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Belief, Belonging, and the Guy in Pew 18’s Trouble Moving Further Up and Further In

The pews in our historic sanctuary are numbered, a vestige of the days when members paid a pew tax to reserve their seats.

I might as well reserve my pew because I sit in the same place every week. You can find me smack dab in the middle on the left as you enter. When we returned recently after a couple of weeks away, a friend joked, “We didn’t let anyone sit in your seat while you were gone.”

But things aren’t as fixed as they seem. Left on her own, my wife would sit closer to the front. She’d rather be further up and further in, to borrow C.S. Lewis’s phrase. Not me. I’m close enough. I’m an introvert, comfortable in my spot between Marcia and Rich in the pew ahead and Randy behind. I’ve gotten used to Randy’s intonations during the Creed and Lord’s Prayer. Moving closer would disorient me.

(Before I go on, a brief excursus: What’s the deal grammatically with “further up, further in”? Shouldn’t it be “farther up, farther in”? Farther refers to distance, further means “more.” Is Port Huron farther than Lansing? Do you have any further instructions? I feel inadequate questioning C.S. Lewis on grammar, but isn’t this wrong? Or is this just a case of British English being different than American English? Or maybe is Lewis subtly showing us heaven isn’t a matter of geography but of the heart, and we can get more heaven if our heart wants to go further up and further in?)

Either way, I don’t want to go any farther or further at church. I’ve never been much of a joiner. If it were entirely up to me, I’d sit closer to the back, by the exit. I’m always restless. What was it that Groucho Marx said about not wanting to belong to a club that would have him as a member? But don’t misunderstand—even though I don’t want to sit up close, I love my church. I’m struggling with the church.

My struggles are a micro version of a macro issue. We’re in the midst of a great sorting, where many are wondering if they belong in church anymore. At issue are matters of belief. One response, typically from progressives, is to say belonging is more vital than belief.

Over the years, though, if you didn’t believe the right things, you didn’t belong. A century ago, William Butler Yeats wrote that “The worst are full of passionate intensity,” and passionate intensity about right belief has been on display of late. The machinations over right belief in the Christian Reformed Church this summer and last have been well documented by the Reformed Journal. About the same time as this summer’s CRC Synod, the Southern Baptists booted out Rick Warren’s Saddleback Church and its 23,000+ members because they ordain women. It’s hard to understand a move like that. Denominations are already in decline—this just speeds things up. But the Southern Baptists could not tolerate Rick Warren’s beliefs.

(Note to Rick Warren: I have a strong hunch the Reformed Church in America would welcome your assessment dollars many members.)

At least one of my problems is I don’t think “what” matters anywhere near as much as “how.” I don’t care what people believe as much as how they believe. I’m stuck on Paul in Colossians 3 saying that God’s people should clothe themselves in compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, peace, and, above all, love.

And I wonder if those who trade in passionate intensity aren’t motivated by belonging as well. Word is the most reliable predictor of whether an RCA congregation would stay in the denomination during its recent sorting was the make-up of the consistory. If the consistory was all white males, the congregation left. If the consistory included women and people of color, the congregation stayed. This certainly suggests holding onto power and control in a rapidly-changing world is at play more than right belief. I’m left to conclude the splintering of the RCA is about who gets to belong rather than belief.

After all, for over a century the RCA and CRC more or less believed the same things but had decided they didn’t belong together.

What is belief anyway? Most of the things I say I believe when we recite the creeds are more hopes than rock solid convictions. I hope the story about Jesus is true. I hope in the resurrection of the dead. I hope there is a heaven. Do I believe those things? Most of the time.

Some have found freedom leaving the church, yet for me to stop believing doesn’t feel like liberation, it feels like an invitation to a pit of despair. I fight despair by attending worship. In worship I am pulled along by the others in our community. I join my voice with Marcia and Rich and Randy and everyone else and they help me believe.

