I’ve been thinking about Qumran the last couple of days… (That’s probably a sentence you don’t hear very often.)
What I mean is that I’ve been thinking about the various “stories” that were being told by the groups in existence during Jesus’ life. Each story was a variation that explained and validated each particular group as God’s people.
The Pharisees believed that being God’s people meant maintaining a distinct ethnic identity by observing the boundary markers inherent within the Torah. Sadducees believed that being God’s people meant political partnership with Rome, who, in turn, allowed the Jewish religious system – centered around the Temple in Jerusalem – to continue. Zealots believed that being God’s people meant a religious war that would expel the foreign oppressors from God’s sacred land.
What I find interesting is that each of these groups and their respective stories, find representation in the contemporary North American Church. Some corners of the Church emphasize adherence to the literal inerrant Word of God above everything. Pragmatic church pastors and leaders look toward the business, athletic and therapeutic realms for identity, worth and insights. Other Christians, in the hopes of making the world a better place (usually by expelling the other political party and their agenda) draw from an arsenal of political candidates, platforms, petitions, ballots and rallies.
Several years ago, if you would have asked me which group I associated with the most, as a conservative evangelical pastor I would have found plenty of affinity with the Pharisees and Sadducees. But my journey over the last few years has taken me down a different path, one which finds affinity with a different 1st century group and therefore poses potential personal problems with living within God’s Story. That group is the Qumran community.
The Qumran community, which is famous for producing the invaluable Dead Sea Scrolls, was part of a sect called the Essenes. The Essenes were a group who reacted against the corruption in the Jewish religious system.
Their story begins around 168 B.C. when a group of Jews, led by the now-famous Maccabean family, revolted against Antiochus Epiphanes, the Syrian king who was forcing his Hellenizing policies on Palestine. After a prolonged conflict of guerrilla warfare, one of the Maccabean sons, Simon, established political independence for Judea in 142 B.C. He was a brilliant leader and diplomat. In a strategic move to bring political unity, Simon was elected to be high priest, military commander, and civil governor of the Jews – a position to be reserved only for him and his descendants.
However, this caused severe theological problems. The Old Testament clearly stated that the high priesthood flowed from Aaron’s lineage. Now, in Simon, the priesthood had been transferred to a completely different lineage. This was completely unacceptable for those Jewish “purists” who believed that strict adherence to the Torah was foundational to being God’s people. In their eyes, the Temple and its practices were now as corrupt as the pagan influences surrounding Israel.
So the Essenes rejected the Temple, its priesthood and the Jewish religious system. Believing themselves to be the rightful heirs to Judaism, they withdrew to a small community in the Palestinian wilderness and established an alternative to the broken religious system. As God’s faithful people, this community focused on spiritual formation through rites of purity and strict asceticism.
As I reflect on the Qumran community in relation to my own journey, I realize how easily I can slip into a similarly mutated version of God’s Story. Although I believe God has led me on this journey, there are three potential pitfalls that I must guard myself against.
The first potential problem is hyper-idealism. As I have read through the New Testament in the last few years, I have become re-envisioned with what God’s people can and should be. In short, we are to be the incarnational presence of God’s fullness, kingdom and life on earth. But if that vision is all that I hold before me, I can easily gravitate toward a hyper-idealism that no one can attain. By doing this, that which should be good news (the kind of people we can become) becomes bad news (the kind of people we never seem able to become).
Like Paul, I must learn to be both prophetic and pastoral. I must couple a biblical vision of God’s dreams with the reality that I live in. Paul, following in Jesus’ pattern, was a master at this. Captured by the implications of Jesus’ death and resurrection, he traveled throughout the Mediterranean establishing colonies of God’s new humanity on earth that he envisioned as transformative agents within creation. His letters to these newly founded colonies are filled with metaphors and pictures of what God’s people can be. Yet, with the same quill, Paul also corrects abuses and moral failures in these communities. Merging both prophetic and pastoral ministries, Paul’s letters provide a proper balance of idealism and realism.
In other words, Paul recognized that God’s people are journeying toward the likeness of Christ as they are drawn onward by Christ’s Spirit. On that journey, they face the foibles and failures of the human condition. There is no avoiding that aspect of reality. The people of God are… well, people. But they are also God’s people. Therefore, the journey we are on is one of tension between putting off the old self and putting on the new self.
The second pitfall I face is elitism. Like the Qumran community, I find I can effortlessly slip into the attitude that I’ve got things right while the rest have it wrong. I’ve got the Story right. I’m focusing on what is important as God’s people – spiritual formation, community and mission the way God really intended. And coupled with the obvious inability of the western Church to be the presence of God, my attitude is easily enforced by a continuing critique of the western Church that validates my beliefs and practices. Yikes!!!
Now don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying the western Church shouldn’t be critiqued or evaluated. It’s pretty obvious to just about everyone that the system isn’t working as well as it can be. But the motivation behind my evaluation, as well as my “alternative” practices, must be checked. It must never be done with an “us versus them” attitude or as an attempt to validate what I’m doing.
