How Big is Your Church? (Pt. 2 of 2)

If you have not read part one of this thrilling series, I suggest that you do – because I don’t want to repeat myself too much here. Suffice it to say that I recognize that the church is NOT your church, it is Christ’s church – God’s church. But like it or not, and right or wrong, we do sometimes refer to “my church” and though it grates on my ears, I will use the term in its most colloquial (albeit incorrect) sense.

In my previous post I challenged a view that makes the church much smaller than it really is. We do it when we start shaving off all of the folks who don’t think like us, act like us, believe like us. Some say “to-mah-to” and we say “to-may-to” – so obviously one of us has to go. We divide over issues as weighty as the divinity of Christ or as trivial as a coffee pot in the classroom. We draw our circles ever smaller and smaller.

However, those who draw their circles too small are not the only sinners in this matter. There are those who go way too far in the other direction as well – and within the Churches of Christ this segment is growing exponentially. If those on the right demand adherence to every “jot and tittle” of their creeds (either written or unwritten), then the folks on the left don’t even recognize that there might be a “jot or tittle” that needs to be adhered to.

Let’s be perfectly blunt here – those who demand strict obedience to every thought and interpretation of a select group of gate keepers are best described as Pharisees. On the other end of the spectrum are universalists – those who welcome all regardless of beliefs or behavior. Universalists are so nervous about the appearance of Phariseeism that they bend over backwards to repudiate any level of boundary keeping. Is baptism too legalistic? Just welcome anyone who “accepts Jesus into their heart.” Is congregational acapella singing too restrictive of those gifted with musical talent? Hey, let’s start a worship band! Is limiting public leadership to one gender too oppressive? Well, let’s just let anyone lead in worship regardless of gender. And, while we are at it, let’s do away with the “gender binary” concept altogether and welcome anyone into the church regardless of what they believe about gender or sexual relationships.

If there is a “slippery slope” regarding drawing one’s circle too small, there is an equal but opposite “slippery slope” when one starts destroying every form of boundaries. For example, some who advocate for gender inclusiveness become apoplectic when it is pointed out that the same arguments they use for gender equality are used by the LGBTQ+ crowd for inclusiveness for any and all sexual behaviors. Righteous indignation or not, the fact is the exact same arguments are used by both groups, and unless you are willing to accept the argumentation of the LGBTQ+ groups, you had better be very careful about using those arguments for gender inclusion.

There is an “inconvenient truth” (to use a popular expression) concerning those on the extreme far right and the extreme far left. They disagree with each other so vehemently that they meet in the middle. What I mean by that is that both the extreme right and the extreme left are, at their core, humanistic manifestations of church polity. This infuriates those on the right, and embarrasses those on the left, but it is true. Let me explain.

Classic Liberalism (capital “L”) can best be described as a human effort to solve whatever problem is being discussed. That is to say, classic Liberalism admits of no supernatural solution to any problem. We humans are smart enough to fix anything, be it sin or a sanitation issue. Classic Fundamentalism was, and is, the direct response to classic Liberalism. Fundamentalism states that there are divine, fixed, immutable rules for everything, and we as humans must submit to those laws or our efforts are doomed to failure.

What both of these movements share is the core element of humanism. This is what ultra-conservatives refuse to see, and ultra-liberals are embarrassed to think that they might share something with the fundies. Both camps, however, exist through the power of the human being to determine what God does or does not approve, or will or will not accept. Within the Churches of Christ that means that on the one hand you cannot be a faithful Christian if you worship in a building that has a fellowship room; and on the other hand you cannot be a faithful Christian if you deny a woman the privilege of preaching on Sunday morning.

So, is there a middle ground? Is there a way to navigate between the Scylla of rabid fundamentalism and the Charybdis of vacuous liberalism?

In my first post I used the phrase, “tendentious interpretations of disputed texts” (or something like that). In my own little thought world, that is the crux of the problem. Fundamentalists reject the idea that there are any disputed texts in the Bible. For them everything is black and white, cut and dried. The liberals see everything as disputed (or at least disputable), and since nothing can be firm, there can be no boundaries of either doctrine or behavior.

The problem, as I see it, is there are disputed interpretations of texts (as the apostle Paul freely admits), and at the same time Paul clearly and unabashedly declares there to be matters of undisputed truth. Romans 14 is the clearest example where Paul concludes that there are just some issues that where there are going to be disagreements, and the way to handle those disagreements is to be generous and loving with each other, each Christian willing to forego their “rights” so as not to offend their Christian brother or sister. On the other hand, Paul handed Hymenaeus and Alexander over to Satan because of their blasphemy (1 Tim. 1:20). Paul unequivocally stated that there are matters of “first importance” (1 Cor. 15:3). If there were matters of “first importance,” then there were certainly matters that did not matter as much (i.e., Romans 14).

Simply stated, we recognize and defend the boundaries that God has put into place, and we work as diligently as possible to tear down the boundaries that we humans have put into place.

Now for the personal confession – I too have boundaries that are important to me. I cannot worship with some who, biblically speaking, might be my brothers and sisters in the faith because they have chosen to practice certain elements that I believe violate Scripture, or at the very least, are divisive in nature. I cannot worship with others because I do not view certain practices as sinful, and they do. What this means to me is that I am a sinful human being, and there are brothers and sisters to the right of me and to the left of me who are sinful human beings. No one on this earth has a perfect, incorrupt understanding of Scripture. We all, despite our best efforts, sometimes fall either too far to the right, or sometimes too far to the left.

What I want to do is to defend and to protect the boundaries that God has created for his church. Boundaries matter. Doctrine matters. Ethics and moral behavior matters. If there were no boundaries, there could be no church. But I want to make certain that I am defending God’s boundaries, and not my own.

It is entirely too easy for me to draw my circle so tightly that only I am secure.

Let us remember that it is not our church. It is Christ’s church. It is the church of God. How big is that church?

God, and only God, can be the judge of that.

Author: Paul Smith

Paul Smith was born in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He holds the Bachelor of Science in Youth Ministry, Master of Biblical Studies and Master of Divinity, all from Abilene Christian University; and the Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. Paul's passion is in teaching and preaching the gospel. Beyond the study of the Bible, his main academic interest is in the life and theology of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He is an unashamed mountain-goat, and longs to spend his time with his feet in a cold trout stream.

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