I had an interesting thing happen to me a few weeks ago that I thought I might share:
On Friday nights I play in the Christian softball league here in town. I have been playing in this league for as long as I have lived here (13 years). There are 16 teams in this league representing 14 different Christian churches in the valley. It has always been the custom for the two teams to form a circle and pray together after the post-game handshakes. For 13 years I have seen every team adhere to this custom - until this season. We have a church in the league this year with 2 teams entered and they refuse to pray with their opponents after the games. Recently, after playing 3 games this season against these guys I confronted them about not praying with us or any other teams in the league. I was told that they are not sure we are TRULY Christians and, since they take worship very seriously, they don’t want to pray with us, just in case.
Exclusiveness… superiority… arrogance…? I don’t know; these ARE attitudes that some Christians somehow extract from the gospel. They are all too eager to judge each other by their positions on controversial issues like evolution, stem cell research, abortion, gay rights, capital punishment, political party affiliation, etc., as well as theological stances. Like the guys from those softball teams, too many Christians jump to reckless assumptions about other Christians until they can run them through their “Christian standards” checklist to approve of them or not. And, almost always, the standards are based on arguable interpretations of Bible text or some distortion in its practical application. There is a disturbing pride that many Christians seem to derive when upholding their viewpoints, becoming vocal, even angry, with those who disagree. They forget that their salvation is a gift that they should not boast. Many of them have erroneously drawn the conclusion, from somewhere other than their Bibles, that anything less than THEIR church’s/denomination’s interpretation of certain sections of the Bible (particularly Genesis and Revelation) puts one in only a “maybe” relationship w/ God. There are many people with an education in science, philosophy, or social/behavioral sciences who are Believers but will not set foot in a church because they want to avoid legalist Christians like the plague. One’s relationship with God is its own reality and whatever anyone else thinks about it is, at its most basic level (between God and the individual), irrelevant. But there are larger implications for the universal church body.
To be sure, there ARE essential doctrines inherent to Christianity, without which it would cease to be Christianity. The duties of elders and ministers are to shepherd the flock and uphold the doctrine of the church. We DO have to be on guard against counterfeit christian organizations in the world. Meanwhile, it must be recognized that there are non-essential doctrines to our faith, also. For example, even though the majority of people in my congregation may adhere to a literalist view of creation, we agree that specifics on origins and specifics on eschatology are non-essentials for salvation or fellowship.
If it’s not hard enough for Christians to agree on what the essentials are, so many Christians are deeply embedded in an “either/or” rationale. In other words, they put issues into a dichotomy: either x is true, OR y is true, and then assume they are mutually exclusive. They don’t consider the possibility that x and y may BOTH be true... or false. Moreover, there may even be a z that is true! For example:
1) The Bible is God’s word, or The Bible is not God’s word.
2) Literal Bible interpretation is true, or Metaphorical Bible interpretation is true.
3) The Bible gives an account of origins, or Science gives an account of origins.
In philosophical lingo these are examples of a false dichotomy. In other words, you are trying to force your opponent into an extreme position because you offer only two possible choices. Does this sound familiar? Either “You believe the Bible literally,” or “You are calling God a liar.” Metaphysical materialists also use false dichotomy when arguing with theistic evolutionists. They are notorious for this. Examples:
1) “You believe your science textbook,” or “You believe your Bible.”
2) “You are an accomplished scientist,” or “You believe in God.”
The great thinkers of the church and early shapers of Christian doctrine - Paul, Augustine and Thomas Aquinas – probably roll over in their graves at the lack of critical thinking sometimes demonstrated in the church. For instance, I am sure Paul believed the literal 6 days of creation, Adam and Eve story, sin causing corporal death, etc. It is evident in Romans that he did and there is a rationale for it (receiving inspiration while living in a Jewish culture in a pre-scientific age). But if he were somehow to show up on the scene today and be exposed to the scientific data with which we now have access, I am confident his divinely inspired message would be more in a context of what we believe about the world today. He would be true to his strategy of being all things to all people to the glory of Christ. But here’s the point: Paul would deliver exactly the same SPIRITUAL message. Many Christians appear to be unable to make the distinction between content and method – the deeper message is the same whether it is written in a pre-scientific context or 21st century context. In addition, such legalistic Christians seem to be completely unaware that the doctrine they adhere to today (the Trinity, the divinity and humanity of Christ, baptism, etc.) was not all processed into systematic theology in the days of the writing of the NT. It took decades, even centuries, to address different points of theology AS THE NEED AROSE (heresies, persecution, reformation, counter-reformation). Today there IS a need for the church to address certain theological and political issues as they affect the life of the church as well as individual Christians. But this must be carried out by looking for the deeper message of the Scriptures as seen through a context of what we know about the world today. And it must be done without erroneously transforming political issues into theological ones.
Now, I have no idea exactly what kinds of heresies the “softball guys” are on the lookout for. But what struck me the most is that the strongest emotion I detected from them was: FEAR. Thankfully, I cannot comprehend what that is like – Fear in a God so harsh that an attempt at genuine fellowship with other brothers and sisters in Christ should be forsaken “just in case” their theological standards are not perfectly aligned. And, of course, they are CERTAIN their standards are God’s standards. Christians should be the most secure people on the planet! Yet these guys seem to be almost paralyzed with fear of … something!
What the Emergent Cohort in Salt Lake City has been for me is for Christians from different backgrounds to enjoy each others’ company and discuss topics without being judged or ridiculed – just sharing ideas, knowing and accepting from the start that it’s unavoidable to have differences in opinion, but still able to embrace a friendship that is rooted in Christ.