Drawing Lines

 We love to draw lines. Lines of affiliation. Lines of identity. Lines to be defended. Lines not to be crossed. We see them in the political world, the sporting world, the technology world, and sadly, in our religious world.

Christians will tell you they believe the church is the body of Christ – and rightly so (Rom 12:5). But, along with this spiritual reality there also seems to be an unspoken belief that there are some very real physical boundaries as well. “We need to be able to determine and control who is part of our fellowship”.  I wonder if Jesus agrees with that. Let’s us look at a few passages from the gospels.

Jesus told them another parable: “The kingdom of heaven is like a man who sowed good seed in his field. But while everyone was sleeping, his enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and went away. When the wheat sprouted and formed heads, then the weeds also appeared.

“The owner’s servants came to him and said, ‘Sir, didn’t you sow good seed in your field? Where then did the weeds come from?’

“‘An enemy did this,’ he replied.

“The servants asked him, ‘Do you want us to go and pull them up?’

“‘No,’ he answered, ‘because while you are pulling the weeds, you may uproot the wheat with them. Let both grow together until the harvest. At that time I will tell the harvesters: First collect the weeds and tie them in bundles to be burned; then gather the wheat and bring it into my barn.’” (Mt 13:24-30)

Jesus is wanting to explain what his kingdom is like. And he needs to explain it because it is so unlike anything that mankind could come up with. It is radically different – so different in fact that we might take a life-time to really understand it.

In this parable, the farmer seemed remarkably relaxed about his enemy’s economic vandalism attempt. His loyal servants want to go and fix it, but the master just instructs them to leave be,  we’ll sort it all out at harvest time. In fact, the very process of trying to separate the weeds from the grain may do actual damage to the good crop.

This is one of the parables that comes with a handy explanatory guide. We shouldn’t be too upset with ourselves if we don’t quite get it. It seems the disciples didn’t get it either on the first pass.

Then he left the crowd and went into the house. His disciples came to him and said, “Explain to us the parable of the weeds in the field.”

He answered, “The one who sowed the good seed is the Son of Man. The field is the world, and the good seed stands for the people of the kingdom. The weeds are the people of the evil one, and the enemy who sows them is the devil. The harvest is the end of the age, and the harvesters are angels.

“As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Whoever has ears, let them hear. (Mt 5:36-43)

Jesus sows the good seed of the gospel in the world. Over time, it germinates and grows, producing kingdom people. There is an enemy hard at work also, sowing a different kind of seed yielding different results. At the end of the age there will be a harvest and it’s going to matter which message you listened to. Here is your chance.

The second parable I want to consider is the Parable of the Net.

Once again, the kingdom of heaven is like a net that was let down into the lake and caught all kinds of fish. When it was full, the fishermen pulled it up on the shore. Then they sat down and collected the good fish in baskets, but threw the bad away. This is how it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.

“Have you understood all these things?”

“Yes,” they replied.

He said to them, “Therefore every teacher of the law who has become a disciple in the kingdom of heaven is like the owner of a house who brings out of his storeroom new treasures as well as old. (Mt 13:47-52)

Again we see Jesus painting a picture of the good and the bad co-existing until their day of judgment. Both the whole field and the entire catch were harvested and divided.

The disciples understood. They had probably seen a harvest or two in their lives and remembered poking sticks into the bon-fires. And the fishermen’s sons knew everything there was to know about what to do with a haul of fish. But then Jesus says something really interesting about the teachers of the Law – the highly trained Jewish teachers with detailed knowledge of the Torah and oral tradition. It was possible for someone like that to become a disciple in the kingdom. Rare, maybe, but certainly possible. Maybe Jesus was saying to his disciples – “you are up there with the teachers of the Law boys!” Or, the teacher who becomes a disciple is up there with you. This kingdom stuff is new treasure. We are not throwing away the Law – that’s a real family jewel, but what I am talking about now is a treasure also – hidden in a field or found in an oyster.

One of the unfortunate features of the church landscape throughout history  has been the tendency to line-draw. Who’s in and who’s out. Who is in fellowship and who is not. Who is a member, who can be part of our group, and who can’t be.

