My salvation has been questioned more times than I’d like to relate. The last time, the knee-jerk reaction had to do with my apathy toward a particular theory of atonement. For that, my conversation partner resigned me to some corner of hell. I’ve always been perplexed by how some of my more minute theological convictions arouse such defensive divisiveness.
I grew up in rural, Evangelical Protestant Indiana. I can’t recall any Latin phrases weaseling their way into Sunday school, but my teachers always taught that faith in Jesus was the singular requirement for salvation. Without the Latin, my teachers were pretty good at inculcating me with the Protestant maxim, Sola Fide (faith alone). You can understand my befuddlement then, how can my lack of a stance on a particular theory of atonement undo my faith-based devotion to Jesus? I don’t think I’m alone. Our Christian context is fraught with others who have found themselves at the harsh end of a group’s or person’s anathematizing crusade.
These happenings often leave me asking, how is it that so many communities use something unrelated to faith in Jesus as a ground for disqualification? This is especially unfortunate given Jesus’s own powerful plea for the Church’s oneness (Jn. 17:20-23). The disparity between the divisive actions of the church and the doctrinal foundation of my Protestant forbearers has propelled me on a personal pursuit of unity; a unity I think I’ve found the nascent signs of in Newberg, Oregon.
In some ways, I moved to Oregon in 2010 with the hope of finding some seed of unity in the Northwest. It seemed to me then, and now, that Cascadia has been fertile ground for Postmodernity. Modernity, which ruled many facets of my Midwestern childhood, holds at its center objective certainty. In my experience, however, that center had as much to do with control as certainty. Christians that I observed needed doctrinal uniformity in order to feel a sense of control over their religious movement. Under Modern precepts, sometimes theological divergence feels like an uncontrollable force, wielding people toward impurity. Thus, even a small divergence on a broad topic like atonement can feel threatening to someone saturated in the Modern paradigm of my midwestern youth.
One of the opportunities of Postmodernity and its relativism is that people tend to feel free to let other people explore without feeling threatened. A journey toward truth is possible, even encouraged, in the context of relationship—I don’t mean to suggest that Postmodernity is altogether holy or righteous, nor that Modernity had nothing positive to offer the church, only that as we move forward, the cultural shift might afford the Church a fresh benefit.
In the Modern milieu, a journey toward anything other than theological uniformity typically results in a broken relationship. On the other hand, the still young swells of Postmodernism create an environment where two Christians of conflicting theological upbringings might graciously understand their theologies relative to Jesus and be open to journeying together toward their common Savior, regardless of the distance between their starting points. It is such gracious understanding that I, and others, seem to have stumbled upon in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
In 2011, I became a pastor of a small congregation in Newberg, OR. At the time, most of my ecumenical dreams slumbered under the heavy weight of pastoral responsibility—except for my monthly reminder, the Newberg Ministerial Association’s (NMA) luncheon.
I’d spend thirty days toiling in the dust of my congregation’s vortex and one day lifted above the debris by my relationship with local leaders of the worldwide Church. Such was my ministerial rhythm for the better part of two years. Then, a year ago or so, it hit me that I had become an isolated minister in one of America’s most over-churched communities.
I had become an isolated minister in one of America’s most over-churched communities.
Sure, I celebrated a meal with local pastors and nodded with approval during our announcements every month, but I barely knew their names; certainly not their dreams or their congregations’ dreams. I shudder to think that I thought of myself as united with these women and men just because I chomped on my carrot while listening to them remark on the weather or their kids’ baseball games. So I decided to cultivate something deeper.
Before I had the chance to act, another pastor invited me to lunch. Our conversation sparked something in me. He is a Calvinist and I a Wesleyan-Armenian. His church functions through hierarchy, my church functions by disdaining hierarchy. His church’s doctrines on baptism and the Lord’s Supper have almost no commonality with my own, except that we both practice them. Yet, our lunch had nothing to do with theological differentiation. What did we talk about?
We came to the table to encounter Jesus in the midst of one another’s story and work.
We talked about our struggle to get people to really follow Jesus. Differences of theological notion did not crush us, because we didn’t come to the table to change each other’s theology. We came to the table to encounter Jesus in the midst of one another’s story and work. We set out to share ideas on how we, as caretakers of God’s people, might nudge our communities closer and closer to our life-giving Lord.
Our mutual pursuit of Jesus quickly turned into a desire to see others in the NMA lay the groundwork for a thriving and united Church in Newberg. Last winter, the NMA decided to sponsor the Week of Prayer for Christian Unity. The decision was intentional. We didn’t want to celebrate a unity that did not already exist. Our hope was to pray for, and therefore foster, unity in our city. In observance of the week, we sent delegates from community congregations to pray a blessing over another church during Sunday morning services.
For instance, a deacon from our Roman Catholic parish attended one of Newberg’s most historic churches, Newberg Friends. As Friends pastor Gregg Koskela introduced the deacon, he said, “Quakers have often been on the fringes of the Christian body, but here today in our midst we have an ambassador from the trunk of the tree.” The deacon then took the stage and prayed for Newberg Friends’ blessing, growth, and centeredness on Christ. It was a moving moment mirrored by experiences across Newberg congregations that morning, and a sign, we hope, of reconciliation to come.
To my knowledge, no one asked the deacon to reconsider transubstantiation before he approached the lectern. And the deacon did not require Gregg to acquiesce to infant baptism before he accepted the invitation to pray. Jesus was the sole occasion and the singular focus of their encounter. It was to him that all in the room bowed their heads and implored.
I think this is the lesson we’re learning in Newberg. No one comes to NMA meetings hoping to be converted to Presbyterianism. We come because we share an allegiance to our Lord and God. Together we keep pressing onward because we trust him to lead. We, I think, have abandoned the notion that doctrine can hold us together. A journey, relative to Christ, on the other hand, now that seems to be working.
I do not mean to imply that one event has created a neo-reformation. We have a long way to go. Unity here is a fresh idea; it is small, fragile, and in need of gracious cultivation. There are areas where the church is still deeply divided, or at least ignorant of one another. Pastors around me often opine the incongruence between pastoral cohesion and congregational division. We all know that we must find a way to use our own budding unity to further unite parishioners in our town.
I asked Lionel Muthiah, the president of the NMA and a retired United Methodist minister, what he thought we needed to do to further the fruit of unity. He had several ideas, like a cluster of NMA sponsored outdoor worship services or an ecumenical picnic. His point, however that keeps bubbling up in my mind is that we have to engage every demographic, directing one and all to the Christ who is uniting us. With Lionel, I keep wondering if this unity can survive; if it can grow to seep its way into the gaps between our congregations? Will the continued growth of postmodern paradigms grant us a way forward? Will our town journey far enough that one day we’ll sit united at the feet of our Lord; brought there not by the machinations of theological distinctiveness, but by faith in Him alone?