Moving Beyond Tribal Boundaries: Part 2

This post by Ross Maynard was originally published at Seventy Two

I start this blog at the place I finished part one, ‘The Failings of Tribes’:

Here’s where I’m at…

I am done with tribal boundaries and the exclusion they foster.

I am done with tribal boundaries and the small god they defend.

I worship an immeasurable, untethered, wild God. A God of love, inclusion and God who blows our tribal boundaries to smithereens.

In this blog I hope to build on this conclusion. I hope to offer a practical way forward based on my own reflection and experience. This practical way forward is not new and many of you may already be doing it without even realising it. I am simply trying to articulate where my theological meandering has led me.


What I’ve been calling tribal boundaries, Paul Hiebert, a Missiologist and Anthropologist, would call a ‘bounded-set’. In his article ‘Conversion, Culture and Cognitive Categories,’ he speaks particularly about what makes a Christian, a Christian and argues that for many this category is defined by a boundary in which you’re in or out. Hiebert says:

‘For example, some define a Christian as a person who believes (gives verbal acknowledgement to) a specific set of doctrines such as the deity of Christ, the virgin birth, and so on. Some make such lists quite long and add on specific doctrines of eschatology or soteriology. Others, convinced that true “belief” is more than a mental argument with a set of statements, look for the evidence of belief in changed lives and behaviour. A Christian, then, is one who does not smoke or drink alcohol, and so on. We would make a clear distinction between a “Christian” and a “non-Christian.” There is no place in between. Moreover, maintaining this boundary is critical to the maintenance of the category.’[1]

I find Hiebert’s description of a ‘bounded-set’ helpful in explaining how we traditionally categorise who is a Christian and who isn’t. His categorisation is painting with broad brush strokes and was written long enough ago that many may take a more nuanced approach today. However, I still think there is a lot of truth in what he says.

For those, like myself who are more visual learners, this image may help. The ‘bounded-set’ says that a Christian is one who fits within the circle. You are a Christian if you believe the right things and behave in the right way.

 

Hiebert’s refection is borne out of his mission work in India and his encountering of a worldview that is completely different to his own as a white, American man. His exploration leads him to be very critical of the ‘bounded-set’ type of categorising. Namely, because his Indian friend’s worldview is so different, they would never fit within these neat demarcations

Hiebert would argue that we need to look beyond the ‘bounded – set’ and move towards a ‘centred–set’, in which the focus is not being ‘in or out’, but on the direction of travel. A ‘centred set’ is dynamic and diverse. There is no uniform way to think or behave. The focus is upon whether you’re heading to the centre or not. We are drawn together in purpose and focus. For example, we are all heading towards Jesus. He is our centre. He is the purpose we journey towards, despite theological differences and differences in the way we behave.

Let me earth what I’m saying with a practical example. My friend, Steve Jones and I, started a community called OPEN last year during the pandemic. I only realised recently that we are organised in a way that would be similar to the language of a ‘Centred Set’, something to which I am very grateful to Steve for pointing out. We are travelling together in the same direction. We have the same purpose and focus.

Our direction of travel is defined by our values. Those values are:

  • Open minds – We wish to create a space where people can think and ask questions of all things pertaining to faith in God, without being given prescribed answers.
  • Open hearts – We wish to create a space where people can experience the indescribable love of Jesus.
  • Open to all – We wish to create a space that is truly inclusive and open to all. We have a particular heart for those from the LGBT community who have often not found many places in which this is the case.
  • Open to change – We wish to create a space that is dynamic and one we can explore together whether online or with one another in the flesh. It’s also important that OPEN can end if the time comes. We may just be gathering for a season and that’s OK.

What I have discovered as we’ve journeyed together is that we are not only held together by our direction of travel, our willingness to hold to the four values, but by our relationships also. We trust one another and put these relationships first. Too often have I seen ‘doctrine’ and a desire for some false integrity held over and above genuine relationships.

There are two very clear advantages to this way of gathering and being. 1) Firstly, difference of opinion isn’t feared and discouraged but welcomed and encouraged. We love questions and believe God is made bigger as we learn from one another, being challenged to think beyond our own presuppositions. 2) Secondly, people aren’t excluded for thinking differently. Many of us that gather are, but by no means exclusively, more ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ (both terms that are hugely inadequate, but will have to do for now) in our thinking, but this doesn’t mean you can’t journey with us if you’re not these things. Like I said before, the focus is relationship and direction of travel. If you’re willing to go on an adventure with us, respecting and treating equally the people you disagree with and the beliefs they hold, then we’d love you to come along for the ride.

