McKnight, Scot. A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together. (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan, 2014). 265 pp. Publisher’s description. (Amazon new price: $15.92 hardcover, $7.99 Kindle, cheaper used.)
This idea, that Paul’s mission was a mixed assembly of differents, lies at the core of my beliefs about how the whole Bible works… Are we willing to embrace the diversity of the church as the very thing God most wants? (pp. 89, 91, italics in original, bold added)
The need for the the Church to become more unified is, thankfully, receiving some long-overdue attention. This book is NT scholar Scot McKnight’s contribution to the topic.
McKnight is widely-known in at least three ways: As a blogger, as an author of biblical commentaries, and as an author of popular-level books on the Christian life, the atonement, and Bible interpretation. This book falls into the third category: books written for the church rather than the academy. Prior to this book, I had only read McKnight via his other two categories: his blog and his commentaries.
My impression of McKnight prior to this book was mixed, and so is my impression of this book. (I have enjoyed McKnights’s emphasis on the kingdom of God, some of his challenges to Calvinist thinking, and his emphasis on the social and ethical aspects of Christian transformation. I am less than happy with things like his adoption of gender role egalitarianism or his promotion of evolutionary creationism.)
So, what do I think about A Fellowship of Differents?
Some things I like:
- The emphasis that church life shapes our understanding of the the Christian life. Examples: Highly emotional revival meetings that call people to pray the Sinner’s Prayer might teach us to think of salvation as only a one-time event. Congregations where everyone looks the same (class, ethnicity) might lead us to overlook what the NT says about the radical social composition of Jesus’ Church. What I experience in church shapes what I think Christianity is all about.
- The challenge to consider who is invisible both in the Church and in our congregations. McKnight mentions the Hampton Ministers’ Conference, “the longest running pastors’ conference in the USA, attended by seven thousand” (p. 18). I’d never heard of it. Neither had McKnight until recently. Why? Certainly, in part (there are also theological reasons), because McKnight and I are white while this 101-year-old conference focuses on the needs of the African-American church. Closer to home: Who might be invisible in my own congregation? Widows and widowers? Children? Races? Women? The poor? Urban? Suburban? Rural? (Win!) Those with higher education? Those with less? Those battling sexual temptation or confusion? Introverts? The abused? The depressed?
- The challenge to get our of our just-like-me comfort zones. McKnight quotes a confession from Christena Cleveland from her recent book Disunity in Christ (which is also on my wish list): “I chose to build community with people with whom I could pretty much agree on everything” (p. 32). Ouch. Or this: “Genuine friendships, which are two-way, are always transformative. One reason, then, we don’t love those unlike us in the church is because we don’t want their presence rubbing off on us” (p. 59).
- Helpful insights on the Lord’s Supper. I enjoyed the extended quotation of Justin Martyr’s record of a second-century Christian gathering. First came the Word, then came the Table, and then came Offerings. Woven through the whole account are clauses displaying Christian unity: “We always keep together… All who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place… We all rise together and pray… There is a distribution to each… and to those who are absent a portion is sent by the deacons… we all hold our common assembly” (pp. 102-103). “The Eucharist—as an action, as symbols, as an event—gospels to all those who observe and to all those who participate” (p. 101). The gospel binds us together, and the Supper is to be eaten together (1 Cor. 11:33).
- Some good exegesis and pastoral advice about same-sex attraction. McKnight includes a whole chapter on sexual matters, much of it devoted to the sub-topic of same-sex matters. I didn’t think the chapter was perfect, but it does reflect a clear stance both that same-sex acts are sinful and that the Church must grow in loving and supporting repentant same-sex Christians. I am glad to see McKnight speak clearly on this topic.
- A powerful story from Greg Boyd about transformation by grace. The words “there is now no condemnation for them which are in Christ Jesus” (Rom. 8:1) were the key that led to Boyd’s gradual freedom from pornography (pp. 152-53).
- A reminder that “the best way to be political is to be the church” (p. 187). Both “kingdom” and “church” were political terms, after all.
