People love to wrestle.
They just do. Sure, it doesn’t always involve mud, sumos or fake punches (W.W.F.), but people like to engage one another. Games like arm-wrestling, mercy and tug-of-war show that we like to test our strength against that of an opponent.
Things like talk-shows (with their intentionally explosive topics), newspaper opinion columns, web-site battles, negative book reviews and many more examples show that such wrestling often takes place on the battlefield of ideas. Some, when they hear or read an idea that they disagree with, they are compelled to corrective action, as if driven by an unseen force that motivates them to set the wrong to the right. Even people who don’t like to argue will engage in some passionate sharing from time to time. This testing, trading and exchanging of ideas seems to be ingrained into our very humanity.
I think this ‘wrestling’ is a healthy, beneficial and necessary practice for Christians to embrace. But in our 21st century, western, comfortable church communities, there’s a problem…
We’re horrible at it.
We avoid conflict. We avoid uncomfortable subjects. We avoid wrestling. We let things grow and fester until an issue that would have been merely uncomfortable becomes one that is seen as hopelessly unbearable. Often, issues that need resolving are never dealt with, and if/when we finally do deal with it, our relationships are often never the same or so severed that they seem beyond repair.
I’m convinced that communities that wrestle are much more likely to be communities that can foster lasting unity. Somehow, we seem to all expect unity to happen though avoidance, sugar-coating and/or positivism. I don’t see how it can happen that way.
Unity must be grown, maintained and fought for. Certainly this is evident in the Scriptures. Whether it was Moses disciplining the Israelites, one of the many Hebrew prophets calling the people of God back to true worship, Jesus rebuking the disciples and Pharisees, or Paul exhorting the new covenant communities back to their identity in Christ, the struggle for unity is evident.
I find the Apostle Paul to be a shining example in how he protects the unity of the various communities he addresses. First, we can recognise that Paul was probably not writing to these churches because he had nothing better to do, but because there were existing issues that compelled him to write. Second, we can observe how he responded to the various issues that he was confronted with. In Romans 14, he doesn’t take sides, but points both the ‘strong’ and the ‘weak’ back to an ethic of sacrifice on the behalf of the other (v.14-21 in particular). Consistently, however, Paul becomes incensed any and every time an additional burden is placed on the churches – particularly the Gentile converts (Gal. 5:1-12 and Phil. 3:1-3). Paul didn’t even hesitate to name names and even challenges his co-Apostles (Gal. 2:11, 13; 2 Tim. 4:14)!
Whether we like it or not, it seems we – all of us, not just pastors, elders or other church leaders – have a responsibility to know our faith and protect the unity of it. To submit to this calling is to be willing to both give and receive correction – to sharpen and be sharpened – to bounce ideas off each other – to allow others to think differently – to challenge and be challenged – indeed, to wrestle.
This powerful, unique, simple and foundational unity is worth the effort it takes to protect it. How we go about this is paramount. Our protection of unity must not be characterised by control. Unity is not unity if it is forced. This means we must allow people to discuss, question and explore ideas other than our own (which are often actually the ideas of others that we’ve embraced or been taught).
One misconception I perceive is that we confuse unity with uniformity. Neither Jesus, nor Paul seem interested in everyone being the same in every way (Mark 9:40; Romans 14:5; 1 Cor. 6:12, 7:6-9), however, both are uncompromisingly steadfast concerning the truth of the Gospel (Matt. 10:32-39; 1 Cor. 15:16-17; Eph. 4:4-6).
For the Church, there are many hard and difficult conversations to be had. Many long-standing and long-questioned doctrines and/or traditions are being reviewed (although some of these doctrines and/or traditions may not be as long-standing as we think). Voices that have been silenced and controlled by church leaders throughout the centuries are finding ways of being heard. The Internet alone has provided instant messaging, chat-rooms, web-logs and post-threads where people can find long-desired wrestling partners, and ask the questions they were either never allowed to ask, or were given short, insufficient, simplistic, careless answers to. This is both liberating and scary.
As we head deeper into the 21st century, many challenges await us. With these challenges comes the need for discernment. A balance between the evil of forcing or assimilating people to accept our ideas (are we not falliable?) and the greater evil of teaching that all ideas are equal. It is my suspicion that the more we force ideas on people, the more they will wriggle out from under our the control we think we have of them. However, the more we let them test and embrace ideas on their own, the more they will commit to (and share) those ideas.
While the future may look bleak, perhaps we should remember that we are not the first generation that has faced such challenges. False teachers, ‘super-apostles’ and ‘other gospels’ were no stranger to Paul and the Apostles, and they seem to have not gone away since.
Jacob (Israel), wrestled with God (Genesis 35:10), and the people that took his name (Israel) also took on his example. In my Judaism class, the rabbi shared how Jewish communities were and still are marked by their culture of ‘wrestling’ with God and each other over their Scriptures, yeilding a beautiful culture of learning and growth.
Finally, I suggest that a culture of wrestling will help us to keep small problems small, help us to maintain a sharpening, strengthening and growing ethic in our communities and help us deal with the challenges that the future has for the Church.
So wrestle well, and wrestle with love.