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Also by Ed Cyzewski: Coffeehouse Theology: Reflecting on God in Everyday Life The Coffeehouse Theology Contemporary Issues Study Guide The Coffeehouse Theology Bible Study Guide A Path to Publishing: What I Learned by Publishing My First Nonfiction Book Read samples at www.edcyz.com
For fresh thoughts each week about following Jesus, visit Ed’s web site www.inamirrordimly.com. @ Ed Cyzewski, 2012 All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced in any form without written permission from Ed Cyzewski, email@example.com.
Some of the anecdotal illustrations in this book are true to life and are included with the permission of the persons involved. All other illustrations are composites of real situations, and any resemblance to people living or dead is coincidental. Cyzewski, Ed, 1979Divided We Unite: Practical Christian Unity
Table of Contents
Introduction Chapter One: Speaking the Truth in Relationships Chapter Two: Why We Fight Chapter Three: When to Ignore Criticism Chapter Four: How Do Judgment and Discernment Work? Chapter Five: Unity Across Racial Lines Chapter Six: How Christians Can Be Respectful, Diverse, and Redemptive Chapter Seven: The Benefits of Unity and Christian Community Chapter Eight: The Most Important Chapter About the Author
If I could write a love letter to the church, I would begin with an admission of guilt. I’ve failed so many of you by not loving you as much as I could. Fear, selfishness, and a judgmental spirit clouded the beauty of God I should have seen in you. About a year ago the Lord convicted me to begin embodying one simple word in all of my writing and interactions with fellow Christians: redemptive. I don’t use that word much—mostly when describing the place where I take my recycling bottles on the weekend for “redemption.” Christians say we are redeemed, but I think we generally take it to mean “saved” rather than “restored” and “healed.” These latter meanings are what I hope to recapture here. For all of the times that I have failed and continue to fail at bringing the peace and reconciliation that comes through Jesus, God has been challenging me to play a more redemptive role among fellow Christians today. This doesn’t mean I gloss over our differences in the search for good feelings. I’m committed to finding real opportunities to love fellow believers without overlooking the ways we differ from one another. I say this is a book about practical Christian unity because Christians have always been diverse and even divided in their beliefs and practices. The differences have always been there, but the deciding factor is how much stock we place in them. Can we believe that we have something deeper in common that can
denominations and splinter-groups? This is a book about Christian unity with a realistic edge to it. Sometimes love and unity demands some tough choices, such as ignoring the hurtful words of fellow believers who may not have our best in mind. Sometimes love demands zipping our lips and focusing on the things we hold in common, even if we have to shut ourselves up in a room later in the day to scream out of frustration. Growing up with divorced parents, I saw firsthand how divided and wounded family members can soldier on amidst the most trying of circumstances. I’ve seen former court room opponents from my childhood chat over drinks at my wedding. People who could only be described as mutual enemies at one time have now made it a practice to wish one another well during the holidays and during tough times of loss. I’ve watched those with past substance abuse issues confess their problems and mend past wrongs. I’ve seen love shared amidst the most trying of circumstances. My premise for this book is that Christians are a family. Like any real family, we have divisions and differences, but these “divisions” do not necessarily have to cut us off from one another. Differences and divisions can be overcome because we are part of the same family. Divisions don’t have to be the end of our Christian family. They are only problems if we choose to let them overrule the means by which we became a family in the first place.
The pages that follow will challenge you. I say some tough things. I’ll sometimes suggest that we need to ignore certain people for a season. Other times we need to take one on the chin. How you apply these suggestions about unity will often depend on your individual circumstances. If you can remember one thing while reading this E-book, I hope it will be that we are already united in Christ. It’s not like we can undo the work of the cross. We can try to cut ourselves off from another because of our disagreements and divisions, but failure to believe in the unity that comes through the Spirit of Christ puts more faith in the destructive tendencies of man than the power of God.
I have something surprising, if not shocking to share with you. It’s something so astounding, that you may not even believe me. Nothing can quite prepare you for this. So I’ll just go ahead and say it: There are Christians who love Jesus, serve Jesus, and are even saved by Jesus who… disagree with me. I know, I know, that is shocking news for you. I sometimes find it hard to believe some days. There are divisions in the church that separate us into different rooms in the great house of Christianity that was popularized by C. S. Lewis, but these divisions don’t necessarily lead to breaks in our fellowship with one another—even if these divisions take issue with my awesome perspective… If you’ve read my book Coffeehouse Theology, you know that I’m a firm advocate for dialogue with other Christian perspectives. In fact, the diversity of Christian views available makes the Christian faith stronger in today’s context. Over the course of a year I gave a lot of time to thinking over redemptive approaches to others, and I think division itself can play a somewhat redemptive function, provided we know when to unite.
My grandparents used to have this huge German Shepherd. They loved that dog, but it growled at the grandkids. Every time we came over, they hustled the dog upstairs. We were divided on our views and experiences of the dog, but for the sake of visiting with each other, the dog stayed upstairs, locked away in order to prevent an unpleasant scene. There are some issues in Christianity today where we have sharp disagreements, and so far as I can tell, we’ll always be divided to a certain degree. We can play around with our word choice here, but I think the word “divided” is the only way I can honestly describe the nature of some debates. When C. S. Lewis described the great house of Christianity and its various rooms, we may as well admit that the house is "divided" into rooms. All of the rooms are still safely tucked inside of the house, but there is no doubt about the real divisions that exist. I’ve seen some Christians do admirable work at fostering dialogue and understanding. There is real value to such dialogue, but I’m curious whether each side enters dialogue thinking, “If I just expressed my views perfectly, those other dummies will change their minds.” There simply are issues where Christians both love Jesus and remain divided. In most cases that come to mind, civil dialogue won’t bring us to a place where many on either side will change their minds. Our divisions are real, but we don’t have to let them consume us.
