It is a Sunday morning, about 9:20. I follow a foreign SUV in front of me. There appears to be a nice, church-going family aboard. The SUV turns right, into a Jehovah’s Witness “Kingdom Hall” parking lot. I say “boo – hiss” out loud.
Time was when I was pretty accepting of a greater number of Christian traditions and denominations, including tautly Calvinistic ones and high-church ones. In theory and philosophy, I maintain no binding loyalty to any denomination (although my heart-ties and history are with one and a half of these denominated groups).
I don’t know about you, but I am finding myself less and less likely to accept the patterns of many Christian groups (including “my own”). What standards shall we use to determine what’s acceptable and what’s not?
In 2003, F. Lagard Smith, a Christian lawyer, law professor, former judge, and author, wrote Who Is My Brother? I read enough of this book to know I didn’t think along the same lines in the area of drawing “circles of fellowship.” I have just now learned that, a decade later, Smith reprised the earlier book with Circles of Fellowship – Responding to the Crisis of Christian Identity. Among Smith’s assertions is the following system of delineation:
5. Universal Fellowship: The Family of Man
4. Faith Fellowship: Likely Family
3. “In Christ” Fellowship: The Extended Family
2. Conscience Fellowship: Close Family
1. Congregational Fellowship: Immediate Family
Such a “levels” system may seem strange to those who have not been weaned on any sort of restorationist ideals or on exclusivistic, “we are the only ones going to heaven” bunk. For some Baptists, many Church of Christ folk, and others, though, such “levels of fellowship” do seem strangely familiar, although the particular labels and pairings with sub-labels may not make sense.
In the initial analysis, these levels may even be comforting. See, there, how Smith allows for a certain neighborliness with everyone in the level 5? I’m not sure how he works out the difference between levels 4 and 3, but they are nice, because they allow even the most exclusive of us to say, “Well … on some level, I guess those _______ians/ists/ites are Christians.” And on down the line it goes. My own experience might lead me to reverse the last two, since I have for several years had a more spiritually “close family” distinct from the local congregation.
The thoughtful, grace- and truth-infused Christian can’t be that interested in drawing lines of fellowship, in the final analysis, though. We must be more devoted to being disciples ourselves than to doing spiritual arithmetic and supposedly figuring out who’s in and who’s out. (This is a losing game, and I’m convinced it’s not really our business.) Why not simply allow all sincere, believing souls to be found at points along a pathway? Why not try to teach and influence from a vantage point of whatever relationship exists — from a stance of grace and inclusiveness? It doesn’t seem to serve God’s (or anyone else’s) purpose to spend a lot of time managing lines of delineation and excluding these, those, and the others.
When the apostle John voiced concern over someone outside their little band, Jesus said, “Whoever is not against us is for us.” This little tidbit doesn’t open the door to über-openness, but it does rebuke a small-minded, exclusive sort of “only-my-group” narcissism.
Next: there ARE some lines to be drawn . . .