- Some good quoteables. Such as: “Joy… is a church-shaped disposition. Only folks in the church can experience what Paul means by joy” (p. 234).
Some things I didn’t like:
- Careless or inconsistent editing. Examples: The first line on the back cover is an endorsement that begins, “This is [sic] most important book…” (Missing “the.”) On pages 40 and 72 Bible references are unhelpfully buried in endnotes, though often included elsewhere in the main text. On page 52 McKnight says, “Take Paul at his word. Love is the ‘only thing that counts.'” Paul actually said “faith working through love” is the only thing that counts (Gal. 5:6). On page 70 we read, “Some elements of our covenant love commitment of presence include spending our evenings together…” The wording suggests a list, which never comes. On page 98 a story begins in present tense but switches mid-sentence to past tense. On page 141 we are promised some italicized words in a Bible quote, but none are included. More examples of awkward syntax are found on pages 227 and 228.
- Exaggeration. Examples: “God has designed the church—and this is the heart of Paul’s mission—to be a fellowship of difference and difference” (p. 16). Was church diversity really the very heart of Paul’s mission? Is “the diversity of the church” really “the very thing God most wants” (see above)? Might we be missing a deeper goal that makes diversity meaningful and necessary? And is inclusion of differents really “the church’s biggest challenge” (p. 25)? Don’t get me wrong, I am fully on board that church diversity is a crucial implication of the core gospel message. But these kinds of overstatements put me on the defensive, making me weigh more carefully everything else the author writes.
- A bit of self-promotion. McKnight describes a book written by a friend, called The Gospel of Yes. “It’s the best title of a book I’ve ever seen (except for The Blue Parakeet).” Which happens to be McKnight’s book.
- Casual tone. I’m probably just the wrong reader for this book (on page 38 McKnight says “maybe you’ve not read Paul’s story enough to know the details”), but I confess some of these kind of try-to-make-you-laugh comments fall flat with me. Another example: On page 148 McKnight introduces the “circumcision party,” “which ought to be self-explanatory (#ouch).” After describing the circumcision party, he includes this “(#intimidating).” McKnight seemed concerned not to be too formal, so sometimes this book feels like a series of extended blog posts.
- Uninformative chapter titles. A chapter called “Teacher with the Big Fancy Hat” turns out to be about suffering. Another called “On a Walk with Kris” turns out to be about joy. This might make you curious, but doesn’t help you trace the book’s big idea, nor review content later.
- Unclear statements about God’s love. On page 34 McKnight quotes Romans 8:31 (“If God is for us, who can be against us?”). In context, Paul writes this to those who have been justified by faith and are walking in the Spirit. But McKnight’s application sounds more general: “God loves everyone.” On the following page he elaborates (in center-justified, bold text as follows) with words that sound more like Joel Osteen than Paul the apostle:
No matter what you have done,
not because you go to church,
not because you read your Bible,
not because folks think you are spiritual,
no matter what sins you have committed,
no matter how vicious or mean or vile they were,
no matter how calloused your heart and soul have become,
God loves you.
Not because you are good,
not because you do good things,
not because you are famous or have served others,
but because you are you.
To you, God has said Yes,
God is saying Yes,
and God will eternally say Yes.
God is for the You that is You.
- Missing balance about church boundaries. McKnight says he originally planned to include a chapter on obedience (see here). I think this book would be much more balanced if it included such a chapter, along with a discussion of the role of church discipline when the diverse people who join our churches don’t faithfully follow the words and way of Jesus. I felt there were too many unqualified statements like this: “As long as one was on the journey toward sexual redemption, Paul was encouraging. At the house churches they didn’t put up a sign that said ‘For the Morally Kosher Only'” (p. 129). Or this: “What Jesus and the apostles taught was that you were welcomed because the church welcomed all to the table” (p. 17). In contrast, buried in a footnote are these words about the Eucharist (Lord’s Supper) from Justin Martyr: “No one is allowed to partake but the man who believes that the things which we teach are true, and who has been washed with the washing that is for the remission of sins, and unto regeneration, and who is so living as Christ has enjoined” (p. 252). If only McKnight had included and discussed such things in his main text! To be fair, McKnight clarifies that love does not mean “toleration” (p. 130); it means helping another experience positive change. But I didn’t notice that McKnight anywhere said what to do if a person in the church resists or seems indifferent to any such growth in holiness.