Our divisions are real, but they don’t have to cut us off from one another. Our divisions are real, but we can actually remain united in spite of them. For the foreseeable future, I don’t see myself attending a church where women aren’t allowed to teach. I will continue to acknowledge spiritual gifts and healings. I can’t imagine ever again tying the Republican Party to my Christian faith. I don’t see the point in trying to ban same sex marriage, but I know I’m not as progressive on this issue as many of my left-leaning friends. Those are just a few of the issues where I differ from some other Christians that I know. These are issues that “divide” us on one level, but I don’t have to let them get in the way of what actually unites us. Let’s face it, we’re going to hang on to different theologies, support different causes, and attend different churches. The solution isn’t getting everyone on the same page, and sometimes the solution isn’t always dialogue. Christian unity does not come from our heads. Unity isn’t a list of bullet points. Unity comes from the life of God’s Spirit within us. Our fights and divisions can’t undo the presence of God among his people. However, we can decide that our issues and divisions are more important than God’s Spirit. We can fail to recognize the means by
which God has made us one—sabotaging his uniting work among us in spite of our divisions. If someone is good enough for God’s dwelling Spirit, then who am I say I’m too good, too right, or too “just” to have fellowship? How could I ever think I have higher standards than God? Unity is something that rises out of what God does in us as his family. Living in Christian unity does not demand that we solve our differences, as if divisions were an unforeseen problem. We'll always have divisions between us. Living in unity does not rest on whether we can see enough of our own beliefs in one another but whether we can see enough of God's Spirit among the members of our Christian family.
Chapter One Speaking the Truth in Relationships
One of my fondest memories of seminary is lunch time. The first generation Korean students gathered at a table and opened their Tupper wares to share their food with one another family style. I was even invited to pick up some chop sticks and join them at times. Meanwhile, the occasional middle-aged pastor who had forgotten to bring a lunch would survey the vending machines with dread, knowing that the cheeseburger in a plastic bag would be his best option. He delayed that decision as long as possible. Once a month we had a guest speaker come for a pizza lunch. Just about the entire seminary turned out for these events, filling the cafeteria and giving us all a chance to see each other and to catch up. These lunches gave us something that is essential when a bunch of people from a variety of backgrounds and relationships gather together to talk about God: relationships. Do We Speak Truth in Relationships? I love the way that ideas and conversations can spread on the internet, but the most significant drawback is the relational void that can occur in some online “conversations.” That isn’t to say that relationships can’t happen—they do. I’m just saying that we can now enter into conversations where we know nothing of the people participating in them.
Consequently, we don’t understand where someone is coming from and we’re not all that invested in seeking the best for that person. We just see a pile of text that challenges something important to us. There’s no prospect of seeing that pile of text at the next community lunch. The Difference That Relationships Make I’m certainly all for sharing my ideas online and hearing out those who disagree with me. However, I’ve observed some interesting dynamics. For example, though I’m a committed Arminian, many of my closest friends since childhood remain Calvinists. Although my childhood church is complementarian in their views toward women, and I have changed to egalitarian, I would pay close attention to the opinions of my pastors should they ever contact me with a concern about my writing. It actually can be quite easy to be friends with people we know who believe differently from us. Of course we all have experienced exceptions to this. Who Should We Listen To? As a general rule, I put the most stock in the opinions of the people who know me the best. Starting with my wife and some family members, I also pay close attention to friends, pastors, and colleagues. It is both unhealthy and impossible to acknowledge every opinion online as a kind of authority for our lives, and yet, it’s often tempting to do just that—even if we think we need to challenge these voices. The tricky part about blogging is that I need to remain open to conversations with folks from a variety of perspectives, but I also
can’t let a challenge from someone who doesn’t know me rattle my cage. I can’t lose sleep over the stuff coming from denominational leaders, celebrity pastors, and groups that would condemn someone like me. They’re free to believe as they wish and I recognize their place in the church, but their critiques are also irrelevant to me. They have nothing invested in my own spiritual growth or the growth of my community. Therefore, the best thing I can do is to seek accountability among those who desire to see myself and my community grow. While I seek guidance from perspectives outside of those who agree with me, a relational investment is critical. Recognizing the Benefits of Authority Having set some boundaries around the opinions I care most about, I want to make it clear that within the confines of relationships and investments in one another, I also highly value the place of authority. We all need pastors and friends who care enough about us to challenge us to change. As a veteran of Catholic elementary school and a survivor of fundamentalism, I like to think of myself as rather experienced in the realm of poorly exercised authority. My elementary school seemed to teem with sadistic teachers who only knew how to punish us in groups because of the one undiagnosed ADD kid. At their worst, the fundamentalists figured out a way to make the Bible feel like my sadistic Catholic school teachers—a guide to the punishments we’re bound to receive unless we’re perfect. As a child, most of the religious authority figures I knew were rather
heavy on the guilt and punishment end of things, save for a few women who were amazing teachers and Christians. Attaching the word “loving” with authority strikes me as impossible in some unguarded moments, and yet, for Christians, this is really the only way authority truly works.
