17) Jesus and "The Third Race" | Prof. Donald Goertz

Is following Jesus about choosing the correct side? It seems that for every global event, ethical debate, family squabble, or doctrinal issue, Christians bifurcate and respond according to our political leaning, gender, nationality, class, or religion. With sides further entrenching, one has to wonder how there is a better, more constructive way. While deeply flawed, the early churches provided a waypoint for moving forward: they subverted their own labels. First- and second-century Jesus-followers were renown for being lights in their community and for being an attractive and desirable alternative in repudiating the status quo and upholding the radical, all-inclusive teachings of Jesus - so much so that they were known as "the third race." Can the North American churches return to these ancient roots?

This week, Mark sits down with Donald Goertz - professor, church historian, missiologist, and Director of In-Ministry MDiv program at Tyndale Seminary. Donald shares how being born in Africa and then moving back to Canada in elementary school had a profound impact on his sensitivity to the feeling of being displaced. He talks about starting to ask hard questions in his university years, being invited to leave churches, and how social activism was instrumental in his return to Jesus. He then sketches the mandate of the early churches as they understood themselves and opines that it is our "lowering the bar" of commitment, ethic, and engagement that proves to be the scourge of our contemporary church assemblies. Taking up the call of Jesus means relentlessly working to break down the walls of hostility so endemic to our nature; Donald implores us not to gather out of affinity, but rather as a people faithful to the call to live together in difference as the hope of the world.


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Notable Quotes from Donald Goertz 

"Winnipeg has a long history of being fairly activist - the universities there - and I was right downtown attending the University of Winnipeg and got quite involved in activism. But I also got ultimately pushed out of the church, because I kept asking questions. And I was asked to leave. They thought it would be better if I didn't attend. So I was asked to leave some of the best churches in Winnipeg, and as a result I essentially gave up on Christianity. So for me the journey back was through some of my political activism."

"Then I came to a place where I loved Jesus but I didn't really like Christians. So that was a huge problem because I had been not-very-gently asked to leave quite a number of churches over the years and had begun to study church as sociological phenomena. That was part of what had gotten me acceptance into a PhD program was my study of evangelical churches from a phenomenological perspective. And so Christians were to me an interesting object of study. Jesus was really intriguing and I could follow that guy, but I wasn't sure about the church. And so that for me became the huge struggle."

"It was very easy to explain why [churches] were doing what they were doing sociologically. I could look at the community; I could analyze it I could break it apart and say, 'Okay here's why this has appeal.' And in the 70s, there were still a lot of churches growing. There was lots of vibrancy and energy around the evangelical movement, so it was her easy to explain it as a purely sociological phenomenon. And to me that's all it was. But the way the community was constructed and the way it understood its role vis-à-vis outsiders and its openness to actually engage in questions was a terrible problem for me because ultimately the church as I understood Jesus was to be a place where the outsiders were welcomed, the people from the margins found home, and all questions could be asked. And that certainly wasn't the case in the churches that I had experience in."

"The big thing the church has to always wrestle with is, 'what is our DNA? What are we all about?' And then be very intentional in terms of cultivating it. Ao I would say the heart of the gospel as we see it in the New Testament is about the breaking down the dividing walls of hostility. So everywhere you read in Jesus you see that. Jesus is always connecting with people who you wouldn't normally connect with."

"With Jesus the outsider is always coming in. And Paul says the mark of what it means to be in Christ is there is no more male nor female, Jew nor Greek, slave nor free… All those - the racial and gender, the socioeconomic boundaries - they're all broken down. And Ephesians chapter 2 talks about the breaking down the dividing walls of hostility and the church becoming a new humanity. And so for the early church they call themselves the third race. We are a whole new people."

