Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Who is My Brother?

I was talking to my lovely wife this morning as we "read the news," which for us means both of us surfing the net (one on the desktop, one on the laptop). Our "news" includes several blogs we follow, and her blogroll includes several ladies who photo-blog about their families like she does. Many of these women are Mormons. This got us to talking about what some good friends who were Mormon said about us many years ago--we would make excellent Mormons (they intended it as a compliment, and we took it as such). Leaving aside the fact that I could neither swallow the theological differences nor would I give up coffee (in excess) and alcohol (in moderation), that got me to thinking about Christian fellowship.

Several years ago, I read a book by F. Lagard Smith called Who Is My Brother? which dealt very well with this topic. What Professor Smith said was that we tend to extend fellowship to our theological "right," but not to our "left." So, someone who is as strict as me or more so on theological issues is within my circle of fellowship, but someone who falls short of my (or my denomination's) standards is suspect. As an example--someone who has been baptized by sprinkling has no problem extending fellowship to a full-immersion guy like me, as I got even wetter. But for those of us who believe in all-over dunking, the fellow who just got a drop or two on the head as an infant may fall short of full fellowship. And at the extremely strict end, you reach groups (which includes not just some Churches of Christ, but also Roman Catholics, and even the Mormons) who may go so far as to say (or think to themselves) that the only "real" Christians are found only among their own group.

Smith approaches this from the perspective of the Churches of Christ, but anyone can do the same exercise. He sees fellowship as a series of concentric circles, all of which represent closer and closer levels of "brotherhood." The outermost circle is all human beings, made by God in His image. They are my brothers by virtue of being sons of Adam. A smaller circle inside that one is the circle of "seekers," that accept at least the possibility of a "higher power" or "universal values." They are closer to me than the moral relativists and atheists. Inside that circle is the theists. Inside that one is the monotheists. Even smaller is the "People of the Book" (Jews and Muslims, as well as Christians) who accept (in some fashion) the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Inside that circle are those who in some way call themselves Christians (including Mormons and others whose theology is not orthodox). An even smaller circle is orthodox Christians. Smaller than that is the circle of protestants, then fully-immersed "restoration movement" Christians, then the non-instrumental Churches of Christ, and then, finally, at the very center of the circle is my own personal "church family," my congregation with whom I choose to break bread. Smith calls that "table fellowship."

Obviously, different groups might name their circles differently--I can imagine a circle labled "Synod" or "Presbytery" or "Diocese" or "Parish." But it seems a really good system. My closest brothers are the members of my own congregation, under the discipline and leadership of my own elders, listening to the instruction of my preacher. And there may be (and are) other congregations of "my" church right across town that I recognize as being fully in the body of Christ, but which I couldn't attend as a member without chafing.

That brings me back to my Mormon cyber-friends. What about those who are a circle or two (or more) removed from what I am prepared to say unequivocally are on theological solid ground? We may each draw that line somewhere different (and I'm pretty "liberal" by CofC standards), but almost all of us who value orthodoxy would agree that there as some point where a line is crossed and one becomes a heretic. (Yes, "heretic" is a naughty word, connoting inquistions and burnings and crusades, but it also has a genuine dictionary definition, which is what I'm trying to use here.) As someone who counts Mormons, and Jews, and Catholics, and Episcopalians, and many others among those I love, what is the proper attitude to take toward our fellowship?

I think the best attitude I've been able to noodle out comes from St. Paul, in Romans 10:1-2. He writes: " Brethren, my heart's desire and my prayer to God for them is for their salvation. For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not in accordance with knowledge. (NASB)" Paul is writing specifically about Jews here, but I think the principle applies across the board. If I arrive in heaven and see someone there that I wouldn't expect based on my limited theological understanding, I should be happy that God's grace worked it out better than I could have. And I have faith in God that he'll be perfectly just as well as perfectly merciful. However, that does not remove my responsibility to work out my own salvation with fear and trembling, and doesn't give me an "anything goes" attitude. I can recognize that these "brothers" are in different circles without compromising either charity or orthodoxy.

But there's one more thing, and that's common cause in our lost world. Our culture is in the grips of a life-and-death struggle, and some of my staunchest allies in that fight are folks who may be in the outer circles of my fellowship. I recall what Winston Churchill said about his alliance with Stalin: "If Adolf Hitler were to invade Hell, I should find myself forced to ally with Satan." Likewise, if Satan and the forces of this world which he controls are on the march, I find myself quite willing to ally myself with those whose theology is outside my inner circle. So whether it is making common cause with my Catholic brothers on the issue of life, my Mormon brothers on traditional marriage and "family values," with South Carolina Episcopalians as they fight a rearguard effort against an assault on scripture from their own national denomination, or with Jews in Israel resisting radical Islam, I can gladly extend the hand of fellowship outside my immediate circle of table fellowship.

Anyway, that's my thinking this morning. Haven't posted anything too thought-provoking in a while. I wonder what my "brothers" (of all sorts) think?


Phil said...

I remember when this book came out and how Heretical it was considered by many within our tribe. Now, I think it's tame.

It's quite ironic that a group that was intended to reunite denomination divides by restoring the 1st Century church has become one of the more closed-minded denominations.

I'm all for extending hands in fellowship. It just makes me a little uncomfortable because of my sheltered CofC background. (Easy to say, hard to execute.)

Greg and Kim said...

