I grew up with a very black and white faith. As a Christian, there were certain things that I would never do and other things that I must do. There were certain things that I had to believe and other things that I had to reject. In many ways, living with a black and white faith was very safe. I had my internal checklist, which kept me well within the boundaries of orthodoxy. But there was a down side to it as well. It created a certain amount of guilt when I strayed into an area that was not clearly delineated in the Bible. Growing up in the 60’s, long hair, rock-n-roll, and fast dancing were the norm for young people. All three of these things were added to the list of don’ts for a good Christian kid. So the night I went to a dance at the junior high school as a part of the AV team caused me many hours of guilt. You might chuckle at that now, but it was serious to me then.
Growing up in an independent, fundamental church, I was suspicious of, and even a little afraid of, people who attended churches with a denominational label. To me, they fell outside of my black and white world. Then I went to college. Attending a Christian college, I was exposed to many kids who came from very different church backgrounds than I did. I quickly discovered that most of them had a genuine faith in Jesus Christ. We shared many of the same beliefs. Even though they carried a denominational label, they really lived out their faith. My black and white world began to take on a few shades of gray.
An experience that stands out for me can serve to illustrate my point. I became friends with a young man who had been in the Army, and had returned to go to college on the GI bill. He was a couple of years older than me, although he was in my class. He was serious about his studies and about his faith. While he had served in the Army, he had picked up the habit of smoking. Definitely on my “Christians don’t do this” list. It was against the rules at my college to smoke, but this young man was hooked. One day he asked me to do him a favor. He asked if I would drive his car out into the country so he could smoke. I did, and a friendship developed. I still think smoking is an unwise choice, but I learned that it is possible for a person to be a genuine Christian and struggle with this habit.
Several years later, I attended seminary. Many of my professors intentionally exposed me to a wide spectrum of theological thinking. Much of it was orthodox. Some of it was liberal. They did this intentionally to help us understand the complex world of theological thought. I found it stretching, refreshing and challenging. Their goal was not to make me a liberal; the opposite was true. Their goal was to prepare me for the world I was about to step into. One day, my roommate came home from class, obviously frustrated. “Why don’t they just tell us the truth,” he blurted out. He didn’t want to struggle with the breadth of theological thinking. He wanted black and white answers.
Recently, I have been reading a book that, from my perspective, comes across with a very black and white theology. The author aggressively and dogmatically makes his case that all Christians should do certain things. He calls into question the faith of those who don’t fall neatly within his black and white boundaries. I want to be clear that I do not disagree with many of the principles that he sets forth. He is right to challenge us to take our faith more seriously and stop coasting in our comfortable “church” experience. What I struggle with is that there is no gray in his message. For one who grew up with a black and white theology, his message is simplistic and judgmental. As I read, I feel some of the old, unrealistic guilt of my past creeping back in.
There are some fundamental truths about the Christian faith that are non-negotiable. God created the heavens and the earth. Man was created in the image of God. Sin came into the world through Adam and Eve, and has infected all of the human race. Jesus came to redeem a lost world. Jesus alone is the answer to our sin. Salvation comes through faith in Jesus alone. The Bible is God’s word; to be our authoritative guide for faith and practice. These are foundational.
But, I have learned over the past 30 years that, when it comes to living out our faith, there are many valid ways to do that. Unity in Christ does not mean that we all look alike, sound alike and act alike. There is no such thing as a cookie cutter Christian. God created each one of us with a specific personality and a specific set of gifts and talents. He wants to use this diversity to reach a very diverse world. Some Christians operate on the front lines, while others function more quietly in a supporting role. As Paul wrote, some plant, some water, but God gives the increase. Each of us has a part to play, and we will be held accountable for that. But we will not all play the same part.
I admire enthusiasm and passion, but it must be tempered to be effective. Enthusiasm without solid truth does damage to people. Truth without passion is dead. Jesus’ life was characterized by passion and compassion, by truth and grace, by confrontation and extravagant love.
There still is much black and white in my Christian life, which causes me to struggle and examine my faith. I am learning that the grace of God demands that I accept a little gray in the way other believers live out their faith. I am also learning to take the Gospel more seriously and myself less seriously.
Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted. Carry each other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ. If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. Each one should test his own actions. Then he can take pride in himself, without comparing himself to somebody else, for each one should carry his own load.