In his recent insightful article on the Gospel Coalition, Pastor Jeremy Linneman argues that (in America at least) people’s already-weak friendships have been diminished and replaced by screen time and ‘faction friendships’ (friendships based on social-political alignment and little else) which have pushed both the society and the church to further polarization.
My own experience as a Pastor suggests that this is not just happening in America. Too many Christians, on both sides of the controversies occasioned by covid, have retreated into their own tribe, making someone’s view of covid, lockdowns or facemasks the shibboleth of orthodoxy. Too many Christians have strained out gnats and swallowed camels—taking strong stands over covid protocols as if fundamental doctrines like the deity of Christ or justification were at stake, while ignoring the crystal clear and far weightier commands like our duty to love one another and consider others more important than ourselves.
And so we have Christians who will not speak to another Christian if he is wearing a facemask—or unless he is wearing a facemask. There are Christians who are suddenly hailing as heroes those with whom they have very little in common on any other issue, but because they are ‘sound’ on the covid question that’s all that matters.
But what unites Christians is far more profound and enduring than some transient political issue. We are joined to Christ by the Holy Spirit and that makes us one with Him and one with one another. This should mean that the most diverse and unlikely combinations of people work in the church, because what unites us is so much more important than any secondary or tertiary issues on which we might differ.
Isn’t this what we see in the New Testament? In Christ Jesus you are all sons of God, through faith. For as many of you as were baptized into Christ have put on Christ. There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is neither male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Gal 3.26-28). Paul is not saying that we are to pretend that these distinctions don’t exist among us—simply that they ought not to hinder our unity in Christ.
Perhaps there is no clearer illustration of this than in the twelve disciples, the foundation stones of the church, the new Israel. As is the foundation, so should the church be. Surely it is significant that when Jesus chose his disciples, he didn’t choose twelve men who were all the same and thought alike.
Just think of how diverse their backgrounds and personalities were. Andrew was self-effacing and humble, while James and John pushed themselves forwards to seek the places of honour at Jesus right and left in glory. Jesus’ nickname for James and John was ‘the sons of thunder’. Remember how they wanted to call fire down from heaven to nuke the Samaritan villages who rejected Jesus? And how they tried to stop someone who was casting out demons in Jesus’ name because he wasn’t ‘one of us’?
Then there was Thomas—a bit of an ‘Eeyore-like’ pessimist if ever there was one. He doesn’t say much in the Gospels, but when he does speak it’s from a glass half-empty perspective (though all the more courageous for that). When Jesus is resolved to go to Jerusalem and can’t be dissuaded, Thomas says, ‘Let us go with him that we may die with him.’ (Jn 11.16) He can’t bring himself to believe that Jesus really has risen from the dead until he sees it with his own eyes (and feels it with his own hands!).
Perhaps especially relevant to these covid times, there was Simon the Zealot—a passionately anti-Roman nationalist who had dedicated his life to the cause of freedom, resisting in every way possible the ungodly, pagan government of his country. But Jesus also called Levi (Matthew)—a tax-collector, regarded by the Jews in general, and by the Zealots in particular, as a cowardly collaborator and compromiser with the Romans. Putting the two of them together could have been (and perhaps often was) an explosive mix of polarized views.
And yet Jesus doesn’t only choose moderate centrists for the Twelve. He doesn’t decide that it would be too uncomfortable and challenging to have such a mix of views and temperaments among the disciples. No doubt it was often difficult—these ordinary, sinful men lived together in very stressful and challenging circumstances for long periods of time. The Gospels give us very candid eyewitness insights into life among the Twelve and it clearly wasn’t sweet, unbroken fellowship!
Mark 9.33-34: And they came to Capernaum. And when he was in the house he asked them, "What were you discussing on the way?" But they kept silent, for on the way they had argued with one another about who was the greatest.Can you imagine what that conversation must have sounded like?! In Luke 22.24, even after eating the Passover together, they’re still at it: A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.
But Jesus chose these men to be the foundation of the church. He clearly didn’t think these significant differences should prevent the Twelve from loving one another and working together. Nor is there any reason to think Simon gave up his political convictions just because he was one of the Twelve—he continues to be called ‘Simon the Zealot’.
Jesus united the disciples around something far more important than superficial differences like these. He didn’t choose twelve men like himself, but by his word and Spirit he made them like himself. And that’s what the Lord continues to do in his disciples today. We don’t all have to think the same on every issue. It’s OK to have a range of political views within the church. What matters is that we never let these things interfere with the clear, new, overarching commandment to love one another (Jn 13.34-5). By loving one another, regardless of our views on controversial issues, we bear witness to the world that we are truly Jesus’ disciples. The disagreements that covid has brought are unpleasant and challenging, but they are also an opportunity for Christians to show that our unity is a supernatural reality—that we are one in Christ.
Faction friendships are easy—even the most ungodly of sinners can get on with those they agree with. The Lord Jesus is building his church based on something much deeper.