Not many people quote Chuck Colson and William Sloane Coffin in the same breath. That is one of the problems in the church today. We draw lines in the sand between liberal and conservative and tend to camp out on one side of the line or other. However, if we really believe what we read in I Corinthians 12, there is something of value in all who proclaim Christ as Lord, regardless of which side of the line that they are on. Just as James and Paul had different approaches to following Jesus (see Acts 15) in the early days of the church, so today we often have two ways to say the same thing about the church. Are we listening out of both of our ears?
Chuck Colson was a leading conservative, evangelical voice in our country. His infamous involvement in the Watergate affair turned into a wonderful Christian ministry that grew to an international scope. In his book Being the Body (co-authored with Ellen Vaughn) he writes:
“So we need not despair. The simple truth is our greatest hope. As we live as His Body on earth, God will use us for His purposes. As we exhibit the characteristics of His church throughout the ages, consuming the Word of God, celebrating the sacraments, loving one another in holy purity, the world around us will be changed.
If faith is at war with fear, if catastrophe can turn from death to resurrection, if hope can triumph over despair . . . if there was ever a time for the church to be the church, it is now.
Go light your candle!”
William Sloane Coffin was the Chaplain at Yale University for many years before becoming Pastor of the Riverside Church in New York City. Known as an activist for civil rights and for world peace, he has been labeled a “liberal” by many. In his book called Credo he also writes about the church:
“It seems to me that in joining a church you leave home and home town to join a larger world. The whole world is your new neighborhood and all who dwell therein – black, white, yellow, red, stuffed and starving, smart and stupid, mighty and lowly, criminal and self-respecting, American or Russian – all become your sisters and brothers in the new family formed in Jesus. By joining a church you declare your individuality in the most radical way in order to affirm community on the widest possible scale.”
Could it be that both of these men, coming from different sides of the church, are saying the same thing about the church? What does that say to us? The church is big enough for a wide array of Jesus followers. I can learn from people like Colson and Coffin and a host of others. You can too. In a world where we want to get our politics and our news from only one trusted source (who happens to confirm our own opinions), the church is a place for us to wade in the deep waters of all the truth that God wants us to know. Jesus selected Matthew, a hated tax collector who was in cahoots with the Romans and Simon, a Zealot who was working to overthrow the Romans. He put both men in a small group of twelve and this group became the church. Our Lord must have thought that there was room for diversity in the church. That means the church needs Colsons and Coffins and people like you! It is not either/or it is both/and!
I had a brief opportunity to get to know Bill Coffin. In 1981 I was writing a Master’s Thesis about the preaching of the pastors of Riverside Church. At the time Coffin was the pastor there. He graciously welcomed me into his office for a lengthy interview. He took me around the church building. I still remember his loving touch on every staff member and church member we encountered on our walk. He was a radical activist, but he was also a loving pastor. Most of all, he was a passionate preacher.
I never met Chuck Colson, although I have friends who knew him well. They have told me of his strong faith and profound influence on their lives.
Colson and Coffin are not living anymore. They have moved on to the “church eternal.” I am grateful that I was able to learn from both men. My faith is broader, deeper, and stronger because of their influence. They provided for me two ways of saying the same thing about the church.
We don’t have to agree on all points of theology, biblical interpretation, and missional expression in order to be the church. We can still be brothers and sisters in this new family formed by Jesus even if we disagree on some things. What are you doing in your church to listen out of both of your ears? After all, you want to make sure that you hear at least two ways of saying the same thing.