Dear Reader… Deconstructing Religion – Moving Beyond "in" & "out"

Dear Reader…

Growing up, I was taught that there are certain ‘things’ that a person has to do to earn favor with God. Don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t watch certain movies… don’t! In other words, a large part of Christian discipleship was focused on the negation of ‘things’ rather than the freedom that comes from being released from the captivity of religion. The great “don’t” that my Christian community focused on when I was giving my life back to Jesus as a teenager was secular music. Now, I do have to say that forsaking secular music was a good thing for me at the time because it allowed me to set my mind on “things above.” However, eventually I started looking at my other friends musical genre choices and it became easy to cast secret stones of judgment. The negation had led to a religious mentality of picking who was “in” and who was “out.” This is because I chose an overall perspective of faith that is described in Religious No More, (by Mark Baker) that is called a “Bounded Group.” I drew an image like this in my book as I read this section…

There are several things to point out about this first image.  Notice that there is a clear wall that has been built to contain those who are “in” and to exclude those who are “out.”  The space between the dividing wall is where religious ideals are, and for many people this is where God dwells.  God is held captive within the walls of religion and as long as we stay inside these walls (remember: “Don’ts”), then we are part of the elite “in” group.  In this view, everything we do must be focused on how to protect the “wall” that has boxed religion/God in, so that we have security in our categories.

This Bounded Group mentality is what is at the core of the religious right politics concerning issues of homosexuality.  The boundary wall approach, plus a traditional reading of the 6 or so relevant texts, creates a clear way of knowing who is “in” (heterosexuals) and who is “out” (gays).  This brings much security and stability to people who want to know what behaviors constitute Christian discourse.  The problem here is, even for those of us who hold to a “traditional” view of homosexuality, it leaves no room for people who may be hermaphrodites or gays who are attempting to be celibate.  This view would say that homosexuality does not fit into the walls of our religion or definition of God, and therefore they are all part of the “out” group.  This does not allow for ambiguity of personal circumstances.  This is why I like the approach that is demonstrated by another image I doodled in my book: Centered Group approach…

This approach is all about one’s orientation (no pun intended) towards that which is in the center… God.  Each arrow represents a person who is on a spiritual journey.  If they are moving relationally toward God in Christ, then the arrow points in the direction their God-quest is on.  Each arrow has traveled a different distance in relationship to the center, and no one (in this life) has fully arrived at knowing the vastness of God.  Some arrows are pointing away from God because they have chosen a path that leads the opposite direction.  So, in the case of homosexuality and the church, this approach leaves room for those who may be wrestling with how their sexual and spiritual identity interconnect.  If their eyes are “fixed on Jesus” (Hebrews 12), then they are part of the “in” group.  (Please do not read this statement as an “argument” for a more progressive reading of the relevant texts [because that is not the point of this post at all], but rather as something even the conservative reading ought to be wrestling with).  This is based fully on relationship and NOT on religious practices!

Now here is the HUGE caution that must be mentioned: is there a danger that the centered approach does not define boundaries or that it can become an “anything goes” approach?  Well, here is what I have been thinking about.  If this is truly a relationally centered approach, then does is it not follow that out of that relationship our Christian ethics will naturally flow?  Isn’t this the pattern we see played out in the book of Acts, especially regarding the Gentiles.  They had to tear down old ‘religious’ ideals because their orientation towards God through the Holy Spirit was telling them to do so.  This completely differed from their traditions and the Law of Moses, but their common center was moving them toward a new ethic.  So, the more I am centered on Christ, the more that relationship is going to create a natural discernment process to know what actually moves people towards the center (God), and what turns them in the opposite direction.

So much more I could say, but I want to limit the length of this letter so I will make a brief final thought.  We looked at Luke 15, and the part of the story that griped my attention was the end that deals with whether or not the older brother will actually go into the party.  Now, this is interesting if we observe that the religious leaders (bounded group mentality) were being paralleled to this older brother.  Jesus ends the story without concluding what the big brother will choose to do.  In other words, Jesus leaves the “ball in their court” and expects that the Pharisees will choose to finish the story by either entering the metaphorical party or staying outside… and thus, they may choose to be the “out” group.  This is a message that I need to hear, because sometimes my judgment mechanism is triggered and I need a reminder that the party is open to anyone, and centered on a relationship with the Father.  All other things will fall into place in the Spirit’s timetable.

