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During seminary, a professor who would later become a mentor and friend, the missional theologian Darrell Guder, taught our class something that that has stayed with me through the years.
“If someone tells you they are a Christian, believe them,” he said. Accept them as a sibling in Christ. Don’t sever fellowship on account of theological differences.
A seminary middler at the time, I was already deep into the territory that would make his advice not merely wise but indispensable. By the time I had journeyed from the buckle of the Bible belt, Tulsa Oklahoma, to the hallowed academic halls of Princeton New Jersey, I’d been warned a few times not to “lose my faith.” As if heading to seminary had not been a step of faith.
Perhaps these well-meaning spiritual mentors were simply wise to the fact that theological study can be disorienting, that rigorous examination of one’s faith often traverses a spiritual wilderness.
However, I think their advice carried a subtle warning about the kind of Christianity I was likely to meet in this cradle of Mainline Protestantism. Could these “liberal” Christians even be called such? Were they even really Christians?
In the first semester of my MDiv studies there were plenty of conversations that might have led those well-meaning mentors to wonder. I studied Greek with classmates who understood salvation to be liberation from physical oppression and others who understood it in exclusively spiritual terms.
In chapel, I worshiped alongside peers who were fighting for a woman’s right to choose and others who were just as committed to protecting the life of the unborn. Some of my neighbors revered Jesus as a social revolutionary and others as a sacrificial lamb. In class, we debated whether suffering could ever be redemptive and whether Scripture was a source of sexual ethics.
My former self would have wondered at the company I kept, were it not for one overwhelming factor: these companions of mine loved Jesus. That I could no longer doubt. They spoke of Jesus with as much love, sung with as much fervor, and lived with as much grace as the most grace-filled exemplars I’d known so far.
What’s more, they loved me.
One person stands out, in particular. We were across the aisle from each other on most questions of hermeneutics, but she pursued friendship with me with a constancy and grace that was undeniable. Not out of a desire to change me, but out of the ordinary shared activities and loves that forge people as friends.
“If someone tells you they are a Christian, believe them.”
This is a hard rule to accept, considering the diversity of the Christian church. Ought we extend this recognition to those whose theological bearings we despise, whose scriptural interpretation we find misguided, and whose ethical judgments we consider unjust and harmful?
To many Christians, Dr. Guder’s advice sounds misguided, as though we were meant to give up on the importance of truth, but that could not have been Dr. Guder’s conclusion. His theology is, on the whole, conservative. A missional theologian, Dr. Guder delights in getting churchgoers to say the word “evangelism” again.
Dr. Guder insisted that anxiety about the boundaries of the Christian family does not serve, but actually harms our Christian witness.
Why is this so?
One of his inspirations was the missiologist and theologian Lesslie Newbigin. In The Gospel in a Pluralist Society, Newbigin argues that preoccupation with the question “Who can be saved?” is always the wrong question. Newbigin’s focus there is our preoccupation with discerning the destiny of those outside of the Christian community. How much more emphatic are his words for the Christian community itself!
Anxiety about who’s in and who’s out is always wrong headed. Newbigin gives three reasons for this assertion. The first is that “it is a question to which God alone has the right to give the answer.” As Dr. Guder used to tell us, we’ve been called as witnesses. There is only one Judge.
The second reason offered by Newbigin is that such questions tend to ignore bodies in favor of souls, and to ignore life histories in favor of afterlives. By contrast, the good news of Scripture is holistic in scope.
The third and final reason Newbigin says we should give up fretting over the bounds of salvation is also the most important: By focusing on an individual’s status we mistake the goal of God’s ongoing redemptive purposes. We replace God’s epic story of creation’s redemption with the narrow stories of individuals.
For Newbigin, a better question is “What is the meaning and goal of this common human story in which we are all, Christians and others together, participants?” In other words, the truth claims regard who God is and what God is doing, not the status of our neighbors. (Newbigin was not, by the way, a universalist.)
Despite what one might assume at first glance, refusing to foreclose on the salvation of others or to deny their status as Christians doesn’t mean shying away from truth claims. On the contrary, if we assume that God is already at work beyond our ken, we will want to listen as well as share what we know of God’s reconciling work. We will want to give witness to the Gospel made known to us in Jesus Christ. We will even, surely, want to argue about what is true. In fact, those arguments will stand to be far more productive when they don’t begin with the wrong questions.
In the decade that I ended up spending at Princeton Seminary, Newbigin’s wisdom would bear its fruit manyfold in both life and study. I would learn the many gifts—both spiritual and intellectual—of receiving my neighbors as siblings in Christ.