It’s a Big, Big Christian World

Reading my friend Beth Allison Barr’s response to 9Marks editor Jonathan Leeman this morning at The Anxious Bench, I found it hard to avoid her conclusion:

Complementarianism is a small world.

But Christianity is a big world, far more diverse, complicated, and interesting than what you’ll find in the center of the Venn diagram where the CBMW, TGC, and 9Marks circles overlap.

So how can we Christians enlarge our world?

Photo of Cristo Redentor in Rio de Janeiro – Creative Commons (Tobias Mayr)

Perhaps in response to the Leeman piece, pastor-author David Swanson wondered why he had “largely missed the deconstruction experience.” It’s certainly not that he’s unaware of the problems that have turned evangelicals into ex-vangelicals; Swanson’s new book is called Rediscipling the White Church: From Cheap Diversity to True Solidarity. But he recalled growing up “surrounded by a bunch of different expressions of Christianity: King James fundamentalists, Catholics, evangelicals, Indigenous people who lived the faith alongside sacred elements of their traditions, etc.” Swanson’s family was “of the Jesus-y expression of Christianity but I can’t recall any particular criticism of those who lived the Faith differently.”

Swanson hoped to provide a similar upbringing for his children, such that they are raised “with an innate understanding of the scope and complexity of the Faith. I hope they grow up with a strong center and open borders.”

That last metaphor alludes to the missiological idea of the church as a “centered set,” by which Christian community is defined less in terms of whether people stand on the right or wrong side of doctrinal lines and more in terms of their relationship to the person of Jesus Christ himself.

Not surprisingly, Leeman doesn’t think much of the “centered-set” idea. But his response to Beth illustrates how a “bounded set” starts small and tends to shrink. Precisely because it defines itself according to particular views on a range of matters on which Christians can and should dispute, that kind of Christianity constantly perceives threats along its borders (see Leeman’s warnings about “wolves”) and so is tempted to retreat behind even sharper lines that leave less and less room for people whose devotion to their Savior and Lord is not remotely in question.

By contrast, a Christianity with “a strong center and open borders” starts with Jesus and ends wherever his Gospel sends us. As I wrote in The Pietist Option, that kind of Christianity “takes the shape of an ever-widening circle of ever-deepening intimacy.”

Gehrz & Pattie, The Pietist Option

That was one lesson Mark Pattie (like Swanson, an Evangelical Covenant pastor) and I thought Pietism had to teach contemporary Christians. Having lived through the doctrinal disputes that made the Lutheran, Reformed, Catholic, and Anabaptist worlds of post-Reformation Europe so small, the first Pietists sought to refocus Christians on what they could share in common: the practices that let us experience the love of God and make our faith active in love of others. 

But no Christian church or tradition has a monopoly on how to experience or practice that love. So one way we make our Christian world larger is by finding ways to listen to and learn from each other.

Here I need to admit that not just my Christian tradition, but my Christian calling makes this easier for me than others. For example, having studied Pietism led to me being invited to participate in a year-long, online conversation with fellow Christians from eleven other traditions about the similar and different ways that we seek to follow Jesus. This month an Anabaptist challenged us to “put God’s realm first,” whatever the cost, not long after a Lutheran urged us to take seriously Luther’s call to “sin bravely,” knowing that we are still loved by God “as we are.”

More importantly, I get to listen and learn as part of embodied communities. Even if I didn’t attend a church that’s far more diverse, complicated, and interesting than the theological echo chamber I can find in Twitter feeds and online journals, I’ve spent virtually all of my working life within a Christ-centered learning community whose very mission (itself a legacy of Pietism) puts its members in contact and conversation with different Christians.

From my smallest circles at Bethel on outward, I daily experience the big world of Christianity. My closest friends include two historians who were raised Adventist and Catholic, plus a philosopher and political scientist who (coincidentally) came from the same tiny Mennonite denomination. As the circle expands to the rest of our department, we find a historian who grew up Dutch Reformed in Grand Rapids and a political scientist who grew up as a Christian missionary in West Africa; they’re now members of distinctly different Anglican communities. And our newest colleague is a philosopher who converted from Islam to Christianity, studied at an evangelical college, and is now Eastern Orthodox.

We disagree about religion, politics, and much else, but our shared love of Christ and commitment to his redemptive work in the world brought us to Bethel, where our common vocation calls us into classrooms where we encounter even more of that big Christian world: students who grew up in Bethel’s Baptist denomination, but also growing numbers of young Christians from Minnesota’s many Catholic and Lutheran congregations, plus Ethiopian, Hmong, Salvadorian, and other immigrant communities like those David has discussed in his census series.

When we’re together, my students and I listen to voices from earlier epochs and distant places. We study history, and our Christian world grows larger still. And there’s no reason that kind of listening can take place only in a college classroom — it’s available to all Christians willing to download a podcast, attend a talk, or read a book. Or maybe a blog.

One of the distinctive strengths of Beth’s particular contribution to the conversation about Christianity and gender is that she draws on her knowledge of the Middle Ages — finding unexpected insights in a past that seems impossibly distant to most 21st century Americans.

Not that it’s easy. More often than not, if we’re truly listening widely and carefully, those voices confuse us, making us wonder how sisters and brothers in Christ could have thought, felt, and acted as they did. After all, even the Christian past is a foreign country, where they did worship, theology, politics, family, and other things differently.

But those people are as much a part of the church as we are. In ways at least as important as the differences, they are similar to us.

Precisely because they’re both unlike and like us, those Christians can anger us, as they show us how the church can fall short — and how past sins reach into the present. But by the same token, their voices can convict us, asking us questions that we might rather avoid and suggesting answers we might never consider. And once in a while, their stories can inspire us, bearing enduring witness to a God who dried tears, healed wounds, and set the world to rights — and perhaps opening our eyes to how God is doing the same thing today.

Past, present, and future: there’s a big, big Christian world out there, and it’s far more diverse, complicated, and interesting than we might think, or fear.