Christian history is essentially a very long debate about what the Bible is ultimately teaching. Just drive down any given street in any modern town and each church is essentially planting their flag in the turf and proclaiming that their belief is the “right belief” (orthodox).
Up until about three years ago, I was a church planter in a reformed association. Yet even among those of supposedly like mind, our church held distinct perspectives that at the time we felt were “better” or more orthodox than others. Of course those who did not hold to such beliefs felt their perspective was better. So of course there was disagreement, followed by competition for parishioners, and the usual accusations of “sheep stealing” when one of our families would go to another church or come to ours. This is because we were all wrapped up in the tractor beam of our orthodox distinctives.
Within this mindset, those Christians who held to widely diverse perspectives were not even recognized as Christian or if they were, they were only by a thin thread.
I used to question why we couldn’t collaborate with other churches and denominations. For example, our preaching was pretty good, but our music was pretty terrible. Why couldn’t we work with the church down the street with the great music and the so so preaching?
In my early years I worked hard to bring churches together, and you would think that it would be an easy task. But it isn’t. In fact, it’s almost impossible. Most church leaders ultimately believe that their “cinnamon roll recipe” is the best one. Thus most churches do not play well with others, and that is an OBVIOUS problem for organizations that proclaim peace and brotherly love. But there are some pastors who get it, and in those places where churches collaborate, we see an exponential impact on the communities they serve.
Unfortunately, this is another way of saying that most churches look down on other churches. Even when another church is experiencing tremendous success in their mission, other churches diminish that success rather than celebrate it. They claim that churches who get large and popular are simply pandering to the culture and they are not teaching the hard, orthodox teachings or else their congregations would shrink as well.
It can get pretty sad and pathetic. It’s petty and immature. It is so far from Jesus’ teaching of where two or more are gathered, he is in the midst (Matt 18:20), which is the purest and simplist definition of the Church.
This really hit me about three years before I left what I call the “church delivery system”. I didn’t leave the real Church, I left the petty, infighting, competitive, power play, self-serving, church system. I got to the point where I desired something pure and unfettered, I didn’t want some institution to highjack my life and my resources any longer, I desired to live on mission in the world and serve people with whom my life naturally interacts. I no longer needed the training wheels. I truly love all people, I saw each as having dignity, worth and value. I wanted to learn from all others. It was no longer about my message to the world. Or my agenda to be a rockstar pastor.
This is the reason most outsiders will have little to nothing to do with the church today and why the numbers are in such decline. Christianity is not in decline, church attendance is. Anyone can see that joining a church is like stepping into an argument. How does one pick sides?
This argument is all about who is orthodox. Which church is closest to what Jesus wants. My town of 60,000 people has over 100 denominations.
For centuries the battle has waged. It started with the mother of the sons of Zebedee wanting her sons to be the leaders ahead of the others (Matt 20:20) and it’s continued ever since.
Now, I do believe that for many this motivation for perfect orthodoxy is coming from a good place. Each perspective and denomination stems from a desire to please God and do right by humanity. And without knowing it they fall prey to the powerful tractor beam of orthodoxy. It sucks them into a mindset of certainty. The heart to “do the right thing” switches over to a need to be right.
When people leave churches, they do so because some aspect of the church (its leader, music, teaching, doctrine, etc..) has become untenable. Something usually happens that causes them to rethink what they originally thought was orthodox. Now in light of this new information or new experience, they no longer fit in the old system. I like to say they outgrew their formative container.
People are always changing what church they go to. Pastors don’t like it because they all like to think that they offer all anyone could need, but I think this is actually very good. I equate this to changing grades in school. Each is an advancement. But unfortunately, not enough people graduate from the system altogether into a life of faith and service. The one area in which churches agree is for them to warn against anyone ever leaving the system.
You can test yourself to see if the tractor beam of orthodox teaching has sucked you in. If you find alignment with one camp of belief, that is fine, but if you define yourself by that alignment be careful. If your alignment causes you to diminish other perspectives, be careful.
While we don’t seek heresy, we must we willing to hear what other perspectives are saying. Keep in mind that the religious leaders thought Jesus was teaching heresy at first. We see this all the time in the Facebook rants of fundies. Instead of seeing each unique perspective as a different color that we all must experience at one time or another, we begin to only paint in shades of one particular color. It feeds on our dualistic mindset of right and wrong. Knowledge puffs up (1 Cor 8:1).
So what is the answer?
While I don’t claim to fully know myself, I can offer some suggestions base on my experience. It doesn’t benefit us to drive out of one ditch in order to drive into another.
- We should never wear any distinctive as a badge of honor. When we do this, we conclude that the only “real” church is the one that shares our distinctive. That is pride. That is the opposite of God. Remember, he opposes the proud (1 Peter 5:5). There are no teams in Jesus church. No competition, only complimentary differences that make us all better.
- Each perspective is reflecting something back to the culture that God wants in the world.
- Each perspective possesses orthodoxy. The also possess heresy. Not all beliefs are 100% aligned with truth because no single person can possess all truth. Just because a big organization or group of men get together and claim that they all believe the same thing, does not make it orthodox. Sorry, truth is bigger than any of us. We need to be grateful for our little piece of it and share it with humility.
- Unity and uniformity need not be the same thing. We can and should have different perspectives and yet still be united. This is the design so that we can learn from each other.
- The church is wider and more inclusive that any particular congregation and even religion. Jesus Church includes all comers, and the work of Christ is seen in all religions and all people in all the world. It is every nation, tribe (Revelation 5:9)
Perhaps the most important thing I can share from my experience is that the goal of all churches is to help people find proximity to God their maker. While we can all benefit from the instruction that comes from various perspectives, the ultimate connection to God is not found in the theology. It is not found in one camp or its opposing camp. Its not found in the thing, but the thing behind the thing, that is higher up and further back, it is the third thing that resolves the two without diminishing either.
Theology is like a map. It tells us about a place, but it isn’t the place. It points to the beach, but it isn’t the same as having your feet in the sand.
If your church doesn’t bring you to that “third” thing, if it doesn’t put your feet in the sand, then my best advice is to leave it. Don’t settle for a delivery system that will take your time, money, kids, and energy and only give you a set of rules that only work within that institution. Never trade God for religion. Religion my change your behavior, but it won’t transform your life. You’ll walk out of one prison only to dwell in another. While insiders may call you saved, you will only be in another place from which it is twice as hard to be saved. Maps are not beaches. Belief is not experience. Religion is not God.
The tractor beams of orthodoxy are everywhere. Learn from them. Look at where each is pointing, but be careful lest you be sucked completely into them and be lost. Freedom, salvation, and peace are found in the oneness of our maker, not in the rules of our systems. That was a revolutionary perspective when Jesus taught it, and it still is today.