We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Friday, September 23, 2011

Fruit of the Spirit (xv)

FPC, Lowville, NY
This is the fifteenth posting in a series working on what it means to be a church, based on eight criteria the Mars Hill Church uses to define its branch congregations as churches. The series began (here). We continue to consider the fifth criterion in the Mars Hill list of criteria for being a church, which is, "The church is unified by God the Holy Spirit."

In Galatians 5:16-26, Paul describes "the fruit of the Spirit" both negatively and positively. Verses 22-23 are among the most well-known verses of the Bible and enumerate nine ways in which the Spirit is at work in the world. We believe that wherever we find any of these nine qualities evident, the Spirit is working for the building of God's peaceable, loving, and inclusive Kingdom. It's interesting that "unity" isn't on the list.  However, if we consider Paul's list of things the fruit of the Spirit is not, then we find that , among other things, it is not enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, dissensions, factions, and envy (5:20-21), which is to say that the Spirit does inspire unity.  Paul, among other things, does call on his Christian readers to practice unity.

That being said, it seems that Mars Hill's fifth criterion's emphasis on unity is too narrowly constructed considering how much more the Spirit seeks to weave into our lives than just unity.  I'd like to suggest that we might broaden number five to read something like, "The church is marked by the work of God the Holy Spirit."  Or, maybe, "The church, as the seed of God's kingdom, is constantly being reconstructed by the Holy Spirit in ways that lead to love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. (Galatians 5:22-23)"  Indeed, focusing on unity alone can almost seem like a concern to maintain control over the church; that is, the Spirit keeps people from behaving or thinking in ways that might sow discord in the church.  That may be the case generally—depending on what we mean by discord—but sometimes the Spirit actually works by creating discord and conflict in a church where "bad" behaviors such as tyranny, arrogance, quarrels, and so forth are all too evident.  In their calls for justice and a return to God, for example, the prophets of the Old Testament frequently sowed discord and broke rather than preserved the unity of God's people.

In sum, the Spirit works on hearts and minds to the end that we all—not just church folks—might experience the fruit of the Spirit in our own lives. Our task in the church is to be as responsive as we can to that work and then to share its fruit with others.  Amen.