Authorities may rule by virtue of their position, personality, celebrity, Bible knowledge, or power, but for Christian authority to actually benefit anyone, love is the one essential ingredient. Without love for others, authority is just a tool that the insecure or ambitious can use to consolidate their positions. We need only listen to the critiques of Christians who are invested in us. Otherwise, we can make ourselves crazy trying to process every impersonal criticism that comes our way. Along similar lines, we need only listen to authority figures who guide us in love—otherwise we’ll get tangled up in someone else’s personal agenda. In other words, when a denominational leader, a celebrity pastor, or random Christian I meet at a social event condemns something I believe, I can ignore that person’s words because they are not spoken in a relationship. Along the same lines, I should also have a loving authority figure in my life who CAN speak a redemptive word in my life if I ever step out of line. It’s possible that many of us have mainly seen poorly exercised authority, and we don’t realize it can be done well. I’m grateful that I’ve seen lots of loving authority exercised among fellow
Christians. Here are some benefits we receive when we have loving authorities: Authorities Help Us Follow God’s Calling Since I know that certain people can challenge me in a loving and redemptive way, I am free to think and write about any topic I feel compelled to explore. As a writer, I need this freedom to let my mind wander and to explore some natural progressions of ideas. However, I feel freer to do this because I know that people who care about me will help me if my thinking follows some faulty directions. The same may go for someone who serves in a tough ministry situation. If you have loving authority over you, it’s much easier to serve others because you’ll have someone who can restore you if you ever step out of line. In fact, the right kind of loving authority will help prevent you from stepping out of line. We Can Ignore the Non-Loving Authorities Over the years I have seen many pastors learning how to exercise their authority with love. Some have failed in particular situations, but I’ve also seen them grow in their grace and mercy toward others. Their examples have helped me detect non-loving authorities who are trying to exercise control over others or who condemn large groups of Christians under the banner of guarding truth or whatever it is such people claim to be doing. When you have the security of loving authority in your life, you’ll detect the bad authorities and ignore them. We Can Be Restored When We Fall
Non-loving authorities focus on protecting their positions and themselves, and that makes them the worst possible people to restore those who fall. When I fail, I often feel pretty awful to begin with, and that means I need someone to both pray for my restoration and to encourage me. Those are things only a loving authority would bother to do because they require empathy and self-sacrifice. Part of living at peace with other believers who are united to us through the Spirit is recognizing those who are most relationally invested in us as friends and authorities. We have our divisions when it comes to particular topics, and we need not make things worse by joining ourselves with unknown, unloving authorities. Relationships Don't Solve Everything Sometimes a relationship can't help us keep the peace. If anything, the history of Christianity is tumultuous, with sharp disagreements and divisions running right back to the early church. In fact, the "one heart and one mind" era described in Acts was a mere drop in a bucket in the life of the church. Once Peter evangelized a Roman soldier and his family--the sworn enemies of the Jews back then--the gloves came off and open conflict broke out regularly for years after Peter's initial work among the Gentiles. If fighting has been a problem for Christians over the years, we need to step back and look at the reasons why we fight. Uncovering the reasons behind our fights will help us directly address them as we seek unity in the midst of what divides us.
Chapter Two Why We Fight
I was careful to avoid saying that I would never go to church again, but it was certainly hard to imagine how it would ever happen again. In my early 20’s I left a season of rooted stability in my faith and entered into a six-year season of transition into another expression of Christianity. The basics remained the same, but over that time my perceptions of the church, salvation, the mission of God, the ministry of the church, and my own life calling passed through a major, major overhaul. I don’t know if you’ve ever done major renovations on a house before, but much like house renovations, my faith renovations were not pretty. I was angry, frustrated, and disappointed at various times. I had a hard time tolerating those who remained rooted with their faith intact. Sometimes I struck out at them, and sometimes they struck out at me for asking unsettling questions. In retrospect, I can see that many of my problems with fellow Christians had the most to do with my season of belief where I was uprooted and struggling as a new transplant. Fighting Over the Seasons of Belief I’m now in a season of relative stability, rooted in a take on God that makes sense to me. As I look back over my six years of transition, I can see how others around me are in similar seasons of being either rooted or transitioning.
Some have been disappointed by Christianity for various reasons and left the faith. Some have switched from one denomination to another. Some are still wandering. Some have found loving Christian community in new places that had previously been off their radar.
If we hope to keep the unity of Christ in the midst of our divisions, we need to understand these seasons. Besides our divisions over beliefs and practices (which we’ll come to in short order), we can also divide over our seasons of belief. At the risk of oversimplifying things, here are three seasons I have observed that often rest at the heart of our conflicts with one another: The Rooted Season of Belief Many of us are in a rooted season of faith where we have a certain level of comfort with our understanding of the Bible, our spiritual practices, and the ways we serve others. Those who are rooted need to be aware of welcoming those who are sprouting in their faith and have yet to find their place, while also remaining patient with those who are being transplanted—the most tumultuous season of all. The Transplant Season of Belief For some of us who have been rooted in one spot for a while, sometimes the old answers and ways of doing things stop making sense. We all have our different reasons for pulling up our roots and moving elsewhere, though sometimes wider trends emerge
such as a desire for more liturgy, a greater emphasis on prayer, or a discontent with how to interpret the Bible. Transplants are often in vulnerable positions, as they don’t feel like they fit anywhere, their beliefs have been shaken in some way, and they may be hurting enough to become combative. The hardest thing for a rooted person is patiently loving an argumentative transplant. I reached a point during my own transplant process that I actually couldn’t go to church for a season because I wasn’t able to peacefully engage with those who were rooted, especially those who couldn’t understand my doubts and changes. Besides spreading conflict, another problem with transplants is they sometimes rush into something new without dealing with their previous hurts and disappointments. I saw this a lot with folks who were disappointed by the church and then jumped right into house churches or emerging churches without seeking healing first. The Sprouting Season of Belief On the opposite end of the spectrum from the more jaded transplants are the sprouts, Christians who are still enthusiastic about their faith. The danger with sprouts is transplants can snuff out their zeal with their grievances, while those who are rooted may fail to reach out and nurture them in the faith. A sprout can wither easily and get trampled down if it isn’t guarded with care. Sprouts will have lots of questions, and they may feel inferior when they compare themselves to those with deep roots. Those who are rooted are responsible for patiently
answering the questions of sprouts and ensuring they receive the nourishment from God they need so badly.
