Theory over Practice? Part II

When it comes to dealing with everyday situations—whether seeking or giving advice—my aim is to meet the goals effectively, provided that this is done in a way that seems both ethical and possible.

So I value “what works,” providing that the solution seems like it would be feasible to carry out and affords good treatment to all parties. The tricky part is that, for Christians, there are actually two sets of rules, depending on the situation: a) the normal, everyday rules and b) the Christian rules. And further, that these rules have contradictory aims and boundaries.

Here’s what I mean:

Let’s pretend that I am a parent who needs to sort out a dispute between my child and another. Let’s also pretend that the other parent is involved and also wants to sort this out. So the four of us sit down to discuss the matter.

In an everyday situation my overall goals will depend on certain criteria. So if the other child is my child’s friend (and I have no immediate concerns with how they treat each other or the sort of activities that they tend to engage in) then I will aim to patch up the friendship. I will broker discussion, assuage the other parent’s potential concerns, and look for options that allow the relationship to be mended and the friendship to resume. Or if it seems like one child has mistreated the other then I will aim to suggest appropriate boundaries and work with the other parent to implement limits to access and behaviour.

In any case, a key factor to a successful outcome is all parties sharing roughly the same goals.

Thus where they are effective, solutions to everyday situations tend to have shared goals and be marked by a collaborative approach that values all participants (ethics) and can count on all parties to assure the decided outcome (feasibility).

What happens though, in the same setting, if I am a Christian and the issues at hand have a particular bearing on my Christian beliefs? My experience is that, for many Christians, this changes matters significantly. So let’s take the above situation and instead pretend my child’s friend has been telling him or her that the earth was not created in six days but in 4 billion years. They have had a few discussions about it and have been looking at some science books on the subject. My child is not feeling bullied or mistreated but is confused and has sometimes seemed upset.

This new situation does not simply represent a challenging conversation that, like the last one, I may be unaccustomed (and so unskilled) at having. Instead it represents subject matter that my church upbringing has trained me not to discuss but to debate.  In other words, where I was previously prepared to dialogue—however awkward—I have instead been prepared to dispute.

And that changes everything.

Don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that churches train Christians to debate with those who do not share their views. In fact, churches (and even seminaries) typically offer no communication training at all, other than basic apologetics. Instead my point is that based on how they engage with “outsiders,” whether Christian or not, our churches model certain types of interaction.  A popular one is the “boundary-focused” approach.

Boundary-focused engagement has two goals.

First, to categorize neighbours and newcomers as either insiders or outsiders, in order to know how best to interact with them. Second to foster and, if necessary, protect the people and values of the community. Being boundary-focused is a way of managing the complexity faced by communities that seeks membership from outsiders while still wishing to preserve their identity.

Managing this complexity means being attentive to who is in the community, who enters or exits the community, and why.  So this approach acts as a manner of “gate-keeping” that is very effective at preserving minimum standards of behaviour and interaction, as well as defending against potential threats. This approach values membership in the Christian community and uses membership information as the basis for how to communicate, what expectations and “rules of engagement” to set (and with whom), and simply how much to trust the various parties in or near the community.  It also implies that mismanaging this membership can be problematic and even dangerous.

Next post I examine how such an orientation might effect our parenting example, above.

Truth-seeking & outsiders


I don’t believe Jesus came to save us from our sins.”

In a room full of Evangelicals, you could imagine the reaction!  How could the leader of a Christian study centre possibly say that?  What could his strange words mean?

“Strange” words can indicate that someone is an outsider—a stranger to our way of thinking and viewing the world.  For evangelical Christians, strangers come in two general types: those who have different belief sets (non-Christians) and those who call themselves Christians but who read (and understand) the Bible in very different ways from Evangelicals.

Recently I discussed how, in a small town, belief sets play a key role in defining group membership—they are more about facilitating bonding between people than getting ideas “right.”  By corollary, in these contexts conformity is prized over diversity and intellectual complacency (rather than critical investigation) is the norm.

In such a context divergent beliefs or openness to questioning status quo beliefs—being unwilling to “check your brain at the door”—creates discomfort and suspicion.  To be accepted in such churches one must either share a bounded set of common beliefs or be willing to acquire them.  Otherwise, one is different: an outsider.  And at best, outsiders don’t belong.

The irony, of course, is that welcoming strangers is a Biblical norm, and Jesus self-identifies with the stranger (Matt 25:40).

Now Evangelicals may object: surely they accommodate many who are different.

They accommodate physical differences, for example, by creating special access and seating for wheel chairs.  Likewise they accommodate intellectually differences (e.g., developmental challenges), perhaps by special classes and teaching.

However, for evangelical Christians to “accommodate” those who are ideologically different (non-Christians) or methodologically different (like liberal Christians, who read and understand the Bible differently from Evangelicals) would amount betraying their Christian beliefs, which Christians cannot do.

The error in such thinking is failing to see that accommodating a viewpoint need not mean accepting it.  For if Evangelicals agree with Augustine that “all truth is God’s truth” then they need not fear truth, wherever it may be found.  Last and most importantly, as those called to love their neighbour “as themselves,” this includes respecting (if not always adopting) her ideas and texts as much as our own.

So how does this work?

Just as Evangelicals have empathy for physical differences and compassion for intellectual differences, so they need openness for ideological or methodological differences.  So “accommodation” for such differences amounts to dialogue which, unlike dispute, does not seek for the weaknesses in what is said, but for its real strength.

True dialogue is thus truth-seeking, and the openness that it requires is self-awareness: understanding that I know in part, but not in full.  Thus dialogue requires both: an openness to listen, a willingness to critique.

If my assessment is accurate it’s easy to see why most Evangelicals have no real interaction with ideologically or methodologically outsiders.

For where churches prize acceptance there is no real dialogue, for dialogue on contentious issues promotes conflict.  The result is that when it comes to ideas the church is not a place of reciprocity and openness, but of receiving and conforming.

Rejecting dialogue causes two misfortunes.

First, it forces newcomers to divest themselves of their identity in order to acquire some supposed, uniform Christian identity (as though being “in Christ” [Gal 3] is about personality as opposed to being about character and relationship).  Second, it serves to reinforce the church’s insularity as a “tribe”—keeping existing tribesmen untainted and unthreatened by anything that from outside.


Jesus didn’t come to save us from our sins.”

No, he didn’t.

Matt 3:2 and 4:17, Mk 1:14-15, and Lk 4:43 all prove it.  Jesus came to inaugurate the Kingdom of God, which includes me (and my need to be delivered from the harmful patterns and negative consequences of so many of my orientations—my need to be in right relationship with God) but is neither mine nor primarily about me.  The difference is subtle, but the impact is crucial.  Thankfully for those that heard this comment, a healthy dialogue ensued.