Being united with each other is complicated enough when we take into account that each person brings different experiences, thoughts, and perspectives on every aspect of life in Christ and with each other; but then there is the added dimension of groupings of people into different kinds of Christianity. Some people think in terms of big families of Christians: Orthodox, Pentecostal, Protestant, or Roman Catholic, for examples. These can be further subdivided into denominations, rites, orders, etc. Why is this? Is it simply a matter of Christians being divided? Or is there something else to it?
Many years ago, when I was finishing up my undergraduate studies and getting ready to go to seminary, a friend at university came up to me and started asking questions. He wanted to know where I was going to go to school. I told him I had been admitted to the School of Theology at Boston University. He looked puzzled. I added that this is a United Methodist seminary. His expression turned sour. I asked him what he was thinking. He told me he had never heard of the place. More than that, he was concerned that I was a member of a denomination. He said, “Aren’t we all supposed to be just Christians?”
It wasn’t the first time I heard that objection to my particular Christian identity. It won’t be the last. Indeed, there have been many variations on the “let’s just be Christians” theme during the history of Christianity over the millennia. I am even sympathetic to many of the critiques that have been made of particularity among Christian groups. My feelings sharpen in this sympathy when I hear members (and even leaders) of various churches or other Christian groups say things that more than imply that they alone have the truth and that no one else does. This is baffling to me when I go into a small town in a distant rural location and hear the preacher proclaim (as has happened more than once) that only the members of that congregation are right with God and only they will receive eternal life. To be fair, I have heard this in urban settings as well — and it is no less shocking. Can that be? God has children throughout the world and God has only managed to save 79 people? And how can they be sure they are the ones who made it and no one else did? There is often an answer given after these declarations. It usually asserts that only the members of that congregation understand the teachings of scripture.
When particularity of belief, worship practices, forms of ministry, or the presence of lack of head coverings become cause for boasting about how one group is in or another group is out, I tend to find that at odds with what I see in the reports of Jesus’s earthly ministry given in the Bible. In that sense, I am in agreement with my friend who was concerned that I am a member of a denomination and not “just a Christian.”
But not all differences are about letting some people into God’s kingdom and keeping some out. Some differences are because of shared experiences and perspectives. They give the people who are part of those groups a common way of understanding God and the Christian life. Sometimes the things that make up the defining characteristics of a particular Christian group are as basic as the language spoken and the foods they like to eat when they are together.
As an example, during my years teaching in seminaries I have taught many international students. Among these have been perhaps a hundred students from Korea (the most common non-USA nationality of those I’ve taught). Because of this contact with so many Koreans, I was often invited to Korean churches. I accepted invitations to attend and even some invitations to preach. Eventually, my personal ties with many of my students and former students grew to the extent that I felt comfortable with Koreans (especially Koreans of graduate student age). When I moved to New York City, I spent a long time trying to find a church that felt like a good spiritual home. Then, again, I was invited to attend a worship service with one of my friends at a Korean congregation in my own United Methodist denomination.
After having gone to other churches around New York, I was surprised to find that I felt most at home at this congregation where I could understand perhaps fewer than a dozen words spoken during the sermon. Their style of worship was not very much like that with which I’d grown up. The songs and hymns were different (at least in terms of language), the style of preaching was different, the style of praying was different, and I had little personal experience of the culture that formed the lens of the experience of God shared by those who were in the room. Still, the love was palpable. The welcome I was given was heartfelt and overflowing. I made that congregation my first real church home in New York because of that love and warmth that I knew was a genuine expression of the love of Christ Jesus. Yet, these fellow congregants are very particular Christians. Over time, I realized that there were theological emphases that were different from my own. There were expectations of congregational life that were different than I’d experienced elsewhere. My New York congregation was very different from the “norms” of Christianity as I’d experienced them in my other home congregations as I moved around the United States — keeping in mind that nearly all of us measure the “norms” of what it is to be anything (including Christian) from the point of view of our own specific life.
Sometimes the differences are less cultural than theological. In a small town where I lived as a boy there were three big churches: Roman Catholic, United Methodist, and Presbyterian. On most days, we were all members of the same small town society. When we went to church, however, we lived in very different worlds. I remember visiting each of the other churches and finding I understood very little. They stood up when I was still sitting down. They recited prayers, or creeds, or liturgies to which I was a complete outsider. Their sermons and homilies stressed very different aspects of Jesus’s teachings (though I could tell they were still preaching about things he had indeed said in the Bible). In each setting, I found many things I appreciated. But I didn’t feel truly at home.
