In 2003, my family visited a neighborhood Church of Christ congregation. We had left the denomination in 1997 but went out of respect for relatives in town for the weekend. One of them decided to fill out a visitor card for us — you know, the card that says you want more information and the church should contact you.
A few days later, a letter came thanking us for visiting and inviting us to return. It also highlighted what set this congregation apart. Such letters are common — and they are usually short, a few sentences at most.
welcome…and here’s what we’re against
This letter was a full page, single-spaced. The list of things that “set this congregation apart” was long, and detailed. Though it did identify a few things that the congregation offered, such as a mother’s day out program, the bulk of the letter was about what this church opposed. Given my upbringing, I could have written the letter myself — but I never would have thought to send it to a visitor.
The letter troubled me, but I wasn’t surprised. And though it came from a Church of Christ congregation, I suspect that other denominations could write something similar. The church world I knew until 2012 is fond of black and white thinking. Divisions are clear and easy: saved and lost; right and wrong; church and world.[1. Since then, I’ve seen black and white thinking in mainline churches. That’s no surprise — it’s human nature to seek clear divisions. In my experience, their lines tend to be about issues of social justice rather than who’s going to hell. And it doesn’t seem to dominate the way they present themselves to the world.]
Of course, the Bible sometimes offers binary perspectives. Genesis opens with dark and light; the Apostle John begins his gospel with that same contrast. St. Paul offers contrasts of flesh and spirit, sin and righteousness, law and grace.
us versus them
And then there’s Jesus. He too offers a clear contrast: “whoever is not for us is against us.” It’s a clear dividing line—us and them. This us/them mentality is what I learned in evangelical churches, though it was perhaps more pronounced in the Churches of Christ. Growing up, it really was just us and them; those of us in the Church of Christ were the only ones going to heaven, and all of them—i.e., everyone else in the world — were going to hell. This mentality isn’t bad by default; it can be an impetus to service and enacting the Great Commission — that is, it can motivate love for others. But it often doesn’t stop there.
Instead, binary thinking about doctrine becomes oppositional thinking about people: they aren’t with us, so they must be against us. Such thinking is not unique to Christianity; oppositional perspectives dominate public discourse. It’s harmful anywhere, but I believe it’s more so among Christians. It contradicts what Jesus said would set us apart: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35 NRSV). N. T. Wright comments that “we have defined the ‘one another’ so tightly that it means only ‘love the people who reinforce your own sense of who you are.’ ”[1. N. T. Wright, John for Everyone: Part 2, p. 56.]
I’ve seen the problems with this thinking since a friend introduced me to Christian singer Twila Paris in the late ’80’s. Her music blessed me — even as I wondered how she could write praise songs but still go to hell (because she wasn’t Church of Christ). My goal since that time has been, as Jesus said, to know people by their fruit (Matthew 7:16ff; Luke 6:43ff). I saw the fruit of Paris’s ministry, and knew that something needed to change.
“Do not stop him”
And I pondered Jesus’ words that I quoted earlier: “whoever is not for us is against us.” Here’s the context: the disciples tells Jesus they have seen someone casting out demons in Jesus’ name. One of them says, “we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.” It’s that us/them thinking — the disciples were looking for divisions. He’s not with them, so he must be against them.
Jesus confirms this thinking, right? He replies, “whoever is not for us is against us.” Except that he doesn’t. Here’s his reply:
Jesus is clear: if someone does miracles in his name, they aren’t against him. In Luke’s telling, Jesus removes even the necessity of a miracle:
Notice how Jesus thinks about this: he doesn’t divide or set the boundary close — limiting the circle, as Wright says, to “people who reinforce your own sense of who you are.” That’s what the disciples wanted to do. That’s what many Christians want to do; it’s that oppositional thinking, us versus them.
broadening the circle
Instead, Jesus makes it easy for his followers. He broadens the circle, sets a more generous boundary: if they are not explicitly against you, they are for you. In other words, Jesus says the opposite of what I “quoted” near the start of the post.
We likely don’t misquote Jesus’ response to the disciples as I did at first, but we act as if that’s what it says. I was taught to distrust anyone’s faith: prove you’re a real Christian (and I have a 5-point checklist to help us know for sure). The default assumption was that everyone was against us; everyone was them.
Jesus appears to go the other way: assume they are for you until they prove otherwise. Assume that they and us are, in fact, we. I have discovered incredible freedom in this. No longer am I called to sort each person I meet into the “lost” or “saved” category. No longer do I have to think in terms of divisions. I don’t go out expecting to meet heathens hellbent on destroying the world (though I recognize that some people do want destruction).
I go out expecting to find evidence of God’s grace in a variety of people and places. My job is no longer to “save” people; it’s to plant seeds that God can use as he sees fit.[3. See 1 Corinthians 3:5 – 7.] I do this by loving them and assuming the best until I see a need to do otherwise. Am I taken advantage of sometimes? Yes. And I am sometimes disappointed and hurt by people who turn out not to be what I thought.
But I’ll take my chances with disappointment and hurt. They are preferable any day to a perspective that says I’m going to encounter opposition everywhere I go and in everyone I meet. That perspective may not bring much disappointment since it expects little. Yet it seems bound to bring me pain, if only because it forces me to go through life with my guard up.
I said earlier that I realized with Twila Paris that something needed to change. That something was me. And by God’s grace I have changed, though I confess it can be a struggle; old habits die hard. At times I find myself focused on them—you know, the ones who disagree with me. Still, I am less prone to binary