Now that the hot political season is basically behind us – at the time of this writing, Biden will most likely be sworn in as President – some reflection would do us some good. “Us” being the church.
GK, Hit Me
The church is one animal with lots of different spots. But those spots are placed there by the animal’s Creator, by grace alone, through Christ alone. As with your family, you can’t choose your siblings in Christ. They are chosen for you, by the One who gave you spiritual rebirth. Thus an authentic church functions like a small town. For some of us, “like a small town” means good things. For others, not so much. But G.K. Chesterton shows the wisdom of a small town:
It is not fashionable to say much nowadays of the advantages of the small community. We are told that we must go in for large empires and large ideas. There is one advantage, however, in the small state, the city, or the village, which only the wilfully blind can overlook. The man who lives in a small community lives in a much larger world. He knows much more of the fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men. The reason is obvious. In a large community we can choose our companions. In a small community our companions are chosen for us. Thus in all extensive and highly civilized societies groups come into existence founded upon what is called sympathy, and shut out the real world more sharply than the gates of a monastery. There is nothing really narrow about the clan; the thing which is really narrow is the clique. The men of the clan live together because they all wear the same tartan or are all descended from the same sacred cow; but in their souls, by the divine luck of things, there will always be more colours than in any tartan. But the men of the clique live together because they have the same kind of soul, and their narrowness is a narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment, like that which exists in hell. A big society exists in order to form cliques. A big society is a society for the promotion of narrowness. It is a machinery for the purpose of guarding the solitary and sensitive individual from all experience of the bitter and bracing human compromises. It is, in the most literal sense of the words, a society for the prevention of Christian knowledge.
-“On Certain Modern Writers and the Institution of the Family”, Heretics (1905)
The member of a small town knows the “fierce varieties and uncompromising divergences of men”, because, unlike in a big town, “in a small community our companions are chosen for us.” Note the great irony: though everyone in a clan wears the same tartan (he’s thinking of the Scots here), within that clan there will always be more diversity than colors in that tartan. But those who assemble together out of “sympathy”, out of having “the same soul” will necessarily be more narrow, like a clique.
Why Southerners Make the Best New Yorkers
Thus, as I’ve heard it said, rural Southerners make the best New Yorkers – because they bring with them the valuable “larger world” knowledge of the fierce, uncompromising divergences of men. The small town chap is actually more suited for life in the big, bad city, because he’s learned to live with both Parson Brown and the village idiot, and every doggone person in between. He’s even learned to get by when the parson and the idiot are the same person. He’s had to. The small society taught him so.
But in larger societies – be they churches or big cities, we can narrow our scope. At first Chesterton calls this a “narrowness of spiritual coherence and contentment”. We can choose whom we associate with. Which frankly sounds like how many choose and stay in a church. But then Chesterton gets sharp – it’s actually the community of hell (!) – hell being a society of people who chose their own way, their own path, their own place, their own friends. Hell is a clique.
Because in order to guard myself and narrow my experience to avoid the undesirable, I must separate myself from the only place that “Christian knowledge” – the gospel – is found, in Christ. I must separate myself from the only context where truth-that-sets-us-free thrives. That is, the true church, where all kinds of sinners congregate, to receive the Word, and enjoy the sacraments, and live and love together, waiting for His return.
Cycles of Differences
And while we wait, we go through election cycles, where our “fierce varieties of uncompromising divergences” are exposed to each other. And we learn afresh the lessons of “small town life”. And in learning them, we actually become the most useful people in the world. But we only learn the lessons if we hang in there, trusting Christ for his wise selection of our siblings, and therefore keep listening to each other.
The first lesson for when there is political conversation is obvious. That is, the person expressing their opinion should know that someone else may hold a differing opinion. So then, they should express their “fierce and uncompromising opinion” in such a way that leaves room for further conversation with someone of a “diverging fierce and uncompromising opinion”. Or at least they should not be surprised when a diverging opinion is expressed. After all, there’s only one pub in this one-horse town, and we might have to share that bar on Friday night, right?
But this is not the only implication. When it is the only implication, the fear of offending those who may disagree can become a soft but tyrannical censorship that turns the church into a false, fake fellowship. Then there is no glory in the diversity – the glory is squelched by staying on the narrow path of non-offense.
Which leads to another implication: that talk about issues that have implications for politics is not the same thing as “talking politics”. To say that one is for ending abortion is a statement that has immediate and important political ramifications. But that does not make the subject of abortion an inherently political thing. No, Warren Burger tried to make it an inherently political thing a long time ago, but look how that worked out?
No, we Christians know better, because we have wisdom that can make us the most open-minded people out there. Because we can know that while one person’s side of the story may sound plausible, we should wait until the other person comes along, and tells their side:
Proverbs 18:17 The one who states his case first seems right,
until the other comes and examines him.
And for an issue like abortion, or election fraud, and many others, multiple sides to the story always exist. The open-minded listen and have “fierce, diverging and uncompromising opinions”. The “small town folk” of a genuine church have learned to live in the wider world, because they know that both can happen at the same time.
And that wisdom for living in the wider world comes by keeping the gospel at the center of all things. That it was God in Christ’s sovereign will to make this numbskull-I-can’t-believe-they-believe-that a brother that I will spend eternity with. And that whatever sight to see the world as it truly is was not created by me but was given to me through creation and regeneration, by grace alone, through Christ alone:
2 Corinthians 4:4b . . . the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. 5 For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. 6 For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.
With that viewpoint, the rest of the world opens up to us. It’s no wonder that growth in human knowledge has not advanced in the world coincidentally with government spending on education, but by the advance of the gospel, and the church. This “small town” tends to churn out wise people – and societies.
Persevering in This Small Town
But in order to persevere in this “small town life”, our primary, functional identity must come from the foot of the cross, where we were made members of The Church by the blood of our head, Christ. We must remember where we come from, spiritually speaking.
When our “team” is defined by a Truth that came as a baby on Christmas, and died on a cross and rose out of an empty grave on Easter – when our identity comes from the gospel, from Ephesians, and not our career, or an ideology, or a party, or any other team – then we are set free by that Truth, free from the tyrannical differences that divide the West.
And this identity frees us to then love each other, in the big things, but also in the little moments. In how we greet each other – mask to no mask; in how we respond to the person who saved “our seat”; in how we roll with song selections; in how we respond to Facebook comments and likes – and especially dislikes. It frees us to love in the small things. And it’s love in the small things that makes the church a truly safe place, to speak, and listen, and keep walking, together.