A scene from The Canterbury Psalter (12th century)

How to Learn from Other Kinds of Christians

The Student Ministry at my church (middle school and high school) has been studying John 13-17 for a few months. The Pastor of Student Ministry invited me to join their Wednesday night meeting to speak about Christian unity, with a special focus on how to think about all the different denominations that exist. I spoke for about 40 minutes before the whole group broke up into small groups for discussion. While I didn’t write up anything official, I did prepare some talking points and wanted to post them here. (Don’t expect much more than talking points, dear reader.)

Jesus prayed in John 17:20-23, asking the Father that those who believe in him would be unified: “that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you.” When we hear about being One just like the Father and Son are One, we should be excited. But not TOO excited, if you know what I mean. We shouldn’t think we’re going to be exactly as One as the Trinity: God is Oner (pronounced wonner), the Onest (pronounced wonnest). By God’s power, in answer to Jesus’ prayer, we are going to correspond to that Oneness.

Since Jesus prayed that prayer, it has been answered pretty impressively. Skip over the differences for a minute (I know, I know, we are trained to focus on them, but go along with me here for a minute) and just consider how many Christians there have been all around the world and all through time. Consider how much agreement there has been from the earliest times to now.

When I assign a book written in the year 150 by Irenaeus to my college freshmen, they are in danger of being bored by it because, wait for it… it teaches almost exactly the same thing they learned in Sunday school in the twenty-first century. Now that’s message control! And when Christians from far different cultures and places meet, even across language barriers, they find instant common ground in their shared faith. (Tell story of Brother Andrew the Bible smuggler communicating with Romanian believers without knowing Romanian.)

How One can we be? The measure of our unity in this passage is external witness. Watch the purpose clause in what Jesus says: “I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me.” There may be something deeper going on in our unity with other believers, but in this key passage, the goal is effective, united testimony to the world. We ought to have the goal of being united enough to testify.

Some people are deeply traditioned in one church, but some of us have personal histories that span multiple kinds of Christian communities. Personally, I am some kind of evangelical mutt, broadly at home in a number of settings. I was raise Pentecostal (Foursquare), got saved in a United Methodist youth revival, fellowshipped in Bible churches and community churches in the south, and a good PCUSA congregation in California, studied with Lutherans, Roman Catholics, and Eastern Orthodox academics before taking a job at Biola. Biola itself has an intentionally interdenominational “mere evangelical” heritage. And for 25 years I’ve been quite happy as a member of an EFCA church (tell story of EFCA).

There are lots of kinds of Christians out there. What should we think about them? How should we act toward them? If I could describe the basic attitude we ought to have toward other kinds of Christians, I would say we’re in the right zone when we can say: “I don’t want to fight you or turn into you. I want to learn from you.”

When I run into good Anglicans or Lutherans, and notice they do things funny, I picture them sort of the way hobbits might picture the elves, dwarves, Rohirrim, or whatever else they’ve got in the Lord of the Rings. Hobbits would look silly growing their hair out and riding warhorses. But it would also be ridiculous to try to talk the Riders of Rohan into living in holes and riding Bill the Pony instead. What’s great is when the occasion arises for these various groups, with their differences, to collaborate.

One of the biggest disappointments to me is when I assume a church is doing just fine being their own weird selves, and then discovering that actually they’re struggling. I prefer to think the Lutherans are holding the Lutheran line and thriving Lutheranly, and the same for the Southern Baptists, and so on.

Obviously when our differences are doctrinal, and they often are, I have good reasons, Biblical reasons, for holding the views I hold. In some of these cases, I think believers who believe otherwise believe a bit badly, and if I were in charge I’d have them accept my views for my reasons. But guess what? I’m not in charge. So I continue to practice the response, ” don’t want to become you or fight you,” but I’d like to see how you do the Christian thing a little differently, even over the boundary of a disagreement.

If you have trouble adopting this position, try for a moment to imagine what the church must look like from outside. Imagine you’re a non-Christian trying to avoid being influenced by any Christians whatsoever. Maybe you’re kind of a cool urban sophisticate with strong opinions about coffee roasting and cinema. You’ll probably find me easy to ignore: I’m a conservative evangelical without much fashion sense, who’s made it my business to be utterly predictable and easily edified by conventional forms. Sure I’m an artist and a professor, but once you’ve picked up on my rural-to-suburban lifepath, you’ll rightly imagine you’ve got me figured out and sorted. But I’m not the only kind of Christian out there. Behold as the same faith I have takes on strange new denominational and cultural forms, and while ignoring me you find yourself moving in the same circles as a Christian who vibes with your vibe. Boo! We’re everywhere.

Remember, however, that I’m only talking about how to think about other kinds of Christians. At the edges, there are people and churches that identify as Christians but who aren’t. Here’s an example I consider clear: I once picked up a hitchhiker who was eager to tell me all about the discipleship work he did with homeless young people, and how he was inspired by Jesus. He was excited for the second coming of Jesus, who –here’s the twist– was about to beam down from the mothership after having completed his tour of the milky way, this time with even greater technology than he brought the first time. It turns out this guy was saying the J-word but was not in fact my brother in Christ. He meant something completely different than I did when he used all my favorite words. So we weren’t having Christian fellowship; we were just sharing a ride. There are less clear cases than this, of course. But some churches are so liberal that they don’t mean Biblical things even when they use Biblical words. In those cases, it’s not appropriate to talk about being “different kinds of Christians.” I’m only talking about Christian Christians.

Most of us probably struggle more with the temptation to treat every difference of opinion as if it were nearly on the same scale. Baptists and Presbyterians have real disagreements about baptism, but they shouldn’t think of themselves as believers versus nonbelievers. [Illustrate with some easily acceptable minor differences, like the apocryphal First Baptist Church of Weekly Footwashing But We Start With the Left Foot Unlike Those Godforsaken Rightfooters Down The Road, etc.]

Conclusion: Look for opportunities to rejoice when you hear of other kinds of Christians thriving and being faithful; look for opportunities to agree publicly with other kinds of Christians so the world can know you are not competing franchises in the food court; look for ways to partner with other kinds of Christians in projects where you share the same goals; and when you move to a new place, look for the kind of Christians you have the most in common with, even if the town you move to doesn’t have exactly the same kind of church you had before you moved.

About This Blog

Fred Sanders is a theologian who tried to specialize in the doctrine of the Trinity, but found that everything in Christian life and thought is connected to the triune God.

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