Part V in the series exploring MB identity
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold
(W.B. Yeats, “The Second Coming,” 1920)
As one of the prophets of postmodernism, Yeats wasn’t writing about the state of the MB conference in Canada in 2008, but his commentary should resonate with us. We along with other Western evangelicals are deeply mired in a crisis of lost centres.
Who are we? The most superficial aspect of this identity crisis is our denominational distinctive. Who are the MBs and why do they matter? This is an urgent question facing our conferences.
But significant as this is, a far deeper problem occurs when we as Christians fail to clearly hear our “falconer.” Most MBs would agree that our primary identity is not our 500-year Anabaptist history, but rather a quest to be true to the gospel. If our identity as Anabaptists has merit, that merit will be based on hearing the right gospel voice.
In this series of articles, I’ve been trying to define the identity of Jesus’ followers. They are a biblical people – they are a New Covenant people – and they are “a people.” While each might seem self-evident, their implications are profound. Complacency about and an inadequate understanding of these basic tenets are among the reasons for the “widening gyre.”
Our relationship with the world
In closing off this series, I end with what is likely the most difficult aspect of our identity – the challenge of being “in the world . . .not of the world” (John 17). For nearly 2000 years Christians have struggled to live out this tension.
It begins with the fact that Jesus’ followers are a separated people. “Therefore come out from them and be separate, says the Lord” (2 Corinthians 6:17).
Separated! The very word sends a chill down the human spine. For all of our lone hero bravado, human instinct tells us there is safety in a crowd. We are flocks, we are herds, we are congregations, we are the pack we move with.
There are brief moments when flocks, herds, packs, and congregations scatter – but soon they reassemble. Life takes place in the crowd. We are social animals. We move in chaotic unison, but still in unison.
When we are separated from the crowd a deep anxiety fills us. Being separated from the main herd is an ominous thing.
The earliest Christians knew they were a separated people. When Jesus said, “they are not of this world,” he spoke what they knew. Of course they were a separated people. It was not just a mysterious kingdom reality – it was plainly observable. They were following Jesus and that fact had profoundly separated them from society.
But as succeeding generations of Christians lived and died, the world stopped overtly hating them. After all, being kingdom people they proved to be very good neighbours, citizens, slaves, co-workers, employers, and even friends.
Jesus had warned them about this. “Woe to you when everyone speaks well of you” (Luke 6:26). But mere warnings seldom stop the force of inertia and the earliest Christian writings note that they soon became part of the fabric of the Roman Empire – for better and for worse. Soon being “in the world” dominated their identity rather than “not of the world.”
The results were predictable. Christians became indistinguishable from their decaying cultures.
Almost immediately, observing the gravitational draw of the crowd, some concluded that it’s impossible, within society, to live as people of the gospel. They moved into deserts and mountains, into caves and other walled enclaves. There they practiced rigorous, true obedience.
Two complementary poles
Those who have chosen physical separation from the world may be admirable for their zeal – but not for their understanding of the gospel.
They misunderstand our assignment. Jesus has not only left us in the world – we are specifically sent into the world. Being in the world is as important as being separated. The tension between these two poles is part of our identity.
There is no formula for success as we live in this tension. There is only dogged perseverance in the knowledge that we’re not given permission to compromise on either side of the equation. We are a separated people who have been purposefully placed in the world.
In a world that is forever spinning in a widening gyre, Jesus calls his followers to anchor themselves on a pair of complementary facts about their existence. One without the other sends us careening out of orbit.