You’ve no doubt seen the bumper sticker that says, “I wasn’t born in Texas, but I got here as fast as I could!” Well, I wasn’t born into the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but I got here as fast as I could.
I often tell people that I ordered the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) from the Sears Roebuck Catalogue (I just dated myself, didn’t I?) Spiritually awakened and doing my own believing for the first time, I went looking for a spiritual home of my own. I visited the Methodists and the Mormons, the Pentecostals and the Presbyterians, the Catholics and the Congregationalists, the Baptists and Adventists, and I found something in all of these faith traditions that I valued, which only made my search that much more complicated. Spiritually, I began to understand that I was not going to be an “easy fit” anywhere. I wanted the activism of the Methodists, the cohesiveness of the Mormons, the fervor of the Pentecostals, the thoughtfulness of the Presbyterians, the tradition of the Catholics, the freedom of the Congregationalists, the focus of the Baptists and the hope of the Adventists.
I have a “both/and” rather than an “either/or” head and heart. I never finish preaching a sermon, writing an article or teaching a class when at the end of my carefully considered presentation I don’t instinctively want to say, “But, on the other hand.” This is not a lack of conviction on my part, but rather it is the recognition that there are intelligent people who are just as serious as I am about the matter at hand and who see things quite differently than I do. I am just not wired in a “my way or the highway” sort of way. Instead I want to stay in communion and conversation with them. I want to know why they think what they think and do what they do. I want to see what they see, how they see.
One of my life mottos since the first day I first accidently stumbled across it in a book in the stacks of the library at Northwest Christian College in Eugene, Oregon, in the early 10970’s is something that Balthasar Hubmaier (1480 – 1528), an Anabaptist Reformer, told his accusers when he was being tried for heresy –
These, brethren, are my opinions… which I have learned from the Holy Scriptures. But if there is any error in them, I pray and beseech you, by Jesus Christ our only Saviour, and the day of his last judgment, to condescend to set me right through the Holy Scriptures in a fraternal and Christian manner. I can err, for I am a man, but I cannot be a heretic, for I am willing to be taught better by anybody. And if anyone will teach me better, I acknowledge that I shall owe him great thanks; I will confess the error, and in accordance with the decision of the divine word I will gladly and willingly, with greatest obedience, submit myself to you and follow you most carefully, as followers of Christ. I have spoken. It is yours to judge me and set me right. I will pray Christ to give you his grace for this purpose.
And this perfectly expresses what’s in my head and heart. To be sure, I have my opinions which I have learned from the Holy Scriptures. I believe them deeply, and I try to preach and teach them just as boldly and clearly as I possibly can. But, I know that there are other ways of believing, and equally committed preachers who passionately proclaim what they’ve learned from their serious engagement with the Bible as well, conclusions which in some matters stand at wide variance with my own. I experienced this during my search for a spiritual home when I was a young Christian. As I sojourned among the Methodists and the Mormons, the Pentecostals and the Presbyterians, the Catholics and the Congregationalists, the Baptists and Adventists, I quickly came to two conclusions: (1) There were some defining issues and insights that were characteristic of each of the various churches I visited to which they were fully committed and about which they were very passionate, and (2) They don’t agree with each other about these things.
At the end of my quest I knew that I needed a church home that nurtured the passion of that first conclusion and the honesty of that second conclusion. Today they call what I went looking for 46 years ago “Generous Orthodoxy.” Back then all I knew was that what I was going to need in order to spiritually thrive was a faith community that was absolutely clear and crazy about Jesus Christ, who He is and what He’s done “for us and our salvation,” and that also honored the rich variety of ways that people have experienced and understood Him.
One of the most helpful resources I found in those days to help me navigate this journey “home” was Leo Rosten’s book Religions in America (Simon & Schuster – 1963). This was a collection of the famous “Look” magazine articles on the faiths, churches and denominations in the United States that were published over more than a decade. This book functioned as a spiritual Sears Roebuck catalogue for me. I’d read through the essays one after the other like a shopper eagerly searching for the perfect product to meet their needs, and it was when I got to James Craig’s essay on “Who are the Disciples of Christ?” that I caught my first glimpse of “home.”
