Christian Gerrymandering: Moving The Line On Faith Essentials

Recently, I received an email from a former attendee of my church who expressed a great deal of anxiety over the state of Christianity in America.  He was of the opinion that the current debates over various social and cultural issues were tearing the Church in America apart.  

He also believed that any deviation from what he identified as the "plain truth" of the Bible was a sign of the end times. 

I didn't have the time or the space to share with him all of my thoughts, but I did my best.  The more I thought about it, though, the more I wished I'd said. The thing is, there have always been issues that have torn at the heart of the Church.    

Consider the following quote from the 16th century reformer Martin Luther on the great controversy regarding the heliocentric theory of the solar system:  
“People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves, not the heavens or the firmament, the sun and the moon. This fool…wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.”  
Or this bit of awesome from Puritan leader Captain John Underhill in the 17th century, defending the killing of women and children in the Pequot Native American tribe: 
“Sometimes the Scripture declareth women and children must perish with their parents…We have sufficient light from the Word of God for our proceedings.”
These words were delivered in the 20th century in a treatise entitled Is Segregation Scriptural? by Bob Jones, Sr the founder of Bob Jones University
“Wherever we have the races mixed up in large numbers, we have trouble….These religious liberals are the worst infidels in many ways in the country; and some of them are filling pulpits down South.  They do not believe the Bible any longer; so it does not do any good to quote it to them.  They have gone over to modernism, and they are leading the white people astray at the same time; and they are leading colored Christians astray.  But every good, substantial, Bible-believing, intelligent orthodox Christian can read what the Word of God says and know that what is happening in the South now is not of God."
It feels like in every generation there are unofficial litmus tests created by certain camps within Christian culture to determine whether someone is a "real Christian" or not.  These litmus tests have nothing to do with the historic Christian creeds.  They have very little if nothing to do with the essential tenets of the Christian faith.  

Instead they are tied to political hot button issues, pietism, legalism and a host of other things that have little to do with the story of Salvation we see outlined in Scripture, and experience firsthand through personal transformation.  

But if you fail these litmus tests---God help you. 

My church is hosting an event next month to gather women from our community together for a day of worship and dynamic Bible study.  We were told that the leadership of a neighboring congregation discouraged their members who were selling tickets to the event from doing so.

The reason?  Because our congregation's theological stance on Christians and alcohol wasn't in line with theirs. We don't think there is anything in the Bible that expressly prohibits Christians from drinking alcohol in moderation. But our neighbors seem to think there is---or at the very least that Christians shouldn't drink alcohol just as a matter of practice.  

Here's the problem, and it's a fairly big one.  This event could very well reach people who are far from God, and help bring them to a relationship with Jesus. But what seems to be ruling the day on this matter is the mistaken and dangerous notion that our differences over this issue are greater than the Gospel.   
Woody Allen was right when he said, "If Jesus came back and saw what was being done in his name, he would never stop throwing up."  
In the Reformed tradition of the Christian faith (within which I happen to reside) there is a wonderful statement of Christian unity and forbearance that I strive to live into.  I don't always succeed, but I am trying.  Here it is: 
In essentials unity, in all other things charity.  
In a nutshell what this means is that there are essentials to the Christian faith--aspects of what it means to be Christian that all Christians share.  These are the basic intersections of our tradition.  

Some of these intersections include:   Salvation through Jesus, the doctrine of the Trinity, Baptism, the Lord's Supper, the Resurrection.  And in these essentials we can find common ground, despite the idiosyncrasies of our various traditions.   

The problem that we seem to be facing in our current cultural climate (which is an all too familiar problem) is that for many Christians the list of "essentials" has been expanded to include all kinds of things that aren't essential tenets of the Christian faith.  And worse, these new essentials seem to be connected not to thoughtful, critical biblical interpretation, but to particular social and political world views.  

What happens next is kind of like theological gerrymandering.  Gerrymandering in politics is when politicians change the borders of their districts to ensure that they will get elected.  If you know that there are pockets of resistance in your district, you change the lines so that you carve out the people you are sure won't vote for you. 

So basically this is what Christianity has become--one act of theological gerrymandering after another.  If we don't agree with someone on a particular issue, like whether it's okay for Christians to drink alcohol, for example, then we can simply make that an essential tenet of Christian faith--a sign or symbol for genuine Christianity, if you will.  

And, simply put, if you don't measure up to this new set of essential tenets--then you aren't really a Christian.  

I read an article online recently that contained an interview with megachurch pastor, author and renowned speaker T.D. Jakes.  In the interview, Jakes indicated that the views on homosexuality and gay marriage that he had previously held to be true were "evolving."  

This was a sizable shift from what Jakes had unequivocally stated just two years ago when he declared that both homosexuality and gay marriage were antithetical to Christian faith and practice, and not at all supported by the Bible. 

So what happened?  

It could be that he experienced firsthand the pain and grief of a friend or church member whose gay child committed suicide because they felt they were an abomination.  It could be that he began to interpret Scripture through different lenses.  I don't know, to be honest, what caused Jakes' shift, but I know that it wasn't done lightly. Jakes knew the score.  He knew that there would be hell to pay for his admission.  

And true to form as soon as the interview hit the news--the reaction from the Christian community came in fast and furious.  I read a lot of the comments to the news story.  They were brutal.  Jakes was called a "false prophet," "apostate," "deceived by the Devil," "in love with the world," and a host of other awesome things.  

You see, most of Jakes' audience is drawn from some of the the more theologically conservative wings of Christianity, and his admission was not received with forbearance by many of the occupants of those wings.  To put it another way--the reaction from his former supporters was generally devoid of any kind of grace, and in some cases downright hostile. 

A friend of mine shared with me that she'd had a similar experience.  Her admission to her conservative Christian friends about her doubts over similar issues resulted in a saddening conversation.  The friends ultimately told her that because of her views, they were concerned for her salvation. 

Her salvation.   

We do this with all kinds of issues where there is genuine disagreement regarding Biblical interpretation.  Some of these include: belief in a literal, six-day creation of the world, beliefs surrounding hell and who goes there, teachings of Jesus regarding the poor, what the Bible teaches about salvation and who receives it, beliefs about the end times... and so on.   

In Mark 12:30-31 Jesus responds to a similar challenge when he's asked to weigh in on an argument over which commandment was "the greatest."  The religious people of his day argued endlessly about what was essential to faith in God and what wasn't.  

Jesus told them that the greatest command was: Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.”  

How does this help us to understand our current problem?  Well, first of all Jesus acknowledges that there is definitely a baseline, a foundation for faith in God, if you will.  You might call the aspects of this foundation, the essentials

But implied in Jesus statement is not only a sense of openness regarding non-essentials, but also a warning against making them something they aren't.  In other words, he's basically saying "There are definitely things you need to do to obey God and to love others, but don't miss the forest for the trees."  

Or to put it another way, "You can get so hung up on trying to figure out what the essentials are that you forget about the essentials."  

Or you might also say: In essentials unity, in all other things charity.  

I think that our current Christian culture would do well to embrace this idea, especially since it comes directly from the mouth of the One we all claim to follow.  


  1. Excellent article. Thoughtful and reflective. Solid theological base. Have a glass of wine on me. ��


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