Monday, 10 August 2009

Working Together (Part Three)

This series of posts is a journey rather than a clearly thought out set of ideas.

It is a personal attempt to make sense of a few things whizzing around my head rather than a theological treatise.

Somehow I need to work out a path of relationship and inter-relationship with unbelievers, christendom, liberalism, evangelicalism, the charismatic scene and conservative evangelicalism. Those are just a few that directly effect me, and our Church.


For some, we need to believe the same things in order to have unity. Actually, to be more precise, we believe the right things in order to have unity.

In practice this can work quite well. If someone else, or another Church adheres to the evangelical alliance basis of faith then I can instantly make a fairly good value judgement about where they stand on some fundamental issues.

But due to the divergence of opinion about all sorts of different issues within evangelicalism some people continue to seek to define things by a narrower and narrower set of criteria.

The issues I have with this are fairly straight forward.

1) It often picks out a particular issue and makes it the issue to die for.

It then starts an "in" club and an "out" club and publicly asks people to choose whether they are "in" or "out". Those who are "out" of the club get lumbered in sentences with everyone else who has ever been "out" on a particular subject, so guilt by association reigns.

Those on the "in" side of the club may well be well off beam on all sorts of different things. We may disagree to the core about huge swathes of our faith but at least we are all in this new "in" club and it feels safe because we are not outside.

The way anyone moves position is to either get flamed and pushed out by the "in" club, or to drag themselves on bended knee across broken glass to show how sorry they are into the "in" club. In reality, rarely does anyone make the move.

The drawbridge is lifted up. Like the Berlin wall people grow up with their brothers and sisters on the other side, go to different conferences, different Churches, and occasionally wonder what happens the other side of the wall where all those "wrong" people live.

2) It kills conversation

People become genuinely nervous of lifting the lid on a discussion without being tarred with the same brush. No-one knows who is in the inquisition. To express doubt is to "let the side down". To struggle to understand an issue is to show weakness. To not care about it is to show weakness.

"This is our issue and you are either with us or against us and the only thing we can discuss is how right we are, with others who agree."

I want a faith that engages in conversation, and does not suppress it or see it as weakness.

3) It promotes theology or theologians above scripture and Father

Why didn't St Paul add "Do not say you are an apostle of Grudem, or Piper, or Driscoll, or NT Wright, or whoever.".

It sometimes feels like doctrinal "unity" is split into so many different factions some people seem to forget who they are disagreeing with except that it is everyone. Preachers and theologians get lifted up high, promoted at conferences, often around particular issues. They are there to be adored by their followers and abhorred by their detractors. The "recommended" reading list narrows to a select band of "sound" teachers.

Why can't the net be cast a bit wider and for individual believers to make their own value judgements about the merit of the message someone brings?

4) It assumes we are right

I am right in everything I believe. I have to be, or I would not believe it. Yet millions of Christian brothers and sisters, who are also right on certain things they believe, apparently believe things that I think are wrong.

Now they are born again. They are my brothers and sisters. They are 100% convinced that they are right, so am I.

Someone, somewhere has to take on board that fact that on one issue, maybe on plenty, we are not actually as right as we think we are.

That being the case, I want to live, towards those I think are wrong, as I would want them to live towards me, were I wrong.

Theological conviction gives way to perfectionism, nit picking and joyless criticism of our brothers and sisters. I know what it feels like to be on the outside of the "in" club for being a charismatic and it is horrible. I don't want to put that on anyone else, even if they are starkly wrong.

5) It alienates, and hardly ever wins

If my brother is wrong I want to engage with him and bring him into the joy of no longer being in error. I want that for him because I love Him, as my brother. If I lift the drawbridge up, start throwing stones at him and say "You are not my brother", then the chances of restoration slim to the point of zero.

6) It writes off a lot of good

Many people, churches, church movements, denominations, have great strengths, and occasionally an achilles heel.

One major problem with purely a doctrinal basis of understanding unity is that it it can be guilty of writing off swathes of tremendously good teaching, discipleship, mission and worship because people diverge on other things. The problem with that approach is that no one person / movement / denomination has every answer to everything and is being used by God in every way. We have to look around at what God is doing across the church wider than our own sphere to see what we are missing out on.

7) It fails to recognise "journey"

Many people's theology, spirituality, discipleship, is a process, a journey.

Doctrinal unity makes people make some really big calls very early. I think sometimes people get labelled pretty early and that becomes part of their journey. Either they entrench into their position or they react against it at a later stage.

Doctrinal unity tries to nail down the moveable feast that is our biblical understanding and revelation. It becomes the train tracks down which we travel. On one hand this can be quite safe. On the other hand we miss anything not on our particular train route.

Lots of people will think differently aged 20 to aged 40. Plenty of people as they learn to work out their faith move ground on certain issues. Whatever doctrinal unity we have must give scope for people's journey, and recognise people may feel differently or believe slightly differently at a later stage.


I do see the benefits of doctrinal unity. I do desire it. I do want to know if people are on the same page. But I want that unity to be a vibrant, engaging, attractive place, and realise it may need to be grey around the edges in order to build bridges to others.

Even if someone is wrong they are probably still my brother. Even if I am wrong I am probably still their brother. We have to find a way of living out our position as brothers and sisters in Christ in a way that engages with one another, and I am not sure we always do that.

Doctrinal unity should be a foundation upon which we can build relationship. It is not a stick to hit others with. Relationships can be built without it.


Jongudmund said...

If my brother is wrong I want to engage with him and bring him into the joy of no longer being in error. I want that for him because I love Him, as my brother. If I lift the drawbridge up, start throwing stones at him and say "You are not my brother", then the chances of restoration slim to the point of zero.

This is a rhetorical 'brother', right?

Blue, with a hint of amber said...

Yes it is!

dave bish said...

In almost all cases where there is any unity it's a question of "we need to believe 'some' of the same things" to have unity isn't it?

Having to pin down too much too early is problematic - I became a Christian at 18 and whilst I've been charismatic from then onwards I was probably an Arminian for the first 4.5 years of that before adopting a more Calvinist perspective... flirted with Infant Baptism for a bit around the 8th year of that...

Glad to have had the freedom to talk and think these issues through among people from various perspectives in local church and UCCF.

Huw said...

This is a really good exposition of the problem, Dave! Years ago I heard Denis Clark (he of Intercessors for Britain) expounding I John 1 "our fellowship is with the Father and with his Son, Jesus Christ" (v. 3b) to indicate that as a charismatic Christian, he had no brief or cause to demonstrate disunity over the issue of the Holy Spirit. It was what we believed about the Father and the Son that formed the root of our fellowship.

For me this is a good starting point. I think that the church should be a LOT more charismatic, but it should also be MUCH more contemplative, MUCH more focused on spiritual formation, pastoral care and discipleship, MUCH more liturgical and diverse in worship. But I am not going to divide from brothers and sisters on this.

Secondly, your point about story and our own lived narrative is really important. Michael Cassidy's 1980s work on contextualised evangelical theology is important here - it is not just the biblical context that requires careful handling but our own lenses on the story that will interpret for us what the scriptures DO mean but also what they COULD mean. Working with young Afrikaner youth during the late 1980s in South Africa was a case in point. Loving your neighbour meant something totally different to what it might mean for me, now. In the 1990s, studying the Welsh great awakening (Hywel Harris, Daniel Rowland, William Williams), I was very Calvinist, but have moved a long way from that now. However, there will be roots and branches in my actions and views which will reflect the passion and reforming zeal of Calvinist thinking! It might prove to be a great place to "emerge" from!