I’ve been saying it for years. Those in the evangelical tradition who are perceived to be either liberal or conservative are not that different from one another.
An endless cycle of theological skirmishes and personal attacks between authors, pastors and denominational leaders is indicative of a larger problem: a declining church (whether conservative or liberal) is struggling for control, power and orthodoxy – none of which are values of the kingdom.
I’m through with the book wars and trendy conferences. But how can a Christian move past all the drama of theological posturing and preening? How can we as Christ’s disciples be known by our “love for one another” (John 13:35) rather than by the number of doctrinal arguments we win? Here are four ideas.
1. Read broadly.
The most popular book – often marketed through sensationalistic means – is not necessarily the best. To read only from one set of authors reinforces what one already believes. Find books and articles you don’t agree with, ideas and perspectives you haven’t been exposed to. Be open to learning something new.
My former professor Delbert Wiens recently discussed his own struggle with a difficult and controversial passage of Scripture. He admitted, “I had to be willing to learn what I didn’t want to learn.” This posture of humility and openness is an antidote to theological arrogance.
2. Learn about traditions outside your own.
The history of the church includes different periods, styles and practices of Christian faith. For example, Richard Foster identifies six historical traditions in Streams of Living Water: contemplative, holiness, charismatic, social justice, evangelical and incarnational influences of spirituality. Exposure to other traditions leads to gracious embrace of those who are theologically dissimilar.
Occasionally, I attend an evening vespers service at a nearby convent where worshipping with a small group of Roman Catholic sisters has taught me the importance of quiet reflection in the presence of Christ. We pray, read Scripture and sing with a serene reverence that ministers to the core of my busy soul. I’ve had similar experiences of prayer and worship at a Greek Orthodox monastery located in the mountains an hour from where I live.
I don’t always understand the observances or agree completely with the theology of these communities, but I’m deeply challenged by the piety of their worship.
3. Talk to Christians from other cultures.
Cultural awareness is critical. Western theological arrogance has resulted in imperialism and colonization around the world. In the new global village, the powerful must become learners.
I have been deeply moved by Latin American theologian René Padilla and his call to integral mission (a holistic embrace of both proclamation and demonstration of the gospel as practised in poor Latin American countries). Equally, Native American pastor Richard Twiss’s challenge toward reconciliation, especially among and on behalf of First Nations people, has shaped my understanding of forgiveness and oppression.
Believers in Africa, Asia and South America have much to teach North American Christians about faith. We should be listening.
4. Don’t discuss theology without doing ministry.
Context matters. Without practice, theory is devoid of meaning. Theology will always inform actions, but theology will also evolve as a result of what is learned through doing.
I annually take trips to inner-city Los Angeles with college students. I tell my students that our goal is not to help people on skid row but to learn from them. My understanding of Scripture, especially the prophets, has changed as I come alongside those who have suffered injustice. When I befriend people who are homeless, work with those who are addicted, or listen to the fears and concerns of undocumented immigrants, I am changed, and the biblical text comes alive.
“Doing” always transforms “being.” Arguing theology without engaging in its practice leads to abstract compartmentalization of doctrine. In a sense, the absolute worst place to study the Bible might be the confines of four church walls on Sunday morning.
As I contemplate recent arguing and posturing between Christian leaders, I’m reminded of how much respect I have for those who do theology on the run, modelling Jesus’ practice of ministry and service as a lifestyle.
Within our own faith family, Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) demonstrates what it looks like to share God’s love by meeting basic human needs in the name of Christ. Choosing not to advocate a specific partisan ideology (allowing them to assist those who might be considered “enemies”), MCC ministers to people regardless of cultural, political or economic differences.
At a time when we are pressured to identify ourselves positionally (i.e., “I am for/against an issue”) the church has a wonderful opportunity to be an alternate community, not content to live on either end of a spectrum.
I pray that those outside the church will begin to know us not for our arrogance but rather for our intellectual and theological humility as it is lived out in gracious communities of love, dialogue and service. That is a posture – like that of Jesus in the first century – truly different from the status quo.
—Tim Neufeld is associate professor of contemporary Christian ministries at Fresno (Cal.) Pacific University. He and his family routinely participate in neighbourhood ministry together. A version of this article first appeared on Tim’s blog Occasio (timneufeld.blogs.com), Oct. 23, 2013. He tweets at @TimothyNeufeld.