Our OPEN community has changed me, as I now have a space to think, question and disagree, without fear of exclusion. I have found friends, companions to journey with, towards the centre, towards Jesus.


Let me summarise what I’ve tried to articulate over the two parts of this blog:

I’m done with tribal boundaries.

I’m done with the exclusion they create.

I’m done with a small god owned by particular tribes.

I want to journey to the centre, to Jesus, with others.

I want to journey with a diverse bunch of people who will challenge me with their questions and beliefs.

I want to worship an immeasurable, untethered, wild God who blows our tribal boundaries to smithereens.

 

[1] See Paul Hiebert’s article: Hiebert, Paul G. 1978. ‘Conversion, Culture and Cognitive Categories’. Gospel in Context 1 (4):24-29.

 

The post Moving Beyond Tribal Boundaries: Part 2 appeared first on Seventy Two.

The Failings of Tribes: Part 1

This post by Ross Maynard was originally published at Seventy Two

[To honour confidentiality, I have refrained from mentioning many details in the following story. My vagueness at times is intentional. However, I don’t believe this takes away from the impact of the story.]

I’m at a conference. I love conferences. There’s always so much coffee to drink and so many people to meet. As an extrovert this suits me perfectly. This particular conference was for ministers, so being a minister myself, I’ve always found it a great source of encouragement and solidarity, being with people who I could relate to on so many levels.

During the conference we were told about an evening session on the second night in which we could share stories, the good, the bad and the ugly, of our ministries. I had been asked to share, as at the time the church in which I ministered was going through a very difficult period and they believed that my experience may be helpful for those gathered. At the very least it would be a chance for me to be prayed for.

So, there I am, stood in front of all these other ministers, anxious and if I’m honest, fearful. I shared about our church’s struggle, but as part of that I had to share how I had changed my mind on a certain controversial theological topic. I shared with tears in my eyes, laid bare and completely vulnerable. The only thing I remember from sharing was the reactions on people’s faces. Some, those who generally agreed with my theological position, were doing all they could to show they supported me and were with me. The faces I remember most though were the ones that dropped: unable to look at me. I felt their disappointment. I felt their rejection.

Two people offered to come and pray for me. Neither of whom mentioned me in their prayers. They prayed for the church and that they would be guided into what could only be articulated as their understanding of theological orthodoxy. Not once did they pray for me.  They didn’t pray for the person they had been laughing with earlier. The hurting human standing next to them.

After that meeting a few people ignored me and didn’t want to or didn’t know how to talk to me. I was no longer a part of their club. The changing of my mind had excluded me from their tribe. I had crossed an invisible boundary that I didn’t know existed. Only an hour before that we were friends, now I represented the allusive enemy, the opposing viewpoint.

That night I rang my now wife; my then girlfriend, who was and is quite simply my rock. She is an endless supply of support and strength. We start talking about our days and I tell her about the evening session and what I shared. Within seconds I was in floods of tears. I felt so rejected and excluded. It felt as though many of my relationships were fragile, based entirely on what I read and ultimately, what I believed.

I feel it’s important to note, before moving on, that my tears were a drop in the ocean of tears cried by those who know constant rejection from the places in which they should find sanctuary, welcome and love: the church. This blog has been written with these people in mind. The excluded, the marginalised, the ones that don’t fit in because they think differently or act differently. It is with their faces, their stories and their tears, firmly secured in my heart, that I write this blog.

————————————————————————————————————————–

So, let’s talk about tribal boundaries.

For the sake of clarity, let me explain what I mean by this. By tribe, I mean the people you agree with, find solidarity and community being around. In the Christian world this could be your denomination (Methodist, Anglican, Baptist…), your Spirituality (Charismatic, Liturgical, Contemplative…), your broader theological tradition (Evangelical, Conservative, Liberal, or somewhere in between…) and your narrower theological convictions (Creationist, Evolutionist, Affirming, Traditionalist, Complementarian, Egalitarian…). We could mention hundreds more, and we could probably argue for ever over the lists I’ve just made, although this would distract from the point I’m trying to articulate. A tribe is a group of people you find solace with, who think like you, act like you and see the world in a similar way to you. These tribes have boundaries that mean you’re either in or out. Most tribes, it would be fair to say, would be a mix of the above categories.

In a funny way Rob Bell captures what I mean well, when he describes the tribes of the Ancient Near East.

‘In the ancient Near East, your tribe was your family, your bloodline, your home, your identity – your tribe was everything. And everyone belonged to a tribe.

You worked for your tribe, as did everyone else in the tribe. You accumulated possessions, fought battles, made alliances, all in the name of tribal preservation. And if you did something unacceptable, something shameful, it reflected poorly on your tribe.