I’m sure there are folks who would claim to be hybrids or something different altogether, but these three seasons keep coming up for me. When we understand the seasons of faith of those in our communities, we’ll be able to love them right where they’re at today. We Fight Over Heresy Hunting A recent kerfuffle between a pastor and a blogger over heaven and hell had me thinking about our priorities, the impact of our disagreements, and some ways we can take positive steps forward. At the core of the disagreement, different camps disagreed over how to define universalism and whether the pastor’s conceptions of hell and salvation are beyond the bounds of Christian orthodoxy. The blogger wrote from the Reformed library of the Christian house, while the pastor tended to linger in parlors and sitting rooms held by church fathers and more progressive theologians. Did this pastor’s book take him outside of the house and into the, say, woodshed? And if he did venture out to the woodshed, did he see something nasty? I’m not interested in resolving this dispute over heaven and hell, but this situation does provide a great opportunity for discussing some ways we can handle our disagreements with one another regardless of whether the pastor in question is a woodsheddwelling Universalist.
Our Loyalty Christians are loyal to a person and our beliefs (or doctrines) help us understand that person. The emphasis is essential here. We are loyal to a relational deity who wants us to love and obey him. If we get the love and obey part, we’ll figure out that God wants us to relate to one another with the same charity, seeking out the best for others. We hold to our beliefs because they are important, but we don’t defend our beliefs as a matter of first importance. The response of the blogger to the pastor here smelled of prioritizing beliefs over the person. Was an accusatory blog post the best way to restore the pastor if he really was in error? I don’t know the blogger’s motives, but if he really thought a fellow brother was in error, the Bible tells us how to proceed. His actions match those of someone far more concerned with defending a doctrine than restoring an individual—that is, if that pastor needs to be restored from something. Hint: A combative blog post that generates lots of traffic and comments wouldn’t leave me feeling, “Wow, that guy really wants me to be restored from my heresy! How nice of him. Look at all of the traffic his criticism of my beliefs generated. I guess I should agree with him.” The Significance If we are loyal to our beliefs ahead of our relationship with God, we may view other Christian perspectives as threats. If we encounter a view that borders on heresy, we risk making things
worse because we’re seeking to protect doctrines instead of people. We aren’t here to defend the Gospel. We’re here to let God change how we live and speak through the Gospel. The Gospel is here to lead us to God and we need to live it with clarity and truth. However, if someone steps away from a faithful, biblical proclamation of the Gospel, we should be rushing to help the person, not to attack his/her beliefs. The Goal: Restoration, Not Isolation When we disagree and fear that a fellow Christian may be teaching false doctrines, I think there are two possible ways forward. On the one hand, we should certainly engage the beliefs of that person and discuss them fairly with all of the information available. I have no qualms with someone fairly critiquing my take on Jesus if I have made an error. However, I would also hope that no one would attack me personally right off the bat, isolating me from the body of Christ. You see, we can isolate others, creating chasms where we say, “Our side has the truth, and your side has the error. Come over to our side if you want to be a true Christian.” A public attack like this only pushes us further away from one another. If someone really is in error, then attacking the person may only tempt him/her to dig in and fight back.
Isolation Does Not Always Lead to Restoration There may be times that we’ll have to isolate someone, but that is only a last resort, not an opening salvo. We begin with an appeal out of love for the other person, and only cut that person off if there is no other resort. Defending a doctrine ahead of a person saves us from all of the trouble that love requires. Loving someone who is either close to error or in full blown heresy puts our own reputations on the line. People may think we hang out with sinners and heretics if we reach out in love, which is just the kind of risk Jesus loved to take. Does the Response Make Things Worse? I’m actually more concerned about how we respond to this kerfuffle, than I am that we had a kerfuffle in the first place. I know a lot of folks who are probably suspicious of this pastor and his book on heaven and hell. If this pastor really is a Universalist, then I’d certainly think a minor kerfuffle is warranted—as in, someone should reach out to him personally out of love. However, I don’t want us to create divisions where they are unnecessary. The first shots have been fired, but we don’t need to fire back. We also don’t need to wring our hands too much. There are lots of Christians who are rolling their eyes right now. The trick is to avoid attacking back. We’ll only make things worse. The body of Christ can drown in its own self-righteousness just as well as it can in its squabbles. We can be combative in how we point out the combativeness of others.
What I Can’t Say about Our Divisions I almost tweeted something like this when the kerfuffle broke out: Fictional story: Christians charitable when disagreeing over what only God knows. I couldn’t do it. I knew it wasn’t true, and that made my day. I know quite a few Christians who are very humble and kind, even when we disagree. I have hundreds of Christian friends who are open-minded, who would hear someone out before reacting, and who would charitably work toward restoration of someone in error. Charitable Christians are not fictional. We are legion. We just don’t attract the same attention because we aren’t lightning rods for negativity and controversy that drive human interest stories on blogs and news sites. Rather than lament that a pastor asked some vague questions and a blogger made some harsh critiques, let’s celebrate the fact that such an approach is not acceptable to many believers. There are folks who disagree with the pastor and/or the blogger, and these folks are praying for God’s best for them—praying that we are all restored to unity in Spirit and in truth.
