Someone recently reminded me of the old saying, “You can choose your friends, but you cannot choose your family.” The same is true within the household of God. We’re certainly an assorted bunch. The church consists of believers from just about every tribe, nation, people, and language. But there can also be starker distinctions than just our physical features, cultural background, and mother tongue.
Ideological and methodological disparities can result in even greater divides within the body. Factions can quickly form, and tribalistic attitudes can result in viewing every other variation with suspicion, or even contempt. Disdain for the “other” is often heightened when we don’t personally approve of how the other “tribe” acts, or if we consider their methods to be primitive or rough around the edges.
We have a tendency to suppose everyone in the church ought to look alike, function the same way, and play a similar role. Anyone that doesn’t resemble “our team” is either malfunctioning, and in need of a good talking to, or else they don’t really belong to the church.
It’s not a modern phenomenon. This way of thinking is as old as sin itself. In his first letter to the church at Corinth, Paul told the early believers to view the church as we would a human body, consisting, not of one member, but of many (1 Cor. 12:14). This means, just because one member (or a collection of like-minded members) doesn’t look like another, does not mean it doesn’t belong to the body of Christ.
“The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’” (1 Cor. 12:21)
This is because no one member can function as the whole of the church. No one member can represent the totality of the body. Or as Paul put it, “If the whole body were an eye, where would be the sense of hearing?” (v.17)
In other words, we are a body of believers, and as such, we ought to expect to see a variety of members, all of which look differently, act differently, and function differently. We all have a distinct part to play, and no one can say to the other, “I have no need of you.”
Where we really get unstuck is when respectability is brought into the picture. It’s one thing to associate yourself with the “other” you consider your equal, but it’s quite another to expect a toleration, and even an association with those we consider dishonourable.
The less honourable parts might not be pretty to look at. Indeed, the sheer sight of them might be outright offensive in comparison to the more sophisticated members, but their lack of honour does not make them any less a part of the body. In fact, they’re necessary. Absolutely necessary.
“On the contrary, the parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honourable we bestow greater honour, and our unpresentable parts are treated with greater modesty, which our more presentable parts do not require.” (1 Cor. 12:22-23)
In God’s good design, he has composed the church in such a way to give greater honour to the parts that lacked it so that there “may be no division in the body…” (v.25) We are the body of Christ and individually members of it (v.27). If one member suffers, all suffer together; and if one member is mistreated, the body of Christ is abused. Jesus did not ask Paul why he was persecuting the church. He said, “Why are you persecuting me?” (Acts 9:4) You cannot strike a man on his cheek and say you are not attacking the man, only his member.
Unfortunately, sin exists. On every side! Add to that a lack of wisdom, lack of maturity, lack of experience – or even just personal preferences – and it’s inevitable we won’t always agree on every matter. Sometimes separations can be necessary to maintain the peace in our mission to further the Gospel. We see an example of this in the book of Acts. Until there’s a fancier name for it, we’ll just call it the Paul and Barnabas Model.
The two men loved Jesus, but they could not agree on one particular issue. It wasn’t a sin issue, or doctrinal issue, but one of practice and method. It was a question of whether Mark ought to join their efforts. Barnabas said yes. Paul said no. It’s not all that different from many of the disagreements we encounter in our own “tribes” and denominations. Eventually, between Paul and Barnabas, a “sharp disagreement” arose (Acts 15:36-41, ESV). In fact, it was so sharp, that the two “departed asunder one from the other” (KJV).
The two clearly could not agree. Working side-by-side was going to prove difficult, and as such, it would also likely become a hindrance to their work for the kingdom. Of course, Barnabas could have gone with Paul, and taken with him a load of resentment and frustration – the sort that would boil over at every possible point, see the worst in everything Paul did, and intentionally or otherwise, undermine both of their efforts.
That’s not what either of them wanted. Instead, the two separated. Barnabas and Mark departed for Cyprus, while Paul and Silas ventured through Syria and Cilicia. But what’s more important to note here is what they did not do. While Barnabas fiercely disagreed with Paul, he didn’t carry with him a grudge, he didn’t undermine Paul’s efforts, and he didn’t discredit Paul’s name among the believers.
This is the Paul and Barnabas Model.
They disagreed, and they parted ways, but they didn’t dismiss each other as illegitimate or dispensable. In fact, later, Paul would commend Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, and instruct the church in Colossae to “welcome him if he comes to you” (Col. 4:10). His membership in the body was not in question.
Yes, the body consists of some fairly unsightly members. They don’t look pretty. They don’t function like the more sophisticated and respectable members, but they’re no less part of the body of Christ. What we do to the least member, we do to all, because all belong to one body, and that body belongs to Jesus. That’s true, no matter how repulsive you find that member.
Honourable or dishonourable, both have a function in the body of Christ. Both may not necessarily have the same function, but both have a necessary function. We may not like how the other parts function, but it exists in the body to do the job for which it was designed.
Perhaps, by the grace of God, those unsightly members might exist to reach those who otherwise might feel too unsightly for the respectable types. Maybe the shameful parts are designed as such to speak to those who would be otherwise unreachable to the more honourable members.
Whatever our “tribe,” whatever our function, whatever our role, if we are in Christ then we are part of the body of Christ, a body that consists of many different members. Whoever the dishonourables may be, let’s remember that dishonour and shame call for “greater honour” and “greater modesty,” not the reverse (1 Cor. 12:23).
Where we cannot agree, let us follow the Paul and Barnabas Model, and pray the Lord has designed the other so weak and so offensive that they might, by all means, save some (1 Cor. 9:22).