Have you ever felt like an outsider in a Christian community?
Friends would make an innocent joke during a prayer meeting about how the ESV (English Standard Version) is the most superior Bible translation, and I’d look down at my NLT (New Living Translation) and think, is this not God’s Word? I can even remember apologizing for reading from it once.
I can remember late night chats turning into debates about Calvinism (reformed theology) and Arminianism (non-reformed theology) and I’d think, I love Jesus, where does that put me?
A friend once told me how a reformed theological friend of his was worried because he chose to go to a “more liberal,” non-denominational seminary. His friend was worried he was becoming non-reformed, and I thought to myself, what’s wrong with not being reformed? I’m not.
Is there gospel unity in theological diversity?
You know these topics in and of themselves aren’t bad. We should be discussing why we believe what we believe, and if what we’re reading really is God’s Word. Talking about theology (which means the study of the nature of God) is also good, but when we focus on our differences more than anything else, I think we miss the point. We can miss out on appreciating how diverse God has created humans, and by extension, his global church. I’ve recognized in the last few years that I’m guilty of placing people in theological boxes and placing judgement that some perspectives are “better.” I’ve also felt tension in feeling like I was “lesser” for believing something slightly different.
Even though we’re supposed to be a global “church,” we seem far from being unified in our diverse theological perspectives, and in how we view and act towards people who seem like the “other.”
I’m not sure when this started, but I developed a bias against Catholicism that inclined me to believe that they weren’t true followers of God. Maybe it’s because I studied history or heard it from other Christians. Arguably, there are some theological points that I disagree with, but to go so far as to say they aren’t Christ-followers seems a little harsh now to me.
Any person, regardless of their denomination, may not be a true Christ-follower. To label one denomination as worse than others is neither fair nor reflective of God’s love for his creation. This bias was brought to the forefront when I was in Denmark on STINT (Short Term International Internship with Power to Change-Students).
My thinking shifted in Denmark
In our Denmark ministry, one of our student leaders loved Jesus and was Catholic. Not only that, in Denmark the Lutheran Church is the state church, and its way of functioning is more along the lines of a Catholic or Anglican church, which was different from what I knew about the church in Canada.
Do you want to know something, though? I learned so much from these brothers and sisters in Christ about God and different rhythms of worship. It helped me to better understand how diverse God’s created his family to be. It also helped solidify some of my own beliefs about Christ.
God humbled me and showed me just how judgmental I was being, assuming that my way of church and community was the only “true” form. Theologically there are some things that I don’t agree with, but I can still lovingly care for my brothers and sisters who share different theological beliefs than me. I can create a space where we all feel heard and cared for and can even learn from each other in healthy and respectful conversation. We don’t need uniformity to experience unity, and unity is what Jesus desired of us.
What is true unity?
Jesus desires for us to be in unity with each other.
Unity means the state of different parts being united or joined as a whole. It’s not surprising then that this is one of the topics Jesus brings up during the Last Supper. Right before Jesus was arrested, his prayer for his disciples (and us by extension) was that God would help us become unified, and the reason wasn’t just because he wanted us to avoid conflict. No, it was because when we are unified, we help reflect God to the world (John 17:20-26).
We don’t need uniformity to experience unity, and unity is what Jesus desired of us.
This theme is continued in the Epistles (letters), with Paul emphasizing unity to the Philippians. He talks about how we should feel encouraged because we are united in Christ and share the same Holy Spirit (Philippians 2:1-2). He ends these first four verses by sharing how we have the same love, and should desire to be of one mind and spirit (Philippians 2:2). I don’t think Paul is asking for uniformity here; I think verses 3 and 4 reveal what Jesus wants of us:
“Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” Philippians 2:3-4
Humility. Respect. Valuing others above ourselves. That’s what he desires for us to be united in, our love for Jesus making us his humble servants. I wonder, if we were quick to listen, instead of speaking, what would happen. I wonder, if we humbled ourselves to learn about different theological views, different ways of worship, different cultural churches, if we would be more united as the body of Christ. I wonder if we would be more united in our mutual love for Jesus.
Let’s change the narrative
So what if we changed the narrative? What if we worked on being reminded more of what unites us in Christ rather than what makes us different?
What if, instead of focusing on Bible translations, we share what we’ve been learning about God’s character in the Word?
What about if, instead of focusing on whether someone is Calvinist or not, we asked what difference knowing and loving Jesus is making in their life?
What if we took time to learn and appreciate how different churches and Christian communities worship and experience God? Would we see and perhaps try something new to help connect us with Jesus?
Discussing theological topics isn’t bad, nor is learning more, and figuring out what differences we have. But when we focus more on our differences then what we can find common ground in, our eyes get shifted away from what they should all be looking at—Jesus.
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