a.bridge.too.far?

I don’t know how many of you have been to a Sonic restaurant, but my guess is that more of you have seen the Sonic commercials on television. I think these are some of the most clever and appealing commercials on television. I eagerly anticipate new Sonic commercials.

There are a few things that I think make them so appealing. First, the humor is somewhat indirect and perhaps “silly” – there is an askew cleverness there. Second, the production quality is intentionally low and casual. You get the sense that they were shot by a couple of teenagers who hid a camera in their uncle’s car. There is a “YouTube-like” quality there. Finally, they are very approachable. You don’t see “perfect people” setting forth some superficial ideal of what life would be like if one eats at Sonic. Viewers feel as if they could be the characters in these commercials. I catch myself wondering what pedestrian idiosyncrasies would come through if I were one of these characters.

Romans 14:1-4
1 Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. 2 One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. 4 Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

Inspired by the incredible recent commentaries offered by Dr. Greathouse, I have been leading my group through Romans for many weeks now. A recent message I offered at Thrive Church dealt with the passage above.  The tenor of the message, given Paul’s overarching purpose of uniting the Romans around a mission to Spain, was how to enjoy healthy community. Three positions were offered: healthy community is the product of loving one another,  healthy community is the product of trusting God,  and healthy community is the product of open arms.

I don’t think many would argue with the need to reach people who do not yet count themselves a follower of Jesus. However, given the current debate over the efficacy and appropriateness of the so-called emergent church and its impact on church planting and church revisioning, there is a concern about how far is too far. How far do we take Paul’s example to be “all things” while also heeding his admonition to “be on your guard”?

As a church planter, responsible not only to represent God, but in my case to also represent the Church of the Nazarene, it is a difficult challenge to build an ecclesiology that is relevant yet historically faithful. Everything we do at Thrive is the result of careful thought and prayerful deliberation. Everything we do not do is also the result of careful thought and prayerful deliberation. The result is that while you can be confident that our teachings are as true to Wesleyan Holiness as this imperfect preacher is able, Thrive may not look like a Nazarene church in many ways. In fact, we appeal to a broad spectrum of Christian heritage and tradition, crossing denominational walls as if they did not exist.

This bridge is not built because we have watered down the Gospel – on the contrary, we preach Christ frankly and passionately. This bridge is not built because we watered down doctrine – the people of Thrive know the tradition from which we teach. But, I’ve reminded my people about the difference between dogma, doctrine, and positions. This bridge is built because we do not let positional beliefs become doctrine or dogma. We allow for a wide range of positions on things, and often call upon these differences in position to enlighten our own viewpoints.

Here is another quotation for you:

“In essentials, faithfulness; in non-essentials tolerance; in all things charity!” -Phineas Franklin Bresee

If we Nazarene church planters are going to build healthy communities, let us reach back to our denomination’s founder and exemplify his words. Remember the Sonic commercials? Approachability is the word to remember. Real people need a faith that is for real people. They need to look to pastors and laymen who are approachable. They need to be able to visualize themselves as being able to walk in our bend of the faith path.  Too many of us are spending too much time dealing with positional beliefs that we don’t address the real-life issues that people are facing. The average person trying to live life is not worrying over infant baptism or tongues and gifts. They are trying to make sense of making life happen in an often screwed up world.

A graduate of a Nazarene learning institution, I appreciate scholarship and reason and the application of the Wesleyan quadrilateral to matters of faith. But, I hope I never forget that the purpose of all that education is to give a relevant voice to a timeless Gospel. Sometimes I feel that we are all “grown up” and forgot how to hear the bell. The Gospel is sweet music to our ears, that penetrates our being with a sense of God’s love. It is not a set of codifications into which we herd people.

9 thoughts on “a.bridge.too.far?”

  1. Hey Pastor Herb! I've finally gotten my account. Good stuff here. Those commercials crack me up, too. Great analogy. I love what you've said about how the gospel is not "a set of codifications into which we herd people." That's exactly what can happen in our quest to try to make other people live a godly lifestyle or to begin living up to some expectation we have of them as Christians. That said, I need some advice: I have a neighbor who got saved a few months ago at my Bible study. She has begun to trust us and to share and let us pray with her, but her commitment to traditional church life hasn't gone much farther than the Bible study. She's been to church a couple of times but seems less interested in getting deeply involved there than in just having what we have here at my place. I don't want to push her to be in church and to become committed to it, but at the same time I understand how vitally important it is for a person's spiritual growth to be an active member of a church. She didn't grow up in church, so I don't think she sees that it's something she doesn't need to do without. I'm unsure how to approach this. I intend to start a study with her one-on-one about the basics of faith, because she needs some structure and needs to be baptized. But I have been in this position before, where I spent a ton of time trying to disciple a girl who wouldn't become an active member of the church. And it ended up draining me, because she won't go to anyone else but me for help, advice, whatever, and it has burned me out. So I don't want the same thing to happen with this new friend. We don't have a singles group because the church is too small. I asked some of the ladies to help me spend time with this person, but they're reluctant, because they say that she needs to get involved in the church and let it all fall into place from there. But I'm concerned that if others don't do any kind of reaching out to her, she won't ever come back. I don't know what to do, but I feel frustrated about their unwillingness, because I need help, especially right now when I'm drained physically from pain all the time.

