What Moses, St. Augustine, Rob Bell, and Caesar say about Small Groups

A friend of mine was telling me recently about a small group he was leading. On the last meeting, they were struggling to “stay on task” for the Bible study. He had prepared and worked really hard, but people’s life stories and connections kept getting in the way of what he had prepared for. As they talked about this, they made the confession that community and sharing life was really the point of their group, not sticking to a curriculum. While this was really difficult for the leader to accept, he eventually came to the realization that his group was right. The whole point of doing a small group study was to create community and relationships.

I love it when these moments happen: When we are able to see through the mess of activity to the heart of what we yearn for and desire as human beings. Not only that, but we are able to see how certain practices and activities help us experience what it means to be human and a Christian.

We hinted at this a few weeks ago. In churches, we create programs and activities that we assume are the best way to get people to a certain end. We create Bible studies and small groups with the hopes that these activities allow people to connect with each other and with God.

Bible studies and small groups (and blogs) are good things when they are a means to an end. The problem becomes when those activities become an end rather than the means.

Which leads us back to what we are discussing this week: The tension of government and Christianity.

postWait, what? How did I get there? To clarify, let’s look at three other areas that seem unrelated. Let’s look at The Ten Commandments, St. Augustine, and Rob Bell.

First, the Ten Commandments. Here is the lead commandment:

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery; you shall have no other gods before me.

It is an interesting phrasing isn’t it? Not: I am the only god. But, the other gods will not be before me.

So there are other gods. Other things which are vying for our ultimate allegiance (and yes I use that word intentionally) and want us to view the world through their lens and order our lives according to them.

God says no. Our ultimate allegiance is to God and we order our world according to God.

Next, St. Augustine. To spare you a little bit, I will give a quick, butchered summary. Augustine believed we order our loves. True love is directed at God. But we have these other, smaller loves which must be put in their proper place. These smaller loves are not inappropriate, but they must be ordered correctly. These smaller loves can get our attention and respect and, yes love, but they must all be directed towards the greater love of God.

Finally, my boy Rob. He wrote a post about the passage in the Bible where it seems to imply God puts all government rulers in place. If they are ruling a nation, country, city, whatever, then it is because God willed it. Of course this interpretation causes all sorts of problems, but he tackles that here.

For our purposes, here is the summary: God puts governments, law enforcement, etc. in place because it brings a form of order. These forms of government and people do not represent God and are not trying to move God’s kingdom forward, but imagine the alternative. What would our world look like if we did not have these systems and institutions in place.

So let’s sum up:

  1. There are other gods vying for our allegiance.
  2. These “gods” aren’t always bad, they just have to be properly ordered.
  3. God uses government in specific ways, but they are not representative of the advancement of God’s kingdom. That is the job of the Church.

“Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

This is a statement about the different gods vying for allegiance. And it is a statement about how we order our lives.

So what exactly is God’s?

Everything. This is God’s world. Our job is to partner with God in redeeming and restoring God’s world.

But Caesar has put his stamp on certain things. Caesar makes certain claims. The Empire wants our ultimate allegiance. It wants us to see the world through its lens and order our lives around its goals.

Jesus reminds us the world doesn’t work this way. Our allegiance is not to the Empire. Our allegiance is to the Kingdom of God.

But Caesar has his place. We don’t rule it out, we don’t walk away. We simply learn to order it properly.

When we don’t order the empire properly, our government or country becomes our god. It is the nature of the Empire. The Empire wants our ultimate allegiance. When we give ultimate allegiance to a country or political party or whatever it may be, we order our lives around the ideals of a nation, not the ideals of The Kingdom.

This leads to some very poor theology and some very poor ways of thinking and acting, because we have violated the first commandment.

Knowing how gods compete for our allegiance, and knowing the critical need to order our world correctly is a key part of what it means to be a Christian. And it applies to more areas than just the government.

Which leads us back to the small group conversation (you thought I forgot didn’t you?). Small groups are good and helpful things as long as we put them in their proper place. When we ordered our lives around an activity, it becomes a god. When we order it properly it becomes something we participate in with the goal of further pursuing the Kingdom of God.

Jesus calls us to critical thinking, balance, and the proper ordering of our world. We need to think about ends and means. We need to think through the role of government in its proper place.  We need to have conversations about critical issues, but they should be done in the light of advancing the Kingdom, not an ideology, party, state, nation, or program.

These are not our gods.

They have their place. We can’t throw the baby out with the bath water. And in this story, Jesus is unwilling to do so. But they must be ordered and we must learn to see the distinctions between ends, means, and competing kingdoms.

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