Knofel Staton, at the time president of Pacific Christian College—now called Hope International University (Fullerton, California)—urged people in Christian churches and churches of Christ to turn away from their/our isolationist tendencies in this piece from 35 years ago. Here is a shortened version of his long article.
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Isolation—Leave It in the Grave!
By Knofel Staton;
Oct. 14, 1984; p. 4
. . . My sister Knova and I grew up in the same family but were very different. Sometimes I did not act like I was in unity with her, but I have come to realize that our unity does not depend upon conformity—but on something more lasting. We are kin to each other; we share the same genetic background. Consequently, we owe it to each other to be involved and reject any temptation to be isolated from each other; for in isolation, we become little internally. With involvement we become bigger.
Our problem—Isn’t it tempting to isolate ourselves as Christians from others who were not born in our house (church)? After all, Christians in those other houses do some things differently. But if we are kin to each other, we owe it to each other to recognize that kinship and treat each other the way our Heavenly Father would want His children to be treated.
I am the father of four children, and I confess to you that few things would break my heart more than to watch my four children grow up isolated from each other because they wanted it that way. I would be so grieved if each of them became adults who refused to admit kinship with each other, or who might admit it, but would never speak to each other except in competitive or condescending ways. How brokenhearted I would be if each tried to outdo the other, refused to rejoice in any honors the other received, and rejoiced only when one of the others got into difficulties. What a shame!
I am convinced that few things grieve our Heavenly Father more than watching how many of His children go after the jugular veins of His other children. Of course, our God-Father is grieved when so many people do not come to Him through the Savior Jesus, but it must dampen His delight when those who do come to Him through Jesus are mistreated, misunderstood, categorized, and rejected by other members of God’s family. Isn’t it time that God’s family receive as brothers and sisters those whom God himself has received and has rejoiced to receive?
There will be no divisions beyond the grave. There we will leave all those differences that we think are so important now—style of music, dress, order of worship, one cup or many cups at Communion, clapping or not clapping in worship, our understanding of the millennium, etc. If those differences will make no difference beyond the physical grave, can we teach each other that those differences are to make no difference in our attitudes toward one another beyond the most significant grave—baptism?
It is after baptism that we begin to live the resurrected life of eternity. The newness of life starts then. It is after baptism that we become living sacrifices.
Being a “living sacrifice” calls for us not to be squeezed into the mold of this world but to be renewed in our thinking (Romans 12:2). The first area that needs renewing is that we not think more highly of ourselves than we ought (Romans 12:3). That is so easy to do when we think that we (individually or as a church body) are more correct than others. Evidently the Jewish and Gentile Christians were isolating themselves from one another. So Paul reminded them that the body of Christ is one, but with members who were different (Romans 12:4-8). Since we are members “one of another” we ought to do the “one anothers” in the New Testament. Just look at all the “one anothers” in the rest of Romans.
Rejecting isolationism involves giving honor to others instead of cutting them down (Romans 12:10), having empathy with others (Romans 12:15), not dividing over opinions (Romans 14:1), bearing with the weaknesses of others (Romans 15:1), accepting others (Romans 15:7), and greeting one another as family members in spite of differences (Romans 16:3-16).
I saw a beautiful demonstration of unity in Christ . . . a few years ago in Oregon. A Church of Christ building burned to the ground one Sunday evening. Before the smoke cleared, a pastor of an Assembly of God church nearby came to the Church of Christ pastor and said, “Our church building is yours to use. So we can feel some of your pain, we will move our Sunday morning worship to an early hour, so you can keep the regular hour. We will also meet in the afternoon, so you can have the regular Sunday evening time and be able to use the gym and fellowship hall afterwards. We will also move our midweek service to another evening, so you can keep Wednesday evening.”
For it is the putting on of Christ at baptism that not only unites us to God but also to each other, for we are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28). We cannot do the “one anothers” if we idolize a theology of isolationism.
Christ’s example—Isn’t it easy to think we are correct and others are wrong, and then have nothing to do with them? But God is not like that. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9, quotations from the Revised Standard Version, unless otherwise indicated).
God is very different from us, but He does not use His superior position as a reason for isolation. . . . Jesus was God in flesh, but He didn’t become an isolationist. Instead, He dwelt among us (John 1:14). . . . The first message to Joseph that Jesus was to be born highlighted the fact that Jesus was involved with man: “‘and they will call him Immanuel,’ which means. ‘God with us”‘ (Matthew 1:23, New American Standard Bible). God with us is God for us and that spells “involvement.”
After Christ’s death, God highly exalted Him and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name (Philippians 2:9). But did Jesus see that as a reason to isolate himself from us whom He knew were lesser beings than He? No! Instead He promised, “I will be with you.” That is involvement.
