The Johannine epistles have a lot to say about group boundaries and who is in and who is out.
Winslow Homer, The Gulf Stream, 1899
Dr Chris Porter (Thursday 28 May)
The Johannine epistles have a lot to say about group boundaries and who is in and who is out. It is in 1 John that we get the enigmatic and confusing saying that ‘those who went out from us did not belong to us because if they had, they would have remained with us…’ These sort of statements on group boundary markers have often caused significant confusion and hurt in the church, especially when utilised as a means of unilateral exclusion.
Yet there is something profoundly comforting about knowing that we are part of distinct groups, part of something that we can claim membership within. Henri Tajfel saw the great benefit and challenges of group behaviour during the Holocaust and the subsequent slow recovery for the great numbers affected. He saw that we gain a distinct degree of ‘positive social identity’ from identifying with the groups we belong to. In our current era the groups that we belong to—our work, our church, our family—have proven to be greatly needed sources of esteem and identity as we navigate the realities of pandemic society.
However, as the current round of lockdowns start to ease, and people start to emerge from their isolation there are two visible dangers for us. The first comes with the impetus towards individualism that comes with extended personal freedoms, as I have reflected on before. No longer are we restrained to our own environments, but we can now enact our freedoms—sadly sometimes with deadly consequences.
But the second danger comes with the expanded horizons of our new online medium, where the narrow borders of our isolated homes have been erased by the seemingly limitless boundaries of the internet. Online church services allow international members to zoom in and gather where physical borders would not permit it. Indeed, at the risk of being hypocritical, I have enjoyed gathering with overseas churches that I have worshipped in person with in the past. However, in doing so we run the risk of forgetting who we are actually in long term fellowship with and who we are ministering to.
Church members run the risk of not being truly part of any group, but rather floating between amorphous groups with very little sense of us-ness to bind us together. But even further, ministers face the challenge of ministry that is unanchored from distinct fellowship.
While this sort of ministry and fellowship may feel attractive as restrictions are eased the sheen will soon wear off and congregations will start to become unmoored and adrift in a lonely sea of individualism. Instead we should heed John the Elder’s advice and abide with one another in truth and action.