We Fight When We Sense Our Beliefs Are Threatened The Trap of Defensiveness
Popular pastors and high profile bloggers aren’t the only ones who go on the offensive against fellow Christians. I’ve been there plenty of times myself. There are times when I don’t like who I become: fearful, angry, and defensive. Defensiveness usually tips me off that something isn’t right. Sometimes I’ve been wronged, and I feel defensive. At the moment when I feel defensive, I have to decide how to respond. That’s when I have to choose between working toward redemption or retaliation. Other times I haven’t been wronged personally, but I fear the impact of what someone else believes, teaches, or practices. Whether or not my fears or evaluations are correct, the moment I feel defensive, I begin to think of ways to protect what I believe and value from a perceived threat—typically another person or movement. The moment I become defensive about beliefs, practices, or values, I’m no longer in a position where I can love another person, seeing him/her from God’s perspective. I’m rooted in my perspective, and I become convinced that the existence of another perspective could upend everything I hold dear. Usually defensiveness is rooted in misconceptions and
overreactions. However, even if my defensiveness is warranted, I need to decide whether I’m going to reach out in redemptive ways or attack in order to protect myself. When my Christian faith was all about finding the right answers and holding onto the truth rather than holding onto a person, I
was defensive all of the time. Everyone who differed from me was a threat who called into question the beliefs that my faith was built upon. When my Christian faith and salvation rested on having the right answers and holding onto the truth, defensiveness made sense. Allegiance to truth or a particular perspective demands defensiveness in order to preserve it from criticism. It’s no secret that Christianity stands and falls on one foundation: Jesus Christ. We can all agree on that, but if our foundation is found in a person and in his revelation through the Spirit, scripture, and Christian community, where does that leave us with truth? That is where Christians tend to differ. From where I sit, I’ve learned to see truth, or what we believe, as something important, but not something I’m supposed to necessarily defend. No matter what someone teaches, Jesus is still Lord. He defines the truth, he alone knows all of the truth, and there’s nothing that I can do to enhance that. I see my role as that of a messenger who needs to pass along a message, not a warrior who has to protect something. Even when I meet a Christian who is missing a key part of the Christian faith, I’m a messenger who should affirm what is right and gently correct what is wrong with the ultimate goal of helping others know and experience Jesus as fully as possible. If someone is committed to Jesus and holds to beliefs that I consider wrong, I gain nothing and they gain nothing when I become defensive. I may be able to encourage that person to see
things differently, but if I feel the need to defend the truth or attack someone, the larger problem is my insecurity, my desire to control, and the possibility that I’m resting more on having the right answers instead of the right savior. Laying Down Our Arms When Solomon spoke of a physical temple not being able to hold God, he may as well have said that our minds cannot do justice to God. In fact, I would go so far as saying that we should expect to be wrong sometimes. When I look at those in the Sanhedrin who rejected Jesus, they had particular theological assumptions about the Messiah and what it meant to be a good Jew. Jesus challenged them, proving many of these assumptions wrong. They missed the Messiah because they had way too much invested in their theology and how that theology played out in their lives. Being wrong about their beliefs was the worst possible thing they could have imagined, so they ignored the things that God was doing in their midst. Sometimes the quest to be faithful and to seek God’s truth means we’ll have to admit we’ve been wrong about our theology. Sometimes being wrong is a very good thing, provided that we move on to what is true. I live in fear of being wrong about my theology. It feels terrible to invest in beliefs that may be exposed as incorrect. In fact, finding out that certain beliefs are wrong could completely change how we treat others, how we order our lives, and who knows what else.
When it comes to theology, no one likes to be wrong about God, salvation, or how these beliefs change how they live. Religion becomes personal and deeply ingrained to the point that it becomes a significant part of our identities. Many of our debates and arguments over theology spring from not only what we believe to be right, but all of the decisions we have made in light of them. To see one belief change could mean a reordering of other beliefs and life choices. In addition, we may end up feeling foolish or deceived. In fact, the harsh tones of many theology debates may not spring as much from the offense of a particular belief or practice, but more from what we fear we’ll lose if such a thing is proven true. In other words, our attacks on others may be rooted more in defending our own lifestyles and beliefs by proving them wrong rather than dispassionately working toward the most logical conclusion. If you’re like me, thinking through something like this can be very unsettling, but I think it’s a necessary step for a number of reasons. For starters, it makes us humble, reminding us that we are never as objective as we claim. Secondly, I have found that in admitting my mistakes over several points of theology I have been able to embrace some new discoveries about God and others, moving into greater freedom in the Kingdom of God. This is especially true as I continue to read the Gospels and the OT prophets. There are so many lessons that I have missed in these significant parts of scripture. It’s unsettling to be wrong, but sometimes our growth as followers of Jesus requires a humble,
teachable spirit that rejoices in being proven wrong in order to embrace the truth.
