It was a typical morning at the coffee shop — but I’d forgotten my headphones. Productivity plummeted! I’m not good at tuning out my surroundings.
I overheard a conversation … OK, you caught me, I was blatantly eavesdropping! A young man was counseling a younger man. They were talking about Jesus. I zeroed in because I was encouraged. The advice was good, the knowledge of Scripture was apparent. They were talking about their church, which sounded like an awesome place!
And then, in only a matter of seconds, I went from highly encouraged to deeply disappointed, and even pretty angry. The younger one asked his very knowledgeable mentor how he felt about a long list of today’s most prominent Christian leaders, along with several local ministers. The answers were short and absolute:
“What about preacher #1?”
“Oh, he’s amazing!”
“What about preacher #2?”
“I’m uncomfortable with his eschatology, don’t listen to him.”
“What about preacher #3?”
“He’s brilliant, but too easy on sin. Be careful.”
“What about preacher #4?”
“He’s a great interpreter of Scripture — I just wish he didn’t endorse preacher #3.”
“What about preacher #5?”
“He’s a heretic. I admit there’s fruit in his ministry, but I have concerns about whether or not he’s really a follower of Jesus.”
“What about preacher #6?”
“He’s great, but he’s definitely not ______ ! [i.e., in their theological corner] Steer clear.”
“What about preacher #7?”
“Are you serious? She’s a woman!”
“What about preacher #8?”
“I like him, but you’re better off listening to preacher #1.”
“Why does preacher #1 do ministry with preacher #7?”
“I think he wants to work on unity. It makes me very uncomfortable.”
There were more … many more. I listened in horror. There was, it seemed, genuine disgust. Even more unsettling: In terms of theology, these ministers were all very similar. They weren’t from all over the map … in fact, they were all conservative and primarily evangelical ministers with a deep love for the Bible. Yet, many of them were completely dismissed as ignorant, misguided, confused and even heretical.
I’m glad that young man studies hard and is determined to find his theological moorings. It’s more than admirable — it’s fantastic! And yet, in determining exactly how to align himself, he was also building animosity for all of the “fools” with whom he didn’t agree.
When we first become followers of Jesus, we have one basic understanding: “Jesus is my hero!” Every time we meet another follower of Jesus we find a new brother or a new sister. There is genuine delight! Every church building is a beautiful reminder we aren’t alone, the Kingdom of God is advancing and our voice is strong.
But then we decide on a church home (a good thing), and we realize not everybody in our “Jesus-circle” sees faith the same way. This produces a new, much smaller circle with our closest of theological kin. Then we start studying for ourselves (another good thing), and the circle shrinks again. And then we read a few books, study a few theologians and latch on to a few preachers (more good things), and this circle shrinks even more.
We all need a smaller circle. We have to do the work to develop and understand our beliefs. Not just because we’re commanded to … but because it makes our faith personal, rich and that much more exciting. The closer we look the more beautiful it all becomes.
However, your smaller circle is not your new family. They aren’t your closest of kin, either. I don’t have any distant cousins in Christ, only brothers and sisters. Your smaller circle is important, and probably you’ll spend more time there than in the other places. Fair enough. With that said, it’s foolish, hurtful and far from the heart of God to exclude, disregard or in any way marginalize those outside of your smaller circle.
There are people outside of your smaller circle who are smarter than you, wiser than you and have a lot to offer you. Maybe you’re right and they’re wrong about … oh, let’s say, mode of baptism. It doesn’t mean they can’t teach you, correct you, encourage you. They’re well equipped by the Holy Spirit to serve you, and you to serve them.
I spent an hour on the phone with a new friend yesterday. He’s Catholic, and awesome! I can only assume we disagree about a whole list of things. He’s articulate, kind and pretty darn brilliant. He taught me a few things, inspired some new thoughts and essentially became one of my heroes. The list of variances didn’t change … I was just served by someone outside of my smaller circle. Praise God for that!