My wife is a horsewoman. Not some mythical centaur creature but one of those—usually, it seems, female—people who are passionate about horses. She rides horses, trains horses, teaches riding lessons, and is involved in many horse-focused groups. Between us, we pick up a lot of horse manure.
Occasionally, I accompany her to horse industry events. For example, Equitana is described as the largest horse event in the Southern Hemisphere, and it happens every second year in my hometown of Melbourne. Held at the Melbourne Showgrounds, it is four days of everything equine. There are demonstrations, performances, workshops, presentations, competitions, exhibitor booths, horse merchandising, even food. It’s camp meeting for horse people.
Jesus is the foundation of who we are and how we believe together. This changes our tendency toward polarisation. It changes how we treat and trust each other. It changes how we argue and invites us to worship together, even when we disagree.
And like camp meeting, it features different groups of passionate followers. One celebrity horse trainer after another competes for disciples, insisting on their method of horse training and, of course, their books, DVDs, and other merchandise. There are sometimes heated arguments between some of the trainers, but more often between their respective followers. Interestingly, while most of the followers are women, almost all the celebrity trainers are men.
Some trainers urge their way as the only way, while others are more gracious, acknowledging that while they teach the best they know, there is more to learn, even from other trainers. Some celebrity trainers make a lot of money from selling their methods and branded products. Some of these are genuine; some are little more than snake-oil salesmen or equine televangelists. Usually less organised, others do it for the love of it, because they share a passion for horses, and want people to enjoy riding and do it safely.
Some disciples are adamant about following a single trainer. Others listen to a variety of voices, seeking to glean useful insights from different practices. Some seem to buy everything available from one trainer after another, ignoring the deep inconsistency between the some of the different methods, just happy to meet another celebrity of their horse community and add to their collection of horse stuff.
Some people become better horse riders and trainers in their own right as a result of these demonstrations, resources, and interactions. Others become increasingly confused, even discouraged. Some people go home, try these techniques, and are badly hurt. Other devoted fans have not ridden a horse in years.
Living like the world
It’s a lot like camp meeting, and many of our other church interactions and conversations. It’s a human tendency that Paul was talking about when he wrote to some believers in the Greek city of Corinth: “You are jealous of one another and quarrel with each other. Doesn’t that prove you are controlled by your sinful nature? Aren’t you living like people of the world? When one of you says, ‘I am a follower of Paul,’ and another says, ‘I follow Apollos,’ aren’t you acting just like people of the world” (1 Corinthians 3:3, 4, NLT).
Over the 11 years I have worked for the Church, I have seen the polarisation Paul described increasing in our Church. These Paul/Apollos-type divides are sometimes prompted by these leaders, probably more often because of the way we as people react to and follow them. As evidenced by Paul’s observations, it isn’t new; but certain dynamics are creating an environment for this unhealthy and growing divide.
First, it is something we see in our society as a whole. We are “acting just like people of the world,” as Paul put it. It’s in the horse community, and so many other communities. But for most of us, we see it pre-eminently in the media. We are being trained to consume, communicate, think, and react in these kinds of ways. Without conscious resistance to it and commitment to alternatives, it is inevitable that our community of faith will adopt similar ways of communication, consumption, and response.
Second, the way we interact as local faith communities is increasingly influenced by outside voices. The differences I have observed over the past decade are linked to significantly greater consumption of competing Adventist TV channels, websites, and live-streaming preachers and events.
For example, in some Adventist churches, it is now difficult to have a Sabbath school lesson discussion apart from the influence of the TV preachers who have “studied” the lesson on our behalf in the previous week. Of course, most of us tend to choose those speakers and blogs that confirm our beliefs, views, prejudices, and fears, which only entrenches our polarisations.
Because of the multiplicity of these voices, some of us tend to be more likely to argue about the big issues of the Church in the language and perspective of others, rather than engaging with each other and the more relevant issues of our local communities.
Third, some leaders and speakers foster this polarising way of interacting, increasingly in the language of extremes. It is hard to find an audience for careful, thoughtful discussion of a belief or issue. Controversy, sensationalism, and extremism get people’s attention, increase donations, and sell products. Some of the most strident independent voices around the Church today are part of large money-making enterprises, and operate with little accountability to the Church and its priorities, even if they speak that language.
We need to question where voices are coming from, what they are selling, and what accountability they have in place. And we have to resist the voices from the extremes that seem to dominate so much of our Church’s collective thinking.
Fourth, having been closely involved with a couple projects that have been the focus of bitter and vicious attacks, I can assure you that much of what has been alleged, preached, and published against them is simply untrue. Prompted by some “celebrity” voices, we are far too quick to see a conspiracy or apostasy in what might be a mere mistake or overstatement, or even a genuine desire for a different and more faithful Church. As Isaiah put it, “The Lord has given me a strong warning not to think like everyone else does. He said, ‘Don’t call everything a conspiracy, like they do, and don’t live in dread of what frightens them’” (Isaiah 8:11, 12).
As we would expect, Paul didn’t leave us with only a diagnosis. He continued to talk about the work he had done with the Corinthian church, but pointed them to the real basis for our faith and our community: “Because of God’s grace to me, I have laid the foundation like an expert builder. Now others are building on it. But whoever is building on this foundation must be very careful. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one we already have—Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 3:10, 11).
This is where camp meeting—and, more importantly, the Church—must be different from Equitana: “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God” (Psalm 20:7, ESV). Jesus is the foundation of who we are and how we believe together. This changes our tendency toward polarisation. It changes how we treat and trust each other. It changes how we argue and invites us to worship together, even when we disagree.
Our foundation in Jesus means we listen first, “respect everyone, and love your Christian brothers and sisters” (1 Peter 2:17). It means that we seek to include as many people as possible in the community, mission, and ministry of the Church and affirm the good work we see others doing. It means we can give our best energy to working together to love others and share the hope we have, rather than trying to set each other right. It means out first attitude is to serve one another and our world, together.
“Don’t you realise that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple,” Paul concluded in this part his letter to the Corinthians. “So don’t boast about following a particular human leader. For everything belongs to you—whether Paul or Apollos or Peter, or the world, or life and death, or the present and the future. Everything belongs to you, and you belong to Christ, and Christ belongs to God” (1 Corinthians 3:16, 21–23).
Church is not just another community group with a common interest. Camp meeting must not be merely Equitana for Jesus fans. And, though we need discernment (see 1 Thess. 5:19–22), we cannot afford to continue to divide ourselves into market segments for the fan-base, viewership, or profits of others, whatever they might be selling.
When Jesus is the centre of our lives, our faith, and our Church, we will be drawn together in ways that are surprising to us, and to those around us. As Jesus said, “Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples” (John 13:35). Often this is not easy, which is probably why Jesus stated it as a commandment (see John 13:34), demanding our attention, effort, and practice.
And this is why we need to ever renew our focus on and rebuild our foundation in Jesus, the One who changes hearts, gives us new eyes and ears, and new ways of experiencing and growing His kingdom of grace and goodness, truth and justice and beauty. Which should transform us, inspire us, and unite us.
Nathan Brown is a book editor for Signs Publishing in Warburton, Victoria, Australia.