they expected me to be. Eventually, I could no longer accommodate myself to others’ expectations, and the fragile mask I’d been wearing disintegrated so finely and quickly that I no longer knew if my self-perception approximated to any kind of reality. I’m sure this sounds melodramatic, but for me it was a very real experience. Even now, six months on, I’m still trying to decode the cipher of my identity.

It seems to me that many churches expect their members to behave in certain ways and struggle to know how to deal with genuine difference. In my case, I came to hold that whatever gifts and skills I believed I had for ministering in my local church context needed to be balanced by exercising gifts and skills I didn’t possess. It might simply be the circles in which I mix, but the church culture I inhabit at the moment seems to prize koinonia-as-gregariousness, uninhibited openness and aimless flexibility to such an extent that any other expression of faith is somehow second-class. Thus I – an introverted academic with a strong need for purpose and boundaries, and (I believe) with the gift of teaching (Rom. 12:7) – I began to motivate myself to behave in ways that don’t come naturally to me. Please don’t misunderstand me: I don’t think that having a particular personality means that a person will only act in particular ways; nor do I suppose that a person shouldn’t be stretched beyond how s/he normally behaves or prefers to behave. But I was denying who I was in order to be what I perceived others wanted me to be, and all in the name of serving the Christian community. No longer did I seek the reasons underlying church activities, because I had come to accept that Christian ministry was principally concerned with ‘hanging out’ or ‘going with the flow’. No longer did I think it desirable to drop doctrinally inspired or historically framed thoughts about faith into conversations, because such would alienate those still to commit wholeheartedly to Jesus. And being what I wasn’t, and believing that faith in Christ should only manifest itself in these aforementioned ways, almost sent me mad.

This is why I believe that, generally speaking, the Church has a problem with genuine love. All Christians are called to love, but it seems to me that for the Church, or for many in individual local churches, only certain expressions of love are welcome. But I would ask the questions: How do we love our neighbour as ourselves? How do I love my neighbour as myself? Or am I truly expected to love my neighbour as someone else, even that ‘someone else’ is an idealised person? And what role does the Holy Spirit play in all this? Is the Spirit acting to transform me to love as someone else, or to transform me so that I will love as the person I am, and am becoming, in Christ?

If I, an introverted academic with a (hopefully) proven teaching gift, am to love my neighbour with a love that is truly, truly genuine, am I meant to empty myself of all these skills in order to do so? Immediately this language calls to mind Christ, who emptied himself and became a slave (Phil. 2:7), and I can imagine people arguing that the imitation of Christ here means restraining one’s skills or withholding one’s talents in order to let the other blossom. After all, if a homeless person knocks on my door and begs for food, am I to talk about kenosis, perhaps with the aid of PowerPoint or a few well-designed handouts, or to practise kenosis by giving away bread? But this misses the point. I can hand out bread without having to stifle my gifts. And yet it seems to me that this is what is so often expected in the Church: not so much to practise kenosis, but to play a zero-sum game in which the rules of the game will favour only some.

Part of the issue, I’m sure, lies in how each local church expects its members to behave. If a local church has a specific focus – arguably, the focus of my own church is its food bank and outreach to the socially marginalised, both very good and necessary things in and of themselves – if a local church has a specific focus, how far is every member in that church expected to contribute towards that focus, even if his or her particular gifts are best used in other ways or better suited to other tasks? But the possibility of even asking this question is what leads me to suppose that the Church fears genuine love, because if, as Paul says, we let our love be genuine, then we will all recognise precisely how diversified the Church is as the prophets prophesy, the ministers minister, the teachers teach, and so on – and this would make church life intolerably complicated. It’s far easier for churches and church leaders to champion certain forms of loving, and to exhort every member of the congregation to submit themselves to these, than to grant people the space necessary for them to discern where the Spirit might be leading them to love in ways appropriate to them. The former is relatively easy to manage: ‘This is our mission plan; how can you contribute to it?’ But the latter is far more difficult to facilitate: ‘You have these gifts and skills; how can you exercise them in our local church context?’ Or, putting it differently: ‘How can you love genuinely, without having to be someone you’re not?’ This is something I’m still figuring out for myself in a church culture that wilfully obscures the face of the diverse body of Christ with a mask of grotesque uniformity.

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