In this third of four aspirational predictions, I’d like to suggest that the body of Christ will finally come to the conclusion that individual agency (or responsibility) and systemic problems (or structural evil) cannot be separated from one another (click here for some additional thoughts on the individual-community dynamic). In addition, I think the church will begin to understand that leaving the world better than we found it probably isn’t the loftiest goal to which we might attain. If the world is not as it is supposed to be because of human rebellion and the desire to establish an order that seems to accord with human wisdom, does it make any sense that we will be able to solve the world’s problems through human effort? It seems unlikely. Does that mean we should stop trying? To quote the Apostle Paul, “May it never be!” (Romans 6:2).
What it means is that we must learn to be disciples…to comprehensively embody Christ in all of our practices so as to avoid the sort of factions that would leave us following Apollos, Cephas, or Paul rather than being a unified body of Christ. Learning to be a disciple will not solve all the problems of the world, nor will it eliminate sin from the church. Rather, becoming disciples will give us new ways to proactively address and/or respond to the challenges we face in the world. Becoming disciples opens us up to theological strategies for unifying the body of Christ.
Whereas the evangelical community has rightly emphasized disciplines like Bible reading, prayer, or giving; when these or other disciplines are practiced in isolation from others we cannot hope to become fully formed individuals or communities. We will deny ourselves opportunities to follow God’s will. I resonate with Dwight Moody’s observation that “…the sweetest lessons that we can learn in the school of Christ is the surrender of our wills to God, letting Him plan for us and rule over our lives.” So, if our desire is to learn what Moody called the “sweetest lesson,” we must…
- …revive lost practices such as lament, which keep before us the ways in which the world is not as it should be.
- …revitalize our commitment to repentance and confession, which reminds us of our own contribution to the dysfunction of the world.
- …re-conceptualize the practice of accountability, which can help us address structural and systemic evil.
- …recommit to doing theology, which will help us to pursue God’s agenda rather than our own.
So, what does becoming a disciple have to do with realizing that individual agency and systemic issues are connected?
First, discipleship changes the way we think about the world around us and the relationships we have with God and others (our “social imaginaries”). When we can begin to change the way we understand the fundamental dynamics of the world, we will also begin to see that all of us are influenced and impacted by the “air we breath.” Take, for instance, the evangelical fervor around politics and voting. It is not that voting is somehow morally corrupt. Rather, it is that voting for leaders requires a different “imaginary” than, for instance, accepting biological succession to a throne or casting lots to choose a new ruler. We participate in flawed systems which influence the way we interact in the world. They limit us, yet, without a theological alternative, we opt-in to a different flawed system that will leave us incomplete in different ways. Committing to a theological imaginary does not guarantee perfection, but it does offer transformation and new possibilities.
Second, in becoming disciples, we begin to see one another differently. We recognize the unique, intersecting aspects of individual identity within the church and resist categorizations that would diminish any member of the body of Christ based on those aspects. While it is often appropriate to identify social, cultural, political, and/or economic dynamics as more beneficial to one group or another, we must take care not to confuse dynamics with individuals or groups of individuals. To insist that individuals identify and resist the privileges offered by such dynamics may ultimately have the effect of limiting the blessings God has given to the community. It is not that privilege is appropriate. That’s not the point. It is that we cannot afford to reorient the structure of the church so as to deprivilege a new group. Instead, as we develop as “comprehensive” disciples we will come to see that the way we structure ourselves will (a) help us embody Christ more fully as a body and (b) hinder us from doing so in new ways. We will need to fight for collective actions that not only involve God, but allow Him to lead. In other words, the church must commit to privileging God alone in the workings of the body.
The coming generations of the church, I believe (and hope), will so commit to being a community of disciples that their primary identity will be their “in-Christ” identity. They will resist dynamics that deny God’s rule over the community by diminishing the gifts He provides in the form of the women and men He brings into the mysterious body of Christ. The coming church will embrace difference as a fundamental characteristic of community and refuse to follow the world which too often seems content to ignore the manner in which structural evil impacts individual agency or too willing to minimize individual decisions and actions in order to make much of structural evils. The coming church will recognize that the body of Christ is not made up of isolated individuals, but of connected members ordered and arranged by God to demonstrate His wisdom in a world that needs to see it.