It is perhaps safe to say that the most explicitly distinctive doctrine of the Christian faith is the doctrine of the Trinity. The only living and true God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, three persons in one being, the same in substance, equal in power and glory. Among the many implications of this doctrine is this truth: The church of the Lord Jesus Christ is the Father, Son and Holy Spirit’s covenant community that reflects his Trinitarian nature. In the Lord Jesus’ church we are to know what true unity and true diversity look, sound and feel like.
Recently while speaking to one of the members of our congregation regarding my wife and mine’s three children I mentioned that each of them were very much their “own” person. By this I meant that each of them already (ages 9, 10 and 13) are beginning to have a clear awareness of who they are and who they are not, what they like and don’t like, what they are good at and what they are not so good at. Now, before you jump to any conclusions, please recognize that I am not saying that they do not have anything more to learn about themselves. Obviously they do. Truly, they are just starting to learn who they are, and they will, Lord willing, continue to learn more and more throughout their entire life. My point is not that they have finished learning about themselves. My point is that they are off to a “good start” in knowing who they are. All this is profoundly relevant to the Christian faith and the doctrine of the Trinity. It is also profoundly relevant to the stifling sameness or homogeneity that marks Western culture.
One of the many things that reflects the rejection of the Triune God within Western culture in general and American culture in particular turns out to be a rather ironic turn (sin is anything if not ironic), in the name of pluralism it enshrines monism. Put another way, while celebrating diversity it stifles true diversity and slams people with an oppressive sameness. It is inevitable that non-Christian thinking and living results in this; there can be no true unity and diversity simultaneously in any human society apart from people knowing and obeying the Triune God as revealed in the Old and New Testament. The very idea and presence of any human society requires it to be organized around some beliefs and practices. Apart from knowing and obeying the Triune God human societies cannot tolerate true diversity or a true plurality.
In the early 19th century Alexis de Tocqueville in his Democracy in America perceptively identified that this stifling sameness was already taking place in the United States, and in the name of celebrating individuality. Really new stuff, huh? Basically, what de Tocqueville observed was what many of us have come to know as “peer pressure.” You thought, perhaps, it was only in your middle school or high school. HA! It is as old as the human race. Even Adam succumb to it in the Garden. Perhaps it is not so accurate to identify our chief danger in American culture as pluralism as it is to say that it is the celebration of a stifling sameness while confessing to embrace diversity or pluralism. We must be careful not to concede to what those who reject the Christian faith say that they are doing. And, frankly, since this celebration of the individual has resulted in a stifling sameness for well over 180 years in America, perhaps it’s time for some of us to have a better handle on the myriad of ways it can manifest itself.
De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America insightfully revealed that while early 19th century America was a society that thought it praised individuality, it was in fact a society where true individuality was increasingly not tolerated. In point of fact, this phenomenon was intimately related to the impulse of nationalism that was already sweeping through much of the rest of the world. The early to mid-19th century was a time for the “transformation” of various nation-states that was wedded to the industrial revolution that swept Europe and the United States. It was an era when people in various nation-states began to increasingly think of themselves in harmony with their country. One must be faithful and true to one’s country. The mid to late 1800’s in both Europe and the United States was a time for “Mass” everything. Some, if not many, historians of that era regard it as the push towards a “Mass Society.” Mass education began at that time in the United States largely for the purpose of making immigrants “productive members of society.” We must propagate the union; lay railroad tracks to unite the country through transportation! To live in Western culture is to experience on a daily basis (think technology and transportation) an overwhelming emphasis on unity, homogeneity, sameness at the expense of true diversity, and it has been this way for well over a hundred years!
Throughout the mid to late 19th century and into the early 20th century Europe and the United States saw the “blossoming” of national identities and pride, and these were wedded to political and economic interests of the nations. But what is true of individual humans who fail to bow the knee to King Jesus gets writ large over nation-states that rebel against King Jesus—they nationalize boastfulness, jealousy, selfish ambition, disorder and every vile practice and they breakout in quarrels, fights and murder (James 3:14-4:1). Think World War I. The 19th century mass industrialization and stress on nationalized unity that unavoidably was tied to those nations economic interests degenerated into World War I. Yes, some good resulted throughout this time period. My point is not that everything was doom and gloom, despair and agony.
One of the primary themes of Scripture is that God’s covenant people in every era are prone to copy the ways of thinking and living of their culture. Deuteronomy 12:28-32 and Romans 12:1-2 stand as clear calls for God’s covenant people to be on vigilant guard to both know the ways of the broader culture in which they reside, and to resist those ways that do not conform to God’s word and ways. I wonder: What affect has the stress on unity, homogeneity, sameness and a mass society had on the thinking and practices of Christian’s, especially, church leaders? I won’t pretend to know all the legitimate answers to this question. I do have the sense, though, that any attempt to control one’s family, one’s congregation, one’s presbytery, one’s denomination by trying to administrate a strategy of one’s own devising, one’s own conception of “the good,” however well intended one might regard one’s self to be, is an expression of the stifling of true diversity. Faithfully obeying Scripture is not what I mean by “control.” When we faithfully obey Scripture we will not be in “control” of the communities in which we exercise that obedience. By definition, Jesus will be in control. The problem comes when we fail to recognize this difference between Jesus’ control and ours.
There is a reason why so many in America prize the “manager” who can “make something happen,” who can manufacture the measureable results we want by manipulating the variables available to him or her. There is a reason why so many organizations in America are top heavy with administration. We think we can administrate or manufacture every reality we want. We prize those who exert their control. That’s the kissing cousin to thinking that we can bring in the kingdom of God. We must win the world for Jesus! I got news for you, Jesus already has won it, got it, and is doing precisely with it what he wants to. It’s his. You and everyone else you know is his. Your congregation is not yours. Your denomination is not yours, or anyone else’s you know who is in it. Oh, yes, we know these things in principle, but what do our practices indicate?
My children strictly speaking are not mine. They belong to the Lord Jesus. My job has always been and always will be to exercise the stewardship that I am given as their father to instruct them, discipline and guide them so that they understand who they are and are equipped to live to the glory of God. I can only do that as I live before them what it means to be accountable to the living Triune God. My accountability does not consist in trying to enact an agenda, a plan, a program, a strategy, unless you want to use those terms to refer to my striving to live obedient to the Lord Jesus. But those terms used in that way are actually not very helpful nor accurate, because my obedience to the Lord Jesus is something that I am always learning about from Jesus. My obedience to the Lord Jesus is not accurately described as my agenda. I receive this obedience. I learn what this obedience means for me, even as I seek to function in it in a particular way with my children. As I submit to King Jesus I thereby do the one thing most needful for my children—I model for them what they must embrace. In the process, if I am truly obeying the Lord Jesus, I am not trying to make my children after my image; I respect them for the distinct individuals that they are and thereby give them the space and time to become what the Lord Jesus desires for them to be.
My hunch is that all this can and does get “played out” within the relationships of pastors to ruling elders and deacons, elders and deacons to congregations, congregations to presbyteries, and presbyteries to denominations, and prominent Christian leaders to para-church ministries and denominations. Are we trying to homogenize and produce a “Mass” church, or are we being faithful stewards within the relationships that King Jesus has providentially determined are to define us fully recognizing that Jesus has the whole world in his hands? Are we trying to homogenize and produce a “Mass” church or are we respecting the true individuality that every Christian and every congregation has in the Lord Jesus? You know, Jesus really is “big” enough to take care of what is his.