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Where you are centered is more important than where you are bound
Centered, not bound
I wrote the other day, “I want a church centered on Jesus, not one that is bound by doctrine. We aren't trying to wall people off, but rather center them on what is true. This makes me sympathetic to people on the edges of faith and orthodoxy. They are trying to make it work. God is gracious.”
I’ve been mulling over this thought ever since then. My friend introduced me to the idea of “centered” and “bound” sets, and I’ve been thinking with him about how to apply them to our church and our context. There is a lot of philosophy in those ideas by themselves, but I hope I can be more practical here than philosophical.
Dialogue keeps us connected
We say that a lot in Circle of Hope. Our dialogue of love, centered on Jesus, is how we are held together. It connects us and gives us gravity, we say. That gravity, that core of us, is what keeps us together. Not a rulebook, not a set of doctrine, not even creeds. Jesus centers us and the reason I emphasize this is because I actually think it makes us a more inclusive body.
Rather than using our walls to protect us, our centeredness on Jesus does. There was a real reason, early on in the church, where these sort of doctrinal barriers were important in distinguishing Christianity as a separate movement. Unfortunately, they cemented Christianity as one thing, and laid groundwork for Imperial Christianity, which I think over-codified those early agreements, making them into tools for state power more than anything.
Today, we use those theological statements as tools to make sure our people pass a litmus test and we aren’t contaminated by them, I think. We fear that bad or faulty or the ever-popular modifier “problematic” theology will harm the integrity of the church (and we suppose we have the market cornered on metaphysical abstraction and speculation).
Most of my friends lean to Christian Orthodoxy, so I see this from time-to-time. Nick Kristof interviewed the president of Union Seminary the other day, and in his evidently condensed interview, she dismissed orthodox doctrines like the resurrection and the Virgin Birth. Honestly, I thought she was too careless in how she phrased her responses, but I also think Kristof has been too reckless in the way he has composed some of these interviews. I think Kristof is well-intentioned, and has done a fair job representing both conservative Evangelicals and the good work they do. I respect that about him. I think he’s maintaining intellectual curiosity in Christianity and has done this for years. I like that he cares about Christianity enough to keep it on the minds of the New York Time’s readers. Where I don’t care for what he is doing is how easy it is to read the above column, or the one with Tim Keller a few years back, or even the one with Cardinal Tobin, and start drawing lines. I think Christians are prepared to draw borders that keep one another out of each other’s churches. I think Christians in general do that too much not only to the detriment of the church, but also to the detriment of the mission. Not only do dividing lines make it harder to get in, they make it easier for us to mock.
So, like I mentioned above, when I see someone out-of-step with my thinking or theology (which is largely orthodox) but still claiming Jesus and claiming to be a Christian, I see a person who might be challenged by some orthodox thinking, but one who wants to stay in. I see someone who is trying to stay in. I want to make space for them, holding us together by dialogue. Some people think that so-called “liberal” theology is a “gateway” into atheism or something, but I think that’s fairly ludicrous. I think fundamentalism pushes people out faster than generosity toward people who are thinking different than us anyway.
What I really want to say is that Jesus keeps us centered, we needn’t fear if we are near him.
Anabaptism and the problem of persecuting separatists
The Anabaptists in 16th Century Europe were quite familiar with what it felt like to be pushed out of a community. Non-creedal re-baptizers, they didn’t make friends with Lutherans or Catholics. They were persecuted and killed. That sort of persecution made the early Anabaptists into a sort of minority group in Europe. They became their own kind of people.
Unlike some of the other groups that underwent or are undergoing oppression, the Anabaptists didn’t build coalitions. In fact, part of their theology was separation. That separatism galvanized the movement as an “insiders-only” club, and to this day, we hear Mennonites describe themselves as “ethnically” Mennonite and I keep hearing about Cradle BIC (or Brethren in Christ) people. There is a real sense of who is in and who is out.
Despite not being bound by doctrine, the Anabaptists are bound by a common experience. And as much as I love their theology and worldview, that string of separatism made it so that the only authentically Anabaptist people were white Europeans who came from certain families.
I am actually very glad for the Anabaptist communities in Philadelphia that are much more diverse. And I’m also glad that we began to worship in public, and not just our homes, and that our denomination let the pragmatism of the Pietists influence us to be more outwardly facing.
But we have a lot of work to do, because our separatism can still exclude people and we need to make sure that it isn’t a gated community that keeps us loyal to God, but an actual centeredness on God and a movement with the spirit. It’s easy to make our cultural origins or theology divide us up. It’s increasingly becoming a time where people from the outside are seen as suspicious or unusual or foreign. I think there's an instinct to protect ourselves through borders, fearful that an invasion might dilute our principles or harm us in some other way.
Dividing up insiders and outsiders
That type of hysteria about the outsider is so common and so regularly refuted in the Bible. The Bible writers are fundamentally inclusive. The entire New Testament is organized around the idea of helping both Jews and Gentiles follow Jesus. In fact, some argue that the nation of Israel started through a common experience and story, and had little to do with ethnicity or belief at all. But I still hear the echoes of that fear among people. It’s subtle and it’s hard to avoid. We have an instinct, maybe God-given, to protect our own. What Jesus is leading us to is realizing that everyone is God’s own and everyone belongs.
Most apparently, this fear emerges a false dichotomy between “depth” and “width”; we think the church might be too interested in growing widely, rather than deeply. I think you can’t do either without doing both, personally. There may be a tension there, but it is a natural tension.
Or sometimes I hear that we care more for those who are next than those who are here. I think that is simply evidencing that need to care for each other more, and not operate out of the idea that there is a limited amount of love to go around. Or not fear the outsider who might come in and take our love (or our jobs), dilute our principles (or drive down wages).
I admit I’m sensitive to this narrative because of my experience as a children of immigrants and because of the toxic rhetoric around the country, regarding immigration and immigrants, and all the harm they are causing us. But I can’t help but see a similar thread throughout Christian history. We put up walls, maybe based on our doctrine, based on our common experience or fear or contamination, or based on our emotional needs. I don’t think that’s way of God.
Followers center on Jesus as they pioneer forward, moving with what the Spirit is doing next; they don’t try to bind him into an empire or a settlement.