Forming Faith Blog

Faith, Works, and Belonging (May 16, 2021)

A diversity of people putting their fists together. A sense of belonging.

This week we continue the conversation from the previous two weeks, the relationship between Torah observance (specifically, circumcision) and belonging. Does a Gentile need to become Jewish (with circumcision and Torah observance) to become a part of the Church, the family of God? The answer of the Jerusalem Council and Paul’s Letter to the Galatians in chapters 1 and 2 is a resounding “No!”

Two Paths

Our two passages today in Galatians 3 give us several directions to go, though there are two major ones in my opinion.

  1. Continue my previous theme of inclusion.
  2. Delve into the topic of works and faith.
Path 1: Inclusive Church

The first track is to focus on one of the beautiful verses in Scripture:

There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3:28

Getting it out of the way first, this is not a proclamation that Jesus erases all diversity. This is clearly not true, as we retain our culture, skin color, gender identity, social history, sexual orientation, and everything else even when we are “in Jesus.” What Jesus does is break down the barriers that we humans often build based on our differences.

Not Inclusivity

I need to make a retraction, or at least an adjustment, in my language for the past two weeks. I focused on the word “inclusive.” I have since read a few critiques on “inclusivity.” These critiques don’t say that inclusivity is bad as such, only that it is completely insufficient. One compared a focus on inclusivity to be like a Band-Aid put over a gaping wound.

Expansiveness and Belonging

In an article “Beyond Inclusion Initiatives, Toward Expansive Frameworks” by J. Jay Miller (PhD, MSW, CSW), Miller argues that when organizations focus on inclusion, they are limiting their actions to surface changes: e.g., adding more diversity to the worker pool. It’s about “including” more outsiders. What this form of inclusivity does not do is make changes to the most fundamental structure of the organization. He does not refer to it directly, but he is basically talking about systemic racism (and other systemic -isms). He proposes instead that organizations implement an expansive framework at the most basic—and every other—level.

The second article that I read is “Belonging: A Conversation about Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion” by Krys Burnette. Again, her focus is on organizations, specifically equity, diversity, and inclusion (ED&I). Here she defines diversity as the presence of difference. Inclusion is an outcome where the thoughts, ideas, and perspectives of everyone present matter. Equity is a power structure that ensures that everyone present has access to the same opportunities. She argues that all three are needed. Equity without diversity means all the white men present have the same opportunities. Diversity without inclusion means that people who are “different” are present but aren’t afforded the respect of having their perspective matter. Etc. But, when all three are present, you have belonging. “Belonging is the outcome of holding space where everyone truly feels empowered to speak up, make change, and shift the culture.”

Expansiveness, Belonging, and the Church

It is obvious that many (most?) American congregations do not have much diversity when it comes to age, race, socioeconomic class, culture, gender identity, physical ability, and/or sexual orientation. Even when some diversity is present, those who are different are often not given equitable opportunities (equal opportunity adapted for the individual) nor full inclusion of their ideas and perspectives. Without conscious equity and inclusion, is it any wonder that people who are perceived as “different” might not feel like they belong? Making changes to a congregation requires a ground-up approach, rebuilding the organization with an expansive framework.

Path 2: Faith and Works

The first path focuses mainly on one verse in the day’s readings (albeit an important verse). The second path focuses on the more general issue Paul is addressing here. It is more traditionally theological. Lutherans (and other Protestants) hang their hats here: “salvation by faith, not works.” Faith is clearly important to Paul here, as there are 12 uses of different forms of the Greek word pistis (n)/pisteuō (v). To this, he counterposes “works of the law.”

As before in Acts 15 and Galatians 1 & 2, Paul’s argument is still arising from the teaching by those Pharisee believers that non-Jews need to first become Jews (circumcision, observance of the Torah) before admittance into the church/family of God. This is still exclusivity through conformity.

Works-based Theology

Works-based theology is by nature exclusive and individualistic. At “best” everyone is excluded since no one can have a right relationship with God based on their compliance with laws. At worst, some feel like they’ve “arrived” at belonging because of their conformity with often-culturally-dependent laws or expectations. We have insiders and outsiders. If the Gentiles need to conform to Jewish laws, they are (mostly) removing what makes them different.

Faith-based Theology

The opposite of works-based is faith-based, right? Right. And wrong. The problem with faith-based theology is that it can often be a different type of works-based theology. The “works of the law” are replaced with performative faith. Performative faith is an action you take and a decision you make. If this performative faith is required for a right relationship with God, then your right relationship with God is based on your action (work).

A clear sign of works-based theology—either “works of the law” or performative faith—are the tests of conformity and sufficiency:

  • Conformity: Do you have to ask whether you are doing “it” correctly? Have you done the right practices, said the right prayers, affirmed the right doctrines?
  • Sufficiency: Do you have to ask whether you are doing enough of “it”? Have you done enough good things; do you have strong enough faith?
Opposite of Works

So, if “faith”-based theology is works-based in disguise, what do we do? The confusion here is that we are often trying to answer the question: “What do we do to be in a right relationship with God?” Do we follow the law or have faith? It’s the wrong question. The question focuses on us and our actions (what do we do?).

We need to change the subject away from us to God. The better question is: “What does God do to create a right relationship with us?” The answer to that question can be complicated (especially when you expand it to the actions of each person of the Triune God), but the simple answer is grace. Grace is the undeserved, unconditional, unending, active love of God. So, to be on the right track for faith, we first need to start with grace-based theology. For if we must have faith to enter God’s grace, then it’s not grace at all.

Expansive Grace

Just as our second path led us to grace, so does our first path. God’s grace comes to everyone (diversity), includes everyone, and meets everyone where they are. Grace is about belonging to the family of God as a child of God. We learn that God is love, so grace is the foundation of God’s relationship with us. It is expansive. Our job as communities of God is to ask ourselves the question: Is our congregation an embodiment of the expansive grace of God? If not, we have work to do.

Free Activity

Each week I offer a free activity for congregations to use for faith formation. This week’s activity “Come Together” challenges participants to hear part of our Bible reading from different translations for a broader understanding. This activity is from our Living the Word: God’s Story @ Home (NL) home-based family curriculum.


Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

2021-2022 Faith Formation Resources

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