I said, “Sort of.”
He responded, “But aren’t you a Presbyterian church?”
Even though we talked about it for a few more minutes, I could tell the conversation was over at this point.
This fellow, and many like him, approach such matters from the same perspective: they are inherently suspicious of anyone-- or anything-- that is different from what they understand and practice. In this case, his experiences and personal practices had suggested to him that all Presbyterians had plain, unadorned, even stoic worship that varied not by season nor circumstance. Therefore, he concluded, any church that diverged from this path, even though they may be Presbyterian, was not practicing proper Presbyterian worship. They-- and in this case, we-- must be in error.
Why must this be the case? Is it so that the Roman Catholics or Eastern Orthodox are utterly wrong? Could it be possible that they might teach and/or practice some things with which we might disagree, but not all things? Couldn’t the same thing be true of other Christian traditions?
When faced with questions such as these, I’ve found that “Suspicion because of difference” will grant my premises. Yet, when it comes to actually practicing this, they have no interest, and in fact they are sometimes fearful.
This is natural, I think: we are all fearful of what we don’t know and understand. Most of us are insecure enough to interpret differences as a conscious and active condemnation of our point of view, rather than simply a thoughtful and purposeful acceptance of another point of view. And we are prideful enough to look on something that is different from what we do, think, or feel as wrong by default.
But we must be careful when our default position is to be suspicious of something simply because it is different. Look at it this way: most, if not all, of how you spend your time today, what you think about, and the beliefs that you hold, are inherently different from what you did, thought, or believed a decade or two ago. In many of us, the differences are drastic-- and we are grateful that they are! In fact, if someone cannot honestly say that this is at least somewhat true of them-- that they are a good bit different today than 10 years ago-- then they either aren’t being honest with themselves or they haven’t demonstrated any personal growth over that time.
If I, 10 years ago, had met the “me” from today, would I even recognize myself? Would I be suspicious of the differences I saw in this other person? If that is true of me-- and you-- then shouldn’t we give those who are different from us some benefit of the doubt?
What are we looking for when we demand conformity to our own images in this way? Are we simply looking for affirmation? Are we attending to some deep insecurities that cause us to second-guess ourselves, and therefore others as well?
Or are we asking for some shibboleth that Scripture itself doesn’t require? Tim Keller once said, “No matter where you are, there is someone to your right, as it were, who thinks you sold out the Gospel.” Is this what we’re getting at when we get so suspicious so quickly?
Two nights ago I had a conversation with someone who noted that, in visiting a different Presbyterian church, he had observed a surprising number of things that harkened back to Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, and Roman Catholic practices. He was surprised.
“Why?” I asked him. “I think John Calvin and Martin Luther would have wanted it that way.”
“Do you really think so?” He asked.
“Yes-- after all, Luther and Calvin didn’t want to not be Roman Catholic-- they simply wanted the Roman Catholic church to be biblically faithful.”
But we forget that. And we forget that our differences-- whether they be about worship practices, liturgical calendars, theologies of baptism, or how actively we must pursue a certain social agenda-- ought not be something that we are inherently suspicious of.
One of my favorite TV shows was (and is!) The West Wing. In one episode, a group of Chinese refugees were trying to flee religious persecution in their homeland, and President Bartlett (played by Martin Sheen) was seeking affirmation that they were legitimately Christians and not just being coached. Meanwhile, China is demanding that the refugees be returned.
Instructive. After all, this is the sum of it, and any further shibboleth that I construct is wrong. Let’s be a bit less suspicious.*
*Don’t get me wrong here: I’m not suggesting that it is wrong to have theological standards for, say, ordination-- but simply that when I don’t “get” the way another Christian practices their faith, I must be careful not to assume that their faith therefore isn’t real.