The other day, I had a conversation with a group of Christians, a group I am coming to know fairly well; this is a regular thing. Many of them grew up in another church tradition, one that has its roots in the same tradition as the one I’ve been involved with for many years, but that took a slightly different road, beginning about 150 years ago. That isn’t the troubling part, for we have much more in common than we have differences. What’s troubling to me is what lies hidden in the little details, the things that aren’t obvious at first.
I’ve been struggling with a couple of things here, first and foremost being what these wonderful Christian people were talking about, and the second being whether or not I should share this with you, and the third being just how to describe it to you. I think I’m pretty clear that I should share it with you, particularly since I’m posting some thoughts this week about interpretation, beginning with yesterday’s podcast. This story is about what happens when interpretation within a group goes south, way south. The fourth, and most important part of my little struggle with this is that I don’t want to give the wrong impression about these folks; I am not telling you this to criticize them, I’m telling you this because I am grieved for them. These are wonderful Christian people, and I mean that sincerely. They do amazing things for others, they earnestly follow Jesus Christ and try very hard to lead lives that are pleasing in His sight while they endure struggles with the things they were taught, even though they have come to realize that some of them aren’t quite right. The whole thing saddens me greatly, and I can’t stop thinking about it.
One of the things they spoke of was that in growing up within this group, they learned that they were the only real Christians; everyone outside of their (rather small) “denomination” was simply wrong. Note, they would disapprove of my use of the word “denomination.” The main reason that everyone else is wrong, is because this particular group is the only one that “does church” the right way. If you don’t “do church” the way they do, your salvation is entirely hanging in the balance and probably lost for good.
This idea of how we “do church” as I found, means things like the order of worship. What you do in a worship service is confined to a certain specific list, and must be done in a particular order. There is only one style of music that can be sung in worship. There is one way in which communion can be served, one kind of seating that is permissible… that sort of thing. These things cannot be changed, and if you try to change any of them, you will lose your salvation if you do not promptly repent.The particular congregation in which these people worship has made a change recently, and a significant percentage of the long-term members left.
If you are wondering at this point if this is a joke, please be assured that it is NO JOKE!
The most troubling part of this conversation was actually a request for prayer. One of the people in this conversation asked that we pray for a family member who is having marital problems. The main rub is that this family member is a pastor in this denomination. We were asked to pray for the couple, that they could resolve their problems… and that nobody in the church finds out about the problem, for if they did, the pastor would be fired; it seems that a pastor with marital problems isn’t “doing church” right.
What happened to the church being a place of healing, love and grace?
No, the church is a place where you “do church” right, where you follow the rules, have the Scripture reading before the offering, sit on pews without pads and pray for the sick right before the sermon and never right after. Church is where it is more important to avoid a mother’s day or father’s day sermon, and to never pur a Christmas wreath on the door, than it is to bring healing to a brother or sister who is hurting. No, doing church the right way requires that we finish off a wounded brother, put him out of his misery, not bring him the grace and love of Jesus Christ.
I want to be angry… but so far, the best I can do is to be profoundly sad.
Do you know what is truly and stunningly amazing in this? This particular group comes from a theological tradition based upon Christian unity and freedom in Christ. They later added one false premise to this theology, and this is where evolution from that one false presupposition took them.