"We posit our identity on things like - usually our profession. So I'm a professor or I'm a banker or I'm a teacher or I'm a doctor or I'm a nurse or whatever, and the first thing when people ask us about ourselves, we talk about what we do. For the early church they posited their identity in the fact that they were in Christ and so that gave them a point of commonality which was greater and transcended all these other points of division. So they saw themselves as a family, as a household. So they use the language of oikos. And it was a very scandalous in the way that they played that out."

"I think for us as a church when we think about how we invite people in, what do we want to be? What we think that we are called to be? Are we a collection of converted individuals who we've all had some kind of experience of Jesus and we come together as individuals and we try to make something happen? Or are we people who like Paul talks about where we are all this body, where we are all organically connected with shared blood pulsing through our veins whether we're the hand or the foot or whatever but it's an organic entity, not a collection of individuals?"

"Even when we talk about the spiritual gifts like that - being a foot or being the hand or being the ear or whatever - we still tend to individualize it in our language as Christians and we turn it into work: so, 'you're the hand therefore you should be doing this or your gift is this so you should be doing that' as opposed to thinking about, 'what does it mean to be organically connected and how do we become an entity which actually works and moves as a unit and therefore is able to accomplish these incredible things because we are functioning together and supporting each other and sharing the same blood which pulses through all of our veins?'"

"If you believe the breaking down the dividing wall of hostility is the DNA of the church, then home churches should vary and intentionally be constructed around diversity rather than affinity. And so one should not allow groups to be formed around affinity because it's the one who is unlike me who's going to challenge me and push me and help me to grow.... The ones who are like me are simply going to humor my own idiosyncrasies and my own blind spots."

"We do construct our house groups and home churches in ways which focus primarily on affinity. And so we say, 'the DNA of the church is not really about pushing and striving for growth; the DNA of the church is about getting people together who like each other.' And we call that a success. But the possibility for growth is very limited in groups like that because we basically have one perspective and some variations of that but basically we're all the same."

"The question becomes, 'do we want to be the church or don't we?' That's the fundamental question isn't it? Do we want to be the church or don't we? And if we want to be the church, then what actually is the church? And I think for us as Christians we've so lowballed everything - we've set the bar at such a low rate that the only thing that really matters is, 'did you commit your life to Jesus?' 'Okay, I did.' 'Well everything's okay. Everything else beyond that is purely optional.' And the question of 'what does it mean to be increasingly living this like Jesus and being this sign to the world that there is another way' is not on our radar screen. We're very much caught in the same models and the same goals and the same aspirations as everybody else in our own profession."

"The idea of this being something which is a radically different way of being, that this is something which is counterintuitive and counterculture, that this is a whole other kingdom which touches every aspect of my life... that's just not there in our faith."

"You don't really know the doctrines until you actually live it. And so the Bible talks about hearing: 'Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one.' That's the heart of Jewish faith right? And we're always called to hear. Well, I haven't heard until I've changed. There's a lot of noise going on around me, I'm listening to a lot of things, but haven't actually heard it until my life has changed."

"We have a lot of Christians throughout history who hear a lot of things with their ears but they don't actually change their life. They live lives and make decisions based on the same criteria as everyone else does and so the church and Christians don't look different in terms of our value system than everybody else except that we think about sex differently and we think about death differently. Beyond that, we don't have a lot of uniqueness - and we go to church every so often."

"We have this ongoing problem because we regularly talk about what it means to be the church, but we don't try to embed it into the DNA. Because it costs something. To embed it into the DNA, we ask people to make some hard choices if you want to be part of the community."

"There is a big difference between individualism and individuality. Individualism is something which our culture has become very focused on, that is: I'm the centre of my universe. Individuality as we understand it and much of the church throughout history is that I only discover the fullness of who I am within the context of community. And so I reach the fullness of my potential as a human being when I'm in community which challenges me, which pushes me, which supports me, which calls me on things, which names stuff that needs to be named, and in doing that I become something which I can only become in that. And if I'm alone... I become very self-centered. And in doing that it becomes difficult for me to reach my full potential."

