In or out? Mark 9: 38 – 42

In verses 38-41, the disciples have rebuked someone simply because they were not one of them. This man had been driving out demons in Jesus’ name and the disciples didn’t like it. This man wasn’t in their gang or clique and therefore he had no right to associate himself with Jesus. This was gatekeeping, first-century style. Funnily enough, Jesus wasn’t particularly happy with this. The disciples were trying to create certain criteria for entering Jesus’ group and Jesus reacted angrily.

In fact, he was so angry he told the disciples it would be better for them to die to try it again. Jesus tells them that they should tie a millstone around their neck and die at the bottom of the sea rather than insult another believer, especially one that is perhaps vulnerable in their faith.

So the question is this: how often are we guilty of gatekeeping in our churches? Do we set criteria that Jesus never intended to set for our churches? If their attendance is flaky, if they don’t dress up nice, if they don’t contribute to the potluck supper, if they are not a member of one of the Bible study groups, if they say the wrong things and can be a bit crass, do we still accept them as a believer? Or do we say things like, “Oh, they’re not real members; they’re not proper Christians”? Remember, in verse 41, Jesus sets the criteria. If someone believes in Jesus and just does the smallest thing in his name, they’re in. If someone however tries to rob them that, that person should be sleeping with the fishes.

Now, I’m doing a masters degree and at the moment my module is on anthropology and how its insights can help missionaries. (I think it’s a very useful subject to help Christians in general.) So, it’s got me thinking how some of these ideas can be used by the church. If you are reading this and wondering where this part is going, I will bring it around, I promise.

One concept that is often analysed when studying culture is views of kinship. There are different types of kinship to describe different things. One of my favourite types is fictive kinship. This is a kinship relationship which is entirely made up by those involved. We’ve all had those aunts that weren’t really aunts. Those are fictive kinships. You treat a person that is outside the biological or legal terms of family (i.e. in-laws) as if they are actually family. In Cambodia, this is pretty common. I’m in a fictive kinship relationship with Vitou and his family. From appearances, we are very obviously not related. However, the bond between us and the reciprocal obligations (go to birthday parties, bail each other out of problems, visit when the other one is sick or feeling down) are still there as if we were family members.

With kinship relationships, once that bond is created (through biology, law, or even other mechanisms) it is very hard to break. Even if you don’t see your uncle or your sister-in-law for years, they are still your family. The brother you only see at Christmas is still family. Your slightly inappropriate family member, perhaps the aunt that makes all the sexual-innuendos after a glass of wine, is still family. The cousin that you saw last sixteen years ago and they now live on the other side of the world, and you struggle to remember their wife’s name, is still family. When it comes to the criteria for being family, the bar is pretty low but it is still difficult to break the relationship.

The church, as the Bible tells us, is a family. Jesus is the head of the family and all other believers are your brothers and sisters, mothers and fathers in Christ. Therefore, the criteria for them being counted as one of us is pretty low. It is an association through Jesus. Regular church attendance, being a part of the flower committee, volunteering in the summer Bible clubs, or signing a pledge of church membership are not criteria for church membership. Giving a single glass of cool water in Jesus’ name, however is. So it doesn’t matter if you only see them at church at Christmas, they are still your brother or sister in Christ. It doesn’t matter if they say all the wrong things or don’t know the answers to the pastor’s questions, they are still your brother or sister in Christ. If they turn up in a t-shirt they bought at a rock concert, and jeans with holes in them, they are still your brother and sister in Christ.

We don’t actually get to choose who is in and out. We get to receive the love of Christ despite being sinners. Our only job is to accept brothers and sisters and encourage them to do the same. And if you don’t like it, well, don’t be too surprised if you find yourself thrown into the sea.