“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 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.