Thursday, November 30, 2006


As I've explored a number of times on this blog, we are all unique individuals who differ from each other in countless ways - everything from temperament to hobbies, talents, family, culture, education level, work history, life experiences, environment, nutrition and medical history, to name a few, all of which work together to shape each of us in ways that no other individual in history (even an identical twin) can claim.

We all acknowledge this, at least on an intellectual level, but we still tend to fall back on the assumption that others share our basic perspective, and nowhere is this more evident than within the church.

Just as the majority of people never progress beyond a Stage Three mentality in their spiritual lives, so most of our churches have developed a culture and a theology that corresponds with the needs and attitudes of its members. Thus Christianity so frequently becomes perceived as a system of laws and expectations; even those who speak of it as a relationship with a living God almost inevitably conceptualize that relationship in terms of dos and don'ts and how well one conforms to the commands of one's spiritual leaders.

When an individual does reach Stage Four, he quickly discovers that the community that once sheltered him from the outside world is no longer a safe haven. Stage Three individuals are simply not ready to accept the existence of a world that's larger and more complex than the rules system they perceive as encompassing all Truth, and thus they view anyone who raises dissent as a traitor or an agent of the devil, or at the very least as a troublemaker.

Not that everyone in Stage Three fits the stereotype of the narrow-minded fundamentalist, of course. But even the more ecumenically-minded ones see the world in terms of simple, all-encompassing truths and strict boundaries, and view doubt as a shortcoming to be confessed and routinely expunged through application of Bible verses, sermons and devotional readings.

Even in the best Stage Three churches, the Stage Four individual is regarded as a lost or backslidden soul in need of 'fixing.' Questions are tolerated only as long as the individual ultimately accepts the answers given (no matter how unsatisfactory they may be) as articles of faith. When the complexities of life play out in ways that contradict "the Truth", it is reality that must be reevaluated to conform to doctrine; the doctrine itself may only be questioned as part of an academic exercise with a predetermined outcome.

Church doesn't have to be this way, though. The early Baptists gave individuals room to follow their conscience, even if doing so put them in conflict with church teaching. Other Christian traditions over the centuries have made similar allowances, acknowledging that life is never as clear-cut as it may appear in the theologian's study.

The authors of the New Testament advocate just such a policy, boiling down all of the Law to two simple rules: love God and love others. Many evangelical theologians recognize this and acknowledge that one who wholeheartedly strives to follow those two commands will have no need for lists of rules and restrictions. Somewhere over the years, however, it became an accepted assumption that the dos and don'ts scattered throughout the Bible could be combined to form a clear and complete picture of what it means to love God and others, and that therefore one could still judge another's righteousness by how well they conformed to all of those regulations.

By way of analogy, they have effectively dictated that one can judge another's bicycle riding skills by how well the rider's movements fit within the narrow range of actions that would be possible if training wheels were attached to the bike. That training wheels quickly become a hindrance and even a danger once one leaves the safety of the neighborhood sidewalk is irrelevant, since the existence of training wheels proves that there can only be one correct way to ride a bike under any circumstances.

It's a point that can only be pressed so far in any church led by Stage Three individuals, since such leaders would see such an elevation of individual conscience as the beginning of a rapid and unstoppable slide into total moral depravity, but it's one that nonetheless needs to be made for the sake of those who have outgrown their training wheels.

Whether or not it's within the realm of possibility for any one church to meet everyone where they're at, there's still plenty of room for improvement even within the bounds of what's realistic. If nothing else, it might be helpful to remember that the early church was able to expand rapidly across the known world, not because of its rules and regulations, not because of its rigid and concise doctrines, but because of its love.

Genuine, self-sacrificial love transcends all differences and requires no explanation. Stage Three, Stage Four or otherwise, there's room there for all of us to find common ground.

1 comment:

Don Livingston said...

I really liked the training wheel analogy.