Back in the days when Bob Dylan was Free-Wheelin – my parents were too. In time they wheeled their way out of the 70’s drug culture and into a relationship with Jesus. It was the time of the Jesus Movement; it was the time that my parents began a journey that would define the rest of their lives and so shape the foundations mine.
It could look like coincidence, but I tend to think it must be the compulsive attractiveness of new life. However, these things come about they found themselves a hub for others who were seeking answers – the answer my parents offered was, Jesus. Not an academic or intellectual Jesus – but a living and relational answer.
They certainly weren’t qualified by any traditional standards, had no seminary or training, no skills in oratory or organization and yet God used them. Theirs must have been an intuitive application of truth – it must have been that their simplicity allowed them to be led. The fruit remains in lives changed and supported, in relationships with Jesus introduced, and fostered, and fed.
It is in this womb of unconventional ministry and wounds and consistency that I grew. It is in these spaces with behind-the-scenes access that I learned that Jesus is real – that the new life, the “being born again” that Jesus speaks of, isn’t a formula or fundamentally even an understanding but a leap towards a gift.
I stand witness that God uses, really and undeniably uses, flawed, unqualified people and then equips the called to accomplish His purposes. I experienced first-hand, that schemes, and external controls, and mandates are of small value, if any, in most circumstances. I saw that the conscience of the even the born again must be instructed and tuned to truth, that wills must be encouraged and trained in strength to submit to the new life’s requests – but that the work must be from the inside out.
I grew up in a group of believers who valued the Apostles Creed, but practiced open communion, due to the audacious thought that only God can truly search and know the heart of a person. They led with a loose rein believing that ultimately a man will stand before God alone then - and so must now as well. That the role of pastor is sacred but subservient to the inward working of the Holy Spirit. That leaders and elders and teachers must respect personhood by honoring Will, because that is the model set for us by God himself.
I came to know through experience and long settled times of watching that while God requires us to confess our sins to earth as well as heaven, it is only heaven who truly knows if the confession is sincere. Due to this truth, we must understand and teach the weight of creeds and sacraments but in the end must say as Jesus did – come all who will. He will sort the wheat from the tarres.
I sat along the sidelines wide eyed and saw a lot, heard a lot, am still processing a lot. But the ring of truth was always present. In the fellowships that gathered over such trust, the sometimes - discordant effect of so many people from such diverse backgrounds attempting to tune their “instruments” to the one constant became a beautiful sound to my once critical ears.
As I matured, I recognized the same happenings in the very first churches, I came to see that the Church has often got the order wrong in trying to settle all-of-the-things first – and then “letting them in” via memberships or Baptisms or club-like clarifications in well-meaning efforts towards order. As an adult I can tell you that life is messy and community life gets even messier – but it is to community that we are called by Him who called, and its beauty and value is partly due to its messiness, it is primarily this that sanctifies us; as it is with marriage and family life, so it is with the Church – it is a widening of those primary spheres. A curated church life is easier – but not better.
This nest I was hatched in was not non-denominational as a guise for a new denomination, and not non-denominational in a closeted jab at denominations. They were non-denominational in an effort to recognize all genuine believers, in an effort towards brotherhood. There was freedom for us, but also for those other ekklesias; freedom to read the translation of the Bible they wanted, sing the hymns they choose with the instruments they preferred or didn’t, hold the holidays and liturgies that held significance for them, or reject them - as the case may be. Even within our own walls there were constantly differences and disagreements about such things – but they were never permission to divide. Tension is part of tuning.
Tension is part of tuning – and if your heart’s desire is truly to be tuned - There. Must. Be. Tension. That is probably the best thing I can say for the way I was raised. We existed in that taut space between bridge and the key – the place where the action can happen, and it did. There was always an objective standard of truth, a faith that the One who called is faithful to complete the works He begins, and a broadness of experience and relationships with other believers that provided exposure to a wide range of thought and understandings. This wasn’t diversity portrayed on the pages of an apologetics books or brought in for discussion and then marginalized - but rather diverse thoughts and understandings held by flesh and blood people valued as brothers and sisters.
I am thankful for this broadness I inherited. It is in a wide range of conversation that truth can sift to the surface and earn the right to its title. “Let truth and falsehood grapple, whoever knew truth to be put to the worse in a fair and open encounter”, was Locke’s inspiration to America’s founders. And in their squabblings, tensions and even fears, something vital was birthed. I have often thought of the Church in light of what I know about these men. They were willing to work with people they didn’t agree with in order to create and serve something bigger than themselves.
The word submit carries such a negative connotation, personal – but what if the paradigm were shifted? What if submission wasn’t to a person or an organization or a council, but of all persons, to an idea - a mission to a particular place and people? Isn’t this what the first churches model? Managers sterilize the gut of the Church, vitality is lost, and we wonder at our sickness.
