A post from the Jesus Collective Theology Circle

Contributions by Adam Dyer (Somerset, England), Natalie Frisk (Ontario, Canada), and Edem Morny (Accra, Ghana)

Unity was and is a big deal for Jesus. In John 17 we find Jesus’ prayer for the church, and the thing he prays for is unity amongst his church. Not power, not miracles, not growth or influence — unity. It’s sobering that it would seem even Jesus’ prayers haven’t quite been answered yet.

Many have wondered why the Christian religion is so divided into multiple denominations and churches, each claiming the higher ground or the clearer route to salvation. Not only does this division give ammunition to those who question Christianity’s credibility, but it also means we look less like Jesus and more like the world around us as we point fingers at each other and argue amongst ourselves. It seems that many Christians have simply given up on any form of real unity, and, in fact, some Christian leaders seem to thrive in milking this disunity to further their own personal empires.

But perhaps there’s something in Jesus’ prayer in John 17 that points to the reason why we have this current state of affairs. Right at the beginning of his prayer, Jesus refers to himself as God’s son and says, For you have granted him (God’s son) authority over all people that he might give eternal life to all those you have given him.” (John 17:3 NIV)

It’s striking that God didn’t grant authority to Scripture, prophets, rules, regulations, or anything that religion prides itself in controlling to give eternal life, but that authority to give eternal life rests in God’s son — Jesus himself.

Perhaps the reason we continue to be so divided is that, for many of us, Jesus isn’t the centre of our faith.

Perhaps we fail to focus on Jesus as the fullest revelation of God, of who God is, and what God is like.

Instead of Jesus being the centre of our faith, we tend to elevate some particular doctrine or religious rules and regulations, or even the Bible to the position reserved solely for Jesus.

To understand how critical keeping Jesus at the centre is to our own personal faith journey as well as our ability to recognize Christ in others, we need to understand how a centred-set approach differs from other paradigms more familiar in the church today, including the bounded-set approach, with clear lines defining who is in or out, and the fuzzy, everything is ok” approach.

Within every theological tradition, there is a tendency to draw lines: if you don’t believe X, then you’re not in with us. (Or more often, if you do believe Y, then you’re not in with us.) But a centred-set approach involves erasing many of these lines, and in lieu of a box or fence to pen people in, a centred-set approach with Jesus at the centre is concerned with how people are oriented and in which direction we are moving.

Am I oriented towards Jesus or away from him? Am I journeying closer to him or away from him? Do I seek to look to him for direction or am I looking to someone or something else?

In Mark 2, we’re told of how Jesus called Matthew (Levi) to be his disciple. Jesus had already called Simon (Peter), Andrew, James, and John, all fishermen from the lake of Galilee, to be his disciples. These were men who had grown up in the family business, working hard to earn a living in a land occupied by oppressive Roman rule. Then, in Mark 2, we read that Jesus was back beside that same lake when he saw Matthew in his tax booth.

The fact that Matthew was a tax collector may seem of little significance to us today, but it was bad in first century Palestine. Tax collectors were Jewish people collecting high taxes from their own people for the Roman empire. Like another tax collector, Zacchaeus, the more Matthew collected, the more he got to keep for himself. This is why tax collectors were amongst the most despised people in the land and why tax collector” is almost always followed by sinners” in the words of the Pharisees as recorded in the Gospels.

Worse still, Matthew was the tax collector whose booth was beside the lake — the same lake where Simon, Andrew, James, and John had spent their lives fishing. Certainly at one point Matthew would have been the guy who taxed the haul of fish they’d spent all night catching.

But now Jesus was inviting the man who taxed them after every fishing trip to join them. The same person they had probably come to hate and despise. The same person who represented the Roman empire to them. Matthew represented their enemy, their other.” God may well come to save Israel, but when He did, He would surely bring justice and punish those who oppressed His people. And surely Matthew would be near the front of that queue.

But here was Jesus (aka God) inviting their enemy to come and walk with them, live with them, be disciples with them, eat with them, share life with them. Be family with them.

How did they do that together?

The Bible doesn’t provide a very detailed answer, but we do know the 12 disciples had different characteristics and personalities. And we also know that they spent their days with Jesus, listening to him, walking with him, living with him, ministering with him, asking him questions, and loving him.

Jesus was right at the centre of their lives and their community. It was Jesus at the centre that made the difference. It was Jesus that enabled them to see past their differences and see each other through his eyes.

In that context, they learned to love each other and become family.

After Jesus’ death and resurrection, these same disciples who had once been enemies were able to work together to establish the early church — a church which boasted that in Christ there was no them and us. No Jew or Gentile. No slave or free. No male or female. No taxed and tax collector. All were united in Christ.

And more than that, they were able to create a church where everyone’s needs were met by the whole community. A church which was able to navigate the challenges of different cultures, different ethnicities, different religious backgrounds, different religious practices, and a deeply rooted class system, to gather around one table and one declaration.

That Jesus is Lord.

And in this observation is the heart of Jesus-centred church and a centred-set approach to faith.

Instead of adopting a bounded approach — where cohesion is maintained by establishing rules and boundaries to define us and keep our others” out — we place Jesus at the centre and set our orientation towards Him.

Instead of emphasizing our differences and drawing harsh lines between us, we celebrate diversity and difference and recognize that we are all united in Jesus.