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  • Ray Sanchez

    This is matter of fact, for your provable “in” and “out” skeem of things. G-d, our lord has made the rules, “commandments”. not man, we can only act like the almighty, with our though’s of people. we can not forget that, he is not a respector of men, jesus paid in full our sins, and the lord put our judgement in his hands. Will he contradict his word? Never in the bible does he do that. From the old, to the new it’s the same message. We can love anyone, and accept anyone we want. We are not god, we are here to love one another as ourself, and spread the glory of the lord, through out the world. We need each other, as the community of christ, we all draw lines in the sand especially, when it comes to the poor. compassion is good for us and the world. god bless.

  • Amazing. Amazing because I’m the first to post – I’m never the first (I bet someone will get one in before I finish writing). Well not really. Amazing because this expresses perfectly where I’ve been heading lately. Many beliefs that I’ve received over the years are sitting very uncomfortably and I’m having difficulty pinning down the whys and the wherefors. I’m even having difficulties with the idea that we are somehow elite because Christ has seated us in the heavenly realms. There’s something wrong about us somehow having a seat with our name on like the church of past centuries – it feels wrong saying Christ has done it, now I’ve got it.

    I’m coming to a place where I feel totally secure because of God’s amazing love and endless patience and because he’s got hold of me he’ll never let me go. Its not a security of position its a security of relationship, knowing someone who will never take offence at me and will go to the end of the universe to find good in me. It brings the lost into our sphere and gives us common ground. We become slaves with the promise of adoption not spoilt children saying “my dad’s better than yours”. It gives me so much freedom even though I have abandoned my own quest which takes me wide of the centre.

    I had a thought today that would probably get me stoned by the right wing church. I know that Jesus says that some will say Lord, Lord but he will say “I never knew you”. “I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was in prison and you did not visit me.” I was thinking of the homosexual issue and I am still of the opinion that it is somehow a distortion of what God intended but I feel I can faithfully paraphrase what Jesus said in the light of the right wing homophobia and add “I was gay and you could not look at me”. If that cannot be said then surely gays are damned and my faith is impoverished.

    I don’t for one second think that Jesus was anything other than a full blooded heterosexual (this in itself is a huge talking point) but his love and compassion knows no boundaries.

    • Well, Chris, your prophecy came true. I guess Jesus’ words “the first shall be last” apply to your lot here 🙂

      Beyond that, great reflection! Your “I was gay and you could not look at me” may stretch some imaginations a bit far, but sometimes that is needed to get the point across.

      Thanks again!

  • Richard Wendt

    Kurt great post and a great summary of the differences between a bounded theology and a center focused theology. I like you grew up always looking towards the boundaries of what my denomination stated was “in”.
    Now that I look towards the center I live a much freer life than ever before.

  • Yes Kurt, I am in agreement with Richard and yet (grrr…) I still gravitate toward boundaries. After all, in your second diagram doesn’t that dotted line represent a boundary of sorts. You could simply remove that dotted line to symbolize the move to and away from God but then there is no definite “in” or “out” (better terminology may be, who is a member of the covenant family and who is not).

    The one comment you made that is key to me is: “If they are moving relationally toward God in Christ“, with emphasis on “in Christ”, i.e., in the family of God, in the covenant, in Israel etc… If there is such a thing as being “in” Christ then there must be such a thing as being “out” of Christ and therefore there must be boundaries. But then we get into the mess of having to wrestle through what those boundaries are.

    Frankly I agree with you (by and Roger Olson, you uses a very similar concept when describing the Boundary-less movement of Evangelicalism because it is a movement). If Christianity is a movement and not an organization, then it is help together by common core characteristic traits rather then boundaries.

    What a wrestle.

    • Derek, great observations first, about the dotted line; second, about covenant theology.

      1) The dotted line simply should be seen as representing life itself. Beyond the dotted line is death… from whence there is no return at all… well, unless you are a covenant member and experience RESURRECTION that is. But Resurrection itself is sourced from the center. either way… every good illustration will break down at some point 🙂

      2) Agree 10000000000% that covenant family of God works here too. Frankly, that is in the back of my mind, but not all of my readers think about covenant theology when reflecting on these issues. “in and out” is the language that is popularly known and where many non theologian conversations seem to head… so I went with the natural kind of jargon 🙂 Language I use with most of my friends.

