John Pavlovitz, A Bigger Table: Building Messy, Authentic, and Hopeful Spiritual Community. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2017. Pp. xiii + 192, paper, $16.00 (USD).
John Pavlovitz (JP) begins with the laudable goal of building a “bigger table” to which more people can be invited. This is both an actual and a metaphorical table where people meet and eat together. It is a “… sign of respect, or association with another – of one’s willingness to be seen in fellowship” (59).
JP introduces his book with an unabashed disdain for the results of the 2016 American presidential election as a manifestation of the drift of American culture, including American Christianity, toward greater division and exclusion (ix ff., 73). I write as a non-American.
The eighteen chapters of the book are divided into three sections: Big God, Small Table; Building the Bigger Table; and Under Construction. In the second of these sections JP presents his “four legs” for the “bigger table”: radical hospitality; total authenticity; true diversity; and agenda-free community (i.e., relationship).
The author draws from his experiences to declare the need for a larger table, and to propose a way to build it.
JP delivers a much-needed corrective not only to the American Church, but also to the Western Church at large.
We are guilty of divisive and exclusionary practices that have isolated the Church from Society, and alienated Society from the Church. We need to love people unconditionally, whoever they are, in tangible and practical ways. In other words, we need to love people the way God/Jesus loves them.
There are many subsets of this. For instance, the need to displace abstract doctrinal positions with real people who have names and faces.
I will mention three defects I perceive in JP’s approach.
1. My key criticism is that JP’s treatment is not exegetical. By this I mean that he is very light on building what he writes on a biblical foundation. True, he refers to some incidents in which Jesus scandalously enjoys table fellowship with those deemed unacceptable by the “elite,” but he avoids any examination or discussion of a core issue of his book.
That core issue is the Church’s relationship to the LGBTQ community. This is how JP states his position: “This is why the inclusion of the LGBTQ community into the body of Christ is so important in these days, and why it is one of the hills worth dying on for me as a pastor” (138).
Validation of the LGBTQ lifestyle is a foregone conclusion for JP. The reader is offered the author’s conclusion that “I’d done my homework. I’d studied. I’d prayed through it. I’d already reconciled so many of my feelings on gender identity and sexual orientation …” (17). It seems that he’s preaching to the choir. If you’re in JP’s “choir” you will agree with him; if not, you will remain unconvinced.
JP offers neither discussion of, nor reference to, biblical texts relevant to his musings or conclusions. JP would be hard-pressed to maintain his position in the face of a credible reading and understanding of Romans 1:18-32; 1 Corinthians 6:9 in the context of 4:18-6:20; 1 Timothy 1:10 in the context of 1:8-11.
2. JP’s treatment appears unbalanced. He polarizes positions for and against his views. He does not seem to acknowledge the existence of positions on the spectrum between these poles.
For example, his statement of “the inclusion of the LGBTQ community into the body of Christ” (138) is offset against “the Church’s resistance to and persecution of” the LGBTQ community (139). It seems you are either in one camp or the other.
In Jesus came both “grace and truth” (John 1:14, 17) – neither at the expense of the other; both present in wholesome tension. It is to this Spirit-filled stance of the wholesome tension of grace and truth that Christians are called – sacrificing neither grace nor truth.
3. JP’s treatment is somewhat simplistic. This is a by-product of polarizing positions.
JP seems to adopt the flawed argument that love for a person necessitates endorsement of that person’s attitudes and practices.
On the contrary, you can genuinely love people while disagreeing with them. Any person who has responsibly raised a teenager will be aware of this dynamic. Indeed, God loves us unconditionally even when he does not agree with how we live (Romans 5:8).
This principle also applies to the Church’s treatment toward the LGBTQ community. The follower of Jesus is called to love these people as God loves them, without endorsing sinful lifestyles.
As an illustration, Jesus says to the woman caught in adultery, “neither do I condemn you” (John 8:11). But we do not take the ethics of Jesus seriously if we do not add what Jesus adds: “Go now and leave your life of sin.”
Our plea should be, “Lord, empower me to love like you.”
JP makes it clear that we need to love the ‘other’ – including (perhaps especially) those who are different and with whom we do not agree. Apart from that, his proposal is unconvincing and disappointing.
Unfortunately, I cannot recommend this book.
For those desiring more biblically grounded and balanced treatments of meals with Jesus, I recommend Craig Blomberg’s Contagious Holiness: Jesus' Meals with Sinners, and Tim Chester’s A Meal with Jesus: Discovering Grace, Community, and Mission Around the Table. Dan Allender’s Bold Love will also be helpful.
Disclosure: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. I was not required to write a positive review.
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