Like my friend some years later, I grew suspicious of the different “brands” of Christianity — and wondered if we shouldn’t be “just Christians.” Some measure of the discomfort caused by that question stayed with me for many years. Then I had several experiences in seminary that made we ponder things from a different perspective.
Most of those experiences boiled down to “you have to do or see it my way.” Graduate school is full of students and professors with axes to grind about many issues. The ideas for which they are advocating can center around just about anything. When I got to Boston in the late 1990s there were people fighting against patriarchy, against men in general, against Modernism, against traditional forms of worship (including “tired, old hymns”). The list went on. Oddly enough, even though we were in a United Methodist seminary, there were a number of United Methodist students who complained about Wesleyan spiritual practices and the doctrinal emphasis upon Christian perfection (most of these things about which several of them had only encountered in textbooks). I don’t know if everyone who goes to graduate school experiences their education like this — but mine was a barrage of complaints against things. Naturally, as a male with pale skin and a fondness for a lot of the aspects of worship, music, and theology about which people were complaining, I felt like many sessions in the classroom were full on attacks on things that mattered to me — or upon me. My reaction was different than I saw with some, though. I didn’t feel like fighting against those who were fighting against. Instead, I took the substance of the rhetoric seriously — that there should be room for all of us and that no one should be dominated.
The storms of graduate school pass like so many tempests in a teapot. Eventually everyone graduates — or just leaves. And then you are left to sort out what matters.
Part of what was helpful about my graduate school experience was feeling on a practical level what it was like to be an “acceptable target” of anger and disapproval. It didn’t go on long enough for me to start to internalize that criticism as self-rejection. But it did go on long enough to realize that, consciously or unconsciously, there is exclusion of people and there is domination by groups of people over other groups of people. These are insights I have worked to keep in mind in my vocations as a Christian and as a teacher.
We all need to be very careful discerning what we mean — and others mean — when we say we want us all to be “just Christians.” Is what is meant that we should all be the same? If yes, whose idea of same? For instance, I am a United Methodist because I value the doctrinal emphasis upon Christian perfection and because of the overriding emphasis upon grace (understood as the radical love of God). I have met many Christians who consider the doctrine of Christian perfection to be incompatible with their understandings of scripture and tradition. Is there room for United Methodists anyway? — or not?1
There are other understandings of grace, as well. Some Christians see it as the love of God expressed in forgiveness. This is a narrower understanding of the term than that held by me and by many United Methodists. For me, grace includes the love of God expressed in God’s forgiveness — but it is also the power and expansiveness of God’s love that creates, inspires, gives life, gives abundance, and draws us together (and still much more). Grace understood principally as an expression of love through forgiveness is, to be honest, an understanding of grace that leaves me largely unsatisfied. Should I allow this difference to lead me to feel less close to, or perhaps even unable to accept, Christians who have this more particular understanding of grace instead of my own?
There are many places we can look to in the particularity of Christian groups (among them denominations) where we are challenged to wonder what can stay and what can go for us to be “just Christians.” In discussions among those who work as Christian ecumenists, one of the ways of trying to shut someone down in a conversation is to say, “Don’t you think that is church-dividing?” I heard this said to me at my first ecumenical meeting that I attended when I said that I did not want to delete a sentence from a document because it referred to working to bring justice into the communities of the world. The objection was to the word working. The concern was that it advocated works righteousness (a major point of theological objection among some of the Reformations Era churches). I said that, as a Wesleyan, my working in response to my salvation is my duty as a Christian. And hence, I was told my theological claim was “church-dividing.” I could have just as well said that the aversion to working for justice is church-dividing from my perspective. But, I didn’t say that. Instead, I noted that this phrase was used as a way of telling people to be quiet. There was clearly an approved way to be “just Christian” in that particular meeting.
There is no such thing as a person who is “just human” (as in having no particularities of identity). We all are embedded in a language, a culture, a history, and so on. These things will help shape our perspectives and may mean that we find affinity with people from similar backgrounds and/or holding similar views on spirituality and Christian teaching.
As is the case, I think, with individual disciples of Jesus, we need each other so that we can grow in the midst of our being together with him. We need to quarrel with each other. We need to share our perspectives. And as groups of Christians we need to be careful not to negate other groups and try to deny them their place among the groups of disciples.
1For useful discussions of Methodist doctrine, please see: David Hempton, Methodism: Empire of the Spirit (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2005).; Richard Heitzenrater, Wesley and the People Called Methodists, 2nd ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2013).; Randy L. Maddox, Responsible Grace: John Wesley’s Practical Theology (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press/Kingswood Books, 1994)., and; Ted A. Campbell, Methodist Doctrine: The Essentials, Revised ed. (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2011).