Wednesday, December 28, 2005

A Big Tent With No Sides and No Pole Is Only an Oversized Drop Cloth

In Susan Gillies’ Blog, ABC Views from the Middle, the ABC Executive Minister challenges the loss of mission focus which she sees as relating to the drawing of lines and boundaries.

Perhaps it was inevitable that we would eventually take our eyes off the mission and look around at the people with whom we are joined and say “Oh, no! I didn’t realize I was working with snobs and weirdos and space cadets and country bumpkins! Where are the other normal people, like me?”

Then, add to this, the fact that we do have differences in our beliefs. Where do we draw the line at working with people who believe differently than we do? The drawing of lines is one of the things Christians have done prolifically. I do understand that there are always lines somewhere. The question is, do the lines we draw help our mission or hurt it. The damage caused by much of our line drawing has been profound. It may be that the disinterest in organized religion on the part of many in our society is because of our habitual line drawing. It has made observers distrustful of us, critical of us, cynical about us, utterly disappointed in us, dismissive of us – but more importantly it has interfered with their ability to hear the good news.

Why do we draw so many lines? Because we are insecure.

And that’s pitiful in Christians.

Gillies’ observations speak eloquently out of the angst and existential pain of a denominational official. They miss, however, the nuances associated with the question as it is being debated among theologians.

In an influential and controversial article in Christianity Today in 1998 (, Roger Olson helpfully discusses what he dubs the “two party system” in evangelicalism. His observations apply not only to intra-evangelical disputes but also to the ways in which we approach boundary lines within the larger Christian community. Olson distinguishes between a traditionalist mindset and a reformist one.

By traditionalist, he does not mean to imply a negative connotation. Jarislov Pelikan has defined traditionalism as "the dead faith of the living" and contrasted it with tradition as the "living faith of the dead." When Olson writes, he speaks of traditionalists as those who value traditional interpretations and formulations as normative. Similarly, for him “reformist” describes “a mindset that values the continuing process of constructive theology seeking new light breaking forth from God's Word.”

Speaking more specifically, this categorization differentiates the church as a “bounded set” from that as a “centered set.” Traditionalists see the only way “to avoid the slide into debilitating relativism and pluralism—a disease that has virtually destroyed "mainline" Christian denominations—is to recognize firm boundaries.” This “bounded set” thinking exalts the normative force of landmarks of belief, virtually treating them according to the analogy of legal court precedents. The “centered set” proponents, on the other hand, “wish to remain open to prophetic voices from the ‘fringes’ that may not have been heard” before. For them, boundaries should be flexible, fuzzy, and most of all, adjustable.

Drawing lines, which Gillies associates with psychological (and theological?) insecurity, may have more to do with these two contrasting mindsets as to how to live out one’s discipleship in the most faithful manner. The traditionalist wants to protect the truth of the Gospel from the encroachments of destructive unbelief. The reformist labors under an inclusive agenda, endeavoring never to miss previously undiscovered or underemphasized truth.

The centered set approach depends upon a forceful notion of what is in the center for it to remain recognizably Christian. Permitting and even encouraging ambiguity about the boundaries only works when clear agreement exists regarding the center. Otherwise, fuzzy boundaries leads to all kinds of heterodoxy. A "big tent" without a center pole is merely a drop cloth.

Those of us in the traditionalist camp genuinely fear that our reformist sisters and brothers in the ABC deny the validity of clear boundaries AND the central core necessary to make centered set thinking anything more than an excuse of an amorphous “believe any fool thing you want to” type of faith. Without a center and in the absence of clear boundaries, ABC life will cease to be distinguishably Christian.

Susan Gillies misses the point by locating the problem in our insecurity. Centered set thinking without a controlling center is not a mark of security, but unbelief.

[Reflecting only the opinions of the blogger and nobody official in the PSW]

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