In just a few seconds on social media, pastors can discover a great deal about their church members. We can learn all about their kids’ accomplishments, what they had for dinner last night, and even, if you care to know (I do not), how intuitive their cats happen to be. We can also discover just how diverse or homogeneous our churches are by observing members online. Their portfolios, posts, and comments will indicate how they feel about such topics as racial tensions, economic challenges, political campaigns, or worldwide pandemics. It can be a very enlightening (and terrifying) exercise if you dare to undertake it.

In my own Staten Island church family, the challenges of this past year have exposed a WIDE variety of political and ideological positions. These differences have spilled into online debates (more like debacles) with labels like “white supremacist” and “baby killer” used to describe fellow church members based on their political affiliations. On multiple occasions, the fury of members was turned toward their pastor for not saying enough, or saying too much, or merely challenging them to engage these topics in a more charitable spirit.

My enduring question of 2020 was this: How does a pastor work to maintain “…the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace…” (Ephesians 4:3) in a climate like this?

The answer came, as it usually does, by looking to Jesus. He sets the example on cultivating authentic unity within deep diversity. Let me illustrate from a list of the twelve disciples from Matthew 10:2-4: 

  • Simon Peter
  • Andrew
  • James, Son of Zebedee
  • John
  • Phillip
  • Bartholomew
  • Thomas
  • Matthew the Tax Collector
  • James, Son of Alphaeus
  • Thaddaeus
  • Simon the Zealot
  • Judas Iscariot

EXTREMELY DIFFERENT DISCIPLES

While each of the disciples had their own eccentricities and personality quirks, the inclusion of Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot into the twelve disciples should grab our attention. Why? Because, in that culture and context, Jesus could not have chosen two men from farther ends of the ideological spectrum than these. This is worse than putting the most extreme members of the Black Lives Matter organization and the Make America Great Again movement in the same workgroup–simply insane!

Consider that, in order to be a tax collector, Matthew had to sell out his family, friends, and community in loyalty to the Roman Empire which would give him the cover to get rich by fraud. There were no more despised people in Israel than tax collectors. The Jewish Talmud actually gave instructions on how to lie to a tax collector, because the low-life traitor deserved it! When Jesus called Matthew, he was a Roman loyalist who had sold out his people for own personal profit.

The Zealots, on the other hand, were an extreme group of Jewish dissidents committed to overthrowing the Roman occupation of Israel through covert assassinations of Roman officials and Jewish sellouts, like tax collectors). The only thing the New Testament tells us about Simon, other than his calling as a disciple, is that he was a Zealot. So, when Jesus called Simon, he was an operative in an anti-Roman terrorist organization carrying out guerrilla attacks on anyone who got in his way.

UNITY AMONG DIVERSITY

How did Jesus handle such political and ideological differences within his disciples? Jesus called both Matthew and Simon to “…deny himself, take up his cross daily and follow me.” (Luke 9:23). That’s right — in both the first century and the 21st century, Jesus demands that His disciples lay down our secondary affiliations in order to take up our primary affiliation in His kingdom. It has and will always be, Christ before all and Christ above all. Diversity in secondary affiliations is not a bad thing, so in order to pastor the political crazies we must be ready to challenge them to lay down the smartphones and close the laptops so we can all pick up the emblem of suffering and shame together.

Does that mean that we no longer hold to political or ideological convictions? Not at all! But it does mean that we must see one another through the lens of Christ Jesus and not through our political perspectives.

Does that mean that we do not confront one another when we fail to love God or love our neighbor? Of course not! I have often wondered if Jesus may have looked over at Simon as he said, “Render to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s…” (Mark 12:17) to see if the former Zealot rolled his eyes or gritted his teeth. No, Jesus did not shy away from the difficult topics or the hard conversation, and neither should we.

Jesus called to himself, and spent years investing in, more than a few political crazies. But he did so with limitless love and focused personal attention. And while social media may provide a pastor the opportunity to form opinions about the people he is called to shepherd, it does not offer the best way to actually know or love them well. Even in a global pandemic, we must personally engage the people we serve in an effort to journey with them through these difficult times. Only then will we be able to see past the politics and ideologies and truly love them for who they are: the sheep of his pasture whom it is our privilege to shepherd.

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John Welborn
Pastor John Welborn and his wife of over 16 years, Ashley, have 4 children, Gracie (13), Eli (10), Charlie (6) and Brithney (5), as well as a black labradoodle named Maggie. John holds degrees from Liberty University and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary while currently pursuing a Doctor of Ministry degree in Evangelism and Church Planting. He was an itinerant evangelist before becoming Lead Pastor of Crosslink Community Church, Harrisonburg, VA, where he served for 7 years. Since January 2016, he has been serving as the Senior Pastor of Salem Church, Staten Island, New York. Pastor John loves to play golf, watch his favorite college football team, the Georgia Bulldogs, and go camping with his family.
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12 Comments

  1. Avatar Chuck Sutton on February 8, 2021 at 10:37 am

    Thank you, John, for a word well spoken. And for serving along with so many others in the ministry role I consider so crucial and challenging in these troubled times for the church.

    • John Welborn John Welborn on February 22, 2021 at 4:44 pm

      Thank you for the encouragement, Chuck.

  2. Avatar Bill Kynes on February 3, 2021 at 10:42 pm

    How we need to help people “put on Christ”–developing compassion, kindness, gentleness, humility and patience (Col. 3:12)!

    • Avatar John Welborn on February 4, 2021 at 7:42 am

      Yes sir, thank you.

  3. Avatar Irene knowles on February 3, 2021 at 5:17 pm

    Pardon me in misspeaking, I wasn’t referring to our flock as in our church but more Jesus flock.

  4. John Nesbitt John Nesbitt on February 3, 2021 at 1:47 pm

    Thank you John! So relevant and well said!

  5. Avatar David Hansen on February 3, 2021 at 10:05 am

    John:

    Thank you for your insightful article! Your most salient point clearly was, “Jesus did not shy away from the difficult topics or the hard conversation, and neither should we.” As pastors, we need to be fully grounded in God’s Word so we know how to answer the disunity and tension our people face each and every day. The country clearly is divided, however, the body of Christ should not be in the area of becoming more like Jesus each and every day of our lives!

    • Avatar John Welborn on February 3, 2021 at 10:54 am

      Thank you, David. I agree. My encouragement to the Salem family has been to take Romans 12:2 seriously by resisting the temptation to conform to the patterns of this world and be transformed by Christ. I am praying for you and all spiritual leaders during this difficult season.

  6. Avatar Irene knowles on February 3, 2021 at 9:09 am

    Hi John, thank you for your thoughts and spiritual direction on this. Doug and I have tried to handle these issues with lots of grace-not always successfully! It can be disheartening to see our flock act in ways so contrary to Christ’s call. Trying to keep on keeping on!

    • Avatar John Welborn on February 3, 2021 at 10:06 am

      Thank you, Irene. I will be praying for you and Doug. Blessings to you both!

  7. Avatar David Hyatt on February 3, 2021 at 7:10 am

    Thanks for the excellent reminder John! I’m reminded of something Paul Tripp said, that we should rejoice when our kids sin in front of us! It’s then that we get to see what’s in their heart and to know better how to parent and pray. Seems applicable to the folks in our congregations as well.

    • John Welborn John Welborn on February 22, 2021 at 4:45 pm

      That is a great insight, David. Thank you for sharing!

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