A friend, a pastor, a relative, a friend of a friend, anyone at all in our circle of acquaintances crosses a line that has been set. They question the trinity, play with the Gospel of inclusion, redefine hell, question inerrancy, commit adultery, claim to be gay, or fill in the ________ with the sin or doctrinal problem of your choice. What happens next? How do we handle such a situation? Is it easier to cut such people loose and abandon them to the fate they have chosen? Or is there another way?
In a culture that is short on commitment and high on expendability and separation, the route we often choose involves alienation, diverging onto separate paths, and, at times, outright cruelty.
But why does the church do this to one another? There could be any number of reasons.
– “Membership” in congregations follows spoken and unspoken guidelines. Violation of either warrents explusion.
– We fear for our personal or the group’s reputation and need to purge the sin from our midst.
– We treat sin like an incurable desease that must be quarantined or banished, not something that can be treated and healed.
– We hold more tightly to our doctrines than our love for one another. Any threat to our precious doctrines must be eliminated since we don’t have a firm grasp of the doctrines that we love so much. Since we haven’t really thought them through or gained an adequate understanding of them, we just attack and stifle conversation and debate.
– We place greater value on our forms of meeting and worshipping than on one another.
And so we have problems that are not black and white. The concern is balance and our priorities. How do we juggle doctrine, reputation, and tradition with God’s commands to love him and love one another? Are relationships within the church expendable?
I have no desire to set up false dichotomies here. My goal is to look at the complexities of loving one another and to avoid the easy out of expulsion or division as often as possible.
One discussion from my seminary days has left a permanent mark on me. When discussing the course of action to take when encountering heresy in church, I was impressed with a young man from India. His response was, “You never separate, you never kick them out, you never leave. Avoid division at all costs. If the other person is wrong, he/she needs you.” The room that was otherwise full of Americans seemed to go with the “cut off” option.
Why are we so willing to cut people off or to run to another church when disagreements arise over theology, worship, the order of service, or whatever else? I think we have the balance of love for God and one another out of sorts.
1. If we are not focused on loving God as our first priority, we end up focusing on one another and the problems we have. And sin will abound in any group that is not focusing on God, so we end up seeing all of our junk and then fight about it.
2. If we are not focused on loving one another as our second priority, then we become attached to our theology, forms of church, and other rules and guidelines we set up. The question moves from “how can I serve this person” to “how does this person fit into our group?” And it would be even better if we could ask, “How can we love one another and then love others in the world?”
Now the trick in all of this is that we don’t want to leave theology, church history, and community gatherings by the way side. That’s where this is really tough. Can we love one another while hashing out the complexities of theological disagreements? Can we place such a high value on loving God and one another, that we can tolerate someone who is honestly questioning the trustworthiness of the Bible? Can we create space for that kind of doubt, while holding on to the truth that we are sure of?
Can we make “a relationship with Jesus and life of love shaped by him” something like a common denominator and give some flexibility with other issues?
I’m not sure if I’m quite hitting on this issue correctly. I suppose that God is just continually pressing on me the fact that so much of Christianity for me has become defending traditions, truth, practices, and reputations. God seems to be more concerned with redeeming than defending. If we can experience a God who redeems through his love, then perhaps we can prioritize our lives according to God’s standards.