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Why We Practice Theological Hospitality (Part 2)

Jan 1, 2020

Written by David Williams, President, Taylor Seminary and Greg Henson, President, Sioux Falls Seminary

Here’s one common way we tend to view difference: those who are different are wrong. If I am right and you disagree with me then you must be wrong. This is a posture to position differences in a power relationship that too often leads to us defending ourselves (rather than truth) and promoting self-deception. We noted that viewing difference through Jesus invites us to take into consideration the interests of others rather than those of ourselves and promotes epistemic humility. Now we are going to look at difference through a couple of other lenses as well.

Although difference is sometimes an issue of truth and error, it isn’t always. Some differences aren’t really a judgement of right or wrong. This next lens, what I call the ecclesiological lens, invites us to see difference in a much more constructive way. It comes from First Corinthians and is what Paul is trying to help the Corinthians to see regarding another kind of difference within the Christian community. I want to call particular attention to chapter 12: 4-7:

4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

There is so much we could unpack from this passage but what is important for us to hear in this context is that there are differences that can actually serve the common good. There is substantial, important diversity that is necessary to achieve the good God wants us to achieve. Paul develops this way of thinking about difference into one of the most powerful metaphors for the church: the human body. There are many different parts to a body and each is necessary for the body to function as it should.

In the Kairos project, theological hospitality is a practice that recognizes that the Spirit activates differences among Christians so that the Body of Christ may do its work in the world. As Paul asks the Corinthians he asks us as well, “what good would it be if the whole body were but an eye, a foot, or an ear? What would become of the work of the body?” We believe that we should be hospitable because in our inhospitality we may be rejecting something the Spirit is giving us that is necessary to do the work the Spirit has called us to do. The body can’t do its work without all the parts.

The third lens for viewing difference that I talked about at the Gathering also plays an important role in our practice of theological hospitality. This lens also recognizes that difference is a work of the Spirit but different than the work highlighted in the ecclesiological lens. Through this lens we see that we practice theological hospitality to help us remain open to the new things the Spirit is doing in our midst. I call it the pneumatological lens, or simply, the Spirit lens.

I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that the most significant theological conflict for the New Testament church was how the earliest believers (all Jewish) were going to incorporate the new Gentile believers into their communities of faith. We can hardly imagine the impact of the inclusion of the Gentiles into the covenant community of Israel.

Imagine yourself in Peter’s place in Acts 10. As a Jewish man, Peter knew that the dietary restrictions of the Torah were central to what it meant to be faithful to God. Nevertheless, in his vision God tells him to eat things that God had consistently and very explicitly told the Jews to not do! How could that be? Imagine the confusion he must have been experiencing. Imagine the challenge to everything he knew to be true about being faithful to God.

With a knock on the door, Peter figures out that the dream isn’t really about what he eats, but about his Gentile visitor and whether or not he would be a guest in Cornelius’ home. Of course, it didn’t take long before the whole thing did become an issue of eating as well. Imagine the disruption given the Torah’s teaching about clean and unclean food, how Jews were to act around Gentiles, what it meant to be circumcised or uncircumcised, and how one was to be faithful to the Torah. Following Jesus was turning both Jew and Gentile’s worlds upside-down.

Now, we know the end of the story and that the Jerusalem Council discerned that all this disruption and change and the new directives for how to engage with Gentiles, whether or not the new male converts were to be circumcised, and the new way for Jews to be faithful to the Torah was the work of God’s Spirit in their midst. Acts 15: 28 records the discernment made that “it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us…”

This is instructive for theological hospitality because sometimes conflict comes because the Holy Spirit is doing something new and it just takes time for everyone to get on board with it. In the meantime one can expect “no little conflict” arising. I suspect this happens any time God does something new. It takes time for the Spirit to work throughout the community. And, who would have thought of the magnitude of the changes the Spirit would inspire in these early believers.

Of course, it’s not like the disciples hadn’t been warned that this was coming. Jesus had told them to expect this sort of thing. In John 16:12 Jesus tells them that the Spirit would come and “guide them into all truth.” They couldn’t have conceived of what this would actually mean for them.

When I think of this exchange, I am always reminded of that scene from the movie A Few Good Men when Jack Nicholson’s character, Colonel Nathan Jessup, is being badgered on the witness stand by the defense attorney (played by Tom Cruise) to “tell the truth” about whether or not he had ordered an illegal “code red” disciplinary act. At last Jessup explodes in frustration: “You can’t handle the truth!” I enjoy imagining the disciples pressing Jesus as to just what this truth is into which the Spirit would guide them? His response would have surely been “you can’t handle the truth.”

This lens helps us recognize that we practice theological hospitality because we know that the Spirit of Christ will lead us into truth for which we had previously been unprepared. Although it may cause us to leave behind clear and explicit previously received and unquestioned acts of faithfulness, the Spirit is at work moving us into the new creation which God is bringing about.

These three lenses, the Christological, ecclesiological, and pneumatological, or the Jesus, church, and Spirit lenses provide us insight into why the practice of theological hospitality is so important for the Kairos Project. I want to add one more important reason why we need to practice theological hospitality: self-identity.

Theological hospitality is crucial for having a deep understanding of who we are. We tend to think that identity is most powerfully formed in communities of like-mindedness. That, no doubt, has its place and offers benefits as well. But what we are discovering is that without diversity we don’t really understand the important things which make us

who we are, at least in comparison to others. We need each other to challenge each other, to hold each other accountable, to learn to see what we can’t see without those who see differently than we do. It is in communities of difference that we more deeply

learn what is most determinative about who we are. The Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas talked about it as the “epistemic necessity of the other.”

For these reasons, and many more, theological hospitality is an essential practice of the Kairos Project. As we see it, as we learn to practice theological hospitality we open ourselves up to the work of the Spirit in a way that is essential for our being faithful to who God has called us to be. We learn to see difference, not as a challenge to faithfulness but rather as a gift from God to help us become more like Jesus. We believe becoming more like Jesus is at the heart of the Kairos journey and necessary to faithfully become the people God has called us to be.

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