Differing opinions in the church (November 19, 2023)

If we believe God’s faithfulness is creating new life within each person, then pressuring others to conform to a particular version of faith fails to honor the Spirit, writes Ted Foote, Jr.

Outlook Standard Lesson for November 19, 2023
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Colossians 2:6-23

The pre-story

This study focuses on verses from the New Testament letter to the church at Colossae, Colossians. Colossae was a town in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey) where Paul began a church after his conversion. Some Bible specialists date the letter to the 60s BCE. Others think it was written in either the 70s or early 80s.

There is no complete agreement on whether Paul himself or a close student and colleague of Paul’s wrote the letter. Gunther Bornkamm notes in his book Paul that tradition says that the apostle was executed in Rome in the early to mid-60s during Emperor Nero’s persecutions. If that is true, a later date of origin for Colossians to the Colossians would require that a student-colleague of Paul’s wrote it.

The authorship question, though, is far less important than the issues addressed in the letter. Paul (or the student-colleague after Paul) expresses a concern that some members of the Colossae church may feel pressure from others to conform their beliefs based on the expectations or demands of others. People can say, “Unity is important,” but they mean “uniformity.”

In this letter, though, all are encouraged to hold firmly to God’s faithfulness in Jesus Christ (2:6-7). When we do so, the author writes, we are united together by God’s grace, wholeness, and salvation (2:10).

Amid differences, respect grows and changes God’s people

Who hasn’t wondered if your personal perspective on faith is in line with Jesus’ teachings? Plenty of people and groups are certain that their specific interpretation of faith, discipleship, and citizenship is more important and “truer” than many others. According to them, we should unquestioningly embrace what they believe and teach. This sort of pressure can come from religious leaders in faith communities, family members and friends, even from promoters of cultural and political viewpoints.

If we believe God’s faithfulness is creating new life through Jesus Christ within each person, then pressuring and manipulating others so they will conform to a particular version of faith fails to honor God’s efforts in Christ’s Spirit. God’s life in Jesus continually coming-to-life among God’s people should be honored as a necessary part of being a faith community with diversity. It’s also how we grow as a larger human community, recognizing that we all belong to God.

From this perspective, Paul writes: “Do not let anyone condemn you …” (v. 16) and “Do not let anyone disqualify you …” (v. 18). Respect for each other means we realize and affirm that we are not of one mind in all matters. God’s call and claim in Jesus Christ includes supporting others’ diverse perspectives with freedom from coercion by anyone, including ourselves. We trust that God’s Spirit in Jesus Christ is always at work, empowering and transforming each person.

We trust that God’s Spirit in Jesus Christ is always at work, empowering and transforming each person.

Equipped and engaged

Professor Eddie Glaude Jr. writes in Begin Again: James Baldwin’s America and Its Urgent Lessons for Our Own: “When we imprison others in categories, we cut off their humanity from our own. We end up imprisoning ourselves.”

In “Briefly It Enters and Briefly Speaks,” American poet Jane Kenyon refers to the moments of in-breaking when God’s communication with people is experienced: “I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper … I am the one whose love overcomes you, already with you when you think to call my name.”

We can disregard any person or group pressuring us to uniformity with their version or practice of faith (v. 16), and we don’t need to disqualify ourselves (v. 18). God accepts us, and in Christ, we are growing to be better versions of ourselves (vv. 6-7). We are continually being made new until we “come to fullness in Jesus Christ” (v. 10a) because, in Kenyon’s words, God “whose love overcomes us, is already among us when we think to call God’s name.”

Questions for discussion

  1. Have you ever witnessed a person or group pressuring someone to believe or act in a certain way? How did they or you resist or break free from that pressure?
  2. If we “embrace Jesus Christ’s acceptance,” what might we experience further, if “following the leadership of God’s Spirit in Christ”? How is respect for each other a “game-changer?”
  3. Have you ever experienced someone respecting your values and faith when you knew they were coming from a different perspective? How does respect beget respect?

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