Tribes existed for their own well-being and preservation. (You see the humour in that last sentence, right? Like anything has changed in thousands of years.)’

I think it’s fantastic that Rob Bell acknowledges at the end of the quote that nothing has changed, ‘in thousands of years.’ Tribalism has and always will be a very human thing.

At this point I must nuance my very negative portrayal of tribalism. Tribes are natural and not necessarily bad at all. We are drawn to people like us. People who share our beliefs, our values and our world view. This is what, in my opinion, leads to the beautiful diversity of our faith. It’s impossible to say Christians believe a, b and c, because the breadth of beliefs in denominations is huge, let alone across broader traditions, such as Evangelical and Liberal. Or geographically: East and West. We are a diverse bunch of misfits, who find solace in the company of those like us.

The problem for me with tribes is that more often than not they exclude the other, as I have shown in my experience at the minister’s conference. Also, equally as problematic, they have a tendency to make God small, as we’ll go on to explore now.

Ultimately, tribal boundaries dictate what God is like and how God is to be experienced. Often this leads tribes claiming a certain ownership over God, making God small. Richard Rohr put this far better than me in his book, ‘The Universal Christ’:

The Christ is always way too much for us, larger than any one era, culture, empire or religion. Its radical inclusivity is a threat to any power structure and any form of arrogant thinking. Jesus by himself has usually been limited by the evolution of human consciousness in these first two thousand years, and held captive by culture, by nationalism, and by Christianity’s own cultural captivity to a white, bourgeois, and Eurocentric worldview… [Jesus] came in mid-tone skin, from the underclass, a male body with a female soul, from an often-hated religion, and living on the very cusp between East and West. No one owns him, and no one ever will.’[1]

You may not agree with everything Rohr says and that’s fine, but I hope you’d agree with his last sentence in regard to Jesus, ‘no one owns him, and no one ever will.’

Jesus never fitted into categories or stayed within the boundaries of tribes. In fact, he had a habit of blowing tribal boundaries to smithereens. Let me throw out some examples:

  • The Pharisees got regularly rebuked by Jesus for their strict tribal boundaries; the hundreds of extra laws they placed around God’s law.
  • Jesus was the Messiah, but not as any understood the title Messiah. No understanding of the Messiah could contain him. There were aspects of the title he owned, but much he didn’t. This is why, particularly in Mark’s gospel he comes down so harshly on those that try too early to define who he is (see Mark 1:40-45 for an example of this). This is regularly referred to in biblical criticism as the Messianic Secret. Jesus wants to redefine this highly politicised title in all that he’s doing and therefore, needed time to do this.
  • Jesus constantly ignored the tribal boundaries around appropriate company. The famous criticism thrown at Jesus being, ‘why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners?’ (Mark 2:16). This isn’t the behaviour of a Rabbi. This isn’t the behaviour of a religious Jewish man. In first century, Palestine, the company you had at your meal table was hugely important. Your guests reflected on you and your values. So, in order to maintain good standing in the local community, you made sure you ate with the socially acceptable. The ones who were like you: part of your tribe.
  • Jesus refused to hate and treat people as second-class citizens. Again, challenging cultural norms of the time and placing himself firmly outside the tribal boundaries of appropriate behaviour. He spent time with Samaritans (the enemies of the Jewish people), treated women as equals and welcomed gentiles (non-Jews). All of which was deemed unacceptable.

There are hundreds more examples I could give. The point is this, no tribe could adequately describe him, and no tribal boundaries could contain him. ‘No one owns him, and no one ever will.’

If all of this has been a little confusing, let me spell out in one sentence what I’m trying to say: strict tribal boundaries nurture exclusion and make God small. I would love to say that my experience at the minister’s conference is an anomaly. I would love to say that the rejection I felt was rare and unprecedented in Christian circles. However, the very fact you’ve got this far into my blog means you probably know all too well, that it isn’t.

Here’s where I’m at…

I am done with tribal boundaries and the exclusion they foster.

I am done with tribal boundaries and the small god they defend.

I worship an immeasurable, untethered, wild God. A God of love, inclusion and God who blows our tribal boundaries to smithereens.

 

[1] Richard Rohr, The Universal Christ, 35. I must add that Rohr makes a distinction throughout the book between Jesus and Christ. Jesus, the human nature of the Second person of the trinity, is culturally bound, whereas Christ, the divine nature is universal. The ‘Christ mystery’, his oft used phrase, has always existed and is present in all people and things. I do not think you need to agree with him here for his quote to still be valid. I felt, however, that this was important to mention as it does further expound what he says.

 

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‘Normal’?

