When you see the image above, what do you believe is being represented? Is it strange storm patterns, political partisanship within a certain area of the country, an incredibly inefficient layout of highways, or could it be a child’s messy coloring page?
In fact, this image is a collection of gps tracking data that follows six different wolf packs in the area of Voyageurs National Park in northern Minnesota, near the Canadian border. Each color represents a different pack and their territory that spans around 50-70 square miles. But notice the obvious – their territorial lines are sharp and it is extremely rare for any of the packs to cross over into land claimed by others. That is the way that nature and wildlife tend to work and, while the idea of territory makes perfect sense in their context, it makes far less sense within a community of humans, believers and unbelievers alike, who wish to see common thriving (Jeremiah 29:7).
When I see the image of the wolf-packs and their territories, I think of two things in the context of the Church:
- The tendency to create our own physical “territories” for our chosen church and seeing other churches as competition for “resources” (i.e. people in our communities)
- The tendency to create ideological “territories” for our chosen denomination or theological leaning and seeing other views as less-than or even unredeemable
The young adults are studying the differences between the vast array of Christian denominations. One of the topics of discussion is that different denominations seek God through their different perspectives, but even while they differ in small ways, the focus does not. If Christ is their Savior, then they are our family. That’s not to say we should not continue to try and understand God as accurately as possible, but we cannot divide the Bride of Christ into warring factions depending on how they view the Calvinism vs. Arminianism debate, sprinkling vs. submersion baptism, or whether to take communion weekly or once a year.
C.S. Lewis explained it very thoughtfully in his radio presentations that were collected into the book Mere Christianity. He compares doctrines of God to scientific theories when he explains, “What [scientists] do when they want to explain the atom, or something of that sort, is to give you a description out of which you can make a mental picture. But then they warn you that this picture is not what the scientists actually believe. What the scientists believe is a mathematical formula. The pictures are there only to help you to understand the formula.” In other words, they write out a representation of that which they are describing on a sheet of paper. The representation in ink or graphite on the page are not the atom, itself, obviously.
In the same way, doctrines are not God. They are our best understandings of how He works. When two individuals who believe in God and have accepted Jesus as their Savior – who are biblically recognized as brothers or sisters in Christ – choose to weaponize their understandings of how God works against each other, they actually prioritize the man-made explanation of God’s ways over God Himself who commands unity within His singular Bride.
Lewis describes a specific debate when he says, “We are told that Christ was killed for us, that His death has washed out our sins, and that by dying He disabled death itself. That is the formula. That is Christianity. That is what has to be believed. Any theories we build up as to how Christ’s death did all this are, in my view, quite secondary: mere plans or diagrams to be left alone if they do not help us, and, even if they do help us, not to be confused with the thing itself.”
Understanding this, then, we rekindle our passion for the actual Person and work of Jesus Christ and not simply our chosen denominational expressions or, especially, the draw to prove that our church is better than any others. Because of that, we cross those territorial boundaries often. We fellowship with other believers who hold to a different church structure than ours. We meet and share meals with believers who handle communion differently or who see societal issues and how God is working through them differently than us. Though we differ, we are one.
Of course, this line of thinking is specific to Christian denominations. If there is a theological system that runs contrary to that which was seen in and taught by the life of Christ and the words of the Scriptures, it is most loving to speak convincingly of His truth. However, His truth should always be presented in love for the audience and never in rude or prideful confrontation.
Love you all,
Young Adult Minister – Evan McNeff