Agitation strengthens bonds, resting allows for stretching
I’ve been making pita bread lately, and it’s teaching me something about leading a body. Making bread, and pita bread in this case, is all about tightening bonds but making sure they are loose enough to stretch without tearing. You see, gluten is formed when dough is agitated. That’s why one kneads bread. Two proteins, gliadin and glutenin, combine to form gluten. They strengthen their bond when the dough is agitated (also, this is why you shouldn’t stir your brownie or muffin batter too aggressively and why recipes instruct to “fold gently” until “just combined). That’s how dough rises. It blows up like a balloon. The yeast releases air which is contained by the gluten network, thereby allowing the dough to rise.
Bakers let the dough proof to improve texture and flavor. Letting a well-kneaded boule proof (like an overnight fermentation in the fridge) also allows it to relax so that it can be stretched while having a strong gluten network. It needs to have a strong enough structure that when it experiences spring in the hot oven, the bread puffs and gives the pita its characteristic pocket. But if it doesn’t stretch to the right size, the bread will be too thick to form a pocket and may just bubble or not puff at all.
So when I make pita bread, I initially knead the dough, then I let the dough proof the first time. I portion it into 2.5-ounce balls and let those proof. That second proofing puffs up the dough and relaxes it and it makes it really easy to roll out the segments into six-inch circles.
If I don’t let the dough rest, though, it will continue to snap back and it won’t want to grow. If I force it with my hands, though, it’ll tear.
Being reconciled and staying united are elemental ot Paul’s teaching
That image is really applicable to the body and to its growth and movement. Two of the big
takeaways from Paul’s teaching on the church are his insistence on being a community in reconciliation and his warning against division. It seems to me that Paul emphasized unity, not uniformity, above many things. He was willing to make sacrifices to keep the body together. And for Paul, who was trying to introduce Christianity to the Mediterranean and Europe, he needed to figure out how to keep the Jewish Christians and the new Gentile Christians together. He wrote a lot about this problem in Romans and in Corinthians. He wanted to keep the “legalists” reconciled with the “libertines.” That is to say, the people holding on to the rules needed to get along with the people holding on to freedom. It’s a classic problem. We aren’t talking about circumcision much anymore (which was one of the big issues of the day), but we have plenty of problems that present themselves similarly.
The problem of division remains. It’s not just a matter of politics or theology, though sometimes those are the grounds on which this battle is fought or at least how this problem is expressed. I won’t draw too many direct comparisons between the Corinthian problem and our current political problems in the U.S., though it’s tempting, I would caution against it. It’s just too convenient and probably too simplistic.
It’s hard to move forward and keep everyone together
However, we can learn something from the above metaphor. Jesus wants his church to grow and to move. It can’t stay stuck in one place or one time; it actually needs to progress in order to continue to bring the Gospel into the present age (it needs to progress in order to grow). But just because we need to move doesn’t mean moving faster is always preferable. Things take time. The body needs to be at rest before it can stretch. Anxiety is not a good ingredient to add to this dough, so to speak. Much like the pita bread, the body will tear if it’s not allowed to rest. It will suffer division.
One of the hardest things about leading is knowing how fast you can move. Your slowest might be too slow, and your fastest might be too fast. So you’re nudging along the turtle and tapping the brakes of the rabbit. If you fail to do that, you’ll suffer division. Unity is possible, and it is elemental to our growth. If we insist in just going forward, or just remaining stuck in the past, we won’t grow, we’ll actually shrink. It might be tempting to try to accommodate the slowest movers and keep the church from going anywhere, or it might be tempting to sprint with the radicals. Such actions will cause division.
You can see this happen in church history, too. The Catholics have done an admirable job of being a united church, but in many respects they are still stuck in the Middle Ages. At the same time, Protestants are dividing into smaller and smaller groups to accommodate a variety of preferences.
How do we stay united as a body?
Start with humility. Consider others better than yourself. You actually have to listen to other people and consider them and their feelings and thoughts. Trying to convince someone to slow down or speed up without establishing trust is going to be a hard thing to do. Actually loving someone is the best way to establish “good faith relationships.” Everyone gets listened to, but, as we say in Circle of Hope, those who make love happen and make disciples happen get listened to more. We’re trying to build a community not win an argument. And yes, I know that many of our tensions come from the passion to build a safe and inclusive community—which many churches are painfully lacking—but leaders always consider the whole. That’s exactly what Paul talks about in Romans 14, “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.” He says love is all that counts in 1 Corinthians 13, and continues that theme in Galatians 5 when he says all that matters is faith working itself out through love.
It can be stressful to listen to the whole and care for them, because we’ll invariably have a conflict and have some friction. It can be tempting to bulldoze through the conflict or avoid it altogether. But, I think we need to knead our way through our conflict. The agitation may strengthen our bond (not unlike agitating a gluten network does). But remember, after conflict, it’s important to let the body rest so that it can be stretched again and move along. An elastic body can stretch far, too. So don’t allow anxiety and pressure to rush the process. We can be stretched and sometimes be in different places while still being a part of the same gluten network. God is uniting us ultimately, not our rules or our philosophy, after all.