In our efforts to understand the world, we classify and categorize, as we have done for centuries. We classify living organisms into various kingdoms, phylla, classes, orders, families, genuses, species and subspecies. We classify rocks, stars, galaxies, cars and even coffee. There is no doubt that classification has played a huge role in science – allowing scientists to make connections between various objects based on their similarities, which often leads to a better understanding of underlying phenomena. But we also know that classification can be very limited in its usefulness. There are always exceptions, in betweens, things that just don’t fit. With the recognition that all species on earth are interconnected through common ancestry, and that populations of living organisms evolve over time, the concept of ‘species’ has become very blurry.
Our Christian attempts to classify and categorize lead to similar conundrums. We are all very familiar with the many debates that rage within church circles about who is saved and who is not. Often, our tribal instincts get the better of us, as we try to draw lines between those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’. We then use names like ‘saved’ and ‘unsaved’, ‘believer’ and ‘non-believer’, to mark ourselves out from the rest. In evangelical circles, the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’ are often categorized based on whether one believes in a set of propositions about Jesus. And we often find that our categories fail miserably at the intersections – what about babies? What about the mentally challenged and ill? What about those who’ve never heard about Jesus the Messiah? Should we be concerned about such categories in the first place? Was Jesus ever concerned about who was in and who was out? I know the Pharisees were! Whenever Jesus talked about the ‘ins’ and ‘outs’, the tables would often be reversed. Those who think that they’re in will find out that they’re out, and those who think that they’re out, find that they’re in! Jesus was more interested in breaking the boundaries between the ‘haves and have-nots, Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, righteous and sinner. What if there are no fixed lines drawn in the sand? What if it’s not about which side of the line we’re on, but where we’re heading?
Some years ago, people began to define a sub-group of church attendees as ‘seekers’. Making room for seekers allows people to participate in the religious community as fully as they wish, yet without having to pretend that they believe things that they don’t believe. I sometimes wish that whole churches would describe themselves as seekers – Christian communities where every attendee brings what he or she knows and has experienced of God, yet where no one claims to have God fully figured out. But there’s also a downside to this term. It’s very meaning contrasts ‘seekers’ with ‘possessors’. So it tends to imply that the rest of the people in the community already have it, whereas the seekers are the second-class citizens who are merely trying to find it. This then tends to create yet another two-tiered system, another version of the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’. ~ Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology
Believe, behave, belong… this has been the dominant model of the church in its practice of discipleship for a long time. Philip Clayton sums it up succintly:
So we first sit down and try to believe the Christian propositions that people tell us we should believe. Then we try to behave in line with all these propositions. Finally, only when things are going well with the believing and behaving can we really belong, that is, be a member of the Christian community in good standing. ~ Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology
In recent years, my experiences as part of the community in South Perth Uniting Church have opened my eyes to an alternative model of discipleship, one that I believe is modeled after the way of Jesus: Belong, behave, believe…
I don’t perfectly understand all the details of Jesus’ Way, and I know that I don’t perfectly follow what I do understand. And here is the liberating insight: in that I find myself on this Way, I already belong. I may not be certain about many of the beliefs, and I may find myself continually falling short. I may have troubles with the institutional church. But I can’t help belonging to that group of people who are associated with this Way. That belonging comes first. We want to be his disciples. It doesn’t matter that we doubt, wander, wonder, and frequently knit our brows in confusion and despair. We are where we are. We join others who find themselves on the Way, and then, as we walk together, we struggle to clarify our beliefs and to get clearer on our calling and on the nature of the One who calls us. ~ Philip Clayton, Transforming Christian Theology