(Greg here, not Kim)

I think that we could take the New Testament a little more literally and this problem could go away. What I mean by that is we could show more attention to passages where Jesus talks about loving and blessing those who persecute and curse us - or passages where Paul tells us to make it our life ambition to live at peace with all people and treat even evil people with love and kindness.

I feel like Jesus gave me permission to work with anyone in trying accomplish goals that Jesus would want accomplished in his name in Mark 9:39-40. So if I see another denomination working to feed the poor, or prevent divorce, or empower the oppressed, or anything else, I don't feel the need to solve doctrinal issues before jumping in to help.

bekster said...

Yes. Those of us who love God and who know that we have our salvation through Jesus Christ should be MUCH more accepting of each other, regardless of "denomination" or other man-made division. Even with the "non-orthodox," we can find SOME common ground, even if we don't agree on everything. We should always be loving and kind to everyone, even if we think they are wrong in some areas. Actually, they might be more prone to change their ideas if they see that our ideas produce such love and kindness in us. As it is, unfortunately, many of our ideas produce exactly the opposite results. If we have such pride about "knowing" that we're "right," maybe we need to reevaluate our hearts, and then I think our ideas may change by extension.

Pete said...

It's kinda cool that some of the coolest parables regarded the relationships between folks with obvious differences:

Among others:
The Self Righteous Pharisee and the Sinner
Lazarus & the Rich Man
The Good Samaritan

In the last parable, we see two people who would be at obvious odds. However, at times we are called to be more like the "outsiders." Consider Jesus call for us to make friends in this world... In Luke 16: 9, we're told to use our wealth and possessions to extend friendship to people of this world. Why? Easy, when it's all gone, we'll be able to be received into an eternity with friends.

Consider this: Sharing your dining room with your spouse is one thing. But sharing it with a single mother and her child as she goes through a hard time... well, that takes sacrifice. The obvious difference could be shown: Well, I got married before I had kids. But the Mercy pours out when we realize this person is also very hungry, cold or lonely.

Liquid's Tim Lucas used the phrase: "Extending spiritual friendship" to those with whom you have differences. I like that phrase. Not that you condone their actions; but you come to admit that the same grace needed to save them was needed to save you.

Thanks for sharing Larry. I almost always take away a nugget from your postings.

Greg & Kim said...

Hi Larry. This is Kim.
Thanks for the post. When I first read it, I considered Smith's theory and thought that I differed with him on the direction. Not in every case, of course, but in some. For instance, there are groups, even within our "brotherhood," who are way more conservative than I, but their seeming hatefulness and divisiveness is such that it pains me to be connected with them through the name that is on our church signs. On the other hand, there are community churches who are doing great things, and the biggest difference they have with us is that they happen to use instruments. In that case, I would go left with the whole fellowship thing.
But reading the other comments, I'm beginning to see that my real beef with Smith's proposal is that it defines fellowship in terms of doctrinal issues and not the love of Christ. Don't get me wrong; I have some bedrock doctrinal issues that seem non-negotiable based on my reading of the Bible. But the biggest one of all is the Greatest Commands. That, and not liberal or conservative doctrine, is my basis for understanding this "brother" question.

Greg & Kim said...

Rereading the post, I see that Smith was not necessarily advocating the "to the right" mentality, but the "concentric circles" philosophy. That makes me more sense to me.

Coach Sal said...

I think all of us (and by "us," I mean belivers in general, not just those in the Restoration tradition) have a certain point where our internal "theological weirdness alarm" goes off and we say to ourselves (even if we would never verbalize it), "THOSE people are not quite REAL Christians." You can espcially see it in the code that we CofC guys speak in; we'll say, "please pray for my brother-in-law; he's a believer." We choose the word "believer" over "Christian" to send the message that he's outside the circle that all of our listeners would definitely include in full fellowship, yet in one of the other circles.

I think that distinction, properly drawn, is both necessary and good. Words have meanings, and "Christian" has been devalued through sloppy usage to the point that some now apply it to people who do not even accept the divinity of Christ or the ressurection as fact. And I am not quite egotistical enough to suggest that I should be the final arbiter of where to draw that line for everyone--some in my group draw the line at full-immersion baptism. In some other groups, the line is drawn based on whether one receives the sacraments from a properly-consecrated priest.

I don't want to necessarily start a debate about the proper location of that "line." What I will say is this--I consider myself to be a Christian, and I don't hold any theological beliefs that I know to be in error (obviously, to continue to hold them would be sin). However, I'll bet there are a few errors in there , and I pray with confidence that God's grace is more than sufficient to cover my ignorance. I try to live in such a way as to presume as little as possible on that grace (Romans 6:1 comes to mind), but on my very best days I fall short. Assuming that another believer needs the same treatment for different errors and that God can handle it if He chooses seems a pretty low bar of charity.

Pete said...

2 things:
1. To your comment:
"'Christian' has been devalued through sloppy usage to the point that some now apply it to people who do not even accept the divinity of Christ or the ressurection as fact."
I whole heartedly agree. I prefer a new label to ruin: "Christ Follower." What is worse, there are those who do assert these facts that act out of spite, anger or self-righteousness... or at least not in a spirit of the Father's Love. I believe one of our defining attribute is that we love one another. Yet even within a denomination, we see divisions, quarrels, arguments & infighting.

2. Question: how's the running & bible reading going? I hope you and yours are doing extraordinarily well!