July 27, 2014

The Church Is a Family

What would you say of a family that loudly proclaims “family values” but largely focuses on other families while ignoring their own kindred? What if the husband and wife spent all their time speaking at pro-marriage events, writing pro-marriage books and op-eds, and counseling other couples while never spending any time together as husband and wife, ignoring anniversaries and birthdays?

What if this couple were outspoken experts on parenting and children, but were always traveling, or in meetings, busily advocating their cause, often visiting orphanages, or taking in countless foster children, while neglecting their own children, who are shipped off to boarding school?

What if the children followed this pattern, as adults themselves becoming outspoken pro-family advocates, focusing on help for the elderly, visiting countless retirement homes, giving endless hours to other people’s parents, while ignoring their own aging parents, whom they never phone or visit, because they’re too busy advocating for the family?

Likely this pro-family family would be seen as dysfunctional, unloving and hypocritical, hardly the pro-family advocates they claim, despite their extensive good works. Family virtues are best exemplified within one’s own family, and only secondarily by helping other families. A family whose members ignore each other does not inspire others.

The Church of Jesus Christ is a family, with Christ as its Head. All Christians are members of that family. Christ gave Himself for the Church, His family, and all members of that family are called to similarly give themselves for the Church. The Church is to exemplify God’s love, with hopes that the world, seeing that love lived within the Church, will be inspired and drawn to the Church’s Lord. Christians who neglect other Christians likely don’t offer a very compelling witness.

It’s common among some Christians, especially in human rights advocacy, to disparage Christian concern uniquely about persecuted Christians. Their argument is that Christians should be concerned for human rights for all, not uniquely concerned about other Christians. There is of course a partial truth in this perspective. Christians believe everyone is made in God’s image and therefore merits dignity and equal treatment in society. Basic human rights are for all, period. Christians reject caste systems and should have no version of Shari’a, privileging fellow believers over non-believers in law or custom. Christians ideally advocate for all persons who endure persecution.

But Christians best advocate for human love and dignity by demonstrating it among themselves, especially by speaking when any part of the Body of Christ suffers for the faith. Most of the world will be silent when Christians are abused. The Church betrays its Lord if it too remains silent.

Recently a very admirable Christian working heroically in Iraq complained: “Why didn’t Americans get up in arms when Muslims were being driven from their homes? Why didn’t we change our twitter icons when Muslims were being slaughtered? We should be equally worked up about other minorities here who are suffering. We can’t only have compassion on people that we think are like us.”

There is some merit to this complaint but also seemingly an erroneous assumption. Should a mother or father be as concerned about other people’s children as about their own? Should children be as attentive to other people’s parents as to their own? Does God not assign special responsibilities for the people closest to us? Is the Church not called to special attention and love for its own members?

Years ago at a United Methodist General Conference I personally approached a well known pastor regarded as evangelical to ask his endorsement for a resolution on persecuted Christians, which cited Christians’ responsibility to care especially about fellow believers. He declined my appeal, citing this language, insisting the concern for others should not target Christians.

Too often many Christians are silent or indifferent to persecution of fellow believers, my own denomination especially. Our silence contrasts with the Jewish community, which often exemplifies the way that any true community should care about each other. Exertions by American Jews on behalf of persecuted Soviet Jews in the 1970s and 1980s is one famous example. Jews have experienced centuries of torment and persecution. They rightly feel a special responsibility for fellow Jews who are threatened. They know if Jews won’t care enough to help fellow Jews, then who else will?

Christians are far more numerous than Jews, but Christians also have always been targeted for torment. There has never been a time across 2000 years when Christians somewhere have not been persecuted for their faith. The suffering of the persecuted is a witness to us all. But so too is the response to that suffering, a response that should be bold and persistent and unapologetic.

The Church after all is a family, and when one part of the Body of Christ suffers, so too should the whole Body.

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