The Outward Bound
by Vernard Eller

7. Stripping and Other Meaningful Activities You Can Do in Church

We started this book by examining the style of the Christian congregation. In the preceding chapter we moved to the style of the Christian individual. But now we want to combine our two foci and examine what the Christian individual can and should be doing within the congregation. How does the microcosm function within the macrocosm? How do the members operate together as the body of Christ?

Again, our discussion admittedly must be very limited. Surely it must be obvious that a member's method of operation will be quite different according to whether his church is a caravan or a commissary. Yet, of course, each type has the same kinds of activities: worship, the sacraments, Christian education, Bible study, business meetings, fellowship, evangelism, and service outreach. Our earlier discussion has shown how the individual's involvement in these will differ depending upon congregational orientation. (And it might be a good exercise to go through the list and define the differences.) Even so, almost all congregations are aware of and working at these activities.

Our focus now will be on neglected activities which hardly are possibilities for the commissary congregation but which can and should be of central importance in the caravan congregation.

The first example is directly related to simplicity that was the theme of our previous chapter. We insisted that simplicity would need to grow out of the particular situation of each individual (or family). We still stand by that but now add that individualized simplicity can best be accomplished (perhaps only be accomplished) with the counsel and help of "the brethren"--one's brothers and sisters in the community. We need this sharing, whether it can be done with the congregation as a whole or must take place in smaller groups.

In the first place, through worship, Bible study, and discussion, we need to help each other remember our motives for simplifying our life style. It is so easy to forget and to slip into the' purely secular interests of saving money and seeking happiness.

In the second place, a number of people working together, pooling their expertise, experience, and time, can do a much better job in sifting through the countless simplification suggestions and ideas available from secular sources. The group can share, evaluate, and test these suggestions, and help one another to seek first the kingdom of God when implementing them. In a word, we need the help of one another in preserving the "more than" of our endeavor.

Finally, there is a great deal of simplification we can achieve by actually working together. We can discover mutual helpfulness (and helpfulness to those who are not in a position to reciprocate). We can exchange expert advice and services (from babysitting to auto repair). We can pool the use of equipment rather than each family having to acquire its own equipment. We might even join together to do quantity buying. Cooperation as a form of simplification has the added advantage of promoting true community. But yet once more we must caution that seeking first the simple life is not the equivalent of seeking first the kingdom of God.

A second neglected but necessary activity of members within the body is mutual discipline. There is no denying that discipline is a central element in the New Testament view of the faith community. The golden text is:

And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as Children--"My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts." Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. (Heb. 12:5-11)

Goodness knows there is little discipline in our churches. In a commissary church, discipline normally comes from the top down, as the commissars, acting by the book (the denomination's canons of polity), work to keep the "non-coms" and troops in line.

But discipline is even more crucial in a caravan, where each caravaner has to play his proper part if the venture is to go at all. Caravan discipline also comes from the top, but in an entirely different sense. Notice that the Hebrews text speaks entirely and exclusively of the Lord's disciplining a son. And because a caravan consists solely of "brethren" (brothers and sisters undistinguished as to rank), there is no one in it that has the right or authority to discipline another.

In 2 Cor. 2:1-11 and 2 Cor. 7:8-13, Paul relates an incident that reveals his understanding of church discipline. A situation had arisen in the Corinthian congregation that called for Paul's on-the-spot presence. The trouble apparently centered on one person (2 Cor. 2:5-8; 2 Cor. 7:12: "the one who did wrong"). Whatever his original misdeed, it obviously came to include face-to-face defiance of Paul and a rejection of his apostolic status. Paul entered the situation as an apostle and with a keen apprehension of what that implied--in the church of that day there was no higher human authority than an apostle.

Yet evidence shows that neither Paul nor the congregation understood that awesome "authority" as including official or ecclesiastical clout. Paul was unable (or did not see it as his prerogative) either to silence or to oust the offender from fellowship. Paul was hurt by the congregation's failure to support him, "pained by those who should have made me rejoice, for I felt sure of all of you" (2 Cor. 2:3). But he never accuses them of refusing to enforce an apostolic decree. The confrontation was what Paul calls a "painful visit" (2 Cor. 2:1) and entirely fruitless.

After he left Corinth, Paul wrote a letter (2 Cor. 2:3, 2 Cor. 2:4, 2 Cor. 2:9; 2 Cor. 7:8, 2 Cor. 12) to the Corinthians (which was not preserved). After reading Paul's letter, the Corinthians outdid themselves in expressing their love and support for Paul and in proving "themselves guiltless in the matter" (7:11). The congregation itself acted to punish the recalcitrant individual (presumably by ousting him from fellowship--2 Cor. 2:6), and apparently that action had succeeded in winning his repentance:

So now instead you should forgive and console him, so that he may not be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow. So I urge you to reaffirm your love for him.... Anyone whom you forgive, I also forgive. What I have forgiven, if I have forgiven anything, has been for your sake in the presence of Christ. (2 Cor. 2: 7-10)

This is a beautiful story. But its prickly point is that, although this church had offices (from apostles on down), these did not constitute the pyramidal hierarchy of authority or the enforceable chain of command that the commissary church, so soon after, made central to its structural efficiency. The most apostolically-minded apostle of them all deliberately declined to exercise the authority of his position either in punishing the troublemaker or in declaring him forgiven (Paul simply adds his forgiveness to that of the rest of the congregation).

