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The Healthy Church:

A Commitment to Loving and Caring Relationships

By Pablo Polischuk

Healthy relationships in the body of Christ may be defined as fellowship that experiences goodness on one hand and the absence of evil on the other. A commitment to caring and loving relationships requires a proactive, mutual, unconditional, gracious, and merciful thrust that is intended to connect one another beyond our differences. Living in the here and now poses a challenge to this premise because divisive factors present impediments to such harmony.

The natural barriers to true fellowship are fueled by ever-present demographic variables such as racism, ethnocentrism, social strata, educational level, economic power, and personal achievement based on a narcissistic nature. The sinful pursuits alluded to in Ecclesiastes — wealth, work, wisdom, and wild living — render us bound to earthly strivings while we run a rat race in a cultural maze saturated with a sense of futility and vanity. Such competitive strivings isolate and insulate us from one another. Our narcissistic culture permeates us with egotism and keeps us from decentralizing and focusing on one another with love and care.

The Challenge Of Diversity

Research in social psychology has demonstrated that we like those who are like us, as well as those who like us. Thus, homogeneous groups represent the norm. Churches are generally characterized by groups of naturalistic or demographically defined constituencies. Yet, the context in which we live has been infused with cultural and ethnic diversity and has changed the ways in which American stereotypes have been characterized since the establishment of our country and culture. From a WASP-oriented (White, Anglo-Saxon Protestant) mentality held by individuals who aggregated socially on a functional basis, a multiethnic and multicultural reality has emerged. Metanarratives and absolutes have been replaced with partialized, tribalistic, and ethnocentric renderings of reality, opening up the long-held universe into a postmodern multiverse with no emphasis on true catholicity.

The challenge to engage in loving and caring relationships in a multiethnic and multicultural context is not new. Since the Early Church in the Book of Acts, the church has faced such dilemmas. The selection of deacons was in response to the demands posed by intercultural distinctions in the distributions of food among widows of Hebraic and Grecian descent (Acts 6:1–6). The reluctant apprehensiveness of Peter in accepting the challenge to evangelize a Roman centurion is narrated with candid and yet powerful tones that addressed his ethnocentrism (Acts 10:28,29,34,35). The first council held in Jerusalem addressed the dilemma regarding practices and customs posed by merging Jews and Gentiles into the same Body (Acts 15). Twenty-one centuries later we, in our present intercultural status quo, face our own challenges.

Attempts At Developing An Integrated Fellowship

In the thrust to develop and engage in caring and loving relations, several implicit or explicit paradigms of integration have emerged. Intercultural fellowship falls along a continuum between two polarities in its attempts to resolve the tension posed by the challenges of acculturation, assimilation, and equilibration inherent in any process of adaptation with one another. Ethno-blindness (claiming we do not see any racial or ethnic differences) and ethnocentrism (centering on sameness in exclusive fashion) are the extreme poles.

On one hand, an encompassing ministry that seeks to absorb and assimilate everyone — regardless of race, ethnicity, or culture — seems to be endowed with cultural and color blindness. Such a stance prefers to believe that negative, divisive factors do not exist. This stance also professes a naive acceptance and validation of one another at either conceptual or practical levels. Often, such stances lead to surface, behavioral, eventful happenings in which the phenomenological renderings of fellowship meet the criteria of unity in diversity. Minorities are welcomed and absorbed into the dominant culture. As a result, minorities acculturate and assimilate the ways and means of the prevalent, existing order. Yet, such behavioral, event-focused integration may fall short of true fellowship at an ontological, substantial, or substructural level.

On the other hand, in an attempt to find a place in the American Christian soil, ethnic and cultural groups tend to congregate around sameness, with unifying and self-centered patterns that structure their fellowship. The in-group bands together against them, with impermeable or at most, semipermeable boundaries that demarcate its existence and function. Ethnocentrism tends to insulate, isolate, and entrench ethnic groups and divide the church into self-based units. Whether Afro-American, Hispanic, Asian, or any other constituency, ethnic churches tend to preserve their worship style and relationships through cohesion, structure, and function with their particular flavor, tempo, rhythm, along with their sense of cultural direction. In doing so, ethnocentric pride may contribute to the belief that our group, service, worship, and fellowship are better when compared with theirs.

One extreme ameliorates the problem by attempting to absorb token individuals or families as if they fit the dominant agenda of the traditionally expressed culture. The other extreme fosters tribalistic groups with interpersonal mores and codes that define social reality along a hermeneutic of participation, including an us versus them mind-set. At times, such diverse populations may merge for special occasions but then retreat back to their original separatist design.

