The individual believer’s effort to achieve some semblance of balance between (1) The Way and (2) the world can constitute a very real struggle. In our better moments, believers wish with all heart and mind to be God’s people in the world. We try; we fail; we (mostly) try again; we fail again. And we wonder what it’s supposed to feel like, to look like.
A sister Christ-follower recently wrote of her unique environment. She is distinctive in some ways and is fully aware that she exists in the world alongside people who do not necessarily share many of her values. She certainly recognizes as “Christian” some around her who exhibit even more distinguishing features, as well as some who don’t appear to be very different at all. She also recognizes that her mode and certain choices are not the only “way.” ¹
On this point, one might look into the philosophy and history behind the various strata of Amish, Mennonite, and Hutterite believers—groups that have made it a point, in most cases, to be visibly distinct from those around them. The Amish are particularly closed to outsiders, while most Mennonites are open in heart—but some Mennonites seem to have boundaries that aren’t as porous as they think. (I have no idea about the Hutterites, but I’m pretty sure there aren’t as many of them around, for whatever reason.)
We once visited a couple of very “closed” fellowships . . . paired terms that set up a verbal conflict, to some degree. One of them not only advertised being “KJV only” but had a strict policy of forbidding children—even guests’ children!—to be in the main hall during the sermon. (See this post for an account. If I do say so, some of it makes for fairly entertaining reading.) This church group struck us as downright closed. Leaving alone the conceptual problem with treating the sermon as somehow more reverential than the prayers or the scripture readings, it was a pretty “distinctive” policy—one that led to a courteous-as-we-could-be exit. Another group we visited took the closed “eucharist” tradition to a new extent (funny how those who have a fundamental connection with reforming the Roman Catholic tradition can fall into the same old ill-conceived patterns): they sat in a tight circle, excluded us as visitors, and had their “closed communion” while we waited uncomfortably. These ways are a far cry from Jesus’ way.
It is unthinkable to me that a group of Christians would purpose to be closed in any way, although conscientious adherence to teachings and scruples may result in some closed postures. In other words, there is a difference between (1) setting out to exclude others and (2) ending up excluding others because of loyalty to principles.
As we try, weakly, to be part of a movement once known as The Way—see e.g. Acts 9:2, 18:25, 19:9, and 19:23—we want to be open to others, employing open-arms postures and practices. We ought to be inviting toward others. Some boundaries may come into view, but, as Witherington has it, they need to be “porous enough” to allow others in.
¹ I very much like this sister’s use of the word “way” in this context. I would take this opportunity to point out that in the present discussion, “way” implies something different than the same word’s connotations in, say, Acts or Mark’s gospel.