My bishop recently referenced a speech by Candler president Dr. Jan Love to my alma mater Boston University back in 2010. In the speech, Dr. Love (very fun to type!) writes about how the early Christian community did not see itself as able to kick out members or for members to leave the body.
In I Corinthians chapter 12, Paul talks about many gifts but one spirit, many members but one body, and a number of roles in the church, but one church. Paul uses the human body as a metaphor to describe the church as the body of Christ in which all are members but with various functions. Ideally, all work together for the common good. The parts of the body that seem the weakest are often the most indispensable (12:12-31). Paul’s descriptions of the body seem almost humorous in their approach to conflict.
First he makes clear that we cannot absent ourselves from the body of Christ. Beginning with verse 15, he says “If the foot were to say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body’ that would not make it any less a part of the body.” Having declared that we cannot simply opt out of this body when we don’t like how it’s working, Paul then goes on to say that we cannot dispense with any member either. Beginning in verses 21, he says “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’”
So to Paul, once someone is part of the Christian community, they cannot opt out of their accountability and purpose. But furthermore, the Christian community cannot kick out a member either.
While one could take this passage to be cult-like in its forced retention of its membership, it could also be taken as a corrective to the schismatic tendencies of our present day:
Diversity and various gifts among the people of God are inherent parts of the church, thanks be to God! But when that diversity and variety turns into divisions, invidious and menacing differences, and downright animosity, even open hostility, according to Paul, we can’t just say about ourselves that I don’t belong here. Let me out! We cannot opt out just because we don’t like the diversity and the differences. Furthermore, we cannot say to someone else, you have to leave! We can’t kick anyone out of the Body of Christ!
While this pushes against our American consumeristic model of church where we can church-hop and church-shop around to find the one that meets our felt needs, it’s also a model of understanding that helps within a church body: what if we removed the temptation to exclude others? What if we ceased wanting to divide a church into concentric circles of insiders and outsiders? What if churches stopped drawing lines in the sand and said “if we do this, we will leave”–and lived it out?
Paul’s vision of church unity are not unlike the song lyrics to The Eagles’ Hotel California: “You can check-out any time you like, but you can never leave.” While the song itself is not an applicable metaphor for the church (hopefully), the reminder of the deeper-than-surface-wounds fidelity that people have to their churches–and the accompanying distraught when it seems to be going astray–might be a helpful study or reflection on a church where the voices calling for schism are getting louder and louder.