This post by Ross Maynard was originally published at Seventy Two

‘I can’t wait to get back to normal’, is a sentence I’ve heard so much lately. It fills me with two very strong emotions. The first emotion is a deep sense of longing. This emotion agrees whole heartedly with this statement. I long to be back to normal. I long to have more freedom. I long to meet and hug friends and family. I long to go to pubs and restaurants. I long to walk to work. I long for my old daily routines.

This longing, this desire to go back to normal is quickly followed by a deep feeling of unease. My longing for normal is a longing for comfort and a romanticised view of the past because of some of the challenges of the present.

  • Our ‘normal’ utterly ruins the environment and the beauty of our natural world.
  • Our ‘normal’ destroys family and community, with a work obsessed individualism.
  • Our ‘normal’ fosters an economy centred on consumerism, rather than fairness and the collective needs of all.
  • Our ‘normal’ is violent. Violence in the home and violence between nations, communities and neighbours.
  • Our ‘normal’ is creating an environment in which mental illness is thrives.
  • Our ‘normal’ sees the Western church lost in the whirlpool of a quickly changing world.

Our ‘normal’ is not good enough. I don’t want to go back to ‘normal’! We have been gifted an incredible opportunity to imagine, question and act.

We can IMAGINE a new normal: God’s normal. Imagine if we could honour those who lost their lives during this horrific pandemic by creating a better world? A world more like the kingdom of God.

Imagine if our world now, in the present, was more like the future, like heaven. NT Wright puts it better than me:

‘[Jesus’ kingdom vision] … is a summons to live in the present in the way that will make sense in God’s promised future; because that future has arrived in the present in Jesus of Nazareth. It may seem upside down, but we are called to believe, with great daring, that it is in fact the right way up. Try it and see.’

Can we imagine our present ‘normal’ as if it were the future ‘normal’: God’s normal? Can we imagine our present ‘normal’ incorporating the great visions of the Kingdom of God painted beautifully in Isaiah and Revelation?

‘He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into ploughshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war anymore.’

(Isaiah 2:4)

“See, the home of God is among mortals.
He will dwell with them;
they will be his peoples,
and God himself will be with them;
he will wipe every tear from their eyes.
Death will be no more;
mourning and crying and pain will be no more,
for the first things have passed away.”

(Revelation 21:3-4)

Until our normal looks like the Kingdom of God, as embodied in Jesus’ life, death and resurrection, we’ve got work to do. Until heaven and earth become one and the brokenness of our world is fully restored to God’s original intention, we’ve got work to do.

As we imagine what God’s normal would look like on our earth, we can begin to QUESTION our own. We can ask the ‘why’s’, the ‘what’s’ and the ‘how’s’.

  • Why are we investing so much time in Sunday services? Is church become all about Sunday’s? What could church look like when we can meet again?
  • How are we going to continue to use technology and social media positively? Could we keep doing some meetings on Zoom? Could we continue to invest in our social media presence to influence change?
  • Why do people believe the Christian faith is irrelevant? Why is this normal? How can we change this?
  • How do we respond to racial inequality and discrimination, once again highlighted by the murder of George Floyd?
  • How do we make sure that all the homeless who were given accommodation during the pandemic, have shelter after this is all over?
  • How do we make sure that the cleaner air and water that we’re seeing across our damaged earth, because of lockdown, continues after this is all over?

None of this imagining and questioning is anything if done alone and if it doesn’t lead us all to ACT.

  • Could we gather groups of people to ask these questions in regard to our churches, but also in regard to the broader issues facing us as a country?
  • Could we join Tearfund in their Reboot campaign. They have loads of resources available to help with the very things we’ve been exploring.

Finally, of course, all of this imagining, questioning and action will come to nothing if not absolutely saturated in prayer.

Father forgive us for accepting what is considered ‘normal’
Guide us
Enliven us
Be with us
May we be your tools to carve out a new normal

‘I can’t wait to get back to normal’, but not the normal we have now. I want a new normal. Our God calls us to his normal. ‘It may seem upside down, but we are called to believe, with great daring, that it is in fact the right way up. Try it and see.’

 

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Where Does The Power Lie?

This post by Ross Maynard was originally published at Seventy Two

‘Oh, I wish we could go back to the day when we were a Christian country.’ I have heard many say words to this effect and it leaves me feeling sad and if I’m honest, quite angry. I wonder whether we can every really claim we were a ‘Christian country.’ I know that’s debatable and many reading this blog may passionately disagree with me. The Church was certainly powerful and Sunday services significantly better attended, but does this make us a Christian country? This is before we even dare to delve into the bloody, corrupt and power crazed history of the Church. A history, I might add, that we must take ownership of as we are part of this Church.