"The way the Christian church understands it is that I'm not fully reaching my potential unless I'm in relationship. So when we talk about, 'what does it mean to be made in the image of God which is the heart of what we understand this faith to be and what it means to be human historically,' we've said 'to be made in the image of God is the desire to love and be loved.'"

"The first mark of a good church is that it hurts you. Because we all know from family that to move into a relationship - to be close to somebody - sooner or later youre going to get hurt. That's what it means to be in relationship. And the second mark of a healthy community is that you know what to do about it. You know how to bring about reconciliation and healing."

"We've tried to make it as easy as possible to get in rather than saying, 'To become a follower of Jesus, bottom line, it's going to cost you everything.'"

"You read Jesus. You read the Gospels - Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. You read the story of Jesus over and over again. There should never be a day in your life when you don't read something from one of the four Gospels. If we want to look like Jesus, then we need to know the story. We need to know what he was about - the way he acted."

"What kind of person do I have to become for the Sermon on the Mount to begin to make sense to me? Because it doesn't make any sense naturally. It's a crazy thing. But it's the heart of the whole story. It's the heart of the whole book from beginning to end - the whole book is the Sermon on the Mount. It's the pulling together and distilling of Jesus's teaching."

"Christianity has always had to wrestle with its dark side because I think the thing we as a church have struggled at times to do is to embrace the fact that we are people on a journey. In Christianity, we always say we are in the process of becoming. We are in the process of being transformed. And a healthy church has a lot of messiness in it because we have a lot of people who are brand-new to the journey. And we bring people and who are wounded and broken and we begin to grow together, but we don't instantly overnight become these perfect Jesus clones."

"I think we have failed to embrace the fact that we are a church which, if we are doing what we do well, we're bringing in people who are ex-offenders, who have done really nasty things in their community, and we bring in people who have been involved in all kinds of things that go on around drugs and on the street and we bring in people who have been in business who swindled other people and we bring in people who are broken and wounded - which is all of us in different ways. And we are all on a journey. And we've oftentimes failed to acknowledge the fact that were on a journey."

"I think that's the biggest problem that so much of the church has faced throughout history is the disconnect between what we talk about and what we are in reality because we have not framed it in the process of journey."

"The question that we all face as a church is – especially when churches are declining and Christianity is struggling in Canada and now increasingly in the US - is we are desperate to get people in and so we make it as easy as possible to get in rather than saying, 'Do you actually want to become part of this? Here's what it's talking about. It's not just about a simple affirmation or a mental assent to something. It's actually about something much much bigger. Do you really want to take the risk of becoming part of a community which is like this? Because it will cost you. It will change your world big-time.'"

"Hope is the most important thing that any culture can have....  Hope is this belief that something better can actually be there. And so politicians will frame visions of hope, but what happens is we never actually see it and we lose hope because we don't see any of these dreams actually being fulfilled. We are seeing increasing tribalization and increasing fragmentation. We're seeing barriers and divisions."

"I think for me, the church being a place where the dividing wall of hostility is broken down - where these barriers are broken down - provides for the GTA the vision of the model of what hope can be: here's a place - not that we're perfect, but we're working towards - we are committed to struggling towards, we're committed to sacrificing towards - becoming something where these dividing walls are broken. And I think if we get that, then the church is a sign of hope to our culture that there is a possibility of something different."

"Our lives have to intersect a little bit more than they do in most models of what it means to be the church where we come because we like the community, we have affinities with it, but we might be driving from Oshawa to downtown Toronto or from Oakville to downtown Toronto to be part of a community. And at that point, it ceases to be a community. And so for me, that is I think the most important thing that we can begin to do is to think about how we work that out because there is nothing that Canada and the GTA needs more than hope. Can something more be realized? Is it possible to be a community where these barriers are no longer there?"

Next Week, Episode 18:

Guest: Ryan Robinson - author, blogger, Anabaptist MennoNerd