So what about that nice story of the young preacher who joined his local ministerial alliance (see the previous post)? Well, nice in the sense that it appealed to our desire for peace and unity. The ending to that particular story is still being written. But there’s enough there for us to contemplate and consider. The narrative is clearly constructed to lead the reader to conclude that ecumenism is to be favored over exclusivity. Or said a little differently, that Christianity is wide or inclusive enough to have room for people that practice the same faith in drastically different ways. At least that’s my take on it. That idea may bother you. In fact, that idea is likely going to make a lot of people upset, if not angry. I’ll tell you now that I’m not comfortable with it. I believe there’s more to the practice of the Christian faith than that. In other words, I do believe that God is more exclusive than that. But that’s not the end of it for me. I have more questions. I need to search for more answers.
But first, I’d like to share my own experience of that story, albeit a scaled down version.
The Churches of Christ in Jasper, AL form (in my opinion) the heart of the conservative and traditional movement within the non-instrumental heritage of Churches of Christ. In other words, they are among the most dogmatic and exclusive of any other geographic collection of Churches of Christ. You may find some rivals, but none would surpass their commitment to the conservative practice of Church of Christ theology and doctrine. Among the thirty-plus congregations in the area, there is one that stands apart. They have been disfellowshipped (as if it were scriptural to disfellowship an entire congregation) and are shunned because of their liberalism. Though, to this day, I have yet to understand exactly what makes them liberal in their beliefs or practices. After having been in Jasper for a few months it became clear to me that the preachers and members of that congregation were off limits in terms of fellowship as Christians. As far as my Elders were concerned they were all apostate and had sacrificed their salvation.
Of course, I was curious. I wanted to meet these heretics for myself and find out what they had done that was so horrible. Were they handling snakes, baptizing babies or denying the work of the Holy Spirit (oops that was my church)? Maybe they had women teaching their baptized 12 year old men or they had sinfully squandered their money on promoting entertainment by building a fellowship with basketball goals? What was it that was so awful? Well, on my day off I decided to stop by their building. As it turned out their preaching minister and I had a connection from years ago and had something to talk about. Plus, their youth minister was there and we had that in common. So it turned out to be a nice visit. But what I remember most from that visit was what they said to me as I was about to leave. The preaching minister reached out and took my hand and pulled me close to him and hugged my with both arms. He said that in his seventeen years there, that no other preacher from another church had ever come by to visit with him . I was completely shocked; and much like that young preacher mentioned in the story, I was ashamed and embarrassed at the behavior of my “brothers” in Christ. I could tell both of these men had strong convictions and had accepted their ostracism. But I could also tell that they were hurt and scarred by it.
There’s a lot of different questions that are raised with this type of a discussion: fellowship, ecumenism, exclusivity, etc. But I’d just like to focus one of those for a moment. Here it is . . . why does this ecumenical or inclusive perspective bother us so much? Pause for a moment. Exactly who’s the “us”? Well, me for one; and probably most of the people who count themselves among the non-instrumental Churches of Christ.
So what do you think? Why is this such a big deal for us? Why do so many people become so exclusive-minded that they would shun their own son and daughter-in-law? Why do we become so divisive that we can’t even be nice and have lunch with a bunch of guys who have also devoted their lives to the cause of Christ?
Well, from my point of view it starts with the lethal combination arrogance and ignorance. One or the other can be overcome; but both at the same time is a show-stopper. As a former manager in business, I would have happily taken someone who was ignorant but willing to learn. On the other hand, I’d be just as glad to have someone on my team who was talented, got the job and knew it. Their arrogance may have been annoying, but I wasn’t paying them because I liked them. However, anyone that possessed both characteristics wasn’t going to last long. This same example applies to so many Christians today. We are totally and utterly convinced that we have the Bible completely figured out; but the reality is that many have not even figured out how to read the Scriptures. Ignorance plus arrogance will always equal wounded souls.
It seems that the second factor is the unmitigated belief that the Bible must always be understood in absolute terms or black & white, with no shades of gray. Said another way, the Bible is like the large 6 inch thick binder at your office that holds your companies’ SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures). This leads to the third factor: we have convinced ourselves that since there is a truth that we can know (John 8:32) that there must inherently be a right and a wrong. And since my arrogance precludes the possibility that I could be wrong . . . well, that must mean that the person who disagrees with me is.
There are certainly a lot of other questions worth considering when it comes to this issue. But the most important to me is to have a stronger understanding of where my preconceptions come from and how they bias or shade my understanding. So what do you think? Why do we have such a problem with a wider net of fellowship?