Top 10 Things I Learned in Seminary [#6]

Having graduated from Grand Rapids Theological Seminary early this month, this is the next of my seminary reflections. This is the fourth post, and one of the meatier ones.

#6

As broad as the various expressions of Christian faith are, God is broader.

I used to wonder why it was that so many Christian denominations exist. I thought to myself and to others, “are we not divided against ourselves?”

Well, I suppose in some ways there is some division. The church is filled with redeemed rebels, people who God is gently leading toward right living. No doubt, there latent tension between followers of Jesus.

But this is what I learned at my interdenominational seminary: God is really big.

The map below illustrates well the diversity of faith in the United States.

us.map.of.denominations

The concept of God’s vastness may sound simple. And in a sense, it is.

The more I have learned about the enormity of our expanding universe and the tiny, intricate complexities of cells and atoms, the more I have begun to understand that God is really, really big. During the earliest days of God making himself known to humanity, people quickly realized this.

Ancient scribes tried their best to record everything they understood about God and write it all down. Have you ever read the Pentateuch? Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy are not exactly light reading! There are some literary snags, some difficulties, some overlaps, some confusion to be sure. But at the heart of the Pentateuch we see God’s strong covenant to redeem and restore humankind through a people group, Israel.

Various tribes did their best to respond to God over long periods of time, falling away and coming back. The prophetic class called the people of Israel to repentance, over and over again pleading on God’s behalf and on their behalf to be faithful to their calling. Kings rose and fell, with only a few truly loving and serving God with their whole hearts.

So it is, it seems, within the Christian church.

Over the twenty centuries since Jesus, the Son of God, revealed himself in the Ancient Near East, the church has sought to follow his directives. Evangelism, spiritual formation, and the slow building of the church has ensued since the days of Jesus’s physical presence, and the church leans readily into an eternal future where heaven eventually meets earth. The people who have responded to Jesus seek his grace for forgiveness and also his justice to roll down.

But amidst all of this, people groups have conflated their beliefs with the tenets of Christianity. Sometimes this wasn’t a bad thing at all. Paul, a Jew, and many of the other early Jewish followers of Jesus, continued many of their cultural practices: food laws, circumcision, sacred ritual habits. These things continued, and for the most part it was a question of how to integrate new believers into the church. The church’s conclusion was that newcomers did not have to adopt Jewish practices to follow Jesus. Many Jews held on to their practices, which was totally ok. Surely some slowly let go.

Fast forward to 1095. Western peoples, who had come to understand much of what Christianity meant, conflated their own feudal belief system with the religion of Jesus. The Apostles, who had gotten to know Jesus, would be thoroughly confused to meet European people calling themselves Christians. These Europeans conflated Christian principles of salvation and repentance with their tribalism, their honor culture, and their desire for conquest. To the chagrin of billions of Christians who would follow, this relatively tiny group of warriors and leaders forever caused confusion. But the church reformed and repented.

And so goes history. Just because someone takes up the exterior mantle “Christian” does not mean that person is walking in step with Jesus, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and close to God the Father. It means, quite simply, that they call themselves a Christian. The same goes for groups of “Christians.” Scripture teaches that God evaluates the heart [I Samuel 16:7, Jeremiah 17:10, and others]. God perceives the actions of people, and he alone judges.

Because God evaluates the heart, it can sometimes be difficult to know which groups of Christians are genuinely walking in step with Jesus. Jesus himself teaches his people not to judge. The term in Matthew 7:1 is krinete, a Greek term translated accurately as “judge.” Isn’t this the Bible’s most-quoted verse? Isn’t this why so many people say “don’t judge me”? Later in the chapter Jesus says something else. He says that his followers can recognize [epiginosko] people, bad or good, by the deeds they do, the “fruit” they bear. That is not to say Christians should judge [krinete] bad people; instead, we recognize when people are not to be followed.

Thus, the history of Christian faith becomes more complicated!

Richard Foster wrote a book called Streams of Living Water in which he talks about the variety of denominations within the Christian church. Masterfully, he explains the contributions of various worshiping traditions who have done their best to faithfully know, follow, and serve Jesus. But no one group, in my opinion, has arrived. Each group of Christ-followers must journey forward, revealing the largeness of God and imitating the world-transforming Son of God, Jesus.

God is really big. When we read about different groups of people trying to serve God-conservative, liberal, traditional-we are to recognize them by their fruits. Most Christian denominations that come to mind-Baptist, Lutheran, Mennonite, Catholic, Reformed-are examples of groups of people who have done their collective best to be sensitive to the teachings of Jesus and to respond accordingly.

As broad as the various expressions of Christian faith are, God is broader.

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