I vividly remember having a conversation with someone about views of salvation. At first, we agreed on the main points of the Gospel. We talked about Jesus, God’s love for humanity, the cross, the resurrection, and the expectation that Christ will return. The conversation started well, but then it turned on its head. The person said that when Jesus returns, he’s going to be condemning people left and right, passing judgment on every person, and delighting in sending people to hell because those hell-bound folks will finally receive what’s coming to them.
I was shocked. At first I didn’t know what to say. When I finally did respond, all I could manage was, “That doesn’t sound like the Jesus I know.” But, what was more shocking to me than the idea of a vengeful Jesus delighting in the suffering of others was the response I got to what I said. “Well, if you don’t believe it will happen like that, you must not really be a Christian at all.”
Seriously? We agree on the points of the Gospel. We agree that Jesus is the Way. We are united when we talk about the cross. We disagree on what the second coming might look like. I wasn’t even arguing that there wasn’t a second coming. I wasn’t arguing that there will be no judgment. I was arguing about Jesus’ demeanor, which is totally up to speculation, and suddenly I’m not a Christian anymore.
The response hurt. It cut me to the quick. I felt like someone had socked me in the gut, and I couldn’t breathe. It was like that moment when you fall hard on your back and can’t take any air in for a moment. I was shocked, hurt, and sad. But, I was also angry.
Some days it seems like we have lost the ability to listen to each other and actually hear what is being said. We don’t listen to understand; we listen ready to pounce. We don’t have conversations; we are trying to defeat each other with our words. But, what is most disturbing to me in this particular instance is how quickly we are ready to determine someone else isn’t a true Christian. Do we really believe that the unique brand of Christianity we may subscribe to is perfect? Do we believe that our own personal theology is as weighty as Scripture? Do we honestly think that we (and everyone who agrees with us) are the only people in this world who have it right?
When we disagree, we have to be careful not to throw out someone’s Christianity with the bathwater. Here are just a few reasons why:
1. We are all theological “works-in-progress.” If we are learning and growing in our understanding of faith every day, we shouldn’t look the same at the end of our lives as we do at the beginning. We are growing, changing, learning, being stretched, realizing we were wrong about some things, and trying again.
2. Because we are all works-in-progress, there’s a good chance that at some point in our lives, some belief of ours may change, and we’ll find ourselves eating our words. As I have gone back through papers I wrote on theology and Christian belief in college, I can see exactly how much my views have changed over the last fifteen years. The contrast would be even starker if I looked at my theology and practice from my high school years. When I look back on my theological journey to this point, I don’t regret the beliefs I used to hold as much as I regret the damage I inflicted on others with those beliefs. When I think about the way some of those beliefs led me to behave, I feel guilty, and greatly humbled. The truth is, if we’re growing and changing, we’ll all probably change our minds on something we believe over the course of our lives, whether that particular belief is big or small. This indicates to me a tremendous need to deal with each other gracefully.
3. When we decide someone is no longer a Christian, we are pretty much guaranteeing a break in our relationship together. If someone we know believes she is a Christian, and we tell her we don’t think she is, chances are, that isn’t going to go over very well. It would be very hard for me to maintain a close relationship with someone who would so quickly decide that I’ve “lost my salvation.” “Well, you aren’t a Christian anymore,” is a battle cry that draws lines in the sand and ostracizes us from each other. If a relationship means enough to us, I would hope we would care to maintain it. Of course, if we care for someone, we should express concern about beliefs that are troubling to us, but we need to use extreme caution before throwing out someone’s Christianity – if we should ever throw it out at all. I’m inclined to think that level of judgment is for God alone.
4. Not everything is a “gospel issue.” If someone denied that Jesus died on the cross for the sins of the whole world, that would obviously be problematic. Is it equally as problematic if someone’s church changes the colors on the pulpit for the liturgical season, whereas another person’s does not? I would say no. Is the style of music or worship a “gospel issue?” Again, I would say no. Are the mode of baptism, the style of preaching, the frequency of communion, the inner workings of someone’s musings on issues the Bible doesn’t address “gospel issues” that determine the validity of someone’s Christianity? Nearly all of the time, I would say no. Just because we’re passionate about something doesn’t make it the litmus test of someone’s salvation. So, we need to sort through it carefully. So much of Christian belief and thought is adiaphora, or something that is debatable and not of critical importance. We need to be very careful not to turn something that is adiaphora into a “gospel issue.”
My hope is that when we come to places of disagreement, we won’t be so quick to throw out our neighbor’s Christianity with the bathwater. Instead, let’s show grace and love. We’re all fumbling along in life as we try to figure things out, and by the grace of God, we always get where we need to go. But, as I walk along the journey, my hope is that I will have good company along the way – not always company with whom I am in 100% agreement, but company with whom I am united by the God we serve.