Who is Theologically "Other"??

Yesterday we talked about the various ways that people practice exclusion and began to look at some of the foundational issues regarding the story of the Good Samaritan to serve as a framework for engaging the issue of our relationships to people (not to institutions or traditions as we will see later) who are theologically "other" or different. But an important question that we must answer before we can work ourselves deeper into the theological impications of loving our neighbor as we love ourselves is this: WHO is the person that is theologically "other"? In other words, who is the person that is theologically different enough from myself that we must find a framework in which to understand our relationship with them? But first, some fundamental assumptions that I am taking for granted without much further explanation:

  1. No human being has an unchanging perception of God (if they even believe in one) or the world.
    This is easy to demonstrate. Do you have the same understanding of the world or of God today that you did ten years ago? Do you still believe in the tooth fairy or that babies are made by love and not through sex (because your parents didn't want to tell you about the birds and the bees yet!)? Even if some (or many) of your convictions have not changed in some time (e.g., the divinity of Jesus) the way that you understand them and how they are connected to other elements of your theological framework are always changing. 
  2. No two people who have ever lived have an identical theology.
    This is not to suggest that there has not been over time some major elements of consensus and agreement. However, it is my contention that no two people have ever held the exact same convictions about God and the world, and certainly never at the same time and place.
  3. The way in which human beings understand God is always analogical.
    For example, God is not literally our father because God is not confined by gender. God is not a rock, or a fortress, or a shield (2 Samuel 22:2-3). Ultimately we are limited in our finitude, by the limits of our language and our understanding of that language in the ways that we understand God.

So the implication is this: EVERYONE WHO HAS EVER LIVED IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD IS THEOLOGICALLY "OTHER" THAN MYSELF. 

But why is this important? What does this have to do with the Greatest Commands?

The reason that this is important is because it has been the tendency in the Church to exclude people who are deemed to be "theologically other". But this determination has always been subjective, often violent (whether physically or socially), and has failed to take seriously (in my opinion) the command to love neighbor. There are a million examples of this throughout church history. You could look at the persecution (and execution!) of Anabaptists at the hands of both Catholics and Protestants. Or perhaps less violently (although still an intentional form of exclusion) one could look to a not too distant dust-up in our tradition (Churches of Christ) where Churches who used instruments in worship were excluded from the national directory.

The practice of exclusion to people who are deemed "theologically other" has been a constant element of Christian history. But why? What constitutes the grounds for such an intentional and drastic exclusion (even up to execution!)?

In Churches of Christ this practice has been especially prevalent (I'm sure it is in other religious traditons but I can only speak out of my experience in my tradition.), but only around specific issues. In other words, we demonstrate a selective exclusion of the "theologically other". Some of these issues in our history have been things like:

  • Instrumental Music in Worship
  • Frequency of Participation in the Lord's Supper
  • Church Structure (Elders/Deacons vs. Pastors/Boards)
  • Understanding(s) of Baptism
  • Whether the silence of Scripture is permissive or prohibitive.
  • Cooperation with other congregations (whether more "conservative" or "liberal" Churches of Christ) or other Christian traditions (e.g., Baptist, Catholic, etc.)

The irony of such a criteria for exclusion is that it is inconsistent in its application. In my experience we have never excluded someone who is entirely outside of the Christian faith for their divergent (or nonexistant!) views of any of these issues! However, we have excluded all kinds of other people who truly love Jesus and are obedient in accordance with their understanding of the Scriptures. In other words, somehow we have found a way to justify the exclusion of some people in our understanding of "love your neighbor as yourself" and it has been people within the Christian tradition!!

THIS IS A SIGNIFICANT THEOLOGICAL PROBLEM FOR THE UNITY AND MISSION OF THE CHURCH.

Tomorrow I want to address some of the issues that some will raise in objection to what I am pointing to here. We will try to answer some of the following questions:

  • How can we have fellowship/unity with people that we disagree with? Doesn't the Bible say, "Can two walk together, except they be agreed?" (Amos 3:3, KJV)
  • When is the "issue" or "difference" significant enough that we must seperate from them to maintain the purity of the Gospel?
  • Or my personal least favorite: "We can still love them and acknowledge that they are Christians but we must remain seperate because of our differences." (It makes my blood pressure rise just to type it.)

