A: Be “boundary focused”. . . ?
Two posts ago I examined the “boundary-focused” approach that many churches take towards outsiders—neighbours or newcomers—to their community. I argued that one reason they do so is in order best to estimate (and so imitate) what Jesus would have done in a similar situation, as the evangelical catch phrase “What would Jesus do?” (WWJD). I then offered a number reasons why I find this approach to be problematic.
This post examines another, rather darker reason for adopting a “boundary-focused” approach.
My explanation begins by noting how a boundary-focused approach is inherently ready to assume a defensive posture. I see two reasons for this. First, because Christianity has something valuable to defend (its identity and values). Second, because Christians have someone to defend their values and identity against.
Now obviously Christians believe that their identity and values—the power of the gospel and the truth of the Bible—are worth defending. But shouldn’t Christians also expect that these things will be attacked? Indeed, the Bible explains that Jesus and his message are a “stumbling block” and “foolishness” to unbelievers (1 Cor 1:22-23, 1 Pet 2:7-8), who are blind to the truth of the gospel (2 Cor 4:4) or even wilfully resist it (John 3:20-21). So Christians must be ready to defend their beliefs (1 Pet 3:15). Further, because unbelievers are enemies of God (Rom 5:10) the Bible also naturally prepares Christians to be hated or reviled on account of Jesus (Mt 5:11, Lk 6:22, Jn 7:7) and to be persecuted for serving God obediently (Mt 10:22-23, Lk 21:12).
The implication: Christians should expect non-Christians to be offended by Christianity and so to oppose God (and consequentially, to oppose them).
No doubt this happens. However, I have two concerns with this orientation. First, in my experience many Christians are so over-prepared for opposition by non-Christians that they often mistake disagreements for challenges and differences of opinion for invitations to debate. In other words, their expectations can distort external reality. Second (and here is the darker notion that I mentioned above), while it is difficult having to defend one’s faith it is even more difficult not needing to do so. In this case, my view is that Christian expectations can actually falsify external reality.
Let me break this down.
The widespread, biblical focus on defending one’s faith / being persecuted for Jesus’ sake naturally results in the understanding that Christian faith is precious and valuable (because it concerns things of ultimate and eternal importance). Thus the greatest affront to such a position is not attack but apathy: the reality that, more and more, outsiders sees Christianity not as something to be defeated or disbelieved but to be disregarded, because it is pointless and irrelevant.
Think of it like this: opposition de facto affirms that the matter at hand is important. In other words, pro-choice and pro-life advocates both agree that abortion has a truth that is worth fighting for, although they disagree on what that truth is. Disregard conveys an very different message. It amounts not to a counter-claim but to a dismissal of any claim because the matter at hand is either already decided or not worth deciding in the first place.
So it denies the claim that Christianity is important enough to defend because it disregards the ideas that it stands for (such as truth), the questions that it answers (such as the nature of human beings), and very understanding of the world that it presupposes. Yet because disregard communicates this by “refusing to engage” it actually deprives Christians of a much needed commodity: opposition. For, as in game theory, opposition partially functions to validate the importance of one’s goals (in this case, the goal of validating Christian identity and values by defending them)!
So excessive expectations of opposition may lead Christians to exaggerate the divergent opinions / disagreement of non-Christians into opposition. However, “disregard” may prompt Christians to do still more (and worse). For if opposition functions both i) to ratify the value claims that Christians make about their beliefs and ii) to give Christians a outlet to demonstrate their obedience (because obedience both generates opposition and responds to it), then Christians not only expect opposition but they need it.
So what do Christians do when there is no opposition?
Sometimes . . . they fabricate it.
A common way that they do so is by viewing non-Christians according to Christian categories. For example, when Christians say: “Non-Christians are hiding from God,” or re-interpret what non-Christians say and do as either demonstrating or concealing their need for God. Yet how can one be hiding from what one does not believe exists, and how can one need what one thinks is irrelevant?
In one way the difference between my first and second concerns amounts to movement along a continuum of false perception from slight exaggeration to, perhaps, complete fabrication. Yet in another way the detachment from reality required to misperceive personal concern (i.e., my neighbour’s concern for her child or an employee’s concern for his job) as opposition to my faith is vastly different from fabricating someone’s disregard and disengagement from the ideals and presuppositions of my faith (as with sexual monogamy or creation) into “opposition.”
Indeed, such fictionalizing is a practical example of being under the sway of an ideology or false consciousness: a (self-protective) view of the world that dictates perceptions rather than being informed by them—the claim that a reality exists when there is none.
The upshot of failing to take others “at face value” is that Christians likewise fail to grant them the dignity of being their own persons with beliefs, experiences, and understandings different from my own. It amounts to treating them like objects, when the God of the Bible quite clearly sees them (and loves them) as subjects.