I have never fit that well in the Southern Baptist tradition. Don’t get me wrong, I love my church, my pastor and my friends, but I’ve never felt like I totally fit in. In fact, I hate telling people I go to a Southern Baptist church. Whenever I do I always cringe for a moment, and then quickly explain that it’s not like your “stereotypical” Southern Baptist church. Because of this, I have thought for some time now that sooner or later I would leave the Southern Baptist denomination and find a church full of people who are more like me. Sooner or later I would settle down at a nice church where I am not a theological black sheep.
But perhaps it’s not that simple. As I reflect on my past involvement with churches and other Christian groups, I see that I’ve had similar feelings of isolation long before coming to a Southern Baptist church. I was raised at a Presbyterian USA church, which tends to be a very liberal denomination. The church is definitely not evangelical, so even though I care greatly for the people there and have felt very loved by them, I was very uncomfortable with their theology, and never totally felt like I was one of them. And then there’s Duke Divinity School. I have loved my time there, and I have been shaped in my faith so profoundly that I think my ministry will be forever strengthened because of it. However, people at Duke Div tend to be very suspicious of ultra-conservative churches and mega-churches–churches like the one I currently attend. And oftentimes in class I was the “conservative girl” who said things that no one else ever seemed to agree with, so I left class many days feeling discouraged and alone. I certainly didn’t feel like I fit in there either.
So now I am left wondering–given that I have never felt totally at home with any of the Christian bodies in which I’ve been a part, should I be so sure that there is such a place? As I look to my future and consider where I might go to find a church of people “just like me,” does such a place even exist?
I’m discovering that the answer to this question is “no.” Why? Because I have actually begun to *like* setting myself apart. I have come to relish my rebel status. By not embracing any one denomination or group of Christians, I have maintained a level of deniability when Christians do something embarrassing or hurtful like boycotting Disney. I may attend a Southern Baptist church, but I have still distanced myself enough that I can say, “Don’t worry, I’m not like them. I’m different.” In this way I am never truly connected to a group, so I have a nice buffer in case I need to distinguish myself from them. I won’t ever have to be labeled with their mistakes, or their sin.
The problem with this mentality is twofold…
First, it sets the standard for church membership at an impossible level. There is no perfect church, so as long as perfection is my standard for committing to a church, then I will never join one, at least not whole-heartedly. I actually have a lot of friends who are Christian but never join a church for that exact reason–they love Jesus but hate the church, so they treat the church like it’s an expendable part of the faith. Nevermind that the Church is the very Body of Christ–they don’t want to be hassled with annoying Christians, so they ignore the inconvenient parts of Christianity that they don’t like.
What is ironic about this mentality is that it’s extremely hypocritical. It points fingers of judgment at everyone but yourself. I think C.S. Lewis makes this point the best in his book “The Screwtape Letters.” He explains that as we sit in church and silently judge everyone else around us, we never pause to consider, “If I, being what I am, can consider that I am in some sense a Christian, why should the different vices of those people in the next pew prove that their religion is mere hypocrisy and convention?” Thus we have a double standard for ourselves–we can be Christian and still be sinful, but others cannot. And so we judge the church in a move that can only be labeled as illogical at best.
The second problem with distancing ourselves from the church is that we are actively denying our identity in Christ. When we decide to place our identity in Christ, we must accept the reality that we are now one with every other person who has done the same. We now have more in common with every Christian that has ever lived than with some of our own family members because we’ve got the same spiritual DNA. But when we distance ourselves from other Christians, we deny that we share an identity with them, which means we are ultimately denying our identity in Christ. To be in Christ is to be united with other Christians. You cannot split the two–they are one in the same.
But in addition to denying our identity in Christ, we also deny the ability of Christ to work through his own Body. We feel the need to distance ourselves when Christians do stupid things because we don’t *really* think Christ is capable of defending his own reputation, or ours. We feel that we need that distance so we can tell people, “Don’t worry, those aren’t the best examples of Christians, but just look at my life instead.” But at the bottom of this thinking is a works-based righteousness. We are unwilling to surrender our reputations, or our churches, into Christ’s hands, and trust that He will work redemptively through them. Instead, we fend for ourselves and we practice Christianity the way we think it should be be practiced so that we don’t get labeled with those other bad Christians. And when we do this, we deny that Christ is at work in them. Somehow we know what’s better for Christianity than God does.
So this mentality of believing that I don’t fit in anywhere is not so much a commentary on the Southern Baptist church, or even the universal Church, as it is symptomatic of my hypocrisy and pride. It reveals that I think I am better than everyone, and it reveals that I trust myself more than Christ to defend my reputation and the reputation of the Church. I think those two elements are a good litmus test for whether or not our condemnations of various denomination are legitimate. I suspect that oftentimes they are not. It is much more difficult to choose unity in Christ than to opt for division, because unity requires humility when other Christians do stupid things. It also requires trusting that God is fulfilling His promise to work through the Church, even when it feels like He’s not. Hopefully I can get to that point, and start embracing this Body of Christ that I am a part of, instead of being embarrassed by it. What a tragedy to be embarrassed by the hands and feet of my Savior…