Thursday Theology with Dr Jehan Loza
Barriers to Reconciliation: Pastoral Concerns Merging
In Australia, every Church denomination, excluding the Pentecostal church is experiencing a decline in attendance. For example, the Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) reports that those affiliating as Christian declined from 96% in 1911 to 68% in 2001 and 61% in 2011. 7.2% of the population reported a non-Christian faith in 2011 – up from 4.9% in 2001. 22% of the population reported no-religion in 2011 with 28% of people aged 15-34 reporting this.
While the Pentecostal church is growing, this is said to be through transference growth and from the migrant population, who are coming to Australia with a Christian faith (see for example Hughes 2013 https://www.cra.org.au/products-page/pointers/pointers-vol-23-1-for-downloading/). Important too, when one considers the rates of enrolment in Christian Education in Victorian public schools (down 20% in 2012 and the number of schools participating in Christian Education declining from 67% of all Victorian schools receiving Christian Education in 2010 to 60% in 2012), a telling picture emerges. These two examples serve to highlight the growing concern over the relevancy of the Church in Australia, Pentecostal or otherwise.
These concerns have been echoed in public sentiments where The Church has been accused of being redundant, bigoted, and too conservative and its people judgemental, self-righteous and hypocritical. These examples also hint at the possibility that the Church does not have positioned at its heart a reconciling mission.
There are several ideologies of separatism, and therefore escapism that make the church complicit and divert it from seeking full and active reconciliation with a world, a people and a creation marked by oppression, pain, injustice and conflict. According to Reconciliation Network (2005), there are:
- Dualistic theologies: which keep the church silent about social concerns, naming enemies as purely non-human evil spirits, while preaching the message of individual salvation without transformation as sufficient.
- Ethnocentrism, racialism, sexism or nationalism: promote the fallacy of groups divided by gender, race and culture while also promoting the loyalty to and self-interest of such groups as an end in itself rather than loyalty to Jesus alone, who calls us to love our neighbours not just our own.
- A false belief in God’s creation of essentially different people: this justifies fixed boundaries between groups of people and includes heretic teachings that separate orders of people (e.g. Hamitic ideology).
- A spirit of individualism: marked by disunity, competitiveness, schisms and splits across and within denominations, churches and ministries. This disunity blinds our ability to see the need for reconciliation.
- Adopting numbers of conversion or church plants as a primary measure of Christianity’s growth: this allows churches and ministries to grow with superficial discipleship, homogenously, or in ways that perpetuate histories of separation and alienation.
- An underlying message of cheap grace: encourages shallow resolutions, a superficial discipleship which is powerless to engage social pain and reconciliation without repentance.
The Church remains disengaged from participating in a reconciling mission, as an institution led by men, has accepted, and even capitalized on dualistic thinking for its own political and social agenda; silencing women (and others) and excluding them from full participation within church structures (Grady 2000; James 2011). While, the church has called this a Biblical reading and revelation of Truth, others might suggest it is but a mere reflection of ideologies and practices created, in the first place, by the wider society and culture and as a result of the fall. This individualism and lack of love towards each other leads to unhealthy friction and is a barrier to non-believers.
Separatist dualistic thinking only serves to fuel potential conflict by reinforcing the notion of exclusive selves rather than a community of co-ministering, interdependent beings made in image of the Truine God. These arguments are backed by others such as Bevans (2011), who claims that traditional theology has been used to reinforce and privilege the status quo of (often) white middle class western men. I would add that it has also been used to reinforce oppressive power constructions that define relations between men and women, west and east, young and old and so on. As McLaren (2007:148) states: “the modern Western understanding of the gospel was too often truncated, shallow, thin, bland, anaemic, privatized, personalized, polarized, and compromised”.
Any theology and practice based on such separatist thinking is a false theology and an ineffective practice. It is certainly not a theology and practice with a reconciling mission at the heart. Theology cannot be separated from mission and proclamation of the gospel must be accompanied by faith-in-action, as Wright (2000:129), calls it, ‘the mission of love’ being that which involves living the true Christian praxis.
The Western Contemporary church is hyper-real and carries a message of cheap grace and superficial discipleship. I argued that lament is virtually non-existent in the Australian Church and, as a result, the covenant relationship between human and God is stymied at best and severed at worst.
The Church preaches a prosperity gospel based on what I called pop-theology – a theology that props the individual and satisfies the needs of a Western consumer society.