      Finally, I too say grrrrrr because boundaries are some much part of my nature. May the Spirit help us to discern the walls we make and tear them down!

  • Michelle

    To God, we are all sheep. We all eat, poop and fall in holes. Thanks be to God for being the good Shepherd. If we are not following Him, it’s likely we are following each other and of course that’s likely to end with a herd of sheep jumping off a cliff. It is amazing how these simple truths get lost as we step on our neighbor in order to justify ourselves.

  • Good Work Kurt

    I like Bakers ideas although it needs pointing out that they seem to be largely based on earlier work by Amiel Osmaston. She was offering a model for Anglican ministry in rural settings.

    Here are a few thoughts:

    1. The in out issue stems from our view of the process of salvation. We have been presented with a conflicting picture. On the one hand it is given as the moment when we have consciousness of sin and respond via repentance. On the other we are conditioned to accept certain behaviour is the signal that this has taken place. Both of these views (however valuable they might be) lend themselves to seeing salvation as a transaction rather than an announcement of grace.

    2. From this church communities conclude that the transaction is event/moment confined rather than a journey. I often think of the journey Zacchaeus. At what moment was he saved/safe with God. On his way to see the new Messiah? ( this act could denote a moment of repentance). When he climbed the tree? When he encountered Jesus? When he came down from the tree? When he decided to rectify for his fraudulent behaviour?

    My point here is that none of it easily falls into an easily worked out soteriology. Every moment was important.

    So it is with those that come into our communities looking for God. There is always a journey. We are pilgrims and not tourists.

    • This was very well said Alan! I love the image of being “pilgrims and not tourists.” The journey matters as much as the ‘moment’ and the moments after probably matter just as much as the first moment. Anyway, liking your thoughts on Zacchaeus!

  • Bowdenfan

    I like that

    we are pilgrims and not tourists.

    The “in and out” game has been played for centuries with the church. Then again I view that as a church issue and not a God issue. I don’t think God’s intention was to exclude anyone or anything or he wouldn’t have sent Jesus to hang with all the sinners.

  • Leo

    I want to agree with this. I want SO MUCH to agree with this. this touches on a major theme of Rob Bell, with whom I identify more, theologically, than anyone else I’ve encountered, but there is no getting around a very important issue: “Saints” there are saints, and then there are not saints, by the very definition. The word is hagios, and it comes from the idea of being sacred, or set apart. in the ancient mind, this was primarily a concern OF BOUNDARIES.

    On the other hand, the simple “Christian-ness” of this view is so attractive, I want to find some way to explain away the point about the fact that we are saints concerned with holiness. Can I de-emphasize it somehow, despite the heavy emphasis on it in the Bible? Yes I can, but at what cost? The attractiveness of being able to be so completely open like that makes me willing to pay any exegetical cost, but my conscience won’t allow it. Saints means those who are set apart, who are on one side of a boundary that others are not on.

    • Leo… I see your frustration here. Let me say this. Saint is set apart. But, if God’s grace is truly grace, then perhaps it is safe to say that all those whose arrows are pointed toward God, who have fixed their eyes on Jesus are indeed saints in the illustration. A saint is not perfect, but one who will spend the rest of their lives ‘working out their salvation with fear and trembling.’ So, if entrance into the covenant community is that of pure grace, then we trust that saints will become more and more saintly as they trek towards the ‘center’. that was a big point of this post 🙂 Ps- I am going to give some more ‘exegetical context’ for this post in my next post.

  • Nice work, Kurt!

    Fourteen years into our church plant I can testify to the power of centered set thinking. It’s not perfect, but then neither are we! Jesus drew people to himself masterfully without much (any?) regards to the boundaries set by those who thought they were enforcing God’s rules. He infuriated the religious and delighted the outcasts–who could at least see their way into God’s Kingdom.

  • So much good stuff here.

    1. Bowdenfan is spot on with ‘a church issue and not a God issue’.
    Leading church is a risk. The IN/OUT issue tends to be driven by the leaders own insecurity and at worse is a control mechanism.