Still, belief seems like a shaky foundation to build so much on. There are people who believe the world is flat. There are people who believe the moon landing was staged. There are people who believe the universe is 6000 years old. There are people who believe the Holocaust was a hoax. Facts, in the form of visual and scientific evidence, don’t make any difference. They have their beliefs. There are people who believe arming everyone will reduce gun violence. As the world has the hottest summer on record, there are people who do not believe in climate change. In the post-QAnon world of alternative facts, how reliable is belief?

Closer to home, a friend of mine was asked if he was a five point Calvinist. “About three and a half,” was his reply.

Me too. I’d go further up and further in with Jesus anytime. But the body of Christ as it is being expressed these days? I can’t go further. Or farther.

Jeff Munroe

Jeff Munroe is the editor of the Reformed Journal. 


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    For me church is about the presence of the Living God.

  • Rena says:

    Further is older in use. Huge safari info when u look into it. 🙂 but a great way to introduce your theme.

    Personally for me its belief in Jesus christ risen. Repentance and forgiveness.
    Not in any organised religion. We go to ‘church’ to be encouraged and guided in faith. To build up not put down. So many divisions make a mockery of the unity in Christ. Very interesting points worth pondering in this blog. Thank you

  • RZ says:

    Great questions, Jeff!
    We “heady” Calvinists rightfully challenged the Roman church’s capacity and authority to gatekeep salvation at the Reformation. But then we (unintentionally) elevated the written word over the risen WORD, effectively substituting one addiction (idol?) for another. And it is not just the written word but our creedal version of the written word we “believe” in. Belief “seems like a shaky foundation to build so much on.” You are quite correct. Our strength, namely a thoughtful, reasoned and reformable orthodoxy, has now become our stumbling block. As you point out, our belief can be easily manipulated by convenient self-delusion in the form of either traditional or alternative “facts.” Sorry to be provocative, but is this not the underlying message of every prophetic voice? My hope and prayer is that those leaving the church are not necessarily leaving the faith.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      I guess I disagree with you both that belief is a shabby foundation.

      • JEFF MUNROE says:

        Hi Daniel – I appreciate your comments (as always). I meant it is shaky in the sense that dividing over doctrinal disagreements and interpretations never ends. Such is the history of Protestantism. And “belief” is a strange thing in a world where so many believe “alternative facts.”

        • Henry Baron says:

          Yes, an important point worth pondering and applying to our own set of controversial “beliefs.”

  • JH says:

    Leaving the church doesn’t mean one stops believing. And for a person who has trouble believing the church wants them, it is confirmed when they enter a church and don’t dare sit down for fear of taking the seat of a person who “belongs”. JR

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    This may be too simplistic, but the ‘beliefs’ we are staying or leaving for seem to fall into the outer ring of the concentric circles that define my faith. Belief in the risen Christ who came and is coming again, present in our world through our faith and actions, is the absolute center. The outer rings contain man-made interpretations that can vary through the lens of time and, the dirty word, culture. I’m staying with my church, because Christ established it, imperfect and flawed though it is and has been throughout history. I will only leave when they throw me out.

    • Peter Roukema says:

      Well said! So much of Church history is about controversy and schisms that were at best tangentially related to what the faith is about. That’s why decades later everyone agrees the issue wasn’t worth a split. I wish we weren’t making the same mistake again, and will still pray that we won’t. Let’s keep the main thing the main thing.

  • RZ says:

    Regarding belief….I have no better substitution than belief to suggest, but it seems like we overplay that card. “It is by grace you have been saved THROUGH ( not BY) faith.” I just cannot accept a simple ( Romans 10: 9) formula that depends on a certain threshold of belief or verbal affirmation. Faith development is a fluud process in my experience.