Celebrating Caring And Loving Unity In Diversity

What can we do to truly celebrate unity in diversity? What can we do to foster the unity depicted in Jesus’ prayer in John 17? Beside our feelings on the matter, or the current trends in society, our attitudes, values, and practices often depart from what God has defined as reality. This includes the ways in which we are to connect and interact with, and care for one another. The Bible emphasizes relational encounters with healthy purposes in mind. In the New Testament, the term “one another” occurs 52 times. Scriptural injunctions point to the fact we belong to God’s family, from whom we derive our name (Ephesians 3:14,15).

To derive our name from God is to be defined by the Creator, Author, and Designer of human existence. To be named after God is to be encompassed in the parameters of His will and purpose — to be and to do what God has envisioned before the foundation of the world. The basis of who we are and what we are supposed to do are given in Scripture and have been attested by the Holy Spirit from Pentecost on.

We all descend from the first man, Adam. But from the second Man, Jesus Christ, we derive a new humankind. Although God chose Abraham to be the founder of a special nation along with explicit mandates given in the Law (the Old Covenant), the relational God has now set forth a New Covenant with those who believe the gospel. Instead of a new set of mandates, the appeal is to accept the challenge to be imitators of God, and be endowed with the power to walk in love as Christ did, and display loving behaviors characteristic of beloved children (Ephesians 5:1,2). Such terms are implanted into our hearts and minds (Jeremiah 31:33; Hebrews 8:10; 10:16) and are unilateral, unconditionally proactive, graceful, merciful, forgiving, forgetting of misdeeds, empowering, leading to intimacy, and bringing about constant renewal and transformation of our being.

The effects of being summoned by God and accepting His claims are evident: From now on we regard no one according to the human point of view. That is, we do not establish community or fellowship on the basis of cultural or ethnocentric premises, but on the redefinition of our being in Christ. Paul adds that even if we regarded Christ from such perspective, we regard him no longer as such(2 Corinthians 5:16). Thus, a supracultural stance regulates the acceptance, validation, and enactment of relationships along intercultural lines, having an overarching cover as well as a unifying basis for such connectedness. Our fellowship does not depend on cultural or ethnic sameness nor on cultural discreteness. It depends on our being grounded in a defining God from whom we derive our names, and our being subject to a supracultural mandate to accept one another in Christ.

Scriptural Accounts Of Ethnocentricity And Remedial Approaches

Ethnocentric forces are powerful, as exemplified by Peter’s reluctant demeanor when he was given the privilege to open the door to the Gentiles in Caesarea (Acts 10). It was necessary for the same vision to be repeated three times, with the invitation to eat a nonkosher meal, because without this vision it would have been difficult for Peter to accept this assignment.

The Gentiles were regarded as undesirable, unclean, and less-than-chosen by the Jews. As such, they were outcasts from the Kingdom. Yet, God had other plans, as expressed in Scripture. The defining God has called all nations and tribes to become part of His people, and whatever God has cleansed should not be called unclean, even by an apostle.

To further exemplify the ethnocentric stance held by those who considered themselves to be in with God, Acts 10:14 presents the (oxymoronic) response by Peter, “Surely not, Lord!” (If you say no, He is not Lord; if He is Lord, you cannot say no.) Further excuses bordering on an obnoxious statement are registered on the first encounter between the apostle and Cornelius, a Roman centurion (Acts 10:27–29). In spite of Peter’s original stance and demeanor, God graciously interrupted his sermon by baptizing Cornelius and his household in the Holy Spirit — a vivid and audible display emulating the original Pentecostal experience in Jerusalem among all Jewish disciples (Acts 10:44–46). Later on, a convicted Peter would defend the right of the Gentiles to be part of the promises and benefits of the Kingdom at the first church council in Jerusalem (Acts 15).

The first council convened to address the challenges of intercultural relatedness posed in the body of Christ. The efforts of Paul, Barnabas, Silas, and other companions in missionary endeavors had positive results, and a great number of Gentiles were added to the church.

How to relate to Gentile converts, and what to do with them became the first challenge facing the intercultural and interethnic fellowship. When discrepancies arose, perplexities and tension resulted. The first attempt to resolve such differences was to make them as us. Thus, they discussed what should be done to assimilate, accommodate, and equilibrate the diversity that posed such a challenge. Yet, the proposal to squeeze the Gentiles into the Jewish mold was overruled by the Holy Spirit, who, through a word of wisdom, declared that these ethnic believers should be accepted and treated with dignity in the Body, provided they would follow guidelines to avoid behaviors offensive to Jews. These few scriptural examples may set the premises for the course of action that we can follow today (Acts 15:5–21).