    2. Derek highlights the struggle well. Intellectually we want one model but emotionally we want the other.

    There has to be a state of being IN Christ but out definitions of what that means always (understandably) focus on the external. The church leader goes one of two ways – they either set key markers for judging what IN looks like or they count everyone as IN until that person declares themselves OUT.

    I prefer to lean towards the latter although not uncritically.

    3. The danger is that we see the boundary (whichever model) as a soteriological element and not an ecclesiological one.

    That is – a marker of who is saved rather than who is in the community.

    This is when we confuse the church with the Kingdom of God.

    The lesson from the sheep and goats is that not all will be revealed until the end.

    Therefore the best way is to treat all as sheep unless they declare themselves not to be. As such our ministry becomes wider than to just those who qualify by good attendance and acceptable behaviour.

    The only qualifier to what I have said here is if someone is a direct danger to the community. I think Paul gives us the freedom to act with more definition then.

    • Alan, “they either set key markers for judging what IN looks like or they count everyone as IN until that person declares themselves OUT. ” I prefer the latter here as well Al!

      Great point of clarity that we are ultimately talking about the covenant community of which salvation is a part, but not the whole.

  • Ken

    I can’t remember where, but I once heard it said that all people are in one of four positions…

    1. Facing God and moving toward Him
    2. Facing God but moving away from Him
    3. Facing away from God, yet moving toward Him
    4. Facing away from God and moving away from Him

    Sort of like the second picture you drew, but with a bit more detail. Is it possible for people to be moving away from God while keeping their eyes fixed on Him? Is it possible for people who aren’t even looking for God to be drawing closer to Him? I believe so, on both counts.

    But a problem I see with these illustrations is that they fail to describe the movement of God. God is moving toward us and pursuing us as well, is He not? In a sense we are all a part of the in-group, in that God is pursuing all of us. Depending on one’s particular view of sovereignty of course. Perhaps He is only pursuing the elect? Then they would be the in-group??

    As to homosexuality, I appreciate posts like this that challenge people’s approaches to the issue. I believe homosexuality, if it is in fact a sin, to be no greater than the adultery inherent in divorce and remarriage. Most churches seem to have no problem whatsoever with accepting remarried people into fellowship, membership, and even leadership. So they should have no problem accepting homosexuals either. Read my post and comments on this at

    • Ken… you make some excellent points!

      First of all, I 100 percent want to affirm what you are saying in that the image could be better if God where simultaneously pursuing all of the ‘arrows’/people. That is definitely the reality, but I guess I was focused on the opposite side of this relationship.

      As to your questions, I think you are getting at some deeper issues that I was trying to get people to scratch the surface of. To borrow a phrase from the late Mike Yacconelli, spirituality is “messy” and I think that someone can simultaneously be walking away from God but perhaps turn their head over their shoulder because they still deep within them desire to glance his beauty. I have friends and family members that fit into this kind of a situation.

      As for sovereignty, I see God as wooing everyone, but that only the few choose to follow him back. God woo’s and we choose (nice rhyme 🙂 ). I do not believe that God has individuals who are elect, but that the people of God as a new humanity are collectively chosen. But that could make a big difference for some who lean in a reformed-Calvinist direction I suppose.

      Thanks for taking this even deep Ken. Great reflections here and on your blog as always!

  • Ken

    Hey, I just noticed your comment on that post from back in February. Thanks! In reply:

    Romans 1… the context is pagan idol worship and the sexual practices that went along with it. Some might say that it is about heterosexuals giving up (exchanging) their natural orientations in order to pursue homosexuality, which may have nothing to do with homosexuals who are naturally oriented that way and have made no such exchange. It certainly is not about those who profess Christ as Lord.

  • Kurt, great post. I think we’re beginning to wrestle with God’s original design for humanity, which was built on freedom. The original structure had only one command, and we’re beginning to listen to what that means.

  • Anne Deneen

    Dear Kirk, I was wondering if you have read James Allison’s amazing book “Faith Beyond Resentment” which addresses the questions and points you raise in your Deconstructing post. I think you would appeciate Allison’s perspective, especially his presentation of the fences we build, and the who’s in, who’s out dichotomy. Here’s a link to the review of this book, by Rowan Williams-
    The book came out some time ago. I hope you find it useful. Peace, Anne D.

