Two years ago Dan Russ’ church faced a painful division. Some called it a church plant; others defined it as a church split. This is an excerpt from a talk Dan delivered to an adult education class on how church families can navigate rough waters with love and humility.
Almost 30 years ago a friend told me I must read William Bridges’ book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes. When Bridges—an English professor caught up in the hopes and turmoil of the 1960s—realized his own life was in flux, he went to a library to find books on the subject. To his surprise, almost nothing was being written on coping with life’s constant changes.
So Bridges did the only thing an intellectual knows to do: He organized a conference and wrote a book. Among many important insights in Bridges’ book, none is more foundational than his distinction between change and transition:
It isn’t the changes that do you in, it’s the transitions. Change is not the same as transition. Change is situational: the new site, the new boss, the new team roles, the new policy. Transition is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with the new situation. Change is external, transition is internal.
Endings, the Neutral Zone, and Beginnings
Transitions start with endings: letting go of the old while starting the new. The second phase of working through transitions is what Bridges calls the neutral zone: “an empty or fallow time in between” endings and the new beginning. This period is marked by confusion in the most literal sense. The past is not past, and the new beginning has not yet happened. The final phase of transitions is new beginnings: “the reorientation and renewal of our lives.” So we need to be willing to grieve endings, stay in the neutral zone to learn all we can, and then move on.
But Bridges cautions that the human tendency, and especially that of us Americans, is to dismiss the past, leap over the neutral zone, and embrace the new beginnings without honoring the past or learning anything from it. “Move on” is the mantra of this mentality and a great temptation for many of us, including me.
We Are Not Alone
As in all such matters, we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses revealed in the Scriptures and witnessed to in the history of the Church. By the grace and power of God and obedience and leadership of Moses, Israel’s change was simple. They left Egypt and slavery for the Promised Land and freedom. But they discovered in the wilderness that they couldn’t get Egypt and the slave mentality out of their minds and hearts. They were free outwardly but had to learn to be free inwardly.
They found themselves longing for the predictability and even comforts of Egypt. To paraphrase Tocqueville’s description of many American immigrants, they knew what they wanted to be free from but not what they wanted to be free for.
A generation had to die off before they could learn the lessons of the past and move on to the Promised Land. They were given the Law through Moses to map the journey both before and after the 40 years in the wilderness, but it would take many years for them to internalize that Law and live into the shalom God intended for them. The map would guide them, but the map is not the journey.
Early Church Unity . . .
Likewise, the Book of Acts describes the journey of the early Church from Jewish cult to a new humanity: neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female. But this was not an easy transition for those mostly Jewish apostles who would have to give up the temple, be thrown out of the synagogues, and leave behind many of their sacred rituals and traditions. They lost much and grieved that loss.
Indeed, much of the Acts of the Apostles describes the tensions between Jewish and Gentile Christians. Luke describes in chapter 15 the great turning point—the Jerusalem Council and the division between Paul and Barnabas. As you recall, the Council decided that Gentiles did not have to conform to Jewish Law and custom in order to be Christians. They had learned the profound lesson that the neutral zone of the missionary experiences of Paul and Peter, among others, had taught them. They would still work through the implications and ambivalences of this decision for another generation, but they were unabashed about their conviction that faith in the resurrected Christ was the sole basis of salvation and that salvation was for all human beings.
. . . And Disunity
Now, lest we rhapsodize too quickly about the unity of the Church, immediately following this decision and the Council, Paul and Barnabas had a “sharp disagreement” over taking John Mark on the second missionary journey because he had deserted them on the first journey. Paul said absolutely not; Barnabas, the son of encouragement, said absolutely yes. So they split, each taking his own cohort
And Luke does not say one was right and the other wrong. We are left to infer that each had his own calling and that God used this sharp disagreement to multiply the gospel and grow the Church. The only postscript in Scripture actually comes from Paul’s second letter to Timothy, written, we think, six months before Paul’s execution. While under house arrest he writes, “Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry” (2 Timothy 4:11). This is a splendid example of Paul’s earlier affirmation in Romans that “God works all things together for good for those who love Him and are called according to His purpose.”
The unity our Lord prayed for and which we are called to maintain—if we take our cues from the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles of those early Church founders—looks less like manmade councils and harmonious ecclesiastical hierarchies than like Spirit-led relationships which may take us in very different directions to preach one Lord and one baptism. And the post-biblical history of the Church confirms this same diverse unity with the tensions among the Church Fathers, the divisions between the Orthodox and Roman Communions, the tensions within Christendom, and, of course, the Reformation and all of its streams.
The Church is, after all, a divine comedy—a motley crew of graced sinners who are becoming, by the power of the Holy Spirit, Christlike. It is often slow and messy, this becoming like Him.
Dan Russ, Ph.D., is academic dean at Gordon. He and his wife, Kathy, live in Danvers and have four grown children and four growing grandchildren. Dan is the author of Flesh and Blood Jesus: Learning to Be Fully Human from the Son of Man.