Chapter Three When to Ignore Criticism
I have a secret weapon. You may have this secret weapon too, without even knowing you had it all along. This secret weapon may prove extremely useful in considering how to approach disagreements and conflict with fellow Christians—especially if we think of Christianity as a family. Over the years I’ve had several close relationships go south. For a season, I needed to avoid them. There’s no other way to say it. When a relationship becomes destructive and you see it tearing you apart, retreat is sometimes the only option. A few years after the initial retreat, these conflicts were eventually sorted out. One side confessed to the other and we began the healing process. If I hadn’t withdrawn at the height of the conflict, I’m not sure if the reconciliation process could have happened. It at least would have taken longer. My secret weapon is this: There are times in life when we have to give up on unity and ignore criticism. Sometimes relationships become toxic, and the only solution is to withdraw—hopefully only for a season.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve seen many Christians treat each other pretty awful at times. There are times when we need to wave the white flag. Withdrawing from a relationship for a season is not the same as giving up. We should still pray for healing and avoid burning bridges. The goal of a withdrawal is to cut off the toxic dynamics and to give both sides a chance to process their differences. Oftentimes a period away from conflict builds up sufficient hindsight that enables us to see another person’s perspective with clarity. There are times in the New Testament when Christians parted ways over a particular issue or calling. While recognizing that each was still a follower of Jesus, they could no longer function together in a healthy way. They recognized their unity in Christ, even though they parted ways on other issues. I’m not surprised to read that Peter and Paul, and Barnabas and Paul were reconciled to one another after a relational hiatus. They needed time to simmer down. Thankfully, the vast majority of Christians out there know how to treat one another with love and respect. This is not an excuse to become lazy and to give up on everyone who disagrees with us. Rather, I’m talking about the toxic, angry, judgmental junk—the people who get our blood pressure pumping. When Should Christians "Part Ways"? Sometimes we need to cut ourselves off from ongoing conflicts in order to heal and to gain some perspective that will help us sort
things out in the future. I believe that Christians, especially evangelicals may be at such a point. In my own evangelical family, there is a lot of concern about the warring of progressive and conservative factions. The conservatives fear the progressives aren’t committed to the Bible and are tossing aside ancient doctrines in favor of the cultural flavor of the day. The progressives have been damaged by some of the misguided theology and practice of their conservative pasts, ask hard questions based on their study of scripture, and fear that evangelicalism will be defined by a narrow set of beliefs. They fear that Christianity will lose its broad consensus that has historically included a broader range of beliefs. Both sides wring hands, worry, and write blog posts about some looming threat or danger. There are so many blog posts where Christians are worried about being condemned or judged or excommunicated by someone else. If someone wants to play heresy detective by evaluating how I interpret the Bible’s teachings on salvation, hell, women in ministry, homosexuality, war, inerrancy, or politics and then issues some kind of decree that I’m out of the family, I have no trouble ignoring that person. There are plenty of Christians out there who should be ignored.
And here’s the thing, if reading what I write upsets you, you can ignore me too. I won’t take it personally. To be honest, if collegeage me met 30-something me, both of us would probably need a time out. God can use all kinds of Christians to do a lot of great things. God could use fundamentalist me to accomplish his work, and he can use progressive me to accomplish his work. The cross and resurrection retain their power even if my answers to the Christian theology quiz have evolved. For who I am, where I’m at, and what God is doing in me, sometimes I need to shut myself off from those who are too combative and can’t see beyond their own narrow limits. I’m sure that I exasperate others who need to do the same to me. Amidst the tensions of the early church, we find that even in the case of Peter and Paul there’s an understanding that each was called to a different people group. Given the ethnic tensions found elsewhere in the New Testament between Jew and Greek and Peter’s own waffling on the Jew/Greek issue, I think it’s safe to presume they could have been agreeing to disagree. Everyone was reconciled in the end, but they needed the perspective that only time could give. For a season they parted ways. Though I see a temporary parting of ways as a last resort, there are times when I think it’s necessary. If the evangelical camp is a kind of diverse and sometimes dysfunctional family, I think we’re
at a place where certain parties need to keep their distance from each other—at least for now. If someone says you’re not a real Christian, continue to pray with prisoners, share the Gospel daily, read scripture, and deliver food to the local soup kitchen. Whatever someone says, nothing really changes. Continue following Jesus, regardless of the label others stick on you. Faithfulness to Jesus is what matters, and that’s why we sometimes need to ignore criticism.
Chapter Four How Do Judgment and Discernment Work?
When I finished studying the book of Romans a few years ago, I couldn't shake Romans 14 where Paul tells the Romans to stop fighting over peripheral matters. In the hope of creating a diverse but united people, Paul challenged those who asserted that the Jewish laws and customs were essential for Gentile Christians. The debates in Rome seemed to center on observing feast days and dietary laws, though Paul was also working on rethinking the role of the law under the new covenant of grace that is accessed through faith. Some believed these Jewish practices were important, while the Gentiles didn’t really have a grid for them. Paul tells them to make up their own minds on these matters, to live by faith in God, and to trust that God is able to approve or condemn his servants. Under no circumstances should they put a stumbling block in front of other believers by casting them under judgment or doubting that God isn’t able to approve those with whom they disagree. I feel like I’ve spent so much time scrutinizing and debating points of theology that may well be peripheral to the big picture of God’s redemptive Gospel message. Paul isn’t advocating for lazy or bad theology in Romans that falls away from the core teachings of the Gospel. He spends plenty of time spelling that out. However, he sees how debates over doctrine can divide believers
and cause them to lose focus on their common love and common mission. One day I ran across an article in Christianity Today with a series of opinions regarding whether some believers should fast with Muslims for Ramadan. I would usually retweet this on a typical day. This is one of those issues where there are a host of qualifiers added by Christian participants, straw men created by critics, and some well-informed debate from the moderates on both ends of the spectrum. However, even if those debating this are well-informed and charitable, is this even a debate worth having? I can see Paul saying “Some fast with Muslims to reach out, while others abstain. Both are living by faith to please God and should be convinced in their own minds by faith. All should leave the judgment to God.” Maybe I’m just putting words in Paul’s mouth, but after reading Romans 14 I have a feeling that many of the issues I label as “important” may in fact be peripheral issues where grace, trust, and faith must replace arguments and debates. When Christians Should Not Judge One Another After spending some time studying judgment in scripture, I began to notice certain trends and guidelines that emerged about judgment. In trying to get a handle on it, I have broken down judgment into three rough categories. There’s a lot of gray and overlap, but this is the best sense I can make of it. Judgment as Damnation/Condemnation
This is the kind of judgment that is reserved for God, in which Christians have no say and should not even speculate. A study of Jesus reveals he spent far more time telling people to believe and to enter the Kingdom, rather than saying point blank, “Turn or burn!” We are in a time of mercy where repentance is encouraged; let’s not jump the gun on the judgment part. In fact, the book of Acts documents the early church's expansion, and it's noticeably quiet on the topic of hell and judgment. It seems that the early Christians knew that only Jesus could rightly judge the eternal destiny of others. Judgment as Destructive Criticism There are times when we evaluate and criticize the actions, words, or motives of others with the goal of tearing them down. Even if we claim to have good motives, carelessly judging others or paying no attention to our methods can be extremely destructive among both fellow believers and those who are not. Judgment as Redemptive Discernment While Jesus often shared strong critiques of the hypocritical leaders of his day, we do well to remember that we don’t carry the same kind of authority as Jesus. In fact, Jesus wants us to spend the bulk of our time evaluating ourselves, extracting planks from our own eyes. There are times when a rebuke of a fellow believer may be appropriate, but we will surely botch it if we haven’t spent the necessary time judging ourselves thoroughly. Paul also spends a great deal of time with the Corinthians helping them sort out
immorality and judging those in blatant sin, however, even the most extreme cases aim for restoration in the end. Final Thoughts on Judgment These three categories don't necessarily cover every situation that we'll face, but I think they provide a good starting point for considering judgment. I’m grossly generalizing and there are obvious times when one kind can shift over to another, so I don’t harbor any illusions about these categories functioning as neat and tidy sections. Judgment is a tough issue, especially because we could point to any number of passages in scripture and try to apply them in different ways. In the final conclusion, the guidelines seem to be: love one another and be merciful. If a Spirit-led believer cannot reconcile judging another with loving the same, then the best course of action is to hold back on judgment.