    1. Ellen, I think the simple answer is: while it may take a lot of time, let your passion for community rub-off on her. She will learn the value of the larger community from you. Beyond that simple advice, a can of worms can be opened here. The not so simple answer is: are you sure that the larger community is important? I am not offering an answer here, just prompting some mental activity. You need to deal with the same questions that she will be asking and settle them for yourself – not in a flippant manner, but really truly know, for yourself, if/why large community is important. And if it is, why is she not sensing that value from your words *and* demeanor. You know as well as I do that a non-Christian has no frame of reference, other than Christians, for what Christian community is like. We've seen the negative side of that – a hypocritical "Christian" is repulsive! On the other hand, a thriving Christian is infectious. I could talk a long time about the issue you raise. But hopefully, a barrel of thought has been provoked with this pint of "advice".

      1. Ellen, I left out an important thought that I was going to mention at the end of my response. I am not discounting the larger community setting, but the most profound differences that will be made in a person's life will typically occur in the context of everyday life – where the metal meets the meat (to borrow from Mel Gibson) – and that is often not at church.

        1. Cool. Thank you. Makes sense. I'm going to pray about my words and demeanor. And that last point is true, so I guess I just need to do what I'm led to do and leave the rest up to the Lord..

  2. OK. I've been praying about this for a while tonight and examining my heart, and I need to confess what the Lord has shown me, because I feel pretty bad about this right now: I've become weary in well-doing, and it has to show. I think I've lost some of the joy I've always had just in knowing that I've been forgiven and given a new lease on life. And I know *that* shows. My joy has been there somewhat this past year but is running at about half of what it used to, again, because I'm weary in well-doing, something I was supposed to guard against. I know this is partly because of the struggle I've been going through physically. I think I've allowed the cares of the world to choke out my joy, and that is going to hurt my witness. I think it's also partly because I've begun to see what I do in church as more of a job than a joy and a privilege. There are many reasons for this, but either way this is not good. I don't want to feel this way. I want the joy I had before, because it *is* contagious, and it does make people want what I have. Plus, I just want the joy of the Lord back, because it makes life worth living. And loving people and being a servant is not as hard for me when I am happy. All of this has to be showing on my face, regardless of what I'm saying every day. I know that I can't beat myself up over it, but I really need to be changed.

  3. "This bridge is built because we do not let positional beliefs become doctrine or dogma. We allow for a wide range of positions on things, and often call upon these differences in position to enlighten our own viewpoints." Can you enlighten me on what you mean by "positional beliefs" and how that contrasts with "doctrine?" What would separate those two things? In Him, DP

    1. As touchy as any answer that I might give could be, I'll make an attempt to be as complete, yet concise as possible. "Positional" is a euphemism for "opinion". When you call someone's beliefs "opinion" it tends to ring as dismissive of their point for view. However, if you call someone's belief a "position", you validate their right to hold it. Theologically, a positional belief is a belief that does not affect a doctrinal belief. Doctrine may "inform" one's position, but positions do not interfere with doctrine. Hierarchically, dogma would be the most important set of beliefs and also the fewest in number. For instance, if one considers the tenets of the Nicene creed the outline of their dogmatic system, then you basically have a faith that rests on about 9 points. Upon these points, all of Christianity ought to be in agreement. Doctrine is the second order of belief, and it is upon these that the major divisions of the church rest. Catholicism is seen as one extreme and Calvinist / Reform theology on the other end, with Wesleyan/Holiness theology as a "via media" between the two. Doctrine is further defined as the statements of belief of individual denominations within those "families". For the Church of the Nazarene, doctrine is expressed as a corporate statement dubbed the "Articles of Faith" (a small sub-set of pages in our vast manual), which expresses our dogmatic beliefs (bringing her under the same belt as all Christians), as well as points of denominational beliefs informed by a Wesleyan / Holiness understanding of faith, which define us apart from other faith traditions. The articles constitute our corporate doctrine. Furthermore, the manual, in it's Covenant of Christian Character, has defined other areas of belief which, because they are codified, represent defacto doctrinal "beliefs". The language introducing this covenant imply choice, but officiates (elders/deacons) have no choice without relinquishing credentials. That's why these are really doctrinal statements. In fairness, the covenant represents an appeal to a Christian ethic, drawn from scriptural insight regarding the expected behavior of regenerate people. Unfortunately, this covenant is not perfect, and contains a mixed bag of direct scriptural prohibitions and prohibitions which are not directly scriptural but are interpreted to be inline with the "tenor" of scripture, and therefore represent a "derived ethic". For example, homosexuality is directly prohibited by scripture, while limited consumption of alcohol is not. Prohibiting the second is a derived ethic – right or wrong. Technically, derivative ethics are positional beliefs, but since they are codified they are defacto doctrine. For the Church of the Nazarene, every point of belief outside of the above is a positional belief. If it is not defined therein, it is a matter of personal conviction. Examples of purely positional beliefs would be: whether or not women can cut their hair; wearing jewelry; one's view on the tribulation's chronological placement in future events; what version of the Bible one prefers; expressions of worship; etc. While in my own faith practice the entire covenant is included in my doctrinal position, I give grace to those who hold positions that disagree with the CotN's "derived ethics" as they seek community with us. They are, of course, fully informed of our "whole" doctrine as they consider whether or not to formally join the family. P.S. The articles of faith, interestingly, has codified explicit permission to hold certain positional beliefs (i.e. mode of baptism). We really need to do some work on this document. Incidentally, there is a movement within "Nazarenedom" to remove the Covenant of Christian Conduct. I'm not sure that is wholly prudent, but I would support considering the removal of derivative ethics. I would also support considering the removal of the more positional statements from the Articles of Faith. Until then, I hold to it all as official doctrine.

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