It was this one line from that essay that captured my heart’s imagination –
There is nothing to prevent literalists and liberals from sitting down together around the Table of the Lord’s Supper, each responsible for his own belief and each serving God according to the dictates of his own conscience. (59)
That’s the kind of church that I went looking for 46 years ago, and that’s the kind of church that I still want to be part of today. But here, after 37 years of ordained ministry in this church family and approaching the end of my active stewardship of it, I am beginning to see just how fragile an ideal it is that I have given my life to.
A few years ago some of our denomination’s best and brightest leaders got together and after much prayerful consideration and careful conversation, issued this new version of our church’s Identity Statement –
We are Disciples of Christ, a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world. As part of the one body of Christ, we welcome all to the Lord’s Table as God has welcomed us.
I loved this way of thinking and talking about who we are as a church from the first minute I saw it. It took me right back to that moment long ago when as a young Christian I heard about a church where “literalists and liberals” could sit down together “around the Table of the Lord’s Supper, each responsible for his own belief and each serving God according to the dictates of his own conscience.” That’s a powerful vision of our unity in Christ, but one that I sense is at real risk today.
Maybe it’s always been like this, maybe there have always been forces at work to weaken the center of gravity of the Lord’s Table in our church where “we celebrate with thanksgiving the saving acts and presence of Christ.” But right now – both pastorally and personally – I am acutely aware of just how powerfully those opposite forces pull at our unity.
Paul told the Corinthians that he wasn’t going to know anything among them “but Christ and Him crucified” (I Corinthians 2:2), – Christ alone as the “wisdom” and the “power” of God (I Corinthians 1:24). But today, increasingly, I find that the standard has become Christ “plus” – Christ “plus” who you are voting for in the Presidential election; Christ “plus” what you think of the Obergefell v. Hodges Supreme Court Ruling; Christ “plus” a specific stand on any one of the many pressing social questions of the day. Elton Trueblood – one of my most trusted spiritual teachers liked to say – “Hold to Christ, and for the rest be totally uncommitted.” And despite my great affection for the one who said this, I find that I must respectfully disagree with what he said.
Beyond this being a sheer impossibility for anyone who is trying to live responsibly in a world of real issues demanding real decisions, I’m not sure that it’s even what we’re called to do as Christians. I find that it’s my holding to Christ that has forced a whole set of other commitments, in fact, I’m not sure how firm my hold on Christ would really be if it wasn’t decisively shaping who I vote for, and what I think about Obergefell v. Hodges, and where I stand on the pressing social questions of the day. I consciously draw conclusions from my commitment to Christ, what have been called “necessary inferences” in our interpretive tradition. But – and, if you ask me, this is the crucial issue for us as a church today – our inferences, while necessary, valid, inescapable, and passionate, must not be allowed to become terms of communion or made binding on the consciences of other Christians. So, here’s how I would restate that earlier quote –
Hold firm to Christ, and then fight to stay in community and conversation with everyone else who holds firm to Christ, especially when they draw inferences from their commitment to Christ that vary widely from the inferences that you have drawn from your commitment to Christ.
It’s certainly not as quotable as that earlier statement is, but I think it more accurately reflects what I believe must be the position of a community of faith that says it’s “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world” based singularly on the welcome that we all receive from God in Christ at the Lord’s Table. It’s not Christ “plus.” Christ “plus” is fragmenting. It’s just Christ – the way He loves and calls us all regardless of how we vote and what we think about this or that. Our wholeness is found in His welcome – and it’s at that table of our unity in Him that the important conversations can then begin without anyone feeling like they are going to be kicked out for who they, what they think, how they vote, because we’re there, all of us, every last one of us, by grace.