Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Is the Homeowners' Association more Neighborly than Church?

In my hopefully-soon-to-be-former profession, I frequently encounter people upset about restrictive covenants.

Restrictive covenants are sets of ‘agreements’ that homeowners in a particular subdivision or neighborhood abide by as a condition of owning a home there. Most of the restrictions are fairly simple, mostly common sense, and in south Alabama consist mainly of 1) promising not to put your car on blocks in the front yard, and 2) limiting yourself to 3 chickens, 2 goats or some combination thereof but not exceeding a total of 4 non-pet livestock (I can say this – in jest – because I have, at one time or another: had a car on blocks (in the back yard), raised chickens and rabbits, and grown a row garden complete with scarecrows, all only a few blocks from downtown).

People get very exercised about restrictive covenants, whether their apoplexy manifests in bristling at being told they must put white lights on a leafless tree at Christmas, or bristling that their neighbor two streets over did not put white lights on such a tree. We spend inordinate amounts of time and emotional energy stressing about whether the homeowner’s association – charged with enforcing the restrictive covenants – may, in fact, tell one of the members that his choice of landscape plants makes his house resemble a sunflower farm, and whether it should incorporate and purchase liability insurance to protect the ones unfortunate enough to tell a neighbor that his live-in RV, parked on the back patio and hooked in to the neighborhood sewer system, must go.

By significant contrast, it is virtually impossible in most congregations of Christian churches for members to become exercised about anything. Well, almost. But the things over which most congregations get exercised don’t quite seem righteous: someone sat in the wrong pew; preacher drives the wrong make of car; moderator has an “agenda”; teacher doesn’t use the right curriculum; pool hall across the street wants a liquor license.

The Bible has its own set of “restrictive covenants” for those who are truly neighbors, not merely in the geographical sense, but in the spiritual sense; those who have covenanted with each other to live kingdom lives under mutual submission to each other and to God through Christ. These covenants don’t tell us how many pets we can have, how many cars we can drive, or what sorts of decorations are approved. They do tell us that we are part of one another: rebuke one another, exhort one another, encourage one another, reprove one another. And we are not expected to act a certain way so that our property values will remain high, but so that the witness of Christ will remain pure, the glory of God remain unblemished, so that we may “present every man complete in Christ” (Colossians 1:28-29).

If we were as concerned to “present ourselves approved to God” – a “living and holy sacrifice” – as we are to ensure our hedges are trimmed, sidewalks are edged, and appraisals are high, we might see dramatic changes in the proclamation of the word we claim, in the sanctification of the neighbors we love, and in the glorification of the God we serve.

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