    • Daniel Meeter says:

      Neither can I, on those terms. But consider the Gospel of John, count how many times the verb “believe” is used, how often Our Lord invites “believing,” and the summary, “These things are written that you may believe. . . ” Granted, “belief” in John is more relational than doctrinal, but it is not non-doctrinal. If people ask us the most basic existential questions, we need to respond with statements, we do need particular things to confess–thus our Ecumenical Creeds. Also, The Acts calls St. Paul’s first converts “believers,” because they responded to his message, and that message had real and specific content.

  • Mark S. Hiskes says:

    Thanks for raising these great questions and, as always, for making me smile and making me think.

    Again I’m reminded of Alice Walker’s short story, “The Welcome Table,” where an old black woman one Sunday morning walks into an all-white church and sits down in a pew. The parishioners are in a tizzy about what to do. Finally, the preacher approaches the bewildered old woman and says, “Auntie, you know this is not your church?” In her head she thinks, “As if one could choose the wrong one.” She’s literally dragged out of the church by the elders and the doors are shut on her, so that they could all get on with their worship. Walker tells us then that “they sang. they prayed. The protection and promise of God’s impartial love grew more not less desirable as the sermon gathered fury.”

    Meanwhile, the old woman walks down the empty highway, where she sees, farther on, Jesus walking toward her at a “leisurely pace.”

    “All he said when he got up close to her was “Follow me.'” And she did.

  • Phil Coray says:

    Currently reading Richard “Rohr’s Book Silent Compassion: Finding God in Contemplation”, and trying to understand (sense} trusting in propositions of faith rather than living with the mysteries of faith, the recent responses in RJ should be of help.

  • Jack says:

    Brave Jeff, Brave Mark,
    Thank you so much.
    I gave up belief a long time ago. Why? Because I have no idea what it means. Despair seems more loving. I ain’t a cowardly lion for nothin’

  • Deb Mechler says:

    For my part, I’ve been substituting “I trust” for I believe” when reciting the Apostles Creed. It helps me affirm what I stake my life on and reminds me that my faith is a relationship with the living God and the church of Jesus Christ. It helps me get it all out of my head and into my heart and gut. Thanks for a thoughtful treatment of what we wrestle with.

  • John Hubers says:

    Turns out there is a difference in how “further” and “farther” are used by the Brits. Mostly interchangable to them:

  • Rowland Van Es, Jr. says:

    James had a word or two about faith/belief vs. action/deeds. The song says, they will know we are Christians by our love but what the world sees (and what our children see) is not much love in the church these days. As you say, it’s more about power, holding on to power, and fear of losing money and influence in the world. Samuel said, to obey is better than sacrifice and Jesus said, if you love me, you will keep my commandments. Too much of church is fighting about right beliefs (ortho-doxy) when we should be working on our right conduct or practice (ortho-praxis). We need to do justice, practice hospitality, etc. and not just talk about it.

  • Paul Janssen says:

    Jeff, you ask “Or is this just a case of British English being different than American English?” When making a comparison of this sort (especially in a paragraph that quibbles over the difference between ‘further’ and ‘farther’), isn’t the correct expression “different from” rather than “different than”? I’m only halfway being picayune here. “Different from” sounds better to me, but “different than” may be perfectly acceptable. This inquiring mind, however, wants to know. (And as to your larger point, if by “belief” you mean mere “intellectual credence” and leave out trust altogether, then you’re on the right track, it seems. “Belief” means too many things to be corralled into one enclosure, I suspect.)

  • Neil Carlson says:

    The church has been found swept clean and ready for repossession by the spirits of schism, contempt, accusation, gossip, vengefulness, self-aggrandizement, and cruelty. Staying “in” may well be an act of faithful obedience to our merciful Lord, but it means constant exposure to these canny works of Satan. I have repented of showing contempt and expressing vengefulness and will likely have to do so again. But such words run against my lifelong pattern, and I suspect I never would have been so tempted had not remote, smug believers who do not know me at all nevertheless exerted themselves to convict and expel me through insinuation and clever political manipulations, not for sin but for “policy.” I want to get closer to Jesus, but I prefer to get further away from the growing culture of stoning and crucifixion.

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