Saturday, 18 October 2008

Building the Body of Christ: adoption as a tool

Building the Body of Christ: adoption as a tool in the local congregation

The church as the body of Christ, is that a reality? One should have to say yes and no. The church in its practice is unfortunately anything but this body of Christ. It is most of the time a reflection of its particular society, be it a European nation and its ethnic identity or one particular group in today’s South Africa. At the same time the church is the body of Christ. This is not only a theological statement but also a reality. Once in a while we see it, as in the glimpse of a moment, that there is such a body, transforming all other group identities into one whole fellowship of believers. We are going to do two things here. First I like to talk about adoption as a key to new ways of living the church in current Cape Town and South Africa. It is a very practical thing, but also very urgent, as I will explain. Secondly, we need to look at how Paul in the New Testament describes us Christians becoming sons and daughters of God through adoption. Having been slaves (under the law) we are through Christ admitted into being proper heirs of the kingdom of God.

I will start with our present reality as churches in Cape Town. Two congregations, Eureka Lutheran congregation in Elsies River and Sonstraal Dutch Reformed Church in Durbanville[1], have since October 2006 been involved in a partnership. Monthly meetings with Biblical reflections, getting together for week-ends (for example a Healing of Memories seminar) and groups visiting each other’s Sunday worship, all these things have taken place during these last two years.

These are large congregations with memberships of more than 1000 members and it should be clear that only a small group of perhaps about 30 people from each side have been part of this partnership directly.

The question now is how to proceed. And this is where the idea of adoption has come in. Those who are willing should be able to join the other congregation in a more consistent way. They could be adopted for a particular period of time and would then be full members of the other congregation and be recognised as such. Eventually this arrangement could lead into a situation of dual membership. If we believe and try to make real that the Church of Christ is one (only) this should not be a problem.

This adoption should be seen in a total sense. Adoption could be defined as “legally take (another’s child) and bring it up as one’s own”. A child that is let’s say five years old would find it very traumatic to be moved to another family and may not understand why this has to happen at first. The kind of adoption we are talking of here is of a different kind for two reasons. It may be true that the deeper reason for going into this kind of arrangement also is traumatic. Racial separation in South Africa has damaged all and sundry to an extent that something rather drastic has to take place in order to achieve healing.

On the other hand you gain little by coercion. So even if the background is stark and traumatic the solution is based on two positive preconditions. It must be voluntary and attractive. There must be something or someone that draws me into this kind of adoption. I must want it. Secondly, it is not a matter of leaving one’s faith convictions, or that which is most dear in one’s life; on the contrary. In being adopted I will join a congregation that is largely unknown to me, but at the same time it will be a matter of rediscovery of what I already know. The difference is that the crossover will invigorate me and inspire me in a way that was not previously possible.

The adoption can take many forms, just as church life has a multiplicity of forms. The Sunday worship may be a main focus. Sharing the Word and the Sacrament(s) will always play a central role in a Christian’s life. But I could also join the choir, the youth, the women’s league, the men’s league, the church council, the Bible study group, the group for evangelization, or the local group working for justice and peace.

In addition there should be an adoption into various families, but it would be difficult or wrong to prescribe the extent to which that should happen. If an individual is adopted into the other congregation a support family might be very much needed. If a whole family want to be adopted, an association with another family in the adopting congregation would also be fine, but the extent to which such a relation should be worked out is an open question.

What is essential here is exactly that coercion is avoided. The guiding principle should be a longing to participate and a longing from people in the adopting congregation to invite, to act as hosts etc.

The same goes for how long such a period of adoption should be. That has to be worked out from case to case. Any period of adoption should be regarded as a blessing on all sides.

Most of us may not have thought about it, but Paul talks about adoption in a very decisive way. It appears according to Galatians 4.1-7 that the reason why Christ Jesus engaged with us humans in the first place was that we might receive adoption as sons and daughters of God. Let us look a little closer at what Paul says.

He first says that we were called to inherit God’s kingdom. But unfortunately we behaved or were like children and could therefore not make use of this inheritance. In our ignorance and immaturity we were effectively like slaves, not being able to take care of ourselves.

Then Paul makes a shift and starts talking about the law. As humans we are under the law, which might be a good thing; but our inability to abide by the law makes us slaves under the law instead. We here recognise the typical Pauline way of talking and can also clearly see how influenced the Reformers, both Luther and Calvin, were by this kind of thinking. The law brings us to despair and just shows that we are slaves under it as well as slaves under sin.

However the real Son, Christ, came and while being born under the law redeemed us who definitely were slaves under the law. This was done so that we might receive adoption as sons and daughters.

As sons and daughters we will also receive the Spirit (of the Father). We may now cry ‘Abba’, we may now approach God in a most intimate and personal way. We are no longer slaves, thanks to Christ’s intervention, but sons and daughters; we are heirs, inheritors, and successors.

This is Paul’s way of describing what salvation is all about. So what about being adopted into a local congregation previously by and large unknown to you?

As routine sets in, as we get used to the same people around us who think like we do, behave like we do, there is a great risk of us falling under the law. Things are so well known that the Gospel is hardly needed.

To live by grace alone is to open for the unknown and trust that God is there. If we do we will experience renewal, invigoration and give an opportunity to the Spirit to free us to new service and new initiatives that had previously been unthinkable.

[1] For the sake of clarity it should be said that the congregation in Elsies River according to apartheid history still is Coloured while the congregation in Durbanville is White and Afrikaner.

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