Seeking transformation through the renewal of our minds
Living a centered life
Responding to Brandon Gaide’s “big tent” question about church boundaries
by Jeffrey A. Schooley
A couple months ago Brandon Gaide posed on this blog a really challenging question about the boundaries we set as a church. “Exactly how big is the tent?” he asked. Judging at least by the metrics of readership and comments, this question struck a nerve.
While it’s been a few months, I want to use this column to weigh in on the conversation he began (oh, yeah, he also had a good column a month later about conversations). One of the great virtues of this Presbyterians Today blog is that we do not have to begin and end a thoughtful and faithful conversation at the normal pace of the “news cycle” in popular media. Pondering, mulling, and ruminating are not only possible; they are preferred.
Gaide helpfully summarized his central concern: “As I understand it, identity requires boundaries. My marriage, for example, is exclusive to my wife and me. If we lost the exclusivity of our marriage, it would no longer be clear what we had between us. Boundaries help us know who we are—and who we’re not.”
This is where, I fear, Gaide misses the mark—at least theologically speaking.
In the natural sciences, borders are used for identification. Whole systems of classifications—such as the taxonomy of organisms into the ranks of family, genus, species, etc.—require clear borders for comprehension. And insofar as this serves the natural sciences, good for them. But Christians are unique animals, and the standards and practices of the natural sciences just don’t work for us. Rather than finding our identities along guarded borders, we find them in our shared center, Jesus Christ.
I will confess outright that I owe this observation to M. Craig Barnes, current president of Princeton Theological Seminary. It is a point he often made as both my former professor at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary and pastor at Shadyside Presbyterian Church. Never did a new-members class go by without Barnes drawing a large circle with just one open entry point. In the middle of this circle was another circle, Jesus Christ.
He would explain that this was how many Christian traditions viewed membership. One entered the larger circle (a particular tradition or denomination) through the approved access point in order to move toward the center, Jesus Christ. But in the Reformed tradition, he would say, the larger, outer circle has been perforated again and again so that there is no single access point, but still a shared center.
Why does the Reformed Tradition do this? Because history and experience have taught us that not only does Jesus Christ call folks to Himself in a variety of ways, but also because the creation and elevation of a single access point causes us to idolize that point more than the center.
‘When we spend our time building up our walls, we turn our backs on the center. . . our Lord Jesus Christ. . . . Indeed, in certain circumstances it is Jesus Christ Himself who marches around our walls, blowing his trumpet, and watching them crumble.’
Furthermore, Christians have an unhealthy obsession (and I hope Gaide does not take this as an ad hominem attack, because it is not meant in that way) with girding their walls. They do this for the precise reason Gaide mentioned: it gives them a sense of identity . . . and even more importantly, security.
Yet notice that something interesting—tragic, but interesting—happens when we spend our time building up our walls: we turn our backs on the center.
For Barnes—and I suspect for most Christians—this isn’t the way we want to live our lives. We, instead, want to live facing the center, our Lord Jesus Christ. We want Him to gift us an identity. And, deep down, we are all aware that any wall we build for ourselves—that is, any identity that we’ve reinforced—can just as easily be torn down. Indeed, in certain circumstances it is Jesus Christ Himself who marches around our walls, blowing his trumpet, and watching them crumble. He does this not because He desires violence against us but because He deserves our attention on Him.
To be fair, I am sure that Gaide thought he was discussing this Jesus-is-our-center notion that I’m proposing, but I still suspect he was more interested in our own weak, meandering, incomplete understandings of Jesus. Gaide is concerned, I think, that we might even have different center circles and fundamentally different understandings of who Jesus is. But Jesus isn’t at the center by our own will, beliefs, or actions. Jesus is at the center by the will, love, and grace of our Heavenly Father. In short, we don’t define Christ; Christ defines us.
Gaide is remarkably open and vulnerable in his reason for wanting good walls: “The dog I have in this fight is a desire to know the identity of the organization to which I’ve given my ordination vows. I’ve given my allegiance to the PC(USA). But to whom exactly did I make my vows? Like Jacob, I feel like I’ve married someone whom I assume is Rachel, but the veil is too thick to be certain.”
And since I’ve “plagiarized” Barnes once, I shall do so again. In a 2008 column, Barnes discusses relationships using the story of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel. The sum total of his analysis: “Whoever it is that you love, that person is both Leah and Rachel. You may love one more than the other, but they are wrapped into the same person.” It is Rachel who draws us in, but it is Leah who is there too.
I know that Gaide was drawing an analogy from marriage and not writing about marriage, but I suspect Barnes’s insights still hold true. Gaide’s ordination was to the whole big tent, because his real vows were to its center post, Jesus Christ. He gets More Light Presbyterians and The Layman. He gets pro-Israel and pro-Palestine. And he gets these folks because they—like he—are identified not by the walls they build, but by centering their lives on Jesus Christ.
Gaide wants to know where he is and to whom he is married. It is a fair question, but all I can see in his column is one of Barnes’ conclusions: “Not long after you are together, you discover you didn’t get just Rachel. You’re also very involved with Leah, and you can work for years trying to turn her into Rachel.”
And so there is a warning in there too. There is a warning to avoid attempting to turn Leah into Rachel. It isn’t fair to Leah; it isn’t fair to Rachel; and it isn’t fair to you. For a very long time the PC(USA) was vested with a terrible homogeneity. We had one confession, one major demographic in the pews, and a hierarchical, top-down polity. All of that has—blessedly—changed. But that change means we must be excited to accept Rachels and Leahs alike because of their shared orientation toward Jesus Christ, the center of our faith.
Maybe it was Rachel who wooed Gaide to the PC(USA) after his time being “denominationally promiscuous,” but it is Leah whom he gets to love too. Why? Because Jesus loves Rachel and Leah alike, and Jesus has been placed at the center of our identity.
Jeffrey A. Schooley is a teaching elder at Center Presbyterian Church in McMurray, Pennsylvania. He is also a PhD in Theology candidate at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. Biking, Netflix, reading, teaching, and spending time with his wife and dog round out the rest of his life. He can be reached at ThinkLikeChristians@gmail.com.