Our Father expects us—and even commands us—to take off the garment of isolationism and put on the sacrificing robe of involvement. Much of what Paul wrote in his church letters deal with this very point. We are told clearly that, “Whoever loves the Father loves the child born of Him” (1 John 5:1, NASB). One of the proofs that we really love God is our love for God’s other children. We can talk love all we want to, but God wants to see it in action—not isolationism (1 John 3:16-18; 4:20).
When God inspired the words “lay down our lives for our brothers” (1 John 3:16) and “love the brotherhood” (1 Peter 2:17), is it possible that He had a different definition of “our brothers” and “the brotherhood’’ than we do? Is it possible that He recognizes His whole family?
Paul reminded the Corinthians that the people not only belong to a local church—“at Corinth”—but also “with all those everywhere who call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ their Lord and ours” (1 Corinthians 1:2). . . .
Isolationism is sin. It is schism. It is devilish. It is anti-Christian and anti-Scriptural. It is true that we do not have time to be personally involved with all our brothers and sisters, but we do have a reason to recognize them and be affectionate toward them in spite of differences that will be left in the grave.
Possible changes—We practice isolationism at several levels: (1) Within the local church. We often fight and mentally divide over issues which are not essential for becoming a Christian. Too often even paid staff members of a church stay isolated from each other. When Jesus first said, “Love one another” (John 13:34, 35), He spoke it to His leadership staff. Leaders of a local congregation are commanded to love other leaders in that congregation. It is time that the ministerial staff of a church, the staff of a Bible college, and the staff of a parachurch organization get with it. We have surely had enough of little people bickering over little things while much of the world is going to Hell.
(2) Across congregational lines within the same fellowship. Too often we will not participate with a sister congregation in anything. We will not even publish special events they are having. Many times while I am speaking at one church, the preacher of a sister congregation two miles away will ask. “When can you come and do the same thing at our church?” What a waste of time and stewardship!
Congregations differ as do individuals. Surely a congregation has the freedom to do some things differently from us without receiving our wrath, criticism, and the putting up of fences. What makes us think that everything we do is the only way to do it?
(3) Across congregational lines of other expressions. There is one brotherhood, but there can be several expressions of it without eliminating the essentials. There is one body, but many different cell groups. There is one family, but many different households with that family. Let’s face it. Not all of God’s people are in the Christian church or church of Christ. There are others who have the one Lord, one faith, one baptism. And one God. Isn’t it time we see them and love them?
We could get to know one another individually. How about taking people of other churches out to a meal, or enjoying some recreation together, or sharing mutual interests? How about leaders of congregations having breakfast meetings with leaders of other congregations? We may love one another more if we would understand one another better. . . . Surely we could pray with each other. I wonder what it would do to our fences if we spend time on our knees together followed up by sharing together in the Lord’s Supper? I’m not talking about accepting everybody as a brother or sister, but I am talking about accepting those who are united in Spirit for they are united in what is involved in becoming a Christian. I am suggesting that we practice, “in all things love, in nonessentials liberty, and in the essentials, unity.”
(4) Isolation from non-Christians. Most of my life I have heard that Christians should not have non-Christian friends, but that is wrong. Jesus was a friend of sinners and expects us to be. We Christians have a lot in common with non-Christians—sickness, marital problems, financial difficulties, lawns that need mowing. . . . Surely we can become friends with some non-Christians that we have already established some mutuality with at work or in the neighborhood. . . .
Only as we get more involved with the non-Christians can we expect to touch their lives with Christ and help the growth of the church. More people become Christians because of relationships with Christian friends than we have ever admitted. The relational dimension of Christianity demonstrates the revelational teaching and causes that teaching to be attractive. . . .
Christianity is personal, not just propositional. If we cannot be friends with non-Christians, then how can we expect parents to be friends with their non-Christian children as they are growing up in the household? . . .
Where to begin—Where should a life of involvement begin? It begins by the way we think—“For as he thinks within himself, so he is” (Proverbs 23:7, NASB). Surely we can do better in forming attitudes of unity, love, peace, and gentleness among ourselves. Surely we can leave behind us a generation of people who will do a better job of having a sweet attitude toward other Christians than we have had. . . .
We have done so little in spreading the right attitudes across all Christianity. No wonder so few in other groups pay attention to us, want to listen to us, or want to read our writings. We have done so little and seem to be so pleased with it. But I am sensing that the days of self-satisfaction are over for many people. . . . Many want the freedom to be peacemakers among God’s children.
With whom should that begin? It exists [in] the pew more than we probably know. But it needs to be visible among the leaders. I sense that many people in the pew are open to get involved, but they do not have role models in their leaders and do not get encouragement from their leaders. We have divided and subdivided. We have fenced ourselves in as if to build a fortress to keep all others from getting in. We have lived too long out of fear. Let us instead live in faith—faith that the God of involvement in the Old Testament and New Testament days is still the God of today. And that He lives in us!
Knofel Staton is president of Pacific Christian College, Fullerton, California.
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—Jim Nieman, managing editor, Christian Standard