I talk to many, many pastors every year, and over the last year and a half I’ve heard a repetitive lament from them about the sheer disruption to their congregations caused by the weird convergence of political, cultural, and pandemic divisions. There’s been a great migration, in the American Church at least, of saints from one congregation to another. People leave a church because it’s too political; others leave the same church because it’s not political enough. People leave the same church for opposite perspectives on pandemic response. In our evangelical age, pastors are frequently expected to keep the customers satisfied, but they’re discovering that what the customers sharing the same local covenant want is increasingly divergent.
People gather together for all kinds of reasons, of course. Outside the church, it is customary to identify with groups that share our background, socio-economic status, political viewpoints, hobbies, and other interests and affinities and identities. It makes a natural sense that like attracts like.
But the church must inhabit a very thisworldly culture with a very otherwordly nature. When outsiders look in, they should struggle a bit to explain what makes us gather together. If they can say, “Well, it makes sense that those people would share the same church — they look alike, think alike, etc.,” we do not give confront them with the stupefying power of the gospel. The grace of God unites like no other force. Not even our natural friendships work this way.
Friendship begins, as C.S. Lewis wrote, when one says to another, “You too?” But in the church we say to one another, “You and I are not alike at all. We have no reason to be together. Except Christ. That makes us family. So even though we have nothing else in common, I’m with you. I’m for you.”
The church, then, becomes an apologetic for the gospel. Because there can be no natural explanation for why sinners of different ethnicities, ages, family backgrounds, marital status, financial resources, political views, and affinities would not just gather together, but covenant together. God must be real. The gospel must be true. Or else this family wouldn’t exist.
Here is how Paul puts it:
But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility by abolishing the law of commandments expressed in ordinances, that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two, so making peace, and might reconcile us both to God in one body through the cross, thereby killing the hostility. And he came and preached peace to you who were far off and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access in one Spirit to the Father. So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God . . . — Ephesians 2:13-19
The gospel of Jesus doesn’t just make strangers into friends. It makes enemies into brothers and sisters. The church is a family created by grace. Just as Jesus called fishermen, tax collectors, and zealots into his flock. And when Christ is our God, everything else falls into proper orbit around him. He is exalted above our preferences and affinities. And thus our motley band of worshipers makes Jesus look very big.
May we never settle for less. Gathering with people who are just like us makes natural sense. But committing to the good and glory of people not like us — in the name of Jesus — makes heavenly sense. Churches like this give us a foretaste of the new world to come. May your church and mine only be explainable by the gospel.