Missio Dei: A Journal of Missional Theology and Praxis 7 (Summer-Fall 2016)

playlist_add_check Review Article

Scot McKnight. A Fellowship of Differents: Showing the World God’s Design for Life Together. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014. 265 pp. Hardback. $19.99.

Scot McKnight represents that breed of academic gifted at leading the broader church to a fuller theology. He has delivered much of his work by vehicles unlikely to show up on a curriculum vitae: blog posts, podcast episodes, and conference keynotes are generally tallied on different ledgers than journal articles, commentaries, and academic symposiums. McKnight’s work often bridges the academy and the church, though it is a mistake to underestimate the depth of his overall project.

McKnight’s popular works already evidence the outline of a systematic theology. He has helped form in his readers fresh conceptions of the gospel (The King Jesus Gospel, 2011), their relationship to scripture (Blue Parakeet, 2008), the Christian doctrine of Heaven (The Heaven Promise, 2015), and the Atonement (A Community Called Atonement, 2007). In A Fellowship of Differents, McKnight contributes a ground-level ecclesiology distilled from Paul’s letters. The book offers a vision of the church that matters not only in the academy or even in the pew but at the dinner tables, playgrounds, cubicles, and bedrooms in which the church lives.

In good popular form, A Fellowship of Differents delivers its vision in twenty-two small chapters seasoned with metaphors and well-told stories. The opening chapter provides the book’s agenda, driven by McKnight’s conviction that “we all learn the Christian life from how our local church shapes us” (11). This leads to two key questions: “What is the church supposed to be?” and “If the church is what it is supposed to be, what does the Christian life look like?” (13).

The second chapter then provides a guiding metaphor: The church at its best resembles a mixed salad, as people share life together while having their differences preserved, rather than flattened into homogeneity. Counter to present reality, in which segregated, homogenous churches contribute to the invisibility of difference, McKnight argues for a vision of the church wherein different kinds of people become fully visible to each other. The Christian life then becomes about loving those who were previously invisible to us, thus embodying the kingdom of God as a fellowship of differents.

The remaining chapters are grouped into six parts which flesh out this vision. In part one, “Grace,” McKnight devotes two chapters to how the church can reflect God’s transformative “Yes” to humanity. Part two, “Love,” holds up a vision of commitment which invests in others and practices generous sharing. This leads to part three, “Table,” which explores McKnight’s communal vision of the church. This section challenges both the temptation to over-idealize the church and the value of American individualism.

Part four, “Holiness,” describes the church as a community of particularity whose devotion to God changes how people live ethically. McKnight takes care to emphasize these changes as God-wrought (119) and yet provokes readers to embrace changes to culturally embraced ethical norms. Nowhere is the delicate balance as evident as in chapter twelve, in which McKnight seeks to take this language of holiness—which could be easily abstracted—and provide an example of how holiness might function in regard to sexual ethics.

This conversation leads McKnight to the subject of part five, “Newness,” concerned with the tension between freedom and faithfulness. After describing each pole of that tension, chapter sixteen offers sources of guidance. With this in place, part six concludes the book with five chapters that together describe what McKnight labels “Flourishing.” This section portrays the church’s telos as including the capacity to faithfully endure suffering, formation in the image of God, and the cultivation of joy as an alternative to happiness.

Throughout the book, McKnight demonstrates his gift of making theology accessible to readers without academic training. Those who have such training will recognize the author’s roots in the so-called New Perspective on Paul and situate his theology in the midst of the ongoing missional conversation, though McKnight rarely interacts with luminaries from either camp explicitly. His purpose here is not to have an academic conversation but to help a broader swath of the church by deepening its understanding of Paul and the church. The great strength of this work is McKnight’s acumen for such accessible writing, and I believe many people in the church will be able to find themselves in McKnight’s stories, though some will undoubtedly resist McKnight’s takes on the polarizing topics of politics and sexuality.

Beyond being simply digestible, I think readers will find the book deeply nourishing, offering substantial scriptural interpretation and theological imagination. McKnight’s vision of the church offers encouragement and challenge to those whose experience of the church has been a “place we go on Sunday to hear a sermon, or to participate in worship, or partake in communion.” (12) This alternative vision of a transformative community of diverse Jesus followers will resonate for many who have found the church bland and hollow.

However, I wonder whether this vision of the church might provoke cynical despair of the church as it currently exists. McKnight himself pushes against this possibility, urging readers not to embark on the American quest to find the perfect church by abandoning the church as it exists (106–109). Nonetheless, readers might be left wondering how to make the move from homogeneous church expressions to those that fit the metaphor of the mixed salad, and a few more “next steps” would have added to the text. McKnight’s own admission that the vision is somewhat utopian (25) only underlines the powerful inertia opposing the cultivation of fellowships of differents within churches already marked by a critical mass of sameness. Nonetheless, this challenge now stands before the church, and, as McKnight’s reading of Paul skillfully encourages us, it has always been so.

Steven Hovater

Preaching and Outreach Minister

The Church of Christ at Cedar Lane

Tullahoma, TN, USA