Toward A Healthy Church: Concrete Guidelines To Foster An Integrated, Caring, And Loving Fellowship

When confronted with barriers in fellowship — racism, ethnocentrism, classism, snobbishness, or narcissism — we need to be open, honest, and take remedial action. Although this list is not conclusive, the ingredients of a healthy fellowship may be outlined as follows:

First, fellowship presupposes open, honest, true acceptance, and validation of one another at the core. Fellowship goes beyond an external display of behavior. Rather, it is a question of attitudes, cognitive, affective, and dispositional-motivational stances and processes. Even more, beyond events and processes, it is a substructural, ontological substantial being with loving, accepting, and validating characteristics.

Second, allow the Holy Spirit to bring awareness and conviction so you can deal with your own ethnocentrism. Become aware of your own racism and prejudice. These usually are latent, tacit, and subjacent to cognitive appraisal and self-perception. Allow the Spirit to cleanse such deep-seated beliefs and values, and be transformed by the renewing of your mind.

Third, account for all transactions with people of diverse cultures and ethnicity. If any transactions seem negative, and you sense the responsibility to make things better, prayerfully consider the following steps:

Regret. Recognize and appraise any wrongdoing or demeaning, abasing, rejecting, isolating, or insulating attitudes or behaviors pertaining to intercultural relationships in the Body.

Remorse. Follow regret with remorse (an emotive corollary to regret), which includes experiencing pain for relational sins committed against the body of Christ.

Repentance. Furthermore, adopt an attitude of repentance (change of mind, a radical turn in direction) and experience a cognitive, affective, and behavioral reformation in your lifestyle.

Reparation. Repair any damaged relations, taking a proactive, unilateral, and unconditional initiative in an ambiance of grace and mercy, empower others, and provide a sense of acceptance and validation.

Restitution. Do something practical by blessing those who have been outcasts, marginalized, dejected, in the past (or present) by the dominant culture.

Renewal. Allow the Holy Spirit to coparticipate in your thoughts, reasoning, perceptions, memories, attributions of meaning, motivations, feelings, and motivations to change. Experience new attributions of meaning to God’s defined reality.

Restoration. Be committed to restore relationships according to the original design by God, as seen in the accounts of Acts, and the eschatological projections in Revelation.

Fourth, pay attention to the way God defines reality, especially in regard to His creatures, and even more, to those who are in Christ as inheritors of His eternity. Not only look back for orthodox basis and theology, but also stretch forward by faith. Have an eschatological point of view, in which heaven is filled with a great multitude comprised of every tribe, tongue, and nation praising God, bringing the future into the here an now, practicing today what God has envisioned for eternity (Revelation 7:9,10).

Fifth, renew your mind. Watch for automatic thoughts, perceptions, and feelings embedded in ethnocentrism. Let the Holy Spirit redefine in your mind the intercultural reality that has already been defined by God. Sanctification and growth demands our surrender to God’s Spirit, and our participation in a synergistic process in which the Spirit and our flesh interact to produce countercultural and desirable results in fellowship.

Sixth, instead of being reactive toward others of diverse backgrounds in the Body, be proactive in your efforts to show a unilateral, unconditional love. Seek to engage first. Do so not with a patronizing spirit, but with a sincere motivation and determination to love those whom Christ has loved and adopted into the Body. Pray as the Psalmist did: “Search me, O God, and know my heart” (Psalm 139:23). Take the initiative to provoke to love and good works, conscious of the overarching jurisdiction of the ultimate Perceiver and Definer of reality, who observes all our interactions in His church.

Conclusion

To experience and actualize loving and caring relationships in a healthy church context, we need to be imitators of God as beloved children, and walk in love as Christ loved us and gave himself for us (Ephesians 5:1,2). In doing so, we develop a true self as defined by God, beyond individualism, narcissism, and ethnocentrism (identity in Christ). Furthermore, we develop a wholesome self shaped by the Holy Spirit (integrity). We are able to share ourselves in love and care, in proper fashion (intimacy), making every effort to accomplish God’s designs in meaningful relationships (industriousness).

Pablo Polischuk, Ph.D., is professor of pastoral counseling and psychology, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, South Hamilton, Massachusetts.

Resources

Crabb, Larry. 1997. Connecting: Healing Ourselves and Our Relationships. Nashville: W. Publishing Group.

Kraft, Charles, and Marguerite Kraft. 2005. Christianity in Culture: A Study in Dynamic Biblical Theologizing in Cross-cultural Perspective. Maryknoll, New York: Orbis Books.

Lingenfelter, Sherwood G. 1996. Agents of Transformation: A Guide for Effective Cross-cultural Ministry. Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.

Polischuk, Pablo. 2004. Llamando las Cosas por su Nombre (Calling It What It Is). Miami: Vida.

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