A good home group meeting involves a very small group, a bottle of wine, good friends, a Brian McLaren book, and a lot of shared experience. It will go much later than planned, and that will be a good thing. It was in that context last night that I realized the substance of this post.
There are a number of people who feel that God is calling them away from structured church. Maybe it’s to a house church, simple church, or into a period of detox. Maybe it’s to “nothing,” to something God hasn’t yet shown them. But there’s a problem, they don’t want to go… and the reason is noble, it’s a kingdom principle, it’s called relationship.
We’ve long understood the church as the body of Christ, with each member being a figurative body part, joined together corporately to become the church. If any part of the body would be removed, the body would suffer; there would be a ripping, a tearing, a loss.
We understand the natural course of people living their lives in proximity to one another. Relationship develops, people share their lives with one another, and there’s a genuine affection between them. They become friends. It happens several times over, and it becomes community.
In the church we’ve been a part of, one of the richest teachings we’ve had has been on something called “relational joining.” The essence of this is that if each of us is a “member” part of the body of Christ, then the thing which holds each of us together is relationships. Relationships are the joints that hold the body together; unhealthy joints means an unhealthy body, and vice-versa. “Life” flows through the joints of relationship from one member to another, strengthening, encouraging edifying one another. Ephesians 4 stuff.
I believe in the concept of relationships joining the body to itself. But.
There is a danger in seeing relationships as joints which keep the body together. This does not invalidate the analogy, but of course every analogy breaks down somewhere, and there’s a point beyond which an analogy cannot be pushed without becoming misleading or erroneous. Here it is: the joints in the body are fixed and structural. What I mean by this is that the forearm cannot say to the body, “I have loved being joined at the elbow to the upper arm, but I feel Jesus calling me to go and participate and be joined to the kneecap.” In the context of the analogy, this does not compute but in the Body of Christ, there’s no reason this should cause a problem of any kind. Now, I’m not talking about one member saying they wish they were an eyeball… Paul says that isn’t how this analogy works. But this gets worse. Relationships that are merely structural are relationships of convenience, not substance. There is no koinonia in them, they are a means to an end, and that’s it.
Around where we came from, this type of relational joining is called “being in relationship” which means in some form or other that you are at peace with those to whom you’re joined, not holding things against them, and you are pressing on together. You are joined. Unfortunately, this becomes “a heavy.” If God calls you on, sometimes the others can’t understand, because they thought you were “in relationship.” They can sometimes see it as betrayal, so not wishing to hurt one’s friends, even the call of God can be denied to keep the peace.
Another factor at work is proximity. Many friendships are born of proximity, and some good ones at that. Other friendships are entirely dependent upon proximity for their existance… and many more are in between these two poles. I have observed though the fear that the loss of proximity will mean the loss of friendship. My wife and I maintain that proximity is a litmus test of relationships, whereby the loss of proximity will quickly tell you the value of a friendship. Some are surprised to learn that a particular friendship is not what they thought it was. Proximity helps nurture friendship, but true lifelong friendships will survive its loss. Not to sound too crass, but those relationships which do not survive the loss of proximity may not be worth the energy required to maintain them.
So here’s what I have realized. There are people in churches who God would call out, call to a new thing, but they are bound by the fear that losing proximity will mean the death of their friendships. They can be hindered by the feeling that if they leave, they are betraying friendships. In actual fact, these symptoms can indicate the fear that friends will begin witholding love… and that begs the question just what kind of friendly atmosphere is tainted with this sort of crap anyway? A phrase that Cockburn spoke probably fits here: “Though chains be of gold, they are chains all the same.” Sometimes it isn’t the right thing to do to hold a noble ideal too tightly.