It is my contention that there is a significant difference between LOVE and CO-EXISTENCE. There is functionally no difference between premeditated exclusion and indifferent acceptance of such an arrangement. Therefore, it is a vital task of the church to recover what it means to "love our neighbor" especialy as it pertains to other people within the Christian tradition.

The Declaration and Address (a foundational document of our tradition, the Stone-Campbell Movement also known as the American Restoration Movement) puts it this way:

Christ established one church--just one. This church is made up of everyone who has faith in Christ and is trying to follow him in the ways God's Spirit in scripture has told us, and who others can see are being transformed into his likeness by the way they act. No one else has a right to be called a Christian.

Therefore, nothing should be required to recognize, fellowship, embrace, work, worship, and be fully and visibly united with all Christians that is not specifically made a requirement by God in his word. Nothing should be required in the way local bodies of Christians operate that is not specifically required by Christ and his Apostles for the church. Furthermore, the chief requirements for full fellowship that God has declared are our love for God and for people. This love is formed by our understanding of God's love for us shown through Christ.

God gave us the ability to think and reason--that is a good thing. If, however, in the process of using our reason we come to conclusions that other Christians do not reach, and that causes us to reject them, we have been deceived by the evil one. Our pride has taken over and stopped our continued growth into the mind of Christ--a mind of complete humility and self-sacrifice. Human reason is not the ultimate standard for truth. Christians ought to be growing constantly in their understanding of the profound truths of the gospel--that's part of our spiritual growth as communities. But requiring or even expecting others to be where you are is not conducive to the visible unity Christ so much wants.

Once again, having an understanding of every Christian truth is not a requirement to be a Christian, a part of Christ's church. No one who is trying to follow Christ ought to be forced to confess any belief beyond what they understand and know. All a person needs to know to be part of Christ's church is that they are lost and that salvation is through Christ. When they confess that they believe in Christ and that they want to obey him fully according to his word--nothing else can be required.

Everyone who confesses belief in Christ and commits to obey him, and who shows the reality of their commitment by the way they live, should consider each other as the precious saints of God, should love each other as sisters and brothers, children of the same family and Father, temples of the same Spirit, members of the same body, subjects of the same grace, objects of the same divine love bought with the same price, and joint heirs of the same inheritance. Whoever God has joined together this way, no one should dare divide.

Division among Christians is a sickening evil, filled with many evils. It is anti-Christian because it destroys the visible unity of the body of Christ. It is as if Christ were cutting off parts of himself and throwing them away from the rest of his body! What a ludicrous picture! Division is anti-scriptural, since Christ himself specifically prohibited it, making it a direct violation of Christ's will. It is anti-natural, because it makes Christians condemn, hate and oppose one another--people who are actually obligated in the strongest way to love each other as sisters and brothers, just like Christ loved them. In other words, division repudiates everything Christianity is supposed to stand for.

Two things are responsible for all the divisions and corruptions in Christ's church through the centuries. One is a neglect or even and fundmental misunderstanding of God's will for us in scripture--that we have the mind of Christ and be transformed into his likeness. The other comes from the first. Some Christians, assuming they are "right," that they have gotten the "facts" perfectly, have assumed the authority to impose their conclusions on others as terms of recognition and fellowship.

In reality, everything needed for the church to reach the highest state of perfection and purity on earth is first to receive as members only those who have understood their lostness and confessed their faith in Christ and commitment to follow him according to scripture; second, to keep as members only those who show those commitments in their everyday lives; and third, to see that ministers who reflect these ideals, preach only what is clearly taught in scripture. Finally, they must stick close to what scripture makes primary, seen in the example of the early church in the New Testament, without being distracted or corrupted by human tendencies toward pride and control.

(Declaration and Address, Propositions 1, 3, 6, 8-12)