Reading these parables, this spirit does not appear to be a concern Jesus shared. “In my kingdom”, Jesus said, “we leave it be and sort it all out on judgment day. Don’t try and dig out  the weeds – you risk damaging the good crop”.  Perhaps “church membership” is an over-rated, possibly harmful, and un-kingdom-like concept.

 Young John received a practical lesson about this idea:

Teacher,” said John, “we saw someone driving out demons in your name and we told him to stop, because he was not one of us.” “Do not stop him,” Jesus said. “For no one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. Truly I tell you, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because you belong to the Messiah will certainly not lose their reward. (Mt 9:38-41)

Jesus was not bothered at all by the demon-buster who hadn’t signed the franchise agreement. ‘Whoever is not against us is for us” you see.

Of course, there are some passages which discuss church discipline and how it should be applied to “protect the flock”. 1 Cor 5:11 says “But now I am writing to you that you must not associate with anyone who claims to be a brother or sister but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or slanderer, a drunkard or swindler. Do not even eat with such people.”

Fair enough – you don’t want people controlled by these sins, calling themselves a brother or sister anywhere close to your fellowship. 

Trickier however, is Paul’s advice to Titus to “Warn a divisive person once, and then warn them a second time. After that, have nothing to do with them. You may be sure that such people are warped and sinful; they are self-condemned”. (Tit 3:10). This verse is probably the acid test. Fresh ideas or a progressive agenda can feel threatening in a church setting, but is it divisive in this same sense?  The line-drawer can invoke such a verse to maintain a status quo, but worth noting that Jesus and Paul, (and indeed a long list of prophets) both found themselves on the wrong side of the line (Lk 6:11Acts 13:44-46), so perhaps it’s not a bad place to be.

The gold-medal line-drawer in the New Testament would have to have been Diotrophes.

I wrote to the church, but Diotrephes, who loves to be first, will not welcome us. So when I come, I will call attention to what he is doing, spreading malicious nonsense about us. Not satisfied with that, he even refuses to welcome other believers. He also stops those who want to do so and puts them out of the church. (3 John 9)..

Diotrophes uses a trifecta of tried and true line-drawing techniques. Not welcoming others in, spreading malicious lies, and expelling those who don’t follow his way. Yet, somehow he is running that church. At every turn he has shown himself to be operating totally outside God’s kingdom through his toxic mix of lack of hospitality, lack of love, and lack of truth. John’s response is instructive, he says he will “call attention to what he is doing”. Not a tit-for-tat reply, but a bringing into the light.

 Jesus did draw some lines… The gate is still narrow (Mt 7:13-14). You still need to love your enemy to be a son or daughter of the kingdom (Mt 5:44-45). Still need to obey Jesus (Mt 7:21-23). However we would well to remember that we are not the gate-keepers- that is the spot Jesus has reserved for himself  (Jn 10).

3 Replies to “Drawing Lines”

  1. Thanks, Andrew- a passage that I have rarely heard taught over the years- too often we make ourselves out to be judge, jury & executioner. In reality none of us know what is in another’s heart & exactly where the ‘lines are drawn’. Let’s be willing to err on the side of inclusivity not exclusivity.

  2. Excellent article, Andrew!
    Creeds, membership agreements and other examples of ‘Scripture plus’ are no friend of biblical unity and lead us into drawing lines that God never intended to be drawn.
    Unity means we stay connected even though we have different opinions. Yet, many of us in the restoration movement think you’ve got to be right on everything. That’s a noble goal. But if I think that I’m right on everything, I’ve forgotten the lessons of church history and the apostolic teachings. If I think I’m right on everything… that’s bigotry!

  3. Yes, I really liked this. When anyone at all divides the body of Christ for non-essentials, this is a sin. Jesus prayed for Unity. We do not choose our brother or sister and some of us may be even converted in the desert and then disappear for while (Ethiopian eunuch)! Paul say judge nothing before the appointed time. Having said this, fellowship etc. is so biblical and I mportant. As we have families and age, attending one city centre church is likely to be less commonly practically achievable on a regular basis, so what do we do then? Dis fellowship ourselves? Or strive for the fellowship and unity that we can achieve?

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