From an early age, I recall some terrible examples of poor judgment in the church. In eighth grade, my friend Kristin had to stand onstage at our church and repent in front of the entire congregation for making out with a kid at youth camp. In high school, I remember the pain of having to watch my Led Zeppelin, Aerosmith, and rap CDs burn at the annual New Year "purification" bonfire. Believe me, it wasn't optional if you were to stay in good favor with the rest of the group.
In college, just for kicks I tried a Pentecostal church, and a few friends took me aside to make sure I wasn't being drawn into a cult. Postcollege and into adulthood, it seemed like I was in constant judgment from those inside the church over having a beer, hanging out in saloons, being late the Bible studies, having poor church attendance, and so on. Now that I'm a writer, it gets even uglier. The most personal attacks on my writing always seem to come from inside the ranks with very little attempt to understand my point of view.
I wish I could say that I think these events are isolated, but as I've shared a few of my stories, it seems that many people have had similar experiences. By simply watching Christians bash each other on Facebook, it's quite obvious that we still feel our job is to straighten everyone out. In the end, the idea of love covering a multitude of sins takes a backseat to "expose the immoral brother." We're worse than TMZ!
I understand the pressure to want to call out false teaching and false teachers, but there is a distinct difference between them. False teachers in the time of the New Testament were people who intentionally tried to lead people astray. Those whom Paul and others felt comfy calling out. But most of the people we call out in no way have a heart to tear the church apart. At worst, they are bad teachers and lousy interpreters of Scripture, history, and context—and God is more than able to weather the storm.
Personally, if I had not grown up in the church, I would have a hard time accepting the truth of Christianity because of all the arguing and disagreements among us. In other words, I wouldn't trust the Bible because the Christians I observed would have not compelling authority in handling the Scriptures.
Pick a New Fight
This statement will probably get me outed, but if the church is to regain respect, we are going to have to stop disassociating with each other and build a sense of family unity, even if our view on certain issues are wide and contentious. We need a new fight.
Let me ask you a question. If you were Jesus and you had just one final prayer for the human race before you left, what would you have asked for? Personally I would have asked for God's help in planting thousands of great churches. Others I've talked to said they would have asked for incredible wealth in which to bless the poor. Others still said Jesus should have asked that one of his disciples become the next reigning king so he could change the political climate. All of these are reasonably strategic requests Jesus could have made, but here is his actual prayer recorded for us in John 17:11:
I will remain in the world no longer, but they are still in the world, and I am coming to you. Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name, the name you gave me, so that they may be one as we are one.
Just before this prayer, Jesus was actually teaching the disciples and giving them final instructions. In John 13:34-35 he said,
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
Apparently Jesus leapfrogged over all the things you and I might have thought more important to spread the gospel of Jesus throughout the world. But Jesus knew the most important witness of his new kingdom was his followers being unified in love and oneness. My guess is Jesus knew that when people would later see us claiming to be followers but being so divided, so argumentative, so fervent about things that divide us, our movement wouldn't be very attractive.
Later on Paul shared critical issues with the church in Ephesus and reiterated how important this is. Ephesians 4:1-6 reads,
As a prisoner for the Lord, then, I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received. Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.
Here again we find another major focus of Jesus we often miss. Jesus knows people will hardly agree on anything. That even people who agree on Scripture's authority may come down on different sides of an issue. I was once reminded that a point of view is simply a view from a point, and oneness, or unity, can therefore never be based on getting someone to see from your point; instead it is love and unity amid different beliefs. And this is exactly why unity is so powerful. It's almost impossible. And because it is so difficult, Jesus would much prefer we fight for a supernatural form of love and unity instead of fighting against each other or people outside our faith.
To put it in plain terms, it's time to stop fighting against sin and sinners, other denominations, liberals, fundies, conservatives, evangelicals, or mainline denominations. It's even time to stop fighting against Catholics, atheists, Rob Bell, Oprah, Driscoll, Piper, nauseating televangelists, or any other Christian leaders you disagree with on certain issues.
I realize that Paul called out a few men for false teaching, but these men were challenging the most central teaching of the gospel regarding Jesus—the cross, or the resurrection. Yeah, these are worth putting your dukes up for, but that's about the only thing we should be fighting about if we are to be unified.
Unity can happen only when we shrink down the number of hills we will die on. And according to Paul it's a very small list. For him, it's one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God who's got all the other stuff under control because he's over all, through all, and in all. Practically, it comes down to this: if someone claims to have put his trust in Jesus for the remission of his sins, based on Jesus' death on the cross, he is off-limits! And since we now know we should also not judge those who have not made this decision, it pretty much puts all judgment in the no-go zone! That's what unity is based on.
The Umbrella of Love
In Paul's time the church was growing in size through a wide range of ethnicities, customs, worldviews, sin propensities, and traditions; there were thousands of individual stories of people who held varying and divergent beliefs on all matters of faith and life. Paul knew there would be trouble unless he put a more important umbrella of love over all the unloving conclusions they would naturally come to.
Jesus and Paul both knew that our orthopraxy (how we live unto God) would look totally different based on all the divergent cultures and thus gave us permission to have a long leash on what was acceptable and a very short leash on what we should focus on. And if you allow for an accommodating, generous orthopraxy, you have to also allow for some generous, accommodating, permissive orthodoxy.
The unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace means you may not agree with Rob Bell on issues of heaven or hell, and you may think Oprah is the second coming of Beelzebub, but if Rob says he has put his faith in Jesus, then end of discussion—at least end of judgmental discussions about where he stands with God. You may have all the discussion you like about his theology, but fighting for unity means you fight the urge to judge on anything other than Jesus, the cross, and someone's faith in him. And even then you can't judge because you really never know where someone stands or will stand five years in the future.
I've found out the hard way that whenever I draw a conclusion about someone's beliefs, I also assume those beliefs are constant. But people change, and since God is always at work in a person's life, I have no right to judge where they will be a month, year, or decade from now. We are all in process, so unity calls for prayer over those we disagree with, not nasty Facebook posts.
Oh, how this would change the world if we really believed what Jesus believes about people and how to approach them. We must altogether stop making pronouncements; we must stop publishing our stance; we must stop calling out people we don't agree with; and we must, at all cost, say to anyone who puts his faith in Jesus that we are all a part of one big, weird, wacko family of ruffians. And when we do, the world might judge us as finally worthy to hand out with.
—Hugh Halter is the founder of Missio and the U.S. Director of Forge America. This article is adapted from Brimstone: The Art and Act of Holy Nonjudgment; © 2015 Hugh Halter. Brimstone: The Art and Act of Holy Nonjudgment is published by David C Cook. All rights reserved.
- Even within a single congregation where there is more similarity in beliefs, there will always be disagreement. How do your small-group members respond to disagreements with others within the church?
- Many Christians use Facebook (and other social media) as a way to take a stand, speak angrily, and judge others. Why might they feel justified in their actions? Why might this be an issue?
- How might small-group leaders encourage people to think before they post on social media? How might church leaders disciple people in their social media use?
- How might you encourage your group members to seek unity with other believers, even if they don't agree on every aspect of Scripture?