Gated Communities and the Visible/Invisible Church

Gated Communities and the Visible/Invisible Church September 12, 2014

iStock_000019820735SmallI struggle with those gated communities and that form of gated community thinking where people associate only with people of their own ideological and cultural bent. Such isolation. I also struggle with churches that function as gated communities of various kinds. Perhaps some churches exclude people of other ethnicities, economic brackets, those with “disabilities,” the elderly or young or singles, the vibrant or dying, or those with different worship styles,  personality types, hobbies, IQ’s, and political perspectives. The list goes on and on. Again, isolation. Who or what are we afraid of?

We all need to be made free in the context of relationships with those who are different from us. How can we settle for monotonous homogeneity if we claim to bear witness in the church and community at large to the triune God whose interpersonal otherness does not threaten unity but enriches it?

Now I may not be able to afford to live in certain gated communities, but I often reside in a gated community within my heart involving the unholy Trinity of me, myself, and mine. How about you? Do you associate with those like you so that you can remain the same and not have to move beyond your comfort zone? We cannot afford such isolation, but all too often we keep on investing in it.

Sometimes I hear Christian leaders and parishioners say such things as they are not called to minister among the poor, and that the rich need people to minister to them, too. Of course, God is no respecter of persons (Acts 10:34), but I think the Evangelical community to date is far too much like James’ audience in James 2. All too often, we are respecters of middle class and upper class persons given the economic and social value makeup of many of those churches we all too often esteem and seek to emulate. If they and we really wish to reach the rich, we need to provide opportunities for the rich to be reached in relation to the poor. Poverty of spirit (Matthew 5:3) often comes from engaging those who are poor who also cling to God for everything and give God everything they have, even though they hardly have anything at all, just like the poor widow in Mark 12:41-44 (See also Luke 6:20 and 6:24). Being exposed to the poor who are poor in spirit will not lead to an epidemic of Affluenza among the supposedly well to do, but help immunize them from this disease.

Other Christian leaders may say that God will rarely if ever call us to minister outside our natural context. If that is so, who needs God’s supernatural grace and mercy? We can simply depend on our natural skills, traits, and propensities. Just know this: such Christian leaders will find it difficult to justify their claims in view of Jesus or Paul, who left the comforts of heaven (in Jesus’ case) or reached beyond simply engaging people of their own ethnic and cultural background to build the church.

We need to make visible in our church contexts the invisible reality of our transformed hearts by faith through God’s love in our church contexts. Such invisible transformation spells the transformation of relationships, where we include rather than exclude people of diverse backgrounds. If such social transformation is not occurring through visible inclusion in the church, we may need to ask ourselves if the invisible transformation is stillborn or if somewhere along the lines something stunted our growth.

Galatians 3 claims that there is no longer any division between Jew and Gentile, male and female, or slave and free: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28; ESV). If we claim that we are no longer divided along these and other lines but make no effort to pursue communion with those of different backgrounds in our local churches, we are not accounting for Paul’s meaning. Even in the preceding chapter, we see Paul recounting his challenge to Peter to be reconciled to the Gentiles in Antioch and not favor table fellowship solely with the Jews. In other words, “Peter, get back to the Gentile table” (See Galatians 2:11-14). Jesus sets an open table, not in some invisible fashion, but in a very visible way. After all, he is the unseen guest and host at every visible meal in Christian homes. How about the church?

In Ephesians 2:11-22, we find Paul speaking of the triune God’s household—the church. Paul planted diverse churches that included Jews and Gentiles in various cities and towns. How much easier it would have been to plant separate churches for Jews and Gentiles given all their differences and tensions. However, if Paul had done so, both groups would have lost out on being called out of their ideological and cultural isolation to true communion that requires love from the invisible heart in visible fashion.

Biblical reconciliation flows invisibly from God’s heart of love into our hearts through the Holy Spirit. In view of Christ’s incarnate love and example, such reconciliation requires that we move beyond our self-imposed isolation of gated community souls to visible love.

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