Secondly, I wonder whether the power the Church had during this romanticised era was in fact a good thing. I can hear the famous quote from Lord Acton ringing in my ears, ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’

You may have heard of the comedian Russell Brand. I have to admit I quite like the bushy bearded hipster. Last year he had a very interesting interview with Bishop Stephen Cottrell, who was recently elected to become the next Archbishop of York. After acknowledging that the Church is not as ‘strong’ as it once was, Bishop Stephen says these very interesting words:

‘A poorer, weaker, less strong Church might be a good thing. It’ll make us a little less pompous, a little more humble, a little more determined to just to get alongside people and I think that’s a good thing.’

I find myself in agreement with what Bishop Stephen is saying. Rather than mourning the loss of the Church’s power within the UK, can we start to see our more vulnerable position as a good thing and as a new opportunity for mission? A mission that views and uses power differently. Power as defined by our God, expressed beautifully in the library of scripture.

I passionately believe that if there’s one thing the Bible speaks clearly about, it’s power. From the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) to the New Testament, the misuse of power is critiqued and in general, redefined.

Let’s begin our brief exploration in Exodus, the primal narrative for Jewish people. It’s the story of how God (Yahweh) choose the underdog. It’s a story of how God used the powerless to speak truth to the most powerful. Moses (an Israelite slave) VS Pharaoh (the leader of the world’s superpower, Egypt). Spoiler alert…the slaves won. God favoured the have-nots.

Fast forward the narrative of the Israelite people and they are no longer the powerless, but the powerful. Their slow growth from a nomadic people to a nation, hasn’t been entirely positive. The temple, their place of worship, was not only the religious centre of their nation, but also the political and economic. It became controlled by the educated, the privileged and the elite within society. This inevitably led to an increasing gap between the rich and the poor.

Enter the prophets. They were the freedom fighters of the day challenging and critiquing the misuse of power by the religious elite. Their many sacrifices and elaborate expressions of worship had become fake as they masked the exclusion and mistreatment of the widows, orphans and more vulnerable within their society. You can see why hundreds of years later Jesus loses it and starts flipping tables over within the temple can’t you?

Let’s fast forward again to the greatest critique of power: Jesus. His life and teaching redefined how we view power. He’s forever challenging the religious and political authorities. He spends all his time with the powerless and marginalised. He gives them purpose and welcomes them into what he’s doing; establishing the kingdom of God. His battle cry is, ‘the Kingdom of God is open to all, how dare you exclude anyone!!’

His life and teaching inevitably led to his death. A death, it turned out, that was to redefine how we understood power forever. The greatest victory this world has ever known, the event which placed a stake in the heart of all earthly powers, was won by weakness and the death of an innocent man.

The God we worship flips everything upside down. The apostle Paul puts it perfectly when he says in 1 Cor 1:27-29:

‘Instead, God chose things the world considers foolish in order to shame those who think they are wise. And he chose things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful.God chose things despised by the world, things counted as nothing at all, and used them to bring to nothing what the world considers important. As a result, no one can ever boast in the presence of God.’


When I studied at Regents Park College in Oxford, doing my masters, I was encouraged by my lecturers to always be asking the question: Where does the power lie? 

This has become one of the most important questions I always ask of myself and others. Not least because my very role as a minister affords me a great amount of power. How dare I condemn others for using power badly before I am critical of my own use of it.

This question opens up many other questions that I’d encourage you to ask.

  1. Where is God calling me to challenge injustice? (You could join some fantastic initiatives fighting misuses of power: Fairtrade, Stop the Traffick, A21, Unseen, Tearfund etc.)
  2. Where do I have an unhealthy desire for power? Is there a role within church I’m a little too precious about?
  3. Where could I lay aside my position/power and allow others to step up instead, even if they do things differently to me?
  4. In ministry am I more comfortable being a host rather than a guest? If so why? (Jesus was often a guest. He empowered others by relying on them to care for him. Many times, I’ve been a guest and more vulnerable and seen God do amazing things)

These are only a few questions, of which there are many. I would encourage you this week to read 1 Corinthians 1:27-29 and reflect deeply on these questions.

I want to finish this article where I began.

I would edit Bishop Stephens quote from earlier when he says, ‘A poorer, weaker, less strong Church might be a good thing.’ I would argue that a poorer, weaker, less strong Church is a very good thing. Can we leave behind the romanticised picture of a once great a powerful Church and instead embrace Jesus’ vision of powerlessness? A vision that leaves space for the overwhelming beauty of God’s loving power at work within and through us?

‘God chose… things that are powerless to shame those who are powerful.’ Where does the power lie?

 

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