“A human being is a vessel that God has built for Himself and filled with His inspiration so that His works are perfected in it.” —Hildegard of Bingen, 12th century Benedictine nun
When I served as senior pastor in a local church, one of my favorite Sundays each year was “Friendship Sunday.” It was an opportunity for me and the entire church to let our hair down. Each Friendship Sunday worship service contained delightful surprises as dozens of people with a variety of physical and cognitive abilities took the lead.
One such Sunday, Susan, whose verbalizations consisted mainly of shouting out days of the week in random order, piped up just as I reached the height of the sermon in affirming Jesus’ death and resurrection.
“Friday, Monday, Friday, Monday!” she yelled.
I joined her in that chorus as she led me to the sermon’s conclusion: “Yes, Susan! Jesus died on Friday and had arisen by Monday. Amen!” One imperfect saint leading another. It was beautiful. And we all cheered.
A person’s value in the church should not be gauged by the world’s idea of value. Scripture gives us a better picture. Allow me to unpack this anthropologically.
First, all persons, as created beings, have within them the Spirit of God. Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof explained this by saying, “God is called the God (or, Father) of the spirits of all flesh (Num. 16:22; 27:16; Heb. 12:9). In some of these cases it is quite evident that the Spirit of God is not a mere power but a person.” This means the Holy Spirit is within all people.
Consequently, all people share a godly commonality. So even before we consider if an individual is Christian, she deserves respect and care. With respect and care we can build a relationship that will invite the Holy Spirit to dwell in a person in a special way that brings understanding of Christ’s saving grace.
Second, respecting all persons demands we allow for their autonomy. Each individual—male or female, child or adult—is unique, and each person is called to work toward unity.
But unity is not uniformity. To demand that a person or cultural group minimize their uniqueness to achieve unified gospel purpose is sin. Unity is not about common culture, behavior, or character. Instead, unity is about sharing common purpose, as Jesus describes in John 17.
Putting these two concepts together—the respect of all persons no matter the measure of their faith and appreciating their God-given uniquenesses in the pursuit of shared purpose—is fundamental to a healthy church community.
When we live into these two things well, we will discover all manner of good ideas offered through a variety of people—exactly what God intended. As the apostle Paul writes, “If one part is honored, every part rejoices with it. Now you are the body of Christ, and each one of you is a part of it” (1 Cor. 12:26-27).
This year in the Christian Reformed Church of North America we celebrate the leadership of women in ordained ministry. As we recognize this, I am thankful that we are beginning to take significant and needed next steps to work toward creating a safe place for all to use their gifts in the church (see the many recommendations that Synod 2019 made about preventing the abuse of power).
I am also delighted in the imaginative ways churches are exercising leadership through the increased volume of younger and more culturally diverse voices. We need more Susans.