Saturday, April 14, 2007

Mutual Intimacy and Covenanted Communities

I am the great blog neglector. There, I admitted it. Nonetheless, I have continued to have very fruitful discussions concerning the interrelational church philosophy with many people over the past six months that I have been absent from the blogoshere. One of the main issues that continued to come to the forefront in these discussions concerned whether it was necessary for there to be a “local” group of covenanted individuals to meet the requirement of a functional body of believers. In some ways this question is related to whether one should be focused on seeing church through the lens of the universal church or through the local church. While I am sympathetic toward those who desire to broaden their relationships with believers outside of their geographical or traditional spheres, I still find myself arguing for what I term “mutual intimacy.” The ideal implementation of mutual intimacy is unrealistic, but when used as a driving philosophical tenet, it can help bring about a practical movement toward true interrelational community.
When I first propose the necessity for a covenanted (an agreement among believers of belief and conduct based on a common foundation) group of believers in my definition of how Christians should image Christ, one of the main objections normally goes like this: “But doesn’t my intimate interaction with various believers in different realms of my life qualify as my involvement with the church?” This is a good point and I have some agreement with it. Ultimately though, I am brought back to asking them the question, “Do all those Christians you have a relationship with have a desire or ability to have mutual intimacy with one another as well?” Most of the time the individual I have talked to does not see the necessity of such a quality and I have to explain further. “If you fall into a sinful habit, and one of your friends finds out, will that individual have a realistic and effective way of encouraging all of your scattered Christian friends to discipline you in a like manner?”
Since there is such an epidemic in the actualization of church discipline in the Christianity of our day, it is extremely important that we, the body of Christ, consider how we might again foster the proper institution of the biblical discipline of believers. Without writing a Baxterian theses on church discipline, I think we can all see how the philosophy of mutual intimacy can promote the proper discipline of those in a covenanted community of believers. If we all know each other as well as time and living circumstances permit, then we can all, theoretically, come to a better agreement as to when discipline is needed, why it is needed, how it is to be applied, and the terms for reconciliation once it is applied. Without such a covenanted community it would be easier for the wounded member to avoid healing by deceiving, and relying on the acceptance of, other friends who are not in the know. Thus is the tragic circumstances of most “covenanted” gatherings anyway, mostly due to their inadequate ecclesiology. Mutual intimacy is a rare bird in the jungle of Christian gatherings. Unfortunately, those gatherings that most exemplify this quality are those that are the least functional in interaction with the world, i.e. the Amish and Mennonites. There are certainly other churches that are better at implementing this quality but they are few and lack popular exposure.
There is enough meat here to start our discussion concerning a universal vs. a local understanding of personal church involvement, so let the discussion begin. I look forward to hearing from those who have contributed before and to any new comers that enjoy interacting with our topics of discussion.

I have also included some pics of my life from the past several months.
The kids and I during our Christmas Eve celebration
My 80's themed 31st Birthday
An Easter pic with my three little girls
St. Patty's Day in Raleigh with Gareth and friend Jon

One of those ecclesiological conversations with friend Stan
My wife Ashlee and fellow congregants at a church gathering
Our community of believers gathering for the Lord's Supper

8 comments:

Alan Knox said...

Jason,

Since no one else has kicked off the discussion, I thought I would jump in. I appreciate what you've written. Can you explain where you get the idea of covenants between individual believers? Also, who designs, implements, and maintains these covenants?

-Alan

J. Glen said...

Thanks for kicking it off Alan. Without trying to write a book (at least right now), I understand covenants between individual Christians to be inherent within the Gospel and stated variously throughout the Bible. When we are called into Christ Jesus we covenant with one another. Earlier in the blog (a long, long time ago) I listed scriptures pertaining to unity within the Trinity and unity within the body, which stems from this unity in the Trinity. God's covenant with us requires a covenant between us and other believers.
This is, of course, the philosophical side of the issue. How this plays out is often ambiguous and multi-facetted. I will touch on your second question after we find clarity on the first. Thanks for your involvement. I pray that your week is going well.

Alan Knox said...

Jason,

I think I agree with everything you said in your comment, with one possible exception. You said: "When we are called into Christ Jesus we covenant with one another." This puts the impetus on us to "covenant" with others. I believe that we are covenanted to others by God because of our relationship with Him. In other words, I agree with your later statement: "God's covenant with us requires a covenant between us and other believers." However, this covenant with others is not dependent upon our relationship with other, but instead it is dependent upon our relationship with God.

To me, it is similar to a family. I am part of a family, but for the most part this is not dependent upon me at all. I did not choose my family. When we are in relationship with God as father, we are adopted into his family. Our family relationships do not exist because of us, but because of God, our father.

-Alan

Brian said...

Practically speaking, I think there needs to be a conscious choice to covenant with other believers to form a local body. Otherwise the door is open to say "I'm part of the covenanted universal church since all christians are covenanted together by salvation." This would take strength away from the local body in my view. It's a choice to be responsible to a few (Jesus and the 12 anyone?) that builds community and true accountability.

On the broader topic though, it's a tough call with the universal and local church. I'm in a situation where I'm counseling a fellow believer on some deep issues but I am not a part of his church. At what point have I stepped outside the bounds of my duty to him as a member of the universal church and infringed upon the right of accountability of his local body of believers? I would almost liken it to allowing my children to be raised someone other than myself and my wife. It works, but it's not the best.

Alan Knox said...

Brian,

I personally see myself as "covenanted" with all believers. This does not reduce my resposibilities towards those believers with whom I normally meet. However, it does make me realize that God also holds me responsible for meeting the needs of other believers that He brings into my life.

