I saw a quote from a Christian leader yesterday, one who I respect despite disagreeing with some of his doctrine. It contained the words “At stake is the gospel of Jesus Christ.”
Whoa, hold up. I’m not a scholar or a theologian, but I can tell you one thing: The gospel of Jesus Christ is never at stake. The gospel, the good news, is that Jesus came to reconcile us to God and one another. That he took on flesh, was born, lived, and died. Then he rose again, and ascended into heaven where he is interceding for us. That happened. That last bit is still happening. And there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that you or I or all the powers of hell could do to diminish, threaten, or put that good news “at stake.”
Now, this gentleman obviously didn’t mean that. He used the word “gospel” to describe his understanding of orthodoxy and orthopraxy. Frankly, to equate our understanding of the whole of scripture with the gospel itself seems to give our flawed humanity a bit too much power.
But this rhetoric is thrown around a lot, often with words like “slippery slope,” “accommodation,” and “farewell” (which seems to have become the nice Christian way to say “go to hell, literally”).
Now. I am not in favor of peering down slippery slopes, seeing how close we can get to the edge without falling off. I am not in favor of cultural accommodations that seek to justify sinful behavior, whether these are sins most Christians would recognize as such or sins that tend to be lauded, like greed, dominance, pride, and arrogance.
But it seems the people issuing those statements assume they own prime real estate in very center of orthodoxy, and that the further people drift from their personal beliefs, the further they drift from Truth, and the gospel itself. This may or may not be the case in any given situation, but the attitude seems arrogant, with a side of fear-mongering and control.
Christians have always held diverse beliefs on a wide variety of subjects. It’s all over the New Testament, the early church arguing about how to deal with the gentiles who had come into their midst. Did they have to become Jewish and follow Jewish orthopraxy? Could the proper Jewish Christians stomach the “unclean” gentiles and their disgusting pagan customs if they didn’t? It caused the Apostle Paul, the biggest advocate for gentile Christians, so much headache and heartache that at one point, in a fit of pique, he said he wished the people from the circumcision party would go the whole way and emasculate themselves!
We underestimate what a huge deal this was, how disgusting and horrifying the idea of not keeping the law (or at least certain elements of it) was for Jewish Christians. It was a big, stinkin’ deal, their way of life, their way of following God. Plus, undercooked pork that had been sacrificed to idols?!?!?! The very thought would have turned Jewish stomachs. The personal and relational toll of this controversy was tremendous, especially for Paul.
Early Christians didn’t all believe the same things, either. There was a lot to wrap their minds around, a lot to sort out, and all sorts of crazy ideas and heresies (some the honest mistakes from well-intentioned people, some self-serving power grabs from people with malicious intent) flying around. Some of these controversies were never settled, which is why we still have the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Coptic churches today. (Sorry, Protestants, we don’t rate. We only broke with Catholic orthopraxy a few hundred years ago, largely because Northern Europeans didn’t like taking orders from Italians.)
(Here’s a video I made about early Christian disagreements for a seminary project. Because it was more fun than writing yet another essay.)
These controversies were extremely serious. Sometimes it seemed to the people involved that everything was at stake; so much so, that people who claimed to follow Christ resorted to bloodshed to “defend” their brand of orthodoxy. It was hideous.
It is still hideous.
Still, there was a bright spot. Before the schism, before Christians from Eastern, Western, and Oriental traditions largely broke fellowship with one another, they came up with the Nicene Creed, which most Christians around the world still accept today.
It is, basically, what evangelicals would call the gospel. It is what the global church determined to be Christian orthodoxy. It is based on the biblical account of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, and what it means for all of us.
Christians may disagree about a lot of things, vehemently. We may horrify or offend one another at times. But let’s not be arrogant. Our opinions, understanding of scripture, and deeply held beliefs are not the gospel. They don’t even define orthodoxy. The gospel is something that happened, something that is still happening. We are called to proclaim it faithfully, and yes, we need to have some very serious conversations about how that gospel should impact the way that we live our lives, order our churches, run our organizations, etc. It needs to inform our practice, our orthopraxy.
But to say that the gospel is at stake because a brother or sister said something you disagree with feels, quite frankly, like a fear-mongering grab for religious and social control.
We need to have hard conversations. We need to challenge one another, and hold one another accountable in our walks with Christ. We need to sharpen one another, like iron sharpens iron.
But we don’t have to be jerks about it. If we can admit that we don’t have a corner on orthodoxy, that none of us have everything perfectly figured out (this isn’t relativism, btw–this is realism), we can approach these conversations with humility and grace instead of fear and control, trusting the Holy Spirit to continue its work in the hearts and minds of God’s people.
The gospel is never at stake. But relationships are, as well as our witness.
Let’s live, speak, and act accordingly.
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all. -Ephesians 4:1-6