As North American Christians, we often identify ourselves by the various ministry groups we are part of: theological frameworks, denominations, ministry models or role models. Regardless of the nature of the group, the result is that the Church today is incredibly fractured — mostly because of delineations of our making more than by lines drawn by the Holy Spirit.
WHOSE KINGDOM ARE WE BUILDING?
Now, I’m not saying theological distinctives aren’t important (they are). Nor am I saying there is no need to link strategically with like-minded and like-modeled ministries (it’s helpful). But what concerns me is how strong our sense of identity and self-definition is tied to these groups.
We take pride in our tribe and tend to look down upon and question those who aren’t part of our particular network. The arrogance and isolation we experience at that point is not healthy for us personally nor is it beneficial to the larger effort of the Kingdom.
And maybe that’s the issue. Whose kingdom are we concerned with building? Our group’s little kingdom or His eternal one?
CROSSING THE LINE
As disturbing as this over-emphasis on our groups may be, it is nothing new. It has always existed in the Church. The Apostle Paul dealt with it in Corinth.
In 1 Corinthians 1, we find him writing to those claiming to be “of Apollos”, “of Paul”, “of Peter”, or “of Christ”. Interestingly, these factions weren’t simply saying they were following Apollos or following Paul or following Peter or following Christ. Following someone’s example and trying to imitate their faith was something Paul encouraged, not condemned. (See Paul’s comments in 1 Corinthians 11 when he exhorts the church to “Be imitators of me, as I am of Christ.”)
But that’s not what was happening here. This wasn’t about who they were looking to for an illustration or example of faith. It was about who they saw as the source of their spiritual identity. In saying they were “of” a particular leader, they were, in essence, saying, “I exist from whomever that leader was.”
At this point, they’ve crossed the line. They crossed the line when their commitment to a particular leader or philosophy became unbiblical and detrimental to their unity and mission.
So how does Paul respond to these factions that were causing so much unnecessary and unhealthy division? He turned their attention beyond their human icons to the supremacy of Christ and His death. Paul asks the sobering question: “Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Or were you baptized in the name of Paul?” (1 Corinthians 1:13).
The obvious answer to all three questions, of course, is a resounding, “No!” Paul hadn’t died for them. They hadn’t been baptized in his name but in Christ’s. He wanted to elevate their gaze and recenter their faith and focus — not on the various servants of Christ God had sent to them — but on Christ who had sacrificed Himself for them. All their other leaders were just “servants through whom you believed” (1 Corinthians 3:5). Thus, “neither he who plants, nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth” of the gospel. (1 Corinthians 3:7).
KEEP YOUR MISSION NETWORKS IN PERSPECTIVE
So, what does that mean for us? What kind of warning (and even rebuke) would Paul give to the Church today?
I think he would challenge us to keep our various theological and missional networks in perspective. I think he would encourage us to turn our eyes (and the eyes of those we influence) past our man-made institutions and organizations, past our little tribes and temporary connections, to focus wholly and completely on the only association that really matters: our relationship with Christ alone!
I think he would warn us to not allow ourselves to be diverted into the trap of finding our identity in anyone or anything else. Why? Because ultimately, we are not Baptists or Methodists or Presbyterians or Lutherans or non-denominationalists. We are not traditional or contemporary or seeker-driven or missional. We are not Calvinists or Armenians. We are not Reformed or otherwise. Ultimately, we are Christ-ones, and at the end of the day, at the end of this age, and forevermore, that is the only source of identity that matters.
Read more about how Southern Baptists across North America are building the kingdom in our summer issue of On Mission Magazine.
Published August 4, 2021