Denomination limbo (pt 2)

Time was when I was pretty accepting of a greater number of Christian traditions and denominations.  These days, I am less and less likely to accept the patterns of many Christian groups (including “my own”), but I’m not always sure I’m assessing things rightly.

What standards shall we use to determine what’s acceptable and what’s not?  The thoughtful, grace- and  truth-infused Christian must not be as interested in drawing lines of fellowship as in being a disciple himself, and yet there are some lines to be drawn, in terms of spiritual “family.” . . .

Some groups really do stand in opposition to Christianity.  The mentally unbalanced, blind practices of Fred Phelps’s group in Topeka come to mind, along with many other groups that don’t profess Christianity at all.  How far do we extend “the right hand of fellowship”?

[Aside:  the meaning of “fellowship” in the majority of New Covenant passages goes far beyond a simple recognition of some degree of unity.  Nor does it really have anything to do with potluck meals.  Most often, “fellowship” appears to speak of partnership in a task.]

Although we may not see eye to eye on many things, there will be some projects that we can do together with other individuals and groups — those with whom we don’t share key doctrinal positions.  Service projects such as cleaning up roadways, feeding and clothing needy people, and taking care of orphans in the name of Jesus come to mind. Recently, I came across the benevolence program of a church with which I would have only a modicum of spiritual camaraderie, but I was impressed with their list of charitable projects, and my family plans to join in one or two.  Partnership in a good cause that helps others (despite some important differences)!

As in the island party game “limbo,” there will ultimately come a time that we simply can’t bend any further.  How low can we go without breaking our consciences?

For me, the Jehovah’s Witness, Mormon, Unity Church and Unitarian Universalist entities are examples of (non-Christian) groups with which I have no spiritual fellowship.  The Roman Catholic institution, which is of course Christian in a broad sense, sits a couple levels closer to me . . . but here, as I type these words, part of me is loathe to think in terms of levels and lines that purport to keep others at bay.  Many other Christian groups seem much closer.

Does it constitute actual, spiritual back-bending for me to accept those who darken the door of the X Christian Congregation building down the street?  Is my back going to break, or will I embarrass myself by falling over backwards in this not-so-fun Christian “who’s one of us?” party game?

In retrospect, I don’t mind so much that, without thinking, I said “boo-hiss” aloud to myself when that vehicle turned into the Jehovah’s Witness parking lot (see beginning of last post for reference).  But I may need to stand up straight and extend my hand a little further in this vast sphere of denomination limbo.

Coming soon:  an extended treatment of Calvinism, largely thanks to the late Dr. Clark Pinnock’s very significant, helpful paper “From Augustine to Arminius:  A Pilgrimage in Theology.”   Spoiler alert:  Calvinism needs no more positive attention; Pinnock’s transparency and cogent scholarship help to enable other, thinking Christians to feel better about moving past the great reformer’s overstatements and overzealousness.

Denomination limbo (pt 1)

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:

Five-fold Fellowship

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 . . .

Ekklesia values 5a (nondenominational, nonsectarian)

To return to the original church “value”: my church is not sectarian and is not part of a denomination or franchise. I will often criticize denominational trappings, but I do not condemn the people within the denominations simply for being named. What I oppose on a larger scale is divisive sectarianism, and for myself, I would much prefer to be part of a group that didn’t even come close to using a title—ANY title—even the name or title of Jesus Christ—divisively.

Further, on the matter of affiliation . . . for a local congregation to be affiliated with a denomination is for me problematic–not absolutely necessarily so, but so frequently so that I am compelled to comment. The affiliation with a broader network can so readily compromise commitment to biblical truth, to authenticity of local mission, and to personal conviction that it must be challenged. Those who are naturally phlegmatic and/or submissive may be able to sit in the pews passively, disagreeing but not caring to make a fuss. Those of us with other temperaments and biblically based convictions cannot always sit idly by when affiliation leads to compromise. I care so much less about what the organization says than about what the Bible says, and, secondarily, what my conscience leads me to. My church, in the ideal, will not be affiliated to the degree that scruples and biblically based consciences will be threatened. My church will not be sectarian.

However, my ideal church will not intentionally wear blinders. It will be aware of its own set of backgrounds, seeking to be informed about the impact of various tenets and practices of the past on the present. And my church will—because I’m involved with it, if for no other reason, be particularly informed by the strengths and weaknesses, ideals and objectives of the American Restoration movement led by, among others, Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone.

I close with words of David Lipscomb (courtesy of Bobby Valentine’s Stoned-Campbell Disciple blog), first on fellowship and withdrawal of it for doctrinal reasons:

So long as a man really desires to do right, to serve the Lord, to obey His commands, we cannot withdraw from him. We are willing to accept him as a brother, no matter how ignorant he may be, or how far short of the perfect standard his life may fall from his ignorance…We will maintain the truth, press the truth upon him, compromise not one word or iota of that truth, yet forbear with the ignorance, the weakness of our brother who is anxious, but not yet able to see the truth …Why should I not, when I fall so far short of perfect knowledge myself? How do I know that the line beyond which ignorance damns, is behind me, not before me? If I have no forbearance with his ignorance, how can I expect God to forbear with mine? …So long then as a man exhibits a teachable disposition, is willing to hear, to learn and obey the truth of God, I care not how far he may be, how ignorant he is, I am willing to recognize him as a brother. (David Lipscomb, Gospel Advocate, April 22, 1875).

Again from Lipscomb, on the difference between seeking truth and being a party-spirit Christian or sectarian:

A sectarian is one who defends everything his party holds or that will help his party, and opposes all that his party opposes. This partisan takes it for granted that everything his party holds is right, and everything the other party holds to be wrong and is to be opposed. Hence the party line defines his faith and teaching. He sees no good in the other party. He sees no wrong in his own party . . . A truth lover and seeker always looks into whatever party he comes in contact with, and will first look to see what truth the party holds … The love of truth is a spirit of kindness and love toward all, even to the holder of error. He loves the holder of truth because he receives truth and strength from him, (David Lipscomb, “A Sectarian and a Truth Seeker,” Gospel Advocate. June 27, 1907, p. 409.)

Next (sometime this week): leadership and hierarchy