Sunday, October 01, 2023


Walt Wiltschek

“Above all, clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” —Col. 3:14 (NRSV)

If you have a rubber band handy—in a kitchen or desk drawer or some workspace, go ahead and pick it up. Stretch it a bit and get a feel for its elastic qualities.

In good condition, those rubber bands can be useful things. They bind things together, help items to hold their shape, and keep things shut. If you’re feeling a little mischievous, you can even twang one at someone across the room. They’ve been in use for more than 175 years.

They’re quite functional. Pull one too far, however, and it will break and snap, sometimes to painful effect. Or leave one unattended for too long and it can dry out and fall apart, perhaps leaving behind a bit of sticky residue. Overused or unused, the humble rubber band can cease to fulfill its purpose.

The church seems to be experiencing a similar dynamic these days, and perhaps it has since its beginning, really. How much elasticity can we tolerate as a community of faith? Stretch too much and our faith and beliefs become amorphous, with little that defines us or gives us identity. Stretch too little, and we become hardened, narrow-minded, and insular.

A phrase often attributed to John Wesley—but which some scholars say might actually have originated with the German Pietists—famously says, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; in all things, charity.” That sounds logical enough, but determining what is essential and what is not has often proven to be the challenge.

Those debates largely have been what has led to 200-plus different Christians denominations in the US, and tens of thousands across the world. Our own Brethren family tree has its share of branches, some sharper than others. All that despite other words that John Wesley did in fact say: “It is only when our love grows cold that we can think about separating from our brethren.”

In recent years, questions around human sexuality have been the driving force behind most of the anger, infighting, and separation in the church. Are we too narrow in hearing the Spirit, or are there places we have stretched too far? A query coming to our district conference this year poses the question of whether decisions on these issues should come from the top-down at the denominational and district levels, or whether the personal and complex nature of many of those issues should make them a matter of congregational discernment.

What’s essential? And how much elasticity can we give one another as we study scripture and seek to follow Jesus together, albeit sometimes with different understandings of the specifics? Whatever the answer, I hope that the love of God always encircles us.