If you were to ask 100 people, “What is the church supposed to look like?” you might get an astonishing variety of answers. Despite their cultural and ecclesiological variety, however, these answers ought all to be shaped by the Bible – specifically the teachings of Jesus and Paul.
It is to this task that New Testament scholar and author Scot McKnight turns his attention in his latest book, A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together. In this thematically arranged work, McKnight argues convincingly that our Christian lives are formed by our experiences in and with the church. Thus, the shape of the church is of profound importance to understand and embrace because, like it or not, “churches determine the direction of our discipleship.”
McKnight obverses that all too often the church is organized around the principle of “likes” and becomes a gathering of those who are similar in theological persuasion, socioeconomics, race or any other organizing principle (missional, liturgical, contemporary, etc.). But he argues that this kind of homogenization, though definitely easier, short-circuits the divine purpose of the church Paul proclaims in Ephesians 3:10: God wants to “use the church to show the powers and authorities in the spiritual world that he has many different kinds of wisdom” (CEV).
The main image McKnight employs – perhaps surprisingly – is a salad bowl. Looking at key texts in the New Testament, he argues that the church is a fellowship of difference and differents all tossed together in one, big, mixed-up, not-always-happy family.
McKnight rightly acknowledges this kind of fellowship is hard work. He traces the necessary virtues and practices he sees laid out in Paul’s writings that must be present in the church both historically and today in order to achieve this kind of community.
He begins with the necessity of grace that is “both a place and a power” to transform hatred and divisive suspicion into love. This is not just a concept, but a series of commitments and actions undertaken by the “differents” inside the church. After all, “love is a great idea until the one you are called to love happens to be unlike you.”
McKnight contends that “we often attend church for ourselves” which prevents us from thinking of it as a rugged communal commitment we make to each other. This covenant has staying power, can help us look past personal preferences and draws us to love those who are different around us. “We don’t love others for who they are now” he argues, “but for what God will make them in the kingdom.”
This is no mere tolerance, however, but a deep and foundational commitment to “transcend our differences while remaining different as we live with one another. Our difference is not eliminated, for difference is the vitality of our fellowship.”
The apostle Paul is driving at the same point when he acknowledges a diversity of opinions but calls the church toward something higher and greater as he instructs us to “aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up” (Romans 14:19b NLT).
Much in this book will resonate with Mennonite Brethren readers. There is a healthy discussion of what it might mean for a community to “plan in light of God’s Scripture-soaked mission, but…be open to the Spirit’s interruption.”
When it comes to engaging in the political realm, the influence of John Howard Yoder’s thinking is prevalent in the discussion.
Those who are planning on attending the study conference this fall will want to read Chapter 12 (“Sexual Bodies in a Church”) as preparation to wrestle with themes of struggle, loneliness and shame in our discussion on healthy sexuality.
Overall, there is a clarion call to unity – not uniformity – which should resonate well with those who see our national family as a fellowship of diverse individuals, churches and conferences who despite our differences remain committed to a shared life and confessional identity together.
Living together in the salad bowl has its challenges to be sure, but if we can allow for healthy “differents,” perhaps the Mennonite Brethren in Canada can play a wonderful part in showing the world God’s design for life together.
Brad Sumner is pastor at Jericho Ridge Community Church, Langley, B.C.