It would seem, then, that Paul advocates complete parity between members of a body:

But God has so arranged the body, giving the greater honor to the inferior member, that there may be no dissension within the body, but the members may have the same care for one another. (1 Cor. 12:24-25)

Not only do Christians have a parity of status in the eyes of God (as generally understood in Paul's text), but they also have parity under God's discipline. The ultimate source of command, certainly, is the head, Christ Jesus himself. But he has not deputized this authority to other individuals. Any "commanding" that needs to be done is an action of the body.

And the same understanding would seem to be reflected in Matthew 18, our most explicit counsel on the procedures of church discipline:

If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. (Mt. 18:15-17)

There is no hint here of the existence of officers or hierarchical authorities who ought to intervene to discipline people. (And although these are reported as the words of Jesus, Matthew is addressing them as counsel to churches of the our own time, after the time of Paul. The church without rank cannot be dismissed as a very' early and short-lived phase.)

If Paul had been willing to organize Corinth the way we organize churches today, the proper officials (even Paul himself) early would have stepped in to nip the trouble in the bud and thus prevent all the agony. Whether they would also have been able to redeem the erring member is a moot question. But Paul would rather endure Corinth and all the internal tempestuousness of his churches, and thus preserve Christian freedom and parity, than to sacrifice those in exchange for the managerial efficiency of our commissaries. And Paul is right.

The brethren are not to discipline the individual; that is God's responsibility. However, they can and should be supporters, helpers, and enablers in the process going on between the individual and his Lord. And that process, by the way, does not begin when an individual gets out of line. No, true discipline (like the father's discipline of a son) is preventive discipline, that is, helping the individual keep in line so that he does not get out of line.

Consequently, each God is disciplining each Christian all the time. The congregation is not divided into those who are being disciplined and those who are helping discipline others. No, everyone is to be doing both, or to be continually alternating from one role to the other. Selecting out a person for special discipline is only an emergency measure, and the better job we do at continual, preventive disciplining, the fewer occasions we will have for emergency measures.

Christian discipline is meant to be self-discipline, although that is actually a contradiction in terms. Self-discipline cannot mean doing what the self directs at the moment; that would not be discipline at all. What the term intends, then, is voluntary discipline as over against imposed discipline. And this certainly fits Christianity, for the Lord does not impose himself on anyone. Jesus becomes my Lord when I accept him as Lord. He calls, but I am not a disciple until I have made a free commitment to follow (which commitment, by the way, also includes promises and obligations regarding the community, the body of Christ). The congregation, then, is constituted solely of those who are committed to this self-discipline the free decision of having taken Jesus as Lord.

Notice, also, that the Hebrews text emphasizes that God's discipline is a discipline of love (as toward a son, not an enemy) and that it is always for "our true welfare," "the peaceful harvest of an honest life."

It would seem, then, that we can be most helpful in the matter of God's discipline by keeping each other reminded that we are under this discipline, that we have said that we wanted Jesus as Lord, that we have volunteered for the shaping, molding, and sand-papering that will make us what God wants us to be. By pointing out to my brother those areas in his life that appear to be resistant or closed to God's approach, I may help him to become more open to God. And of course, the best way to encourage him is to show that I am also ready to welcome his observations about me. Above all, our mutual efforts must always communicate the qualities of God's discipline and love.

And let us never overlook what is without doubt the very best means of cooperating under God's discipline: Bible study -though of a very special sort. It probably needs to happen in smaller, more intimate groups than those of customary classes. In addition the attention should not be exclusively on the text: "How did it come to be? 'What form does it represent? What does each of the words mean? What theological perspective does it reflect?" Rather, the focus must be on ourselves: "What is God saying to me through these words? How do these words judge me? What do they ask of me? What changes would God have them work in me?" In this way, the word itself, communicated through the insights, mutuality, and love of the brethren, can begin to make God's discipline personal, real, and effective.

I do not deny that there can and do arise nasty Corinthian-type situations that call for more stringent (though no less loving) discipline. When one caravaner (or group of caravaners) pulls off in such a divergent direction so as to jeopardize the caravan itself, when he refuses to admit that his direction is divergent, and when he refuses to hear either the brethren or the word that God would speak through them--when this happens, Scripture indicates that God's discipline can be drastic, and it directs the congregation to support God's hand in this as in the other. But the tragedy of the church is that, out of distaste for facing up to nasty situations, we have identified discipline entirely with these emergency measures and therefore abjured all discipline - the normal as well as the drastic. The result is that we live (in the words of the author of Hebrews) more like bastards than as God's true sons.

