Thursday, April 28, 2011

Toward Unity Amidst Theological Disagreement @alan_knox

Yesterday, I a post I wrote for my church's blog was posted about our new membership program and the attempt to have unity despite theological disagreements. This fits with other things I have written recently, in addition to some discussions in the rest of blogosphere, especially Alan Knox's blog. I had to cut down my post for word count purposes, but since I tend to be verbose here, below is the original, unedited version.

At a recent blog meeting in which we were brainstorming subjects, the topic of membership came up. We mentioned how some people have had problems with membership. Sandals' leadership openly admitted that they knew they would lose people through the membership process, so this was not necessarily a surprise. That doesn't make the separation any easier for anyone involved. I know there are many people who have various concerns related to the membership class and process. I am one of them. I thought sharing some of my journey may help validate those who have concerns and bring our community together to be stronger than before.

We have been very deeply involved in our previous church communities, both of us running major ministries within our churches (and sometimes practically the whole church ministry at times). We've seen the good, bad, holy, and ugly involved with church from the inside, including controversies that have been on the national news.

Theology has not been any stranger to us, either. My bachelors degree was in Religious Studies, and I did my doctorate at Azusa Pacific University because my passion is the integration of spirituality and psychology. One of my hobbies is a blog dedicated to exploring spiritual and theological questions. My wife has done her fair share of theological inquiry and writing, too.

So when we moved to Grand Terrace about two years ago, we knew what kind of church we were looking for. We were also both very wary of the inauthenticity that can go along with church institutions, leadership, and politics. We were actually burned out of any kind of church organization for a while. Then my wife found Sandals' website with the motto/vision of being Real with Self, Others, and God. I was instantly intrigued.

My wife and I came to Sandals right around the time fundraising for the new building really started with the pledges about a year and a half ago. One of the first Sundays we were there was when the kids brought in their offerings. While Matt made many statements that Sandals was not all about money for those who were new, this process actually made my wife and I appreciate Sandals more because the money was obviously being used wisely and authentically.

We quickly joined a small group and a few months later volunteered to step up as small group leaders despite vowing to not get too involved because of our past experiences. Then Tawny wrapped me into writing for the blog. Laci did some artwork for the church (she was the one who taught some kids--and adults--to draw Disney characters at Imago Dei last month). So much for taking a break from leadership roles...

One of the things that I loved about Sandals was the emphasis on authenticity and meeting people where they were at in every way. Then membership came up. I had a lot of questions. First of all, I'm very ecumenical when it comes to theology. I definitely have my beliefs, but as many other eccesiologists have noted, church institutions should not be about theological agreement, but rather living life in Christ Jesus. I was worried membership would make Sandals more sectarian, creating an "us versus them" within Christendom, further fracturing the already broken body of Christ in humanity.

A lot has been said in the membership classes about membership being about people committing to the local church and participating. I support that wholeheartedly. However, my wife and I have been and are very committed to this community. I was happy to learn about Sandals' official positions on issues. Others have noted that membership is useful so people know whether or not to commit to a group who may have a different theology.

One of the struggles my wife and I have been having is that we have been strongly committed, yet there have been some theological differences between our beliefs and some of Sandals' official positions. I know this has been the case with many others, too. As Derek said, any divorce would and should be painful. Leaving our other communities simply because of moving was hard enough.

At the same time, I do not believe that most of these issues should prevent a group of people from being in community together and forming a group known as a church. We need to agree on certain basics, but there is plenty of theology that does not determine whether or not someone is in fellowship with Christ. Not that the issues are unimportant, but again, they should not, in my belief, create a divorce between a person committed to a church body and that community.

I have really been struggling with this, though, as I was unsure where Sandals would draw the lines. Again, there are the official positions, and then there are the issues with which we all must agree (for instance, as Derek has said, Jesus being God is mandatory; believing men must be the head of the household and women cannot be pastors is not required). Yet there is a difference between what is preached from the pulpit and what is practiced in real life. I've had experiences in Sandals with people who are not willing to tolerate any disagreement while others have thanked me for asking questions.

A couple of weeks ago during a leaders meeting, we had some prayer time related to confession. Quickly into the individual time, I heard a very strong voice tell me that I need to stop worrying about these minor theological issues and live according to what I believe--that we can have theological disagreements and still be in communion with one another, encouraging and discipling each other in movement toward the same mission and vision.

This week's membership class validated this idea, as Derek explained that small groups and Christian community should not be always based on affinity (similarities), but based in Jesus. He also stated that theological differences help keep us all in check and honest with ourselves and each other. That is so true.

