Can Christians Be Unified If We Don’t Want the Same Thing?

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vintage-fence-boundaryI used to find Christianity exhausting.

I even found some of my Christian friends exhausting.

Worse than that, I was probably the most exhausting person of them all. With a Bible degree and a Master of Divinity in progress, I was building an arsenal of knowledge. I use a military metaphor here on purpose.

Nevertheless, my motivations were at least partially good.

I wanted to know for myself and for the sake of others which parts of Christianity were important and which parts needed to be dropped.

Why were people so worked up over only using The King James Version?

Why did some Christians oppose Billy Graham?

Is rock music with a pounding drum beat wrong?

Will the earth end with a fiery tribulation and massive bloodshed?

Those were just my “starter” questions. I had plenty of others that came up along the way:

The sovereignty of God, the nature of salvation, the role of the Holy Spirit, the roles of men and women in marriage, the role of women in the church, and the reliability of the Bible, just to name a few.

Let’s just say that there were times in my life when I didn’t know how to have a “light” conversation. I didn’t have time to read novels. I had to figure things out about God.

As I started to learn things, I picked up another skill. I started to draw boundaries and erect fences. People who agreed with me were in. People who disagreed were out. Needless to say, preserving my version of Christianity demanded attacking all who disagreed.

Most importantly, I knew that I was RIGHT. And my entire approach to Christianity revolved around having the facts straight.

If I didn’t get my description of the atonement precisely right, if I misunderstood the role of Israel, if I didn’t precisely understand the Holy Spirit, and if I didn’t believe everything in the Bible was precisely recorded and easily understood by anyone committed to interpreting it literally, my faith would fall apart.

In other words, I had THE ANSWERS to these major Christian doctrines, and my “faith” only worked if my answers all lined up and were preserved.

If my answers failed, then the whole system came crashing down. I lived in constant fear of this happening, and my defensiveness hinted that all was not well.

I had faith, but I’m not sure what my faith was in.

I would have told you I had faith in Jesus, but I didn’t. I had faith in my doctrines about Jesus. If you didn’t agree, then I would either school you in them so that you could be either saved just like me or banished outside the bounds of my version of Christian orthodoxy.

I was exhausted… and exhausting.

Everything about my faith back then was defensive. I used words like protect, defend, guard, and keep to describe my faith.

My faith wasn’t something I used. I didn’t see faithfulness as obedient action. Faithfulness was sticking to my doctrinal script, believing the same things I’d learned and holding onto them no matter what.

 

Something Better Than Boundaries

I won’t call myself the “Pharisee of Pharisees,” but I was pretty judgmental of other Christians who didn’t meet my standards and read the Bible the same way. My system of beliefs demanded this.

If they were right, my entire notion of Christianity would fall apart. Salvation came through Jesus, but I could only approach Jesus through the beliefs I’d carefully assembled.

No matter how many books I read, I couldn’t keep myself from a nagging thought: I don’t feel like the people in the Bible.

The authors of scripture speak of the deep love of God, the joy of the Lord, and the peace that passes understanding.

I was grumpy, divisive, nervous, and combative.

Worse than that, I found that I related best to the Pharisees.

Doesn’t Jesus know what a Sabbath is for?

You can only man the trenches of truth for so long. I needed to step back from the front lines and stop fighting. Fatigue had set in, and I came to terms with a few things: I did not have the abundant life that Jesus promised and something needed to change if I was going to continue as a follower of Jesus.

The changes took years to develop.

Along the way I saw that I could be a staunchly dogmatic progressive just as easily as I could be a staunchly dogmatic conservative.

Sometimes the nouns don’t matter—liberal, conservative, progressive—if we precede them with words like gracious or loving. Those who have experienced the love of God and have been transformed by it don’t need to use another label.

I’ve lived in fear of my doctrines being challenged. Some days I still get a little worked up when someone suggests that my beliefs are wrong. We all believe something and make important life decisions based on our beliefs. Being wrong could be unsettling to say the least.

However, the key is the fruit of our beliefs. Do our beliefs help us grow in love of God, faith in Christ, and power through the Spirit? Do our beliefs send us out to make disciples, prompting us to tell others that God is reaching out to them too?

I’m not interested in excluding anyone anymore. That was an exhausting way to live. I will disagree, but it’s not my job to defend anything. It’s my job to keep living in the Gospel and using it to reach out.

 

Should We Exclude Those Who Draw Boundaries?

I don’t want to “exclude” the people who continue to draw boundaries and defend doctrines today. That would defeat my point here. In fact, I welcome diversity. However, the only practical way to be diverse is to be gracious about a diversity of beliefs.

I wonder just how much we can be unified if we don’t want the same things. In fact, we’re almost opponents on some points, I’m trying to welcome in some of the people others want to keep out.

It’s a mess, and I don’t have any solutions.

I just know that my former self who drew up boundaries and defended his faith with grit and determination wouldn’t stand for any of this. It’s not that I would want to exclude my former self. It’s that my former self would never go along with the person I’ve become today.

We need to temper our “Can’t we all just get along?” pleas.

