Going Beyond Sectarianism

Earlier this month New Wineskins came out with an issue titled “Fellowship: Who’s in, Who’s Out, Who Decides?” (Feb 2012) which I recommend. One of the things this issue has reminded me of is the immense difficulty there is in defining the boundaries of Christian fellowship. There is the basic boundary of faith in Jesus Christ but within the broad scope of what is today known as the Christian faith, I find it rather difficult to define a boundary. Let me explain a bit.

I could easily take all the beliefs and practices I believe are fundamentally essential to being Christian (i.e., baptism, prayer, etc…) and say that all people must share those same beliefs and practices in order to be a part of the Christian fellowship. Some Christians have gone this route. It’s called sectarianism. I know because I used to be one. Those who go this route typically do so with scripture (proof-texting) and argumentation (reasoning) as to why their view is correct against all others.

The problem with this approach is that this becomes a creed, written or unwritten, which becomes the object of faith. The sectarian will never admit that they have faith in their creed rather than Jesus but it is true. The argument is that they are part of the true Christian fellowship because they believe and practice rightly on every last one of those fundamentally essential issues. That is faith in having the right doctrine, not faith in Christ.

So if we reject sectarianism, what are the boundaries and how do we know them? Well, here’s my answer: I’m not sure that’s a question we should be trying to answer. We already know how much difficulty there is in trying to reach any coherent answer and maybe that’s the big hint…the big elephant in the room we seem to be missing. Perhaps the issue is so difficult to solve is because it is not our issue to solve…rather, it’s God’s issue and would be better off left in God’s hand.

So what then? Should we just treat everyone who professes to be Christian as our brother or sister in Christ? Perhaps so. Perhaps if we did this, we might actually be able to build relationships with other Christians beyond our own tribe and learn together a deeper understanding of what it means to be Christians living by the Spirit as we follow Christ. The Lord knows we have only made a mess of things by pointing fingers, making accusations, and denying fellowship to others.

Besides, we might just be surprised how much love for Christ there is among those other tribes…how much the Spirit does dwell among those other tribes.

Stay tuned for a story to come…

10 responses to “Going Beyond Sectarianism

  1. “I’m not sure that’s a question we should be trying to answer.” Oh, what a breath of fresh air!

  2. Can only imagine what we might accomplish when we don’t expend our energy into “proof texting, argumentation, pointing fingers, making accusations and denying fellowship.” Maybe in letting go of our need to have the correct answer to show ourselves approved we could let God be a little more creative in our lives and the lives of others. And that just might mean we aren’t the ones in control.

    I’ve heard of “New Wineskins” somewhere. What is it and is it available on line?

    • Amy,

      Click on the link “New Wineskins” in the post (1st paragraph, 1st sentence). New Wineskins is a journal that has been published and edited by members of the Churches of Christ over the years which began as a print journal but now is published as an online journal. The journal has over the years been committed to broadening the understanding of the intersection between Christian faith and contemporary culture. I’ve been privileged to contribute several articles, including my most recent article “Incarnational Living” (http://www.wineskins.org/filter.asp?SID=2&fi_key=342&co_key=2404).

      Grace and Peace,


  3. Well, when we open up to just everybody out there who says they are Christians we open up to doctrines which lead to the destruction of salvation; Creeds tell us where the faith is not, in its essentially apophatic quality. Christians for 2000 years have defined boundaries where doctrinal formulation and those who hold them cannot be in communion, and to suggest otherwise is to veer from the historic faith, and is, as the classical Anglicans would say, ‘a vain thing, fondly imagined.’ Such explorations are rooted in tremendous unexamined high self-esteem.
    It is also impossible to avoid creedal formulations; a creed can be eluted from our non-creedal premises above. The calling with Creeds is the calling to understand their use and their limits, not to reject them in entirety. Consider using your principle in the Scriptural narrative. Simon Magus, ‘okay, good buddy, you persistent sorceries are just fine; you say your are a Christian, so hunky dorey; same with the ones in Revelation who say they are Christians but are of the ‘synagogue of Satan’; and same with the gnostics in I John who deny the Incarnation; you say you are Christians, fine? Deny the Incarnation; fine; who am I to say you are not a Christian? How dare the Scripture writers to have creedal limits? How dare they say that to deny the Incarnation in I John 4:1 is the spirit of antiChrist? How dare the Scripture to include hymns that were early Christian creedal formulations? Don’t want creeds; go be a Buddhist.

    • Ben,

      You’re reading way too much into what I am saying in a simple blog post. First off, I never said by being open to all who profess Christian faith that we should do so by first abandoning our convictions at the door. Secondly, I am not talking about fellowship with those who deny the basic confession of Jesus (which I believe includes that he is the Son of God, Lord and Messiah) but fellowship between two or more people who all confess orthodox belief in Jesus but share different convictions as to how that belief finds expression among local churches. As for creeds…I believe they help us discern what is the historic Christian faith but (as I am sure we both know) they are just as problematic since they are also as much of a political-power move as they are a declaration of faith. For instance, which Nicene Creed shall we follow, the one with “filioque” or the one without? Or we might ask the question another way, to whom shall we ascribe authority to in the church, Rome or Constantinople?…after all, like all schisms among Christians, that one was as much about political power as it was theology. We just sleep better by telling ourselves that our creeds and the schisms they cause are about theology/doctrine and not the need to control.

      Grace and Peace,


  4. I don’t have a problem with asking “where are the boundaries and how do we know them”. They seem to me to be wise questions. The problem, I think, is the motivation behind the question, and often that’s something known only to God and the inquirer. We go astray when our motivation behind the boundary questions is to justify the boundaries that we have attempted to establish. We do well when our motivation is to learn what boundaries are already in place. Because, there are boundaries inherent in all human relationships.

    Some boundaries need to be crossed because they’re the wrong kind. Others need to be respected and maintained because they are the right kind. Discerning which boundaries to violate and which to maintain takes wisdom, so let’s pray for wisdom. And look to Jesus for insight. Jesus crossed lots of boundaries, but he also respected many. He touched “unclean” people but He was never accused by his enemies of eating anything unclean. When he cleansed the temple, he went into the courtyard, but he didn’t go into the holiest place (though he certainly had the right to). He is the one to show us where the boundaries are and he is the one to lead us within them, along them or over them, whichever is best.

  5. Pingback: Disciples and Christians | Kingdom Seeking

  6. I understand what you are saying but at some point you will have to ask the questions brought up by Ben. I know from personal experience.

    • I was being a bit hyperbolic as I realize that there are many professing Christians who need a better understanding of what it means to believe and live as a Christian. Like Priscilla and Aquila did with Apollos (Acts 18.24-26), we must try our best to teach such people “the way of God more adequately.” Doing that, however, doesn’t necessitate a sectarian stance.

      Grace and Peace,


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