I still have questions about how everyone can live in community when we disagree. It doesn't always work; that's why there are thousands of Protestant denominations. My hope and prayer for Sandals is that we can live in unity because of theological diversity through Christ. This does not mean that we avoid issues of theological disagreement, but rather we do not demonize dissenting opinions. I have been guilty of this. If we are going to have a successful commitment to one another, we all need to be honest, real, and respectful of each other to grow in Christ and work together to bring the Kingdom of Christ to our neighborhood and the world. A wide group of committed, unified followers of Christ will be able to bring the Gospel much farther than segments of bickering believers.


  1. I actually like the idea of membership--it's kind of like the difference between being married and living together. Marriage makes people more likely to hang in there and work things out with times get rough. And the expression of commitment strengthens a relationship.

    I also think that it is important for churches to think about their central organizing principles (in addition to a commitment to Jesus Christ). A church with authenticity as a key organizing principle will have trouble making doctrinal exactitude an organizing principle of equal weight. It's not that the two can't coexist but the process aspects are going to be different depending on priorities. Authenticity is "messier" and involves allowing for a different kind of process for dealing with doctrinal beliefs than a church that prioritizes total agreement on doctrine. "Authenticity" and "absolute certainty" make for a rough marriage.

    In churches that put doctrinal agreement as top priority people are inevitably more guarded about their personal "in process" kinds of stuff. The "Church of Absolute Certainty about the Beasts and Timelines of Revelation" will not be "The Church of Love, Acceptance, and Forgiveness."

    Differences of priority Vineyard and Calvary Chapel split years ago. Calvary Chapel prioritized teaching/doctrine while Vineyard prioritized a certain type of experience. The issue isn't over "which is right" it's over which takes top priority.

    Some faith expressions are hard to fit together. People who believe that Bach chorales and pipe organ music are the closest thing to heaven one can find on earth are probably not going to flourish in a third wave charismatic church. God can be worshiped in more than one way but you can't always mix them in one church.

    For a church to have unity it must not only tolerate a certain amount of diversity, it must also figure out what it prioritizes in terms of beliefs, style, and process. No single church can cover all bases and embrace all styles and priorities. Churches have to make decisions about what's key to their identity.


  2. For me, the term "membership" is a double edged sword. While I appreciate the need and importance to promote lasting commitment toward the organization, I don't particularly fancy the level of compliance that must be met in order to maintain fellowship with other members within the ministry. This is particularly evident with those individuals and groups whose staunch myopic beliefs only foster dissension and denunciation of other members. In my opinion, the absence of critical thinking in the form of open and honest questioning by its members, regarding the path and direction of the community fellowship, is the sinking foundation that many churches stand on today.

    As I read the post, I couldn't help but contrast this theological issue with the ongoing issues in technology. For those of us who are up to speed with the tablet market, it isn't difficult to see the prevailing issue that manufacturers of Android-based devices have against Apple and it's fleet of iOS devices (i.e. iTouch, iPhone, and iPad). Where we see unity and harmony between software and hardware on the Apple side, we see fracture and cacophony on the Android side due to noticeable (and problematic) differences in software version and hardware specs, which translates into an amalgam of user interfaces and experiences.

    This really is no different than what is available to us via the plethora of Protestant-based communities. To my point, as the head of my household, I have elected on meeting our spiritual needs and fellowship with God by cutting out all aspects of social politics associated with "organized" religion and instead have a personal and direct dialog that is not encumbered by the influence and personal ideologies of other members.

    It is my belief that being in personal fellowship with God can often provide equal if not better unity and harmony when the notion of Sunday "community" is replaced with true loving relationships with family and friends on a daily basis. I never have to explain or justify my relationship with the Lord to those within my personal community. There is a level of acceptance and appreciation that eclipses the social and political drama behind the evangelical pulpit.

  3. Thanks to both of you for your great comments. And I would say I agree with both of you, too!

    All of your comments really demonstrate the unending complexity of membership, doctrine, and authenticity. I'm not sure if we'll ever find a perfect solution. I doubt it.

    And I'm not sure I really fit in either side all that well. I value unity, but not dogmatically so. I think the diversity of thought in Protestantism is great, but there's often no dialogue.

    While I have pretty consistently been a part of an organized church and probably will continue to do so, I'm often drawn to the organicity and true authenticity of unorganzied congregation. Perhaps embracing those paradoxes are exactly where we find the true Christ and his body the Church...

  4. "Perhaps embracing those paradoxes are exactly where we find the true Christ and his body the Church..."

    Amen! ;)



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