Ross Douthat has generated a feverish conversation on the internet in response to his recent “Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved” OpEd piece at http://www.nytimes.com/2012/07/15/opinion/sunday/douthat-can-liberal-christianity-be-saved.html?_r=1
But, Mr. Douthat is asking the wrong question. The real question is “Can the Christian Church be saved?”
As long as we in the church keep hurling invective at one another, the answer is “No”. And the answer should be “No”. Until church members from whatever end of the spectrum finally agree to bury the hatchet and live together in spite of differences, we do not deserve to survive.
What is it that makes it impossible for Christians to embrace the possibility of a church in which some communities focus on social action and explore the boundaries of theological expression, while others emphasize individual relationship with God and stick more closely to the traditional theological formulations of the historical doctrines of the faith?
What makes it so hard for someone who believes there are many expressions of the path to God and a person who holds that Jesus is the only way to salvation to sing a hymn and say a prayer side by side in the same church? Why is it so difficult to have a church in which some people gather to engage in intensive conversational Bible study, while others meet to sit in silent meditative prayer?
If the Christian church is going to recover any credibility in our current culture, it will only be when we are finally able to demonstrate that we experience in Jesus a power that enables us to live together despite significant differences in a church that finds its common identity in a mutual commitment to the power of love and light embodied in the person of Jesus.
As long as we sit in our mutually exclusive little camps and trade insults across the theological barriers that we believe constitute an irreparable barrier, we should not be surprised that the world outside the church finds us increasingly irrelevant and even contemptible.
In my Father’s house there are many dwelling-places. (John 14:2)
Jesus’ family home is a spacious place. There is room for a diversity of conviction and a variety of practice.
A careful reading of the whole of the New Testament suggests there is room in Jesus’ kingdom for the disciple who believes Jesus is calling him to express his faith by marching in the gay pride parade as much as there is for the believer who experiences Christ calling her to carry a placard protesting abortion.
Paul said to the divided Christians in Corinth that God
has given us the ministry of reconciliation. (2 Corinthians 5:18)
The church has a mighty calling. We are charged with the responsibility of being a force for “reconciliation” in the human community. We are called to heal the shattered fragments that characterize so much of human interaction. We are challenged to find a unity that transcends difference, a “reconciliation” that exists in a dimension deeper and more abiding that the passing fancies of temporary disagreement.
It is time to turn back the fragmenting force of the Reformation. We must give up our determination to prove how right we are by demonstrating how wrong everyone is who disagrees with us on the most intricate minutiae of theology.
Christ’s family is a many-splendoured thing. There is room for a diversity of expression in the one family of faith that identifies itself as the body of believers who have responded to the call of living in faithful love for God and for God’s world. We do not need to fear our fellow believer who may express his faith using language that does not correspond precisely to the words with which we are familiar and comfortable. It is not necessary to shun the one whose faithfulness to Christ has led her to embody her faith in ways that seem to me strange and unusual.
The only church that can be saved, the only church that deserves to be saved, is the church that strives to be as big as the God who is always bigger than any box we might construct in an attempt to live our faith. The only church that has any hope of appealing to the incredibly complex and diverse culture of western civilization in the twenty-first century, is the church that can find God at work in a multiplicity of ways and expressions. It is not a church that is lukewarm about its faith or casual about its discipleship. It is a church that understands the high calling of being a force of reconciliation in a broken world and that is able to find God at work in strange and unexpected places. This is the church to which I choose to belong.