By embellishing the hyper-spiritualised nature of Christ’s saving work, Western Christianity has been able to substitute practice with rhetoric. The effect of this is that Christian discipleship becomes tantamount with those who say the right words and identify with Jesus’ saving work without needing to follow his radical and countercultural actions (Reddie 2007).
Church leadership should equip, facilitate and empower church members towards, what I understand now, to be a reconciling ministry.
The reconciling mission needs to be applied at three points – in the space between self and God, self and other and between self in community (i.e. church) and society.
For example (and in order of which they were written):
- For the sake of spiritual formation, the Church and its leaders have a major part to play in equipping members for conflict to live a reconciled commune journey of sanctification.
- In order to right its wrongs, the Church and its leaders have a major part to play in redressing social justice issues, here in Australia, for example with Aboriginal Australia. Intercultural dialogue and blending allows for new eyes to see and new ears to hear – a new and reconciled creation.
- The Church and its leaders need to address sexist theologies that inhibit women from active participation, thereby facilitating reconciled and co-ministering relationships between men and women.
- The Church and its leaders have a major part to play in proclaiming a gospel that is reconciled in word and deed, both as evangelism and faith-in-action. Our proclamation must be context-specific. This demands courage since context-specificity challenges the comfortable and traditional ways we may have done things, reshaping our understanding of theology and practice.
- For the sake of an authentic worshipping community, the Church and its leaders have a major part to play in embracing, in order to reconcile, the intra and inter-personal conflict of stifling lament and encouraging members to lament as an expression of the covenant relationship between people and God.
Essentially, I have called for Church leaders to demonstrate their faith in action by facilitating the individual seeking meaning, in their very own inquiry, and in doing so, allowing the spirit to guide the individual to find their answers and meaning in the Christian narrative. That is, the primary role of Church leaders is to facilitate member inquiry and, in their own (and corporate) praxis, point and guide the members towards the direction of our creator. The rest is up to the Holy Spirit, whose ears (and hearts) as McKim (1996) argues will be variously attuned to the Spirit. This approach has a reconciling mission at its heart.
Reconciling mission and mission of reconciliation: Co-creating Holy Relationships
According to Reconciliation Network (2005) the church must:
- Embrace the Biblically holistic notion of reconciliation that is at the centre of the gospel, Christian life and 21st Century mission and as something critical to evangelism and justice (this is a long term view that should be embedded in church structures).
- Humbly examine oneself by seeking to identify and dismantle escapism ideologies and practices (this is done through Biblical study, social and theological analysis, dialogue with communities and prayer).
- Cross the difficult division and barriers and talk with and listen to those we are separated from (this involves listening and praying for each other. Pastors and leaders should be at the forefront of this).
- Refuse neutrality and silence in the face of destructive conditions (this involves discerning dehumanisation and injustices).
- Intentionally shape pastors and congregations to live and work towards shalom (this involves naming conflicts for what they are, serving and bearing witness across divisions and barriers, comforting and binding up the afflicted, seeking and celebrating signs of hope through small and large gestures, supporting peacemaking efforts, bringing former strangers and alienated peoples into common worship, friendship and mission under the lordship of Christ).
Reconciliation begins when we find the courage to take ownership of pain and suffering; including our own. Reconciliation begins when we ‘lose ourselves’ in this ownership: no longer do we deny the conditions of trauma but instead we embrace difference through partnering, together, in the search for transformation.
In this we encounter the human face of the ‘Other’ (Bretherton and Mellor 2006). A ministry of reconciliation is therefore a theology for living. According to Inkpin (2008:2), this is “a theology which walks with the other, seeing, hearing, smelling, touching and tasting what the other sees, hears, touches, smells and tastes: a spiritual, emotional, cultural, political and practical journeying towards a renewed vision of Land and People”. Right at the centre of reconciliation, therefore, are spirit-led holy relationships that come together in mutual dialogue, sharing and learning, differences and all, to form one body and a new way of life: a new creation. As Schreiter (1998) argues, the experience of reconciliation makes of victim and wrongdoer a new creation! This is God’s reconciling work in Christ. Both are in transformation, together.
For me reconciled relationships will be evidenced when we have spirit-led, holy relationships between those positioned at either end of the dualism. To do this, the church must unlearn and reconstruct its theological viewpoints that serve to justify and reinforce difference and separatism. It must, rather, fully adopt a doctrine of the Trinity.
