People Want Tight Boundaries
In this year of visiting churches, I have become increasingly aware that people are very much drawn to church groups with tight doctrinal standards. As many have noted, these are the ones that still show growth both in the US and overseas. The more theologically progressive mainline denominations with looser theological boundaries are indeed declining in numbers.
The more rapidly growing churches rarely ordain women. Female voices are generally excluded from any top level decision-making bodies. Many are almost viciously anti-gay; others welcome the gay/lesbian population but make it clear that the so-called “homosexual lifestyle” will not be tolerated nor will any same-sex marriages be performed there.
Even though there are major differences in theology, almost all of them declare that they are truly “biblical” in belief and world-view. The major idea is to “get people saved and into heaven.” Social justice issues take far less importance.
What draws people to these places?
I think such churches make life much, much easier for their adherents. Here’s why:
- Many decisions are already pre-made for them.
- They don’t have to wrestle with complex questions of sexuality or biology.
- People know their places (i.e., men in leadership/women in the homes).
- More constricted boundaries paradoxically give more freedom within them because no energy is wasted on trying to change things.
- Those who don’t agree either leave or are kicked out.
- Many can find biblical justification for what look like hateful actions and prejudicial decisions.
- They can point to their growth as a sign of God’s blessing without having to ask if that is actually true or not.
- Humans have always formed in-group/out-group bonds as they offer both safety and a sense of identity.
Is This Biblical?
With that, I now ask the question: is this truly a “biblical” way to live? I know as I read the Gospels, I see Jesus routinely breaking the rules that the first century Rabbi-informed Jewish community used to keep their group and religious identities intact.
- Jesus touched the worst of unclean (bleeding women, lepers and tax collectors) and mingled with sinners.
- He asked people to follow the Law in a far deeper sense by reminding those around him that lust (experienced by everyone) equals adultery and anger (experienced by everyone) equals murder.
- It was to those without voice (women) that the message of the Resurrection was initially entrusted.
- It was to the outsider (the Samaritan woman) that the role of first evangelist was given.
- It was to the despised (Peter, the betrayer) that the commission of feeding the sheep was handed.
Like it or not, that gospel is not popular and never will be. That gospel calls us to lay down our lives for our enemies, to put vengeance aside, to relinquish power, not gain it.
So I do wonder if the measurement of “look at all the people there–God must be blessing” is itself actually “biblical.”
The Problem With the Established Church
I do strongly believe that it is within the gathering, the “ecclesia,” the church, that we will find our strength to live out such a complex call as is this call to lay down our lives for others and genuinely love our enemies. We need one another for strength, for guidance, for correction, for collective power to stand for good and against evil and injustice in whatever forms we find them. We need places where our children will be instructed, our teens shaped, our adults molded into Christian perfection.
We must be connected to one another in basic unity in order to have what it takes to keep going.
But when the church becomes a business, when it is burdened with bureaucratic layers and indecipherable procedural manuals, when it needs its own high court to interpret the rules, when its purpose is to bring in enough money to pay everyone and just survive, then we no longer have freedom to live in any kind of biblical manner.
I believe this is what John Wesley saw from his inside perch as a Church of England priest. He came up with his methods so that people might actually live as Jesus commanded. United Methodists, and many other established denominations with way too many bosses and lowering numbers of overworked laborers, have become the very thing that Wesley (and Luther and so many others) sought to address and reform.
We as United Methodists are going to have to find a way to start over. A way to start that has grace at its core, not at the periphery. A way that acknowledges that many things can be called “biblical” and be in disagreement with each other. A way to genuinely listen to one another and together, as a body of believers, find the mind of Christ.
We cannot replicate the methods Wesley developed and used in the 18th century. That was a different time, a different world.
What we can do is replicate the aroma of grace that informed the methods. Therein is our hope.
If we chose not to replicate that aroma of grace then it is time to disband for we no longer can be called as those who follow Jesus. Let us speak truth to ourselves and to others, truth that sets us free to love and give, truth that offers generous life and genuine holiness not just surface rule-following.
Yes, this is the far more difficult path. But I have yet to see anything in the Bible that suggests it is easy to follow Jesus.