I am thankful for this inheritance of broadness – but have had to choose to embrace it for myself. In incubating in a nest of conversation it has been fun to listen and sift and form. This is not a bad thing. It is our duty to have an opinion, a position. Ours is to be a well-founded opinion, not catch-phrases or hand-me-downs; but well-shook-out thought tethered by scripture. We are to do the work ourselves. Too many commentaries and compilations of other people’s masticated and predigested thought violate the effort we are called to make for ourselves – violate personhood.
We are called to hold an opinion – but in the interest of health and vitality to hold it loosely. In the interest of brotherhood and growth we are called to stay open to gracious, face to face conversation – this is what “holding it loosely” implies. “The man who proves me wrong is my best friend.” If we love truth, we welcome the corrective effect of conversation – if we love our opinions, we exploit them.
There is only one standard, and it was canonized and given to the whole congregation for understanding. To hold - but hold loosely. I have seen the effects of weaponizing opinions and doctrines, of building walls around human language that attempts to quantify an infinite God. Humility is lost, sterility gained, pathogens take advantage.
It has been fun to form – to be blessed to have opportunity to form in the full round – but to keep the roundness I have had to embrace broadness for myself, which is hard when you have done the work and do in fact have something to hold – our instinct is to clutch it. I have had to embrace it for myself – but also for others. And I see now that my parents embraced it for the sake of others as well, surely must have wanted to clutch.
As is the case anytime we turn to face outward - vibrant communities are able to form. It was true for my parents, and it has been true in my life as well. In trusting God to handle his own people, his people have come – they gather in these communal spaces and the messiness and advantages of community happen again for another generation.
It sounds good on paper, and I encourage myself by sorting these words – but in real life it is hard. It is easy to feel resentful when others benefit from broadness offered - but then, unintentionally, but by definition of a church, exclude. That people want to benefit from broadness, while holding on to narrowness is a contradiction that is hard to understand.
Being broad is good for me and good for them, but sometimes I feel like a sack in which people are tossed. There are elbows and knees and stretchings and kickings, and the sack must stretch and absorb – must not tear – must continue to hold all of the opinions and differences and contradictions. This is where servanthood is defined, where we know ourselves for what we are. It is hard, but it is good.
And so, the conversations, for me, continue. The spaces of my childhood serve as the template for the spaces I currently steward. In conversations here I am often surprised by the claims accepted by people raised is narrower spaces, or new to the ideas. During these times I am struck afresh by the advantage of broad reverent relations, even with people I believe to be wrong. It is a protectant to have heard the same lies laced with differing baits. To spy the masquerading marauder and gently unveil him to the various camps who inadvertently harbor him.
Wide exposure – again, not academic but via valued relations - is like a digital facial recognition system, a thought pings across several conversations of various types, we recognize it and scan through our relationships to see that “claims to exclusivity” in the church have many manifestations and various appeals to evidence:
This bit of doctrine, - or that understanding.
We are the most ancient, - or the most recently recovered.
We have this founder, - or that verse.
We have been charged as keepers or, - have been called to shake things up.
We have this practice, - or that tradition.
You are welcome to fellowship with us, – but only this far.
And of course, they always clarify - we aren’t saying that there aren’t believers outside of our expression, but the insidious insinuation is that those are of a second class.
The bait has done the trick, the lie once in grants permission to divide, to marginalize, to steer into narrowness and becomes a self-perpetuating blinder. The narrowness of their channel blocks them from seeing all of the other narrow channels flowing alongside them but Just. Out. Of. Reach. Each equally convinced, each in an echo chamber, each becoming less discerning while thinking they alone see.
These separate steams lack current of fresh thought, of perspective. They gather debris along their sides and eventually stagnate – they stand alone in their principles and silently tie their own blindfolds.
People who wonder why parachurch collaborations feel so much more invigorating than their home church have experienced the vitalizing and protective effect of broadness.
Separate spaces are not a bad thing.
Different missions are not a bad thing..
Denominations are not a bad thing. Denominating money makes it more usable, more accessible. The same for the Church. I readily change larger bills for various smaller bills based on need. This is a picture. The buildings are not the problems – our hearts are. Our allowance for narrowness is.
The Body of Christ, united and glorious as she stands throughout time and space, has the potential to be a mighty, rushing, self-purifying river if she would elevate herself to the status of servant and face outward.
We are the Church. We can be vital – or we can be comfortable.
Sara Timothy 2023
This has generated a lot of great conversation so far. I'd love to hear your thoughts! That is the whole point! I think my leading thought here is simply this - we can't build walls around our piece of truth. We must stay in conversation by recognizing the rest of the Body of Christ. I believe each group holds a piece of truth and the goal is for us to bring those pieces together. As soon as I lock myself in with my piece of truth - I have inadvertently locked myself in with an untruth as well - and that untruth will corrupt. The only guard against this is to not put up walls. We must stay open to brotherhood and conversation. The details of Christianity and church life are a never ending circle that have kept people thinking (and fighting) for 2,000 years. Rather than saying, "What is the correct way to do this or that bit of church life." The better perspective is, "What is the healthiest way to meet the needs of this place and these people with the gospel'. There are a lot of preferences, and a lot of freedom for the tradions people like, but let us recognize them for what they are, preferences in taste, style and approach.