  • I like Ken’s challenge about God’s movement towards us.

    I have a gut feel (which might mean it’s wrong) that the centre in this context is not God.

    That might sound odd at first but let me explain.

    If God is at work throught our pilgrim journey (prevenient grace and all) then we are not technically moving towards him in the purist sense.

    Perhaps the centre is a mixture of the revelation of salvation in a community setting.

    I need to do more thought on this one.

    Any thoughts?

  • Kurt your ref to messy

    my favourite quote is from an Irish church leader Dave Matthew

    ‘to be involved in church ministry you have to prefer the mess of life to the order of a funeral’

  • I must offer a belated comment because the issue of exclusivity is something I’ve struggled with for some time and I’ve seen that an either/or approach is not helpful. I have conservative friends preaching exclusivism and that only Christians are saved from wrath and unchurched friends preaching grace to all so that everyone will be OK. My own approach has been to preach wrath to Christians and grace to those outside.

    If one takes the Bible seriously then ALL people will be judged by their lives (Rom 2; 14; Mt 7; 25; 2 Cor 5) and there are no loopholes, favorites, or free-tickets for Christians. If one takes the Bible seriously then, one day, all pain and evil will be gone from creation (Eph 1; Col 1) as all is redeemed. Traditionally we have dealt with these extremes by splitting humanity (nature of course burns up like so much waste) up and positing a great and eternal divide of paradise and perdition or heaven and hell but this does not cohere logically, nor is it ethical, nor aesthetic. Thankfully it’s not biblical either though one can get there if one chooses.

    Biblically, final judgment is the day when ALL will be judged/weighed/refined and evil will be finally destroyed and what is good will stand. I think most Christians are in for a real surprise if they are not obeying Jesus (and that justification applied only initially) as are most non-Christians when they discover the inverted-power ethics of the cross are the model for all humanity.

    Most importantly we need to reject a perfectionist rendering of God which is the root of all problems protestant. Likewise we should reject a retributive to-be-feared conception of justice, a pessimistic eschatology, pessimistic anthropology, in-group loophole theology which sidelines Jesus’ teaching in favor of his work on the cross and rediscover the PISTIS which saves, the loving obedience in light of the knowledge of God which ALL people have to some degree.

    The basic point of the New Testament is this: God is reconciling everything on Earth to himself through the Messiah (2 Cor 5:19) and this means there are 2 groups of blessed: the Disciples and the World with the former blessing and serving the latter as a sign of ultimate universal redemption. Sin matters because of it’s evil effects here and now and not simply because of some punishment to follow in the afterlife.

    As Christians we need to admit we are not Christians (i.e. Disciples, Jesus-followers) by Jesus’ definition in Luke 14:33 and either repent and start obeying or give up pretenses and be thankful that God has blessed all and will redeem all and give to everyone according to what they have done.

  • Calleen

    I was just having this conversation with a friend and it really makes you think…What is the correct path? Standing firm in the word or bending it to suit our current lives? We must love others and end our human desires to judge others, but the laws of nature (God’s Creation) even have boundaries.

    Christ was in this world but not of this world and as followers and representatives of Christ we should have no fear in representing our faith as he instructed, even though it will be not be accepted by this world. We as Christians are becoming more of the outcasts for standing firm in Christ.

    I was reading Marc’s post above and went to 2 Corinthians and continued to read down through Corinthinas 6:14-18.

    14 Be not unequally yoked with unbelievers: for what fellowship have righteousness and iniquity? or what communion hath light with darkness?

    15 And what concord hath Christ with Belial? or what portion hath a believer with an unbeliever?

    16 And what agreement hath a temple of God with idols? for we are a temple of the living God; even as God said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

    17 Wherefore Come ye out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, And touch no unclean thing; And I will receive you,

    18 And will be to you a Father, And ye shall be to me sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty.

  • Calleen, perhaps you could explain what Paul meant by “yoked” since it cannot mean “associate with” as he makes clear in 1 Cor 5: “I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with sexually immoral persons not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since you would then need to go out of the world.” I think this puts paid the any ideas of holy separation.