My concern with the idea that we should make a "conscious choice to covenant with other believers to form a local body" is that it limits the body of Christ in a way that I do not see it limited in Scripture. I also do not see the idea of "covenanting" with other believers in Scripture. However, I do see the idea that we are all part of God's family. We are all "covenanted" to God.

-Alan

J. Glen said...

Alan, I agree completely with your first paragraph. I think we are crossing wave lengths here. Let me try and clarify with questions. Do you have a special responsibility to your wife and family? Yes. Why? Because you consciously submitted yourself to that obligation. Do you still have obligations to other women, men, and families around you? Yes, but that does not change the special obligation that you have to your wife.
If you are following me then you understand that because we are finite beings we have to realistically limit our "special obligation" oriented relationships. To be a "member" at two different churches might be possible, but would the average Christian be able to realistically fulfill biblical obligations concerning the members of those two communities. We are not biblically commanded to appoint deacons but because of the various obligations necessary to be completed by a community of believers it is a spiritually healthy and logically consistent step to take in order to properly minister to that community using the gifts that God has given.

Paul says that there should be order in the gathering of believers but without a common statement of obligation that represent biblical standards of conduct it becomes very hard to keep everyone on the same page.

No, "local membership" is not a biblical command, but it is logically inferred within the text when the text refers to the obligations that finite beings have to one another. Why are we not protecting the widows and orphans in Africa to the best of our ability? Well, because we have other obligations that God has led us into...because we have communicated our responsibilities to one another as a community and until we are freed from those responsibilities via the working of the Holy Spirit on lives and historical circumstances we are obligated to remain available to those who we are responsible to.

I also call your attention back to the “discipline clause.” Without defining who is in a local community, you cannot kick them out. We are not called to tell someone that they are not saved, but we are called to disassociate ourselves from that person if they are breaking certain commandments set out in the biblical text. “We” cannot kick them out in the street if there is not a structured “we” that exists. If the local community decides that “John” is in sin, and as one body they disassociate themselves from him…that sends a clear message to John, the body, and to the lost who are observing. But if there is not a local agreement among believers of communal obligation, then you could have gatherings where “April” is fine with John being there but “Ted” and “Dave” are not. The first mentioned form of community is inferred within the text, the later is inconsistent with the practical integrity of the body and with our status as finite beings.

WOW, that was a mouthful, and not very well backed up with passages yet, but I wanted to get a post in before I fall back into posting apathy. I will try to play this out with scripture for you a little later.

Alan Knox said...

Jason,

I'm trying to think of an example in Scripture where God brought two believers together, but they were not responsible for "one-anothering" because they were "members" of two different churches. Can you think of an example?

We even see that Paul expects believers in Asia Minor to take care of other believers down in Judea. I was not even going this far with my comments.

Instead, I believe that if God brings people into our lives, we are responsible for one another - regardless of which church holds our membership. Why? We are members of one another because we are members of the body of Christ. This is the only scriptural use of the word "member", which is quote different than our current usage.

Notice, I am not saying that I am responsible for all believers all around the world. However, if God brings someone into my life, I am responsible for them.

You asked about church discipline. I believe that church discipline is much more effective between people who have relationships than it is between people who share "membership" in an organization. Thus, the goal of discipline (restoration) requires relationships, not having a common organization that can "kick them out".

Please don't misunderstand what I am saying. You and I are both part of a Christian organization. We are each resposible for all of those brothers and sisters. However, we also both have Christian neighbors who are not part of that organization. But, God has placed them in our lives nonetheless. We are responsible for those believers as well.

-Alan

J. Glen said...

Alan, I am right there with everything you said. I too believe that we have inherent obligations to every person that God "has placed in our lives." I simply believe that there is a special emphasis on obligating ourselves to those who we intentionally gather together on a consistent basis in order to consciously image what the body of Christ is to look and act like.

Please understand that I am not taking any emphasis away from a Christian relationship that is limited to one person from a specific gathering of believers. Rather, I am adding emphasis on the intentional mutual intimacy of a specific gathering of believers.

The logic is universal. It is why we have town councils that have jurisdiction over a specific area. It is why we have police that have to jurisdiction in another city or sheriff's with no jurisdiction in another county. The availability and intimacy of a group is extremely important in the proper functioning of that group.

Why do we have a covenant at our church? Why do we ask other churches about the moral standing of a person requesting "membership?" We are finite beings and therefore how we manage our communication and accountability of one another is extremely important. The community I speak of acts as a base for the proper education, edification, and discipline of unified members of the Body of Christ.

What I speak of here represents the actualization of all the principles set out from the very first post on this blog. There can not be mutual intimacy and interrelation among a representative group of believers in our social circumstances unless it is consciously and intentionally sought after. If one wants to join or construct an organization of loosely related believers that come to talk a bit and sings songs together while spending time and energy on only those in the group that are conveniently in our way, then I don’t think they will have a hard time accomplishing that. As I have stated for the last year or so, I don’t think that represents what a community of believers are to look like.

As far as intentionality goes…it is everywhere in our lives. To avoid fostering an intentional interrelated community by avoiding “covenants” is merely a superficial endeavor. We make “agreements” with one another every day. Calling it a covenant does not somehow make it an ecclesiological taboo. Just because there is a universal does not mean that the principles of the universal should not be played out as clearly as possible in a more unified local representation.

I hope that I have clarified things a bit. I know we are simply trying to hone down our precise understanding of where each one of us is coming from and heading in this philosophical and practical endeavor. I really appreciate your interaction. You are the blog master and I am honored to have you interact with this blog.

For those of you who have not visited Alan’s blog…please do so. It will be an edifying experience if you take the time to read it.