Plus, I think the “emerging” or “missional” church movement has matured enough where we should be critiquing ourselves. I must remind myself that there’s a lot that I’m not doing well. That’s why I love Todd Hunter’s boldness to say things like “we stink at evangelism and leadership” and to be able to step out into a new and surprising direction to explore a proper corrective.
Let’s be honest, we don’t have the corner on spiritual formation, community or mission. Not that anyone is actually saying so. But, again, I can slip into that elitist attitude very easily. My attitude needs to be countered with humility. I’m just a small part of two thousand years of history this side of the resurrection. And that’s not counting the thousands of years of God’s Story that occurred prior to Jesus. And there are lot of people in the institutional church who are doing wonderful things in spiritual formation, community and mission – much better than I.
The third, and potentially greatest, pitfall I face is isolationism. Like the Qumran community, the perceived corruption in the western Church easily makes me want to withdraw into a small alternative community. I will not only disconnect from the world, but I will also disconnect from the world-influenced Church. If the system is broken, then I won’t have anything to do with the system.
But when I look at Jesus, I don’t find him doing this. In fact, I find something very disturbing. Throughout Jesus’ ministry, he engages and confronts the various misaligned stories. He had harsh things to say to the Pharisees, the Sadducees and even about the Temple. It is obvious from Jesus’ words and actions that he believed the entire Jewish religious system was broken.
But there is one group that he never engages – those at Qumran. Jesus completely bypasses those who have completely disconnected from the broken Jewish religious system. No mention is made in the Gospels about the Essenes or the Qumran community. We only know about them through sources outside the biblical text. This makes me more than a little nervous since I find so much potential similarity between them and myself.
Here’s the thing rattling around in my head: Jesus selectively participated in a broken system and engaged those who lived in that broken system. He went to the synagogue regularly. He visited the Temple during the various holy days. At the same time he also broke significant boundary markers in the system and established new symbols and stories to communicate what he was intending to accomplish. His was a delicate dance of confrontation and affirmation with a broken religious system. Although broken, the system stood for the very thing he was climaxing and fulfilling through his life, death and new life.
The system was so broken, that it ultimately rejected him and killed him outside of the walls of Jerusalem and the Temple. But three days later, the new Temple was raised (John 2:19-21). The people of God were reconstituted around himself. And they engaged both the world and religious system that rejected their Lord.
Such is the dance for those who are Jesus’ followers. We are not to disconnect from, but to selectively engage both the broken world struggling with hopelessness and the broken Church struggling to bear the much-needed hope. And again, not with a hyper-idealistic vision or an elitist “us versus them” attitude.
Rather, like Jesus, we are to winsomely love and care for all, even to the point of our rejection and death. We are to stand in the middle, at the place of pain, bridging heaven and earth. We do this by incarnating the healing love of God to both those in the Church and those without. In this way we have the same attitude of Jesus, emptying ourselves and becoming obedient to death and so allowing God the room to glorify as he chooses.
This is why I love the paper that Brian McLaren has presented to the Billy Graham Center. Entitled “The Strategy We Pursue,” McLaren’s paper provides a great starting point for a more mature engagement with the Church and our culture by laying out a five point strategy for all of us:
1. Admit we may not actually understand the good news, and seek to rediscover it. (Reboot our theology in a new understanding of the gospel of Jesus.)
2. Redefine what a disciple is. (Change believers into be-alivers and be-lovers.)
3. Do good works, including reconciliation with other Christians. (Recenter the Great Commission in the Great Commandment.)
4. Decrease church attendance. (Deploy Christians into their neighborhoods and communities and world to build relationships with everyone they can, especially the last, the lost and the least.)
5. Start new “hives” of Christianity, without blowing up or stirring up the existing hives. (Create catholic missional monastic faith communities, within the context of a “deep ecclesiology” that honors the Church in all its forms.)
I think this strategy is wonderful because it’s so “big.” It both confronts and affirms. It recognizes both the brokenness of the “system” and the validity of what the “system” stands for. It evaluates blindspots and validates successes.
So bottom line, what does this mean? God has lead me to a wonderful alternative community where I have experienced profound healing, fresh vision, authentic formation, and intimate community. As Barb has stated in her blog, “there is no way I’d want to give that up.” But it also means I need to think further about how I, my family and my friends can engage and bless all forms of the Church as well as the world with the fullness of Christ being formed in us. If I simply withdraw into my own little world of personal piety, I believe I risk Jesus bypassing me just as he bypassed the Qumran community. That’s because as broken as the current religious system may be, the people within that system are God’s people. So I must embrace them with the incarnational presence of God as I would the world, even at the risk of misunderstanding, rejection or worse. As Jesus’ apprentice, my life is to engage and not withdraw; to bless and not disconnect; to dance as Jesus danced.