The Beautiful Community
One rhythm of life that the COVID-19 pandemic significantly altered in 2020 was weddings. Virtual weddings officiated online and socially distanced wedding with only a handful of your closest friends in attendance were the norm for a year. It is not likely that many 2020 newlyweds would say that their wedding was just as they dreamed it would be.
Whatever your own experience at weddings is, it should amaze us that when God wants to give us a picture of what heaven is like the imagery he uses is of a wedding. The destiny of those who come to God through faith in Jesus Christ is pictured as the best marriage imaginable, multiplied exponentially.
This destiny means a guarantee of personal and collective beauty where nothing that is not beautiful will ever exist again. In Revelation 21:2-3 we hear John say,
“And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God.” (ESV)
John wasn’t the first to talk like this. When Israel was in exile the Lord gives Isaiah a message in Isaiah 62:3-5,
“You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord, and a royal diadem in the hand of your God. You shall no more be termed Forsaken, and your land shall no more be termed Desolate, but you shall be called My Delight Is in Her, and your land Married; for the Lord delights in you, and your land shall be married. For as a young man marries a young woman, so shall your sons marry you, and as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so shall your God rejoice over you.” (ESV)
God himself promises to make us the beautiful community, people from every tribe, tongue, and nation united in perfect harmony.
God himself promises to make us the beautiful community, people from every tribe, tongue, and nation united in perfect harmony. United, not uniform because her diversity adds to her beauty. She reflects the splendor and glory of her beautiful God, who himself is beautiful community. As theologian Herman Bavinck writes in Reformed Dogmatics: God and Creation, (Baker Academic, 2004, Vol 2), “The Trinity reveals God to us as the fullness of being, the true life, eternal beauty.”
This vision matters because we ache and groan today. We long for things to be better and more beautiful than they are. Human nature drives us to fix our longings for beauty by ourselves apart from God. However, in all our striving we cannot make things so beautiful and radically new that there will be no more decay! Only God as the source of beauty can make all things beautiful in its time (Ecc. 3:11).
What then are we to do? I want to offer two commitments that I consider central to the journey towards beautiful community: 1) Devoting to the doctrine, and 2) Probing the preferences.
Devoting to the Doctrine
By “devote to the doctrine” what I mean is that Christian organizations and churches need to embrace the theology of unity in diversity as a gospel imperative. God’s triune nature, his unity in diversity as one who exists in mutual glorifying community is instructive for how he designed humanity to image him. What this means is that the impulse for diversity that we find in our current culture is rooted in the fact that humanity images a God who is unity in diversity. Apart from orienting our lives in reference to him this impulse will be distorted in some ungodly ways.
To refuse to pursue unity in diversity as a gospel imperative is to fundamentally neglect what it means for humanity to image God.
The Christian response is not to reject the impulse for diversity, but to root its pursuit in the Word of God. This belief cannot be seen as a tangential or side issue to the gospel if there is going to be growth in welcoming and working with neighbors across lines of difference. To refuse to pursue unity in diversity as a gospel imperative is to fundamentally neglect what it means for humanity to image God.
Probing the Preferences
In probing the preferences, the Scriptures call us again and again to look beneath the surface and examine our hearts. We are called away from superficially living out the faith and into a life that probes our desires to see whether they are in line with God’s desires. This is not just something for individual Christians to do, it is a task for Christian organizations and churches as well.
Even as we strive to be faithful to the Lord, that faithfulness is often necessarily expressed through preferences. Every organization, faith-based or not, has culture. It has a certain way of being and doing. Decisions are made and actions are taken that are informed by our preferences. This is unavoidable. While those who follow Jesus want to be faithful to him, we may miss the fact that the Bible simply does not give us every detail of every aspect of daily life. Some things must be figured out by “good and necessary consequence” based on what the Bible does say.
How often do churches and organizations probe their preferences to find out whether those preferences help or hinder diverse people from experiencing welcome and fully participate? These preferences are based on cultural values that lie beneath the surface of the things we see, hear and experience. Although all organizations are formed by those values, they often are assumed and go unaddressed. If they are to pursue beautiful community, where the dividing walls of hostility are broken down, they cannot afford to ignore the values that form their expression of what is best.
There is more, of course. But as we pursue beautiful community as an outworking of a deep biblical commitment, we must continually be rooted in the doctrine informing that commitment, and be examining how our cultural preferences shape our life together. Jesus is Lord over it all, and we follow him in worshipful anticipation of the healing of every painful divide experienced in our organizations and communities.
Rev. Dr. Irwyn Ince, Jr. is the new MNA (Mission to North America) Coordinator Pro Tempore. Formerly, Dr. Ince served as a pastor at Grace DC Presbyterian Church and Director of the Institute for Cross-Cultural Mission (ICCM). He is a graduate of City College of NY (B.E.E.E, 1995), Reformed Theological Seminary (M.A.R., 2006), and Covenant Theological Seminary (D.Min, 2016). He is author of The Beautiful Community: Unity, Diversity and the Church at Its Best (IVP, Aug. 2020)