Chapter Five Unity Across Racial Lines
“I like a lot of the emerging church stuff, but man, it’s just so… white.” An Asian friend in seminary said that to me back in the fall of 2004, long before Sojourners ran an article in Spring 2010 about the overwhelming whiteness of the emerging church. At the time my friend made this observation, I had just completed the first draft of my book Coffeehouse Theology, an introduction to theology that included diverse/global Christian perspectives in its method. I think his comment was pretty much right on, but not necessarily indicative of where Christianity, emerging or not, wanted/wants to stay. I think he would agree. White Dudes Realize We’re Missing It If there’s one good thing that’s come out of the emerging conversations, it’s a great deal of humility that is paired with charitable dialogue with fellow believers. What I saw developing throughout the 00’s in my seminary and online is basically a bunch of white theologians realizing they’d been marginalizing other perspectives, whether or not that has been intentional. Now, think about this. Our seminaries, at least the conservativeish ones, are filled with lots of white dudes and also some Koreans. So, the white dudes realized we’d been missing out on
some important perspectives, and that is a wonderful and commendable thing. We should not minimize or overlook things. However, the conversations at that point primarily consisted of white dudes talking about the need to be more diverse. That’s certainly where many of us were back in 2004. I know that’s where I was. White Dudes Will Fix Things Unfortunately, when those in the majority realize there’s a problem, they may try to solve it on their own and even dictate the terms of the solution without considering the contributions of the minorities involved. My former professor John Franke gave a wonderfully humble account of this at an event a few years ago. He entered dialogue with an African American pastor and proposed a number of solutions to our white dude problem. In the process he realized that he’d been dictating the terms of the solution, confessed his error, and worked with this pastor on some great ideas that rose from their conversations. White Dudes Will Give Up Control The future of Christian unity across racial lines does not rely on white dudes figuring out ways to be diverse, and I think a lot of white dudes know that. The trouble with this conversation is that white dudes have been in control for so long, that I’m sure those in the non-white dude camp feel like enough is enough: “Just give up control already white dudes!” In response, the white dudes say they are trying to make things better. They’re doing the best they can and just need more time.
My hope is that we can move beyond white dude theology and ministry, and I think we are well on our way in many circles. We can start today be asking who we look to as guides for our theology and practice, and if our guides are only white dudes, then we have some searching to do. Dealing with Racial Insensitivity In 2009 an Asian friend of mine pointed out a controversy over a racially insensitive video, poster, and book cover put together by two white Christian men. The gist of the controversy is that the book’s art work and video content both exploited Asian culture and promoted demeaning stereotypes. Two Asian American leaders (Eugene Cho and Professor Rah) asked for apologies. At first one of the creators of the book and video didn’t seem all that willing to hear out Professor Rah. Thankfully they later wrote an apology note and apparently a phone conversation took place at some point between the concerned parties. Things seemed to come under control rather quickly, so we certainly don't need to discuss ways to resolve this particular situation. However, I wanted to share a few thoughts based on how we can use this situation to clarify our beliefs, correct misconceptions, and to make our communities stronger when dealing with racial insensitivity (not necessarily “racism” in every case). It’s never comfortable to find out that you’ve offended someone, especially when it has to do with race, and ESPECIALLY when
that offense is created by something as permanent as a book in print. I can see how one may initially become defensive. However, the only position for white Christians on this issue is to open ourselves up to critique, to admit we’ve been wrong, and to confess that even in our attempts to make things right, we may make things worse. In fact, I fear that even in writing this section I may have some large elephants in my own room… Case in point: I initially wrote that "Asian Americans" found the video and book cover offensive. That was partially true, but I missed the point right off the bat: all Christians should be offended when one part of the body of Christ feels wounded. So even in dealing with these matters, I can see I have a long way to go. As I examine my own heart and what I’ve seen online related to this book and video, here are a few observations about white Christians and matters of racial sensitivity: We don’t want to think of ourselves as racists. We generally aren’t openly or overtly racist. It’s far more subtle than we expect, taking the form of jokes, etc. When we mean well, it’s hard to admit we hurt feelings. Those in the majority should never ask victims of injustice to turn the other cheek. We don’t realize that racial insensitivity demeans the offender while also demeaning the offended. It’s embarrassing to be wrong and to admit failure publicly. It’s difficult and painful to right wrongs. The minority gets the final vote on what’s offensive.