    Jesus was not of this world (i.e. patterned after it’s mode) but he was for this world and associated with those outside his fold in order to bring the blessing to all nations as it was promised. Jesus said we will be called sons and daughters of God if we are peacemakers and and show mercy. But those who need peace and mercy are often outside the domain of Christianity. His Kingdom is not of this world but it is for this world and no one is excluded from its blessing.

    • Calleen

      Hi Marc,
      Thank you for your reply!
      Yoked:To join securely as if with a yoke; bind. I guess my interpretation is to walk in unison. I was asked by my friend (gay) if I would walk in a gay pride march and honestly I had to think about it. I did not want to turn my back on my friend (Christ told us to love) but I knew in my heart where I stood but I apparently I never let that be known. I could not walk in unison for something the God clearly states is a sin. We should not be afraid of making it clear where we stand in Christ or draw a boundary line. Everyones faith in Christ is not the same. Some are stronger than others. A strong christian maybe able to visit a drug addict in their home, while it would not be wise for a new recovering drug addict to do the same.

      I do absolutely agree with you that “there are no loopholes, favorites, or free-tickets for Christians.” and we absolutley need to be merciful, kind and not judge the lost of the world who do not know Christ and share with them his amazing love. But I think sometime the line between accepting the sinner (which we all are) and not accepting the sin becomes unclear to believers. This is all part of satan’s plan to confuse what God clearly states as wrong with loving all and accepting all as they are. This is how the acceptance of sin pollutes our churches, families, worship groups etc. It clearly states in 1 Corinthians 5

      11But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolator, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat.

      12For what have I to do to judge them also that are without? do not ye judge them that are within?

      13But them that are without God judgeth. Therefore put away from among yourselves that wicked person

      and I realize he is speaking of the ones in the church not of the ones who do not know Christ. But he also states in the begining of the chapter the sin needs to be addressed and not just swept under the carpet and accepted.

  • Stephanie

    Is it homosexuality or homosexual ACTS that’s a sin? God is NOT clear in scripture that ‘homosexuality’ is a sin. Homosexual acts concerning pagan idol worship is condemned. Homosexual acts when you’re naturally heterosexual is condemned and vice versa. Where in scripture does it say that God will not bless a loving, committed, monogamous relationship between 2 people of the same sex? Homosexuality is just as ‘natural’ as heterosexuality and just as unnatural as msg, polyester, and hearing aids. Heterosexuality, according to the laws of nature, happens to serve the purpose of pro-creating, which isn’t a pressing issue in the current age! IMO, homosexuality could be God’s way of saying, ‘hey, men and women ‘in love,’ you keep having babies that you don’t want or feel you could care for. well, i’ve designed these people to love and care for the MANY children that you don’t want or think that i could provide for. They can be good God-loving parents too.’ Doesn’t ‘sin’ mean something like ‘missing the mark?’ What is that ‘mark?’ Love? I’m VERY aware of the 6 or 7 scriptures referring to anything ‘homosexual.’ (No need to quote those.) And, even if you think that it is a ‘sin,’ as a follower of Christ, unless you struggle with homosexual tendencies yourself (in which case, i would understand the stand that you took), what would stop you from being a genuine friend and Christly witness to your gay friend and stand in solidarity (not agreement) with that friend that also happens to be part of a larger community that has been discriminated against by the Government AND the Church (and naturally by the majority of the American population) for at least a century? To me, that would be like choosing not to march with a black person during the civil rights movement because of some scripture taken out of context to justify the discrimination. please hear it/read it from a gay Christ-follower’s perspective, if you haven’t already-, for the sake of better understanding, at least. What would be wrong about standing in solidarity for equality for this community, since ‘all men are created equal,’ by God’s law and man’s, right? That’s what the ‘Pride marches’ are primarily about- the pursuit of equality. If any Christ-follower has any gay friends/family, IMO, they absolutely should stand for equality at any chance possible, at least for the opportunity of reconciliation of that gay person’s faith/relationship with Christ, if ever they had one. To add, if they allowed gay tax-paying citizens to marry, the whole ‘pre-marital’ sex issue would no longer be an issue. Because, at least, getting married would be an option. This food may taste bitter at first, but the longer you chew on it, the sweeter it gets. Shalom.