The doctrine of the Trinity is at the heart of the Christian faith. Embedded within the Trinity and arising from the essence of God is the notion of relationship/community (Bilezikian 1997; Grenz, 1994). That is, within the one God, you will find the deep fellowship of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This three-ness in the one God is ontological, each sharing in and constituting the divine oneness.
According to Grenz (1994:69), the three-ness is also economic; being that while each is internal to the eternal divine reality, each is distinct and differentiated from the other. Each fulfils a specific role in the one divine program:
The Father functions as the ground of the world and of the divine program for creation. The Son functions as the revealer of God, the exemplar and herald of the father’s will for creation, and the redeemer of humankind. And the Spirit functions as the personal divine power active in the world, the completer of the divine will and program (1994:69).
The Trinity therefore operates as a divine diversity and a divine unity; being that despite each having different functions, the divine activity of each is characterized by mutuality and cooperation with each involved in every aspect of God’s working in the world. The Trinity is a co-ministering relationship; each having a unique role, that together makes them complete.
In Genesis 1:26, when God made man, he made them in his image. First he created Adam and then his helper, his very condition for survival – the Ezer, Woman. Man is only complete with woman. She is “bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh” (Gen 2:23) the first man cried before the fall. He recognized woman as himself, not as for himself or unto himself; as himself, together as one. Woman completed man and this completeness was a reflection of the Trinity.
This relationship of complete mutuality is based on mutual submission and one void of power dimensions found in socially constructed dualisms. Such a relationship emphasizes the fact that Christ is the source of its unity, the means by which it takes place. Here Christ occupies the chief position (not man) – he is the source of its life and the centre of its unity. To man and woman, God gave dominion of all that He had created. This is the pure and perfect state in which God made them and which man-woman were to operate; and did before the fall.
The man-woman concept here embedded in the doctrine of the Trinity is used as an example of a co-ministering, reconciled relationship and can be applied to unmask and subvert all dualisms. It exposes a practice of mutuality, embeddedness, blendedness – essentially it is a place of liminality but a place from which the regeneration and creation of new forms emerges.
Perhaps the most significant sign of a reconciled church, a church of holy relationships is in the “birth and perseverance of blended congregations where historically separated peoples share a deep, common life” (Reconciliation Network 2005:16).
This type of blending will produce/is a symptom of greater intercultural dialogue and contact between the church and Aboriginal Australia. And it is this type of reconciliation, as a theology and practice of reconciliation – that can bring to fruition by word and deed the unity, oneness and forgiveness of which we are called.
Goheen (2001) asserts that dialogue between churches is for the purpose of understanding the message of Scripture. The Church is a historically continuous body yet it is also one that is continually being shaped by God. When we enter into dialogue with those different from Us, those from a radically different context, our ‘cultural blindness’ is corrected and our insights expanded as we allow those that read the scripture with different eyes to give Us new eyes.
A ministry of reconciliation and reconciliation as ministry offers new methods, new voices and a new intercultural dialogue to the Australian church. The outworking of such dialogue will be the formation of holy, spirit-led relationships between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Christians. For the Australian church such relationships are based on a dialogue that will permit voices of the Other (Aboriginal, women, gay people) , contexts, experiences and even theologies to inform, mould and shape our own to the point where we no longer recognise each other as slave or master, Jew or Gentile and in its place, we might be surprised to see a new, reconciled creation.
I believe, really believe, that together Me-You can work towards a reconciling mission and I believe the Church is best placed to facilitate this. Of all places, the Church, argues Trueman (2013), is the one that best understands how far humanity has fallen and understands the cost of that fall, both in terms of the incarnate death of Christ and the inevitable pain, suffering and ultimately death of every person.
The Church should also be the most equipped to do this. It does after all, have at its disposal a language for giving expression to the deepest longings of the human heart – that to reconcile with our Father and with one another. It just requires courage and a willingness to dialogue, to see and hear the Other – the forgotten, the invisible, the poor, the lonely, those that are different, that that are despised, those we do not understand.
I stand for – equality, justice and mutuality. I now know that these things will only occur through the adoption of a reconciling mission, with the doctrine of the Trinity as the centrepiece. These are things that matter to God and He has called his church to be the vehicle for his good works. Despite my grievances with the Church, I do believe it is the hope of the world. Perhaps one day in the future I might find myself re-engaging with the Church – but for now – these things I have learnt, parcels of faith, I carry as sacred items and I enthusiastically take this context – this off-centre, liminal moment in time – into the next phase of my faith-seeking meaning.
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