Now we turn to the activity you have probably been wondering about since you noticed the title of this chapter--stripping. This activity is closely related to discipline in that stripping may be a precondition of discipline, or at least a vital aspect of it.

Let us begin by defining stripping. We have in mind the action of a person baring himself psychologically, emotionally, and spiritually--divesting himself of his facade, role-playing, false modesty (and false pride)--anything that veils self-honesty. Indeed, much of modern psychology and counseling (in and out of the church) promotes such stripping as "salvation," or at least the way to salvation.

I disagree with this view. If one strips before a professional psyche-observer or a group of peering peers, there may be a certain temporary cathartic effect for the stripper, but nothing worth the risks involved. This kind of stripping is no different from strip teasing. Strippers are "exhibitionists," concerned only with showing off and seducing others rather than learning any truth about themselves. Likewise, the observers are "voyeurs" interested more in the gratification of seeing the other's secrets than in being of any help. This sort of relationship, of course, does no one any good. However, under the guise of "sensitivity training," "consciousness raising," or "small-group sharing," a good deal of it has gone on and is going on in our churches.

The only stripping that avoids perversion and opens positive alternatives is that done before God. Psalm 139 (among many similar ones) is the best expression of what we have in mind:

O LORD, you have searched me and known me
    You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
    you descern my thoughts from far away.
You search out my path and my lying down,
    and are acquainted with all my ways....
For it was you who formed my inward parts;
    you knit me together in my mother's womb.
I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made....
How weighty to me are your thoughts, O God!
    How vast is the sum of them!
I try to count them--they are more than the sand;
    I come to the end--I am still with you....
Search me, O God, and know my heart;
    Test me and know my thoughts.
See if there is any wicked way in me,
    And lead me in the way everlasting. Ps. 139

This, I suppose, is what has been customarily called confession rather than stripping. I have changed the term to get away from the idea of simply listing the bad things one has said, thought, and done, and having a professional religionist assure one of forgiveness or a professional psychologist assure one that these things weren't bad to begin with. In the opening-out I am speaking of, there may be revealed some things which are much worse than everyday sins and some things which are grounds for thanksgiving, wonder, and praise.

Kierkegaard pointed out that our purpose in revealing ourselves to God is not that he might learn something about us, but that from him we might learn something we have not known, or have not been willing to face, about ourselves. The Psalmist agrees completely. Once we have found out, with God's help, we are also ready to be helped out. Because he is present and active, God can make sure that I do not follow pernicious ways, but instead follow the way that is everlasting.

Obviously, stripping is an intensely personal action of the individual before God and not before the brethren. Yet, I did not say private. In this instance, as in our earlier ones, personal experience can best take place (perhaps even must take place) within the context of community. Thus, in this case, although I do not strip before the brethren, I ought to strip with my brethren before God. The Psalmist himself points us in this direction by doing his own stripping in the form of a public, written account, undoubtedly intended as encouragement to his brethren.

The first way the community can help is by reminding me that I need the stripping experience. Furthermore, the greatest encouragement for me to do it is to discover that my brothers and sisters are willing to bare themselves with me. Also, that we can do this with one another in love keeps me aware that God's attitude toward me is one of love.

Beyond this mutual helpfulness there is an even more basic consideration. As long as my stripping is done in complete privacy before God, there is always the suspicion (it should be my own suspicion) that I have not truly nor completely stripped at all. It is too easy to say that I have opened every aspect of my life to God when that is not really the case. To verbalize these things in the presence of other people helps keep me honest and also gives God an opportunity to verbalize, through them, his love and forgiveness toward me.

This mutuality of stripping before God may be the most important activity of the Christian community, related as it is to the forgiveness of sin; yet it is also the most precarious and difficult activity. It can so easily become exhibitionism or voyeurism; and our only protection is that we focus it wholly upon God and do it only under his direction.

The three congregational activities we have examined--mutual aid in simplifying our lifestyles, mutual helpfulness in applying God's discipline, and the mutual baring of our selves to God--are not actually distinct and separate works. They may even be ascending steps, each making the next possible. In any case, they amount to a basic aspect of discipleship, and they are a basic part of the church's calling. They also point to a basic lack in the life of the modern church and the experience of modern Christians.

None of these three activities can be accomplished in the way the church normally accomplishes activities. They do not happen through committee decision, organizational goal setting, staff programming, or the budgeting of funds (although actions at this level can either encourage or thwart the process). All three activities (in ascending degree) must occur in a group with a strong sense of community (koinonia), an intimate "feel" for one another, a deep sense of trust in one another, and a firm Commitment to caravan with one another. Most congregations do not have the base from which to pursue these activities, even if they wanted to. Although this sense of community is both the motive and the product of the caravan church, it is in no sense a human, sociological creation. It is a gift of God and, more than that, a grace that comes only through being in Jesus Christ and truly letting that action incorporate us as his body.

Copyright (c) 1980