Instead of fearing and judging those who express Jesus differently or hold a different interpretation of Scripture, we embrace the discomfort and enjoy the blessing of learning from their experience. We recognize that agreement is not a prerequisite to acceptance in the Kingdom. We can be clear about our convictions while seeking unity and peace with other Christians who may disagree.

Instead of adopting a fuzzy approach — where anybody is entitled to their view and their own way of life — we teach and practice the elevation of Jesus and his self-sacrificial way above all else, which leads to a giving up of personal prerogatives and choices so that embracing the other is not only possible, but joyfully done.

And in all of this, we live in anticipation of the day when every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord.

But how can we identify whether we’re being centred-set people or whether we’re captured by the sway of bounded or fuzzy paradigms?

By taking seriously the scandal that Jesus is the revelation of who God is and that this revelation is disruptive.

The Gospels show that Jesus presented God to be quite opposite to the one Israel had expected to show up and save them. They believed God to be distant, silent, angry, and exclusive. They believed God was pure and must be kept separate from the world and from sin, and that this God could only forgive through the offering of sacrifices. They believed that if anyone was to see the face of God, they would surely die.

But rather than angry and distant, Jesus revealed God to be loving, graceful, and merciful. A God who healed, cast out demons, and forgave sins without asking for a sacrifice. A God who loved and was with people in the most profound way.

Rather than exclusive and bound to the temple, Jesus revealed God to be drawn to sinners, and sinners drawn to Him. Jesus released God from the confines of the temple and the temple system and showed up in the dirtiest and most shameful places.

Rather than people dying when they came face to face with Jesus, when Jesus came in touch with the dead, they invariably came back to life.

And if we take this scandalous view of God seriously, it changes … well, everything.

As Christians, we’re prone to adopt a bounded approach to the issues of our time, leading to polarization in the church. When this happens, it’s damaging to us because we end up with two exclusive camps pointing the finger of judgment at each other, neither truly focused on Jesus and willing to unite around him. And that’s not who we’re called to be.

To a polarized world, we offer nothing as a polarized church. We’re called to be united in Christ, pointing towards Christ. We believe that in these difficult and divisive days, unity is a prophetic stance for our time.

Another problem with the bounded model is that neither camp is actually more inclusive. We tend to just shift the boundaries of who’s in and who’s out, not actually broadening our scope of inclusion but rather merely redefining it. If we really want to be more inclusive, we have to extend the tent in both directions to include people from across the spectrum. But if you want to make a tent bigger, you need to make the pole at the centre bigger, too. If we want to create this bigger, more deeply inclusive space, we need to make Jesus bigger at the centre and orient ourselves towards Him.

Picture a solar system. If you want to increase the gravitational field of a solar system so that more is brought into its orbit, you need to make the sun at the centre bigger.

If we want to be more inclusive as a church, making space for each other and our other” as we all orient ourselves towards Jesus, then we need to make Jesus bigger at the centre. This lets us see each other through the central lens of Jesus and to see Jesus through each other. It invites us to be challenged and disrupted by each other and to first and foremost love each other.

It also inspires a different approach to discipleship and evangelism. We’re not restricted to the binary states of in or out, saved or not saved, believe or don’t believe — we’re invited to journey towards Jesus together. And rather than trying to get people to believe what we believe, we’re able to invite people to walk with us towards Jesus and allow him to transform and renew and forgive us as we encounter Him together.

The centred-set paradigm also implies that none of us are standing still. Whether we’re at the very beginning of our journey or have been a believer for 50 years, we’re all invited to take steps towards Jesus leading to repentance, renewal, forgiveness, healing, and transformation. Every day. Every year. Every one of us, oriented towards Jesus and gravitating closer to him.

It’s hallmarks of a centred-set community that enable us to be the united people that Jesus prayed for us to be in John 17.

It’s this model of church that allows us to transcend the polarizing issues, the points of conflict, and the tendency to judge or exclude, instead forging unity in Christ.

A unity that’s not always comfortable, that disrupts us, that invites accountability, challenge, and vulnerability.

A unity that teaches us to see each other, to prefer one another, to spur one another on.

A unity that enables us to all sit at the same table in the same family. Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, taxed and tax collector, you and whoever your other” is.

And we all point to Jesus with our lives, our actions, our words, and our love.

The Authors

Centred Set Authors

Adam Dyer is leader of Yeovil Community Church in Somerset in the South West of England. He’s committed to leading a broad, inclusive church which magnifies Jesus at the centre and works passionately in partnership with the community to bring whole community transformation. His church leads projects supporting families in crisis, homeless critical support, and a UN refugee resettlement program.

Natalie Frisk is lead pastor at The Meeting House Brantford, as well as curriculum pastor for One Story kids and youth curriculum. She is author of Raising Disciples: How to Make Faith Matter for Our Kids (Herald Press). Natalie has an MTS from McMaster Divinity College and is presently working on her doctorate in practical theology with an emphasis on the spiritual experience of children. She is married to Sam and mom to Erin. 

Edem Morny is President of Simply Christ Ministries, an ecumenical effort to give voice to Jesus-centered discipleship in a Ghanaian landscape dominated by folk Christianity. He’s also a bi-vocational Christian leader of a small neo-Anabaptist church called The Jesus Community in peri-urban Accra with a passion for theology and technology. He’s married to Josephine with three children and lives in Accra, Ghana.

The Theology Circle is a group of Jesus Collective leaders joining together to provide theological direction and resources for our network, mentor theological leaders, and provide a peaceful voice for this growing Jesus-centred movement around the world. You can learn more and meet the Circle here.