This is the second in a series of three posts about boundary-keeping in the church. Namely, how do we decide who is really “Christian”, and how do those dividing lines make people feel? I recognize that boundaries, theology, and creeds are essential for deciding what we believe, and who we are. But the practice of drawing lines is fraught. I’ve been on the wrong side–or worried about being on the wrong side–several times in my life. I think there’s a way to affirm our beliefs without making people feel like crap. And these posts are my attempt to encourage us to do just that.
Say you’re in a conversation with an acquaintance who is talking about struggling with their Christian faith. They say some things that aren’t Evangelical orthodoxy—maybe questioning the Bible’s inerrancy, or wondering if Jesus is the only way to salvation.
What is your response? You don’t know their background, or their faith story.
I was talking about this what-if with a friend the other day. She’s one of the most accepting, non-judgemental people I know; she’s hung with me as I’ve expressed some of those same unorthodox wonderings. She shares hers with me too.
She also comes from a much more conservative Christian background than I do, and all her upbringing urges her to gently, compassionately correct any errors in others’ theology.
“My first instinct is to just listen,” she said. “But I was trained to make sure the person knew that Jesus was the only way. And I don’t want to stay silent just because I’m afraid of what the other person will think of me. I don’t just want to be a people-pleaser.”
Oh, I ached for her, because we are all struggling to reconcile our past, and our theology, and our desire to be faithful with the crazy unexpectedness of the everyday.
And I also got a little short of breath, because I have been that person with the unorthodox opinions, and had people try to give me better information about Jesus.
It never feels good.
I keep turning this conversation over and over in my brain. Because honestly, my theology makes it easy for me to answer this question. I’m not conservative; I don’t worry much any more if someone else’s idea of “Christian” differs from mine. If they call on Christ’s name, I affirm that, full stop. The more I research orthodox Christianity through history, the more humbled I am by the many, manifold expressions of it.
But that’s beside the point, because my main beef with correcting other people’s theology isn’t because of theology. It’s more practical.
I don’t think it works.
Why? Three reasons.
One: People’s beliefs about Jesus do not save them. Jesus saves them.
Modern Western Christianity is really concerned with beliefs. With orthodoxy—right thinking. We are inheritors of Rene Descartes: thinking equals being for us. So we think beliefs are paramount. Our ideas about God, our categories and catechism will save us.
I disagree. I spent a long time learning information about God. Theology and Bible study methods. Apologetics and three-point applications.
Knowledge did almost nothing to touch the deep wounds of my being. More information only left me empty when I had questions in the middle of the night.
Sure, theology helped, up to a point. I think it’s important to know the foundations of our faith. And theology has been part of some incredible moments of worship.
But my deepest questions weren’t answerable with better information.
Here’s why. In my particular case, I could not beleive that God loved me until I felt free to ask any question in my heart. Until I understood that I could beleive what I actually believed instead of what everyone wanted me to affirm, I held back. My fear of unorthodox thinking actually kept me out of Jesus’ arms.
No, more information about Jesus didn’t help me understand my anger, despair, or yearning.
It only alienated me.
When I spoke my questions aloud, I wanted someone to tell me that it was okay to ask them. To tell me that Jesus loved me, even now. Not to remind me of the gulf that lay between me and a shore I despaired of reaching.
It wasn’t until I understood that Jesus was the owner of my faith and that he wasn’t going to let me go no matter what question I asked that I relaxed into his arms.
Two: If you don’t know enough about someone’s faith to know if they have gotten sound Biblical instruction, you don’t know enough to gently correct them.
I have done this to people, okay? I have presumed to speak Truth into their lives, even when I know next to nothing about those lives.
But when I look at how Jesus encountered people and spoke into their situation, he did it with a masterful knowledge of who they were. His words of correction are personal. Truth is imparted with love.
Love is personal. It speaks to particular people. It’s why I’ve always felt uncomfortable with evangelical tracts, because they presume to systematize terribly personal things, and take all the room for error—all the humanness—out of them.
The love of Christ must be spoken in intimacy and trust. I think evangelicals are too ready to present a gospel that’s one-size-fits-all, that is precision-engineered and mass-produced.
Three: What often keeps struggling Christians believing is the community around them–the relationships, the web of friendships and mutual dependence. If you tell a person, over and over, that they aren’t really “Christian” or “Biblical”, you snip threads keeping their faith together.
Look, I’m not telling you to lie. If you do know a person well, and they are asking you what you think about unorthodox beliefs, I’m not telling you to to whitewash things. Perhaps just be humble, and keep the worldwide fellowship of Christians in mind as you answer.
What I’m saying is that if they’re not asking what you think of those beliefs, they are probably actually asking this:
Do you listen like a brother or sister? Or like an eager evangelism salesman? Am I still a member of this family, even if I ask uncomfortable questions? Can you hold my hand without checking to see if I’ll contaminate you?
My friend Jerusha, who is generally more conservative than I am, has listened with Christ’s ears every time I’ve expressed doubt to her. She has never treated me like I’m anything but a sister, even when I said things like, “I’m not sure I’m Christian any more.”
She didn’t flinch. Her steadfast gaze and openness to my honesty did more to ease my doubts than any two-bit tract would have.
I’ll speak from personal experience when I say that disbelief and doubt make Christians very nervous. So nervous, in fact, that we (I’ve done this too) want to get the hell away from it.
And that widening gap between us and people questioning isn’t loving. No, it might as well be a thick steel wall.
Consider that your listening might do way more to help someone keep believing in Christ than your sure-fire theology. Consider that, and consider shutting up.
Oh, my friends, lets share a Gospel that is knit, loving stitch by loving stitch, in the inner depths of our hearts. Let’s speak truth that’s backed up by our trust and love and knowledge of the people we’re talking to. Let’s not make Jesus into an off-the-rack commodity. Let’s touch the spiritual lepers among us with fearless love.
And let’s reach for what really saves us. Not information, or a systematized gospel—but Love itself.
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Image credit: Ruud Hilgeman