No, we can’t all “just get along,” and here is why:

I am not a truth defender first and foremost. I’ve been transformed by the truth, and based on that, I am convicted to reach out to others and welcome them into God’s advancing Kingdom.

I have committed myself to Jesus and to living the kind of life he modeled and talked about in the Bible. I am fully convinced that it is true. And because I believe it is true, I will live my life erasing boundaries and reaching out to anyone, and I mean anyone, who will listen to the story of Jesus.

Living in the truth of the Gospel means I’m committed to removing the boundaries that others think the Gospel compels them to build.

The only requirement for approaching God in the Gospels and at the end of Revelation is thirst. If you thirst for God, come. We may never work out all of our issues with each other, but if we can agree that the thirsty should come, then we agree on what is most important.

I have beliefs and convictions about certain doctrines, but they pale in importance to experiencing Jesus day to day and sharing him with others, welcoming anyone who is thirsty.

And when the thirsty come, we will speak of God’s kindness that leads to repentance.

We may argue and disagree about every other verse we read in the Bible, but if we can agree that the thirsty should come, then we have agreed on enough. The path will look different for each of us, but that path will require the removal of boundaries and lead to the same place.

That common destiny in the love of God is what unites us.

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24 thoughts on “Can Christians Be Unified If We Don’t Want the Same Thing?

  1. Adam Shields

    I think there is value in both knowing what you believe, and knowing why you believe that. So I want to affirm getting the knowledge and having the discussions (if the knowledge does not lead to dissension and the discussions can be held in love).

    But I agree with you about the rest of it. There are just more important things than the molecular and/or spiritual structure of the communion elements or method of baptism.

    On the other side, I went to University of Chicago Divinity School and had many an argument with people that wanted to exclude Evangelicals (or more often ‘fundamentalists’) from their views of Christianity because they believed differently. It doesn’t matter who you exclude (Catholics, Liberals, Conservatives, etc) it matters more that you are excluding them. A Church without a significant part of the body is no longer the church.

    1. ed Post author

      The key for me is conviction with grace and love for others, conviction that may be confident without alienating or arrogant.

      1. Adam Shields

        I find I have a much easier time having grace for those that disagree with me in many things (regardless of their convictions), than those that disagree with me in just a few things (but are sure those few things are the most important things).

  2. Kathleen

    Too often we in the evangelical world take a defensive posture toward the world and this makes us very uptight and nervous because we feel like we need absolutely every duck in a row and there can’t be any grey or mess. I’m beginning as I get older to appreciate the grey more and the mess more.

  3. Chris

    John 5 gives some insight: Religion paralyzes while faith in Christ and His voice brings the Dead alive. (John 5:25)

  4. Trip Kimball

    Ed, good post!
    One of my favorite “go to” texts on unity & Jesus is Phil 2:1-4, which leads to the verses in 5-11 about Jesus.
    It’s always (or should be) about Jesus. He’s the common denominator that enables us to see past our denominational differences–if we’re willing to see past them.
    Trip

      1. Wondering

        Please explain what you mean? Is it a) being judgmental is equivalent to drinking poison therefore you will allow for people to drink poison? or b) they are
        both evils?

  5. Ray Hollenbach

    For me, the unifying factor is that we all have the same Father, and the same Old Brother.

    Here’s a simple test I give myself regularly. I look in the mirror:,
    “Hey, Ray– All those things you believed in 1975–do you still think they are all correct?”
    “Well, of course not.”
    “How, then, can you be sure you have everything right today?”

    I guarantee you 25% of what I believe right now is wrong. (“What, Ray–only 25%?!?”). The humbling thing is–I have no idea which 25% it is, so a touch of humility is always in order.

  6. Theresa

    Love this! I believe we Christians need to drop the labels we give ourselves…cuz when we do this, we slowly become aware of who we really are in Christ and the defensiveness fades.

  7. Kent Faver

    A very timely post for me and I thank you for that. I had a conversation with a mentor last year who resigned as church elder due to health issues after an incredibly graceful 40+ years as serving as elder in 3 churches across two states.

    He said “if I had to do it over again, I might have become passionate about home church”. Even though he said that at a moment of some dejection, I could literally feel 40 years of hard work and serving dripping off the sentence. I think there is wisdom n his words nonetheless. A dear friend told me last night “I have agonized over church issues more in the past decade than every other thing in my life combined”.

  8. Melinda Viergever Inman

    Great post, Ed! Our histories are similar. What a relief to focus on loving the Lord with all my heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving my neighbor, no matter who he or she is, as myself. I love the Bible, too. I want its words to be used by the Holy Spirit to transform me into a woman who is more like Christ, otherwise I don’t have anything to say and it doesn’t matter how solid or right my doctrine is. I expect we’re all wrong on many points.

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  16. Robin

    I had the same experience as you, many years ago I watched the tv mini series Jesus of Nazareth and I was completely surprised as to how unlike him or the people who surrounded him I was. I had doctrine, verses etc but very little connection to Jesus. I had grown up Catholic and I remembered how I had known him more then with all the messed up theology I had than I do now with all the right theology and beliefs.

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