Saturday, March 9, 2013

need doctrinal counseling? join the club.

Five years ago, D. A. Carson critiqued H. Richard Niebuhr's classic typology of ways to relate Christ and culture. (For a PhD seminar this semester I've read Niebuhr along with primary sources that more or less illustrate his various categories.) Carson claims Niebuhr's categories are not mutually exclusive, and that no one model can stand on its own.
"[E]ven the most intellectually robust theory of how things work, or ought to work, falters in practice within a generation or two, because human beings falter: we overlook something, or we distort the balance of things, or, because this is a fallen and broken world, our well-intentioned actions invite a nasty reaction on the part of unbelievers, and the tension between Christ and culture spins off in some new direction." (D. A. Carson, Christ & Culture Revisited, 224–25, emphasis mine)

This is not just true of the "Christ and culture" question, but also of Christian theology in general. I've had a wonderfully diverse Christian experience, partly because Danny and I have moved 11 times in our 14 years of marriage. This has forced us to rethink "church" again, and again, and again. At times, it's been confusing.

I was baptized as an infant in the Christian Reformed Church, where our family stayed until I made public profession of faith at age 11. Not long afterwards, we left the CRC to join a vibrant charismatic community, where we experienced spiritual growth, healing, and a new appreciation for the work of the Holy Spirit and the love of Christian community. When that church disbanded, we helped start a non-denominational church. Unfortunately, that also ended badly, so we sought refuge in a Foursquare church. Four years later I headed off to a progressive dispensationalist Bible College, where my church attendance depended on available transportation: Baptist, non-denominational elder-led, and finally Mennonite, after I met and married Danny. We served first in the elder-led church, and then in the Mennonite church until we moved to the Philippines as missionaries, where we attended a non-denominational Tagalog-speaking and a charismatic English-speaking church. When we moved to Charlotte, NC, we attended an Evangelical Free church until a move across town brought us to Good Shepherd United Methodist Church, where we became members. We're currently attending a Baptist church during our sojourn in Wheaton, but we're still receiving financial support from our Mennonite sending church in Oregon, and our UMC church in Charlotte. Are you dizzy yet?

I am. Last week I scheduled an appointment for "doctrinal counseling" with one of my professors to try to find out how to keep the best parts of each of these church traditions without being theologically schizophrenic. I have a deep appreciation for certain aspects of each of the churches I have called home. Each has strengths and weaknesses, making it difficult to choose just one. My conversation with Dr. Treier was helpful in sorting through various doctrinal positions to see which can be fruitfully combined.

Reading Carson's book has also helped. His closing words urge us to listen to the whole witness of Scripture in our development of doctrine. He says,
"To pursue with a passion the robust and nourishing wholeness of biblical theology as the controlling matrix for our reflection on the relations between Christ and culture will, ironically, help us to be far more flexible than the inflexible grids that are often made to stand in the Bible's place. Scripture will mandate that we think holistically and subtly, wisely and penetratingly, under the Lordship of Christ — utterly dissatisfied with the anesthetic of culture. The complexity will mandate our service, without insisting that things turn out a certain way: we learn to trust and obey and leave the results to God, for we learn from both Scripture and history that sometimes faithfulness leads to awakening and reformation, sometimes to persecution and violence, and sometimes to both. Because creation gave us embodied existence, and because our ultimate hope is resurrection life in the new heaven and the new earth, we will understand that being reconciled to God and bowing to the Lordship of King Jesus cannot possibly be reduced to privatized religion or a form of ostensible spirituality abstracted from full-orbed bodily existence now." (227–28, emphasis mine)
Flexibility is a hallmark of the emerging generation, and it, too, can be a weakness if by flexible we mean spineless or infinitely "open." Truth matters, and so does our expression of that truth. But I'm glad that there is more than one way to "do church," and that we can all learn from one another. Our response to the truth of Scripture is not scripted in advance or limited by our cultural context. That's beautiful.


  1. I think that this kind of approach to truth, one that is flexible, believing that truth really does exist, and also that God is a revealer of truth (and of Himself), but also that as finite human beings we will never fully apprehend or comprehend it, allows me to appreciate other points of view, too. I really think that postmodernism, for example, is an important critique of modernism, makes some valid points, and although it can go too far in its inherent pessimism about communication, it's also not the bogeyman that it is sometimes described as.

    What does become difficult, again, in my opinion, is separating truth that is central and that which is peripheral. Beyond the gospel (1 Cor 15:3-10), there are things that I believe in passionately because they are bound up with my calling. However, I recognize that others have different callings and therefore different priorities. (Is it more important to disciple new believers or to work in homeless shelters? Or raise money to build wells in other countries? The answer is probably - yes. But I can't by myself do all three and I inevitably get more passionate about those thing to which God has called me.)

    So, what I've been wondering lately is, how do I walk with grace among those who disagree with some elements of doctrine & theology that I am passionate about, knowing that the reverse is also true--I am not passionate nor maybe even believe in some elements that others feel are foundational?

  2. Thanks for your thoughts, Laura. I think this question is right on target. It takes a lot of energy to look at things from another angle. I've had several poignant reminders lately that "what I see" is such a tiny part of the picture. I guess we have the rest of our lives to learn to listen well to others and have our vision expanded.