Early in October I had a wonderful experience with a number of folks in North Carolina. It was marvelous for several reasons, the people were delightful in their own ways with their own expressions of the Kingdom and the Gospel story. There were folks from Australia, Germany, the UK, Canada and from many of the US states. While there was a deep and rich sense of unity rooted in Christ there was a delightful diversity that added breadth and a richness to our conversations.
This wasn't always easy. For me, I found myself having to listen carefully, and in a sense translate what other people were saying. We all spoke English but we used terms and words differently at at times. By listening carefully I was able, for the most part, to understand what they meant when they used certain terms. I have come to realize that we often use suitcase terms. Suitcase terms are a word or two which hold a lot of meaning - examples would be: authority of scripture; some believe that the words on the page have authority while others believe scripture has authority because it points to the one with authority. Righteousness; some believe as a result of Christs death and resurrection we actually become righteous ourselves while others believe we are made righteous as a judge would judge us not guilty. One last one: Fear of the Lord. Some believe this fear is a fear of being punished and therefore we must obey while others understand the the fear of the Lord to be a reverent awe and a wonder. As you can appreciate, how one understand a term influences the context of what they say next - so there is often a great deal of translation required.
So like being in the mission field, it is important that we learn to translate - translate what we hear from the people we are with and in turn be able to translate what we think and believe so those we share with understand where we are coming from. It is indeed a cross-cultural experience as Christians from different regions, traditions, denominations, nations and ethnicity communicate Jesus in their unique way. This isn't a different message necessarily but rather tend to emphasize different aspects of faith in different ways.
Consider that sacramental churches like Catholicism, Anglicanism, Lutheranism tend to emphasize the mystery and sacrificial aspects of Christianity and see this motif expressed in their worship. The sacrificial aspect of the Kingdom is certainly an important one. Likewise, Evangelicals / Calvinists tend to emphasize the bible and Charismatics tend to emphasize the gifts. Some streams emphasize mission, some mercy and justice and so forth. To have emphasis I don't mean that they dismiss the others just often place more weight in an area or motif.
Gayle Beebe in hs book "Longing for God: Seven Paths of Christian Devotion" has identified 7 paths or expressions / emphasis of intimacy with God. These are:
Right ordering of our love for God.
Spiritual Life as a Journey
Knowledge of God Lost in the Fall
Intimacy with Jesus
Right ordering of our experiences with God
Action and Contemplation
Divine Ascent (Mystic)
As individuals, we all have unique personalities - thank goodness! This means we will all see things a little (or a lot) differently and as such, emphasize one area over another. Gary Thomas wrote an interesting book discussing 9 Spiritual temperaments or personalities. He suggests people in general are primarily one of the 9 spiritual personality types:
- Naturalist - Sensate - Traditionalist
- Ascetics - Activists - Caregivers
- Enthusiast - Contemplatives - Intellectuals
Thomas suggests that while each person may hold to the same / similar theology, they are naturally wired to express it and experience it differently. This diversity is not an enemy to unity, rather it adds a healthy dimension to it - where together, as one body with many parts, we can express a fuller picture of God.
Consider the four Gospels. Each of the authors, while telling the same story emphasize different aspects of the story. Matthew was writing for a Jewish audience, so Matthew emphasized that Jesus was the awaited Messiah, the Son of David who would reign as Israels King forever. Mark seems to emphasize Jesus as servant while Luke portrays Jesus as the Son of Man and his humanity written to Gentiles and from a more academic posture. John seems to emphasize the loving nature and mandate of Christ, and His divinity, very much through a lens of love. There is certainly substantive unity among the Gospel writers but also diversity with respect to the aspects of Christ they want to highlight. This is often a direct result of their personalities and the intended audience and what would be meaningful to them. For example, Matthew explaining the lineage of Jesus and the Old Testament prophesies as they relate to Christ would be more significant to Jews rather than Gentiles.
It is important to recognize the value of each stream, understanding that we all see in part, as through a glass darkly - this means while we hold to what could very well be healthy, good and true expression of part of the Kingdom, we (our group) on our own do not reflect it in its fullness. No one denomination or tradition (or those who think they have no tradition or denomination) hold the final word on the fullness of God. We need each other, for together we become a living mosaic revealing a fuller picture of the face of God. To this end, I am reminded of Paul's words to the Ephesians when he wrote "that together with all the saints we can know the height, depth, breadth of the love of God..."
So which is the right way, the right thinking, aka the truth? Well first off, the truth is a person and to be faithful is to walk in a committed relationship with the person of Jesus. To have faith is not merely the right beliefs about God. To be rooted in the truth of Jesus is the safest palace on earth! It is important that we do not eject absolute truth at this point. It is my conviction absolute truth exists however our ability to understand absolute truth, absolutely is not possible on our own. My friend Stephen Crosby reminds us "the scriptures are infallible but our interpretation of them is not." It is important that our sense of security is rooted primarily in the person of Jesus and not solely in our propositional truths about Jesus.
The net effect should be a posture of humility. Understanding that we don't have the "corner on the market" with the right thinking about God will allow us to be more open, more gracious to others and posture us in a place where we can receive understanding about our great big God from others who may not do church like us or believe exactly like us. Remember, we are not saved on the basis of correct theology. I am not saying all opinions and thoughts about God are equally valid or healthy. The reality is some ideas are better than others, so we need to learn to enjoy the meat but spit out the bones. Just because someone believes it doesn't necessarily make it absolutely right- more over, just because we believe what we do doesn't necessarily mean it is completely right either. So in this posture of humility and relational generosity it is like iron sharpening iron.
We need to shed unhealthy ideas of what unity in the church means, freeing it from a homologous, 'conformity to a contextualized idea of unity'. It also helps us to recognize some of our own blind spots and helps us understand that what we believe about who God is and who humans are affects our models of church, of leadership, community and mission.