If I was one of the guys who designed that book and video, I’d be feeling crushed. So crushed, that I probably would have a hard time understanding how it feels to be a mocked ethnic minority. If I learned that a book I’d invested significant time and resources into offended a significant part of the population with its central motif, I’d probably have a hard time entering into a dialogue about it at first. However, if I was an ethnic minority, I’d probably have a hard time sleeping until the matter was resolved. I’m more concerned about the way we resolve future matters of racial insensitivity than in examining the minutiae of this current situation. This convinces me that white Christian leaders, writers, and whoever else can start by doing a few things: Seek the counsel of diverse perspectives that will surprise, challenge, and even unsettle us. In writing Coffeehouse Theology I sought out readers from a variety of backgrounds, regions, and denominations who made it a better book. I am continually surprised by my own limitations and need for Christians who see the world differently. Ask those in the minority to identify the problem and to suggest a solution. That’s something one of the men involved in this did that I think is worth emulating: he asked Professor Rah to outline a way to make things right. This of course may put those who have been wounded in a vulnerable position once again, and therefore we need to be careful that we don't make things worse when trying to work on a resolution.
Make “listening” our first response to critiques of racial insensitivity. The way some white Christians whined about the way Asian Christians handled this situation bordered on Pharisaic legalism that strains a gnat and swallows a camel. Saying that a critique of racial insensitivity fails to follow proper confrontational protocol and is therefore somehow invalid borders on the absurd. I think our critiques of one another have mixed results at times, but when people say, “You’ve hurt us!” We need to listen, rather than picking apart exactly how they expressed it. We can discuss the details of “critique protocol” down the line, but in the grand scheme of things, racial injustice and insensitivity are far more destructive for Christian community than a blog post that strikes some as angry or critical. Of course Professor Rah sounded angry and critical. He’d been deeply wounded! Failure to listen only creates a frustrating spiral of accusation and counter accusation that does no good for the body. The least those in the majority can do is listen. Insensitivity Can Crop up Elsewhere. The other elephant in the room here is the way Christians treat women, to say nothing of Asian women (which is something I’m only mentioning in passing because I don’t have the chops to address that one). If you now have some insight into the ways we can be offensive and patronizing toward Asians, then I don’t think it’s too far a stretch to apply these lessons to the ways that women are stereotyped, patronized, and mistreated in the Christian camp, especially by white males in leadership. The conversations we are having with our Asian brothers and sisters in Christ also need to happen with our sisters in Christ.
Becoming a Catalyst for Racial Reconciliation When we create divisions or cause offense along lines of racial or gender differences, we are in essence undoing part of Christ’s work. And if anything, I've learned that white American male Christians are very capable of offending those of another race without it being intentional or obvious. I think the same goes for the way white American male Christians treat women sometimes. The undetected, unintentional nature of this is enough to keep me up at night. Let’s be honest, there will be offenses made in the future. There may be some women or ethnic minorities who are smarting right now who perhaps don’t feel comfortable bringing up their grievances because they fear they’ll be met with further insults to stop whining, criticism that they’ve chosen the wrong path to conflict resolution, or that they’re simply misrepresenting those who offended them. From where I sit, I think our next step is to create dialogue channels, safe places for folks to go, and catalysts for reconciliation. We need folks in either the majority or in the minority who will commit to help others reach reconciliation with their offenders and to help offenders reach the point of repentance and forgiveness. Catalyst is a flashy word, but I don’t believe this is flashy work. This is hard, costly work, but I think I myself and others need to commit to doing this. This means committing to listen, to hold back on judgment, and to approach others in love.
If you feel that a part of the body of Christ is offending you, I’ll do what I can to hear you out, to help you take steps forward, and to even confront someone in love with you or on your behalf. Even if our reaching out crashes and burns, at least we’re not failing alone. I have no idea where this will take us, but I encourage you today to think of how you can become a catalyst for reconciliation, how you can right your wrongs, or how you can approach those who have wronged you. We can do this because Christ is working for this within us. We are moving in step with his Spirit in his Kingdom purpose for healing and unity. You can contact me at www.inamirrordimly.com if you want to talk about this. I'm not a conflict resolution specialist, but if you've been wounded by a fellow Christian, then I'm already involved. We're part of the same family. Better yet, do you know someone who needs your help dealing with racial discrimination or insensitive put downs? Perhaps God is opening a door for ministry among the people you know.
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About the Author
Ed Cyzewski (MDiv, Biblical Theological Seminary) is a freelance writer, speaker, and blogger who uses curiosity, a seminary degree, and bad puns to help his readers follow Jesus. He aims to make good theology accessible, interesting, and practical. An editorial team of house rabbits encourages him to continue writing books they can chew on. When not writing at home with his wife and rabbits, he enjoys speaking with young adults at missional congregations and serving with his church in his community. Ed is the author of Coffeehouse Theology: Reflecting on God in Everyday Life, The Coffeehouse Theology Bible Study Guide, and The Coffeehouse Theology Contemporary Issues Study Guide (NavPress, 2008) and A Path to Publishing: What I Learned by Publishing a Nonfiction Book (2010). His next book with practical thoughts on discipleship is due in the fall of 2012 with CLC. He is a contributor to The Holy Bible Mosaic NLT, and he publishes articles in a variety of magazines, gives seminars on theology and writing, and blogs regularly on Christian belief and practice at www.inamirrordimly.com and on writing at www.edcyz.com.
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