4 Jesus: Keep the Christ in Christianity

The Boundaries or the Center?

“And I tell you that you are Peter, a little rock; and on this huge mass of bedrock—this heaven birthed revelation of who I am—I will build My church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it.”

A building is defined by its foundation. The depth and strength and extent of a foundation determine whether the structure erected on it will hug the ground or scrape the sky. An engineer would ignore this principle only at his own risk—and at the peril of both the workmen and the eventual occupants of that building.

Jesus has defined for us the foundation of the church. He is that foundation. And who we perceive Him to be determines who we can become. That fact really should determine how we think and how we function as local assemblies of believers.

Two Ways to Define the Local Church

"In practice, though, how do local gatherings of saints seek to establish their identities? There are two basic approaches. We can try to establish our boundaries, or we can try to define our center.

Imagine a town full of people. Some claim to be believers; some don’t. We have a hard time telling who is a true believer and who isn’t; we can’t readily discern which of the unbelievers are “white unto harvest” and which are “sons of destruction.” Yet we recognize that Jesus wants a church—whatever that means to us—rather than a hodgepodge of isolated individuals. So what do we do?

Well, we could proceed by a group of us getting together and deciding on some boundaries: “OK. Here are the criteria for who’s part of the church. Here are our lines of fellowship. Everyone on this side of the line is in. Everyone on that side is out. You guys inside the lines: you are the church. So act like one! And while you’re at it, see if you can start educating those outsiders about the lines so they’ll come inside, too, and be a part of us.”

Sounds logical—but let’s take a closer look. How have local assemblies taking the “boundary” approach chosen their lines of fellowship?

Some have adopted human reason and intellect as the line of fellowship. These assemblies emphasize correct doctrine, by which they mean an arbitrary collection of approved concepts and teachings. The scriptures are distilled down in the acid of human rational analysis, and the supposed essence of Christianity remains. The church is composed of those who believe this teaching about the End Times, and that doctrine about church government, and this other concept about conversion...and on and on and on. Accept the creed (whether written or not) and you are in; disagree significantly, and you are out. (In fact, disagree with enough points and your salvation could be seriously in jeopardy!)

Others have chosen religious experiences that emphasize human emotional response to God as their identifying characteristic. The “insiders” are those who profess to have had a certain ecstatic experience or to have received certain spiritual gifts. A lack of such outward religious manifestations at the very least calls into question a person’s spirituality.

Still other groups find their identity in the deeds they will do for God. Willpower sets the boundary and the group goal becomes the consuming passion. Maybe the group wants to evangelize the world in one generation, or maybe it wants to establish social justice or influence the political climate. Regardless, the goal becomes the focus. If you can embrace and make a positive contribution towards that goal, you are welcome. If not...

These descriptions are not intended to be hyper-critical or oversimplified. Usually the boundaries we choose are a blend of these emphases. And rarely does any assembly set out consciously to establish an identity in this way. But this approach, conscious or not, has some serious consequences.

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