Neighborly love and overcoming divisions wisely

History is instructive.

The early church faced immediate spiritual, social, and economic challenges as she went about her expanding mission of neighborly love. From internal ethnic-linguistic tensions among Jewish widows (Acts 6), to the inclusion of former religious enemies — the Samaritans (Acts 8), to the full welcome to Gentile converts (Acts 10-15), we see communities of believers wrestling with the new sociology of the Holy Spirit. Former Pharisee the Apostle Paul had to confront fellow leaders about their unrighteous religious exclusion in Galatians 2. Later, the Corinthian community needed a reminder that class, education, and culture must not divide the body of Christ (1 Cor).

Throughout global history — in all cultures and geographies, and all political and religious traditions — the exclusion of “the other” (Miroslav Volf) is part of power retention and fear of losing any semblance of control and superiority. From African kingdoms to Asian Empires, from Western cultures to the American narratives of Native American oppression and African American slavery and Jim Crow, hierarchies of power and race, economic and educational status kept the chasms between different groups wide. Christian leadership has been a force for the common good, with calls for liberation from slavery, economic opportunity, and care for the vulnerable. At the same time, history also records the complicity of many believers and Christian institutions with the oppressive structures that keep people from thriving.

The gospel is liberating

The gospel declares that in Christ, these former points of alienation and exclusion are removed through the death and resurrection of Jesus and gift of the Spirit to all (Eph 2-3; Acts 2). Yes, differences of class, gender, education, and race remain; however, these are no longer barriers to access to God, equality of fellowship in the church, and, by extension, access, equity, and opportunity in life (Gal 3:28-4:7). Theologian Amos Yong states, “Where the Holy Spirit is welcome, there is a new sociology.” Runaway slave Onesimus (The Letter to Philemon) will later become a bishop. Lydia’s hosting of the first European church and the fruitfulness of Pricilla and Aquila represent revolutionary opportunities for women as important gospel servants (Acts 16,18). Of course, Jesus pioneered this new community in his welcome of all (Luke 7-8), and his stunning parable of a Good Samaritan (Luke 10).

In today’s tense climate, the gospel-infused message of inclusion and a new sociology around the table of the Lord (1 Cor 10-11) offers an alternative to political extremism, cultural confusion, and the attacks on human identity and truth. Our faith will not fit the ideological boxes and checklists of social media. Our faith can confront the deep brokenness of our world and work for a more hopeful future. Our Christian posture as exiles seeking the flourishing of our community allows for cooperation for the common good and prophetic discernment and distance from power (Jer 29; 1 Pet 1-4).

Wisdom is needed

Here are some wisdom points for consideration as we aim to catch up to the message and examples of Jesus and the apostles. Deep humility and repentance, determination, and listening together to the Word and Spirit are all needed as we forge a future — a flourishing community — marked by the presence of God’s kingdom:

  • We all see the world with multilayered lenses. Our vision is affected by our faith and fears, history and hope, wounds and world experience, reactions and reflections, and, quite often, the beautiful and broken relationships we had and have. When we allow the Lord to heal and provoke holy love, we can see more clearly.
  • May our indignation at injustice lead to intentionality for all to flourish. May we unite lament over historical oppression with hope that leads to loving action. And may we bless those we disagree with most and look for common threads that uplift communities. It is easy to castigate and insult; cooperation and wise action require humility and work.
  • People of faith and thoughtfulness will differ politically. Civil, passionate debate is good. Our Lord died to unite us across every divide and offers a table of love, sincerity, and truth. Critical minds need not devolve into judgmental hearts.
  • May our indignation turn into intercession and our anger into action for others. We can burn or build bridges. We can polarize or choose peacemaking. Reconciliation and renewal are hard work, but when rooted in hope and love, create pathways of justice for future generations.
  • Let us pray for candidates of all parties at all levels of government. May we bless those we disagree with, praying for humility in all, and asking God to grant an awakening that will overflow from conversions to the common good so that people of all faiths or none will flourish.

The glory of God and beauty of the bride of Christ is seen in her diversity and she reflects and refracts the wisdom of God to a watching universe (Eph 3:10). May we shine as stars in a world distorted by darkness (Phil 2:14-16). We are in a moment where our new sociology reveals hope and grace for generations yet unborn.

Topics: Christian Life, Current Events, Discipleship

About the Author

Charlie Self serves as director of learning communities at Made to Flourish. Charlie is an ordained minister with the Assemblies of God. He has served as an associate and senior pastor in several congregations in California, Oregon and Washington, D.C., and has served as an interim pastor six times. He currently also serves as professor of church history at The Assemblies of God Theological Seminary in Springfield, Missouri, where he teaches courses in apologetics, church history, mission history, leadership development, and discipleship. He is also co-developer of discipleship dynamics, a new research-based tool for churches and individuals to assess the effectiveness of their discipleship programs. Charlie is the author of three books: The Divine Dance, The Power of Faithful Focus (with co-author Les Hewitt) and his most recent work with The Acton Institute, Flourishing Churches and Communities: A Pentecostal Primer on Faith, Work and Economics for Spirit-Empowered Discipleship. He has an M.A. in history on the church and social change in Latin America (1992) and Ph.D. in modern european history, with foci on Belgian Protestantism and studies in virtue ethics and the holocaust (1995), from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He also has an M.A. in philosophical and systematic theology from The Graduate Theological Union and Pacific Lutheran Theological Seminary in Berkeley, California. Charlie is married to Kathleen, a professional artist, and they have been married and on mission for 36 years. They have three adult children.