- Lack of discussion of the universal church. At one point McKnight writes, “I hope you agree with me that the hope for the world is the local church, and that the heart of God’s plan is found in creating a whole new society in a local church” (p. 188). Interestingly, Ben Witherington, a NT scholar and friend of McKnight, pushed back on this point: “At one point in the book, you say that the local church is the hope of the world. For a minute I thought that was a slip up, and you meant to say Christ is. Talk to us a bit about the interface between Christ and his body, between Christology and your vision of ecclesiology. For my part I would prefer to say that the local church at its best is simply the local expression of ‘the one true church apostolic and universal’. In other words I would not want to talk about church with a little c without talking about church with a big C, though I would agree that, like politics, in one sense all churches are local.” In a subsequent online conversation I had with Witherington, he agreed with me that part of the problem is our tendency to read the “membership” and “body of Christ” language in the NT as referring to the local church, when really such language strongly implies the universal church. There is only one Head of the Church, right? And a head can only have one body?
- Strong (and poorly defended) assertions about gender equality. McKnight seems to feel that any distinction in gender roles is a denial of gender equality in Christ—a position that, barring hermeneutical gymnastics, leaves Paul contradicting himself. The following quote even suggests that God’s creation order falls short of his plan for us in Christ (this despite the fact that Paul repeatedly cites creation as the basis for his statements about gender roles!): “In creation God ‘gendered’ us into male and female, but in the new creation, God makes us one” (p. 90). You’d be hard pressed to find those two ideas connected with a “but” in the Bible, except perhaps by implication in Christ’s discussion of life after death. “Sexual differences” have “been transcended,” writes McKnight (p. 91). But I’m left without help to know how to such statements to what McKnight writes later: “One in Christ does not mean Paul ceases being male, nor does Junia cease being a female” (95). True, identity, gender or otherwise, is not eradicated in Christ. But, for McKnight, unlike Paul, identity apparently has nothing to do with roles. As has often been pointed out, such a re-reading of Paul also means that one has little hermeneutical basis for denying that Paul’s words affirm homosexual role relationships when he says that “there is no male and female” in Christ Jesus (Gal. 3:28). Enough on this for now.
- Salad-bowl feel. Mcknight rightly wants us to adopt a vision of the church as a salad bowl full of diversity. Unfortunately his book felt like a bit of a salad bowl to me, as if he was pulling together a handful of semi-related topics for publication. (Is this true of McKnights earlier books? Or is this the symptom of a popular author who feels pressured to keep the books coming?) The title of the book suggests the book is about diversity and unity in the church. But the back cover suggests other themes: “McKnight shares his personal experience of church and offers to the church a thorough study of what the Apostle Paul writes about the Christian life… Ultimately, McKnight raises two significant questions: What is the church supposed to be? and If the church is what it is supposed to be, what does the Christian life look like?” Wow. with those questions, you can include about anything you want. I think this book would be more compelling if it focused more narrowly on unity and diversity in the church. For example: More hands-on stories of churches wrestling with diversity would help. I think the survey of Paul’s writings could have been more focused on this topic, as well. And sometimes when wide-ranging topics were included (love, grace, suffering, joy–all main themes of either chapters or whole parts of the book), a stronger and clearer connection should have been made with the theme of church diversity. On page 43, I scribbled in the margin, “What does this powerful story have to do with the book’s thesis?” The book could also be improved by a concluding chapter that ties the disparate themes together.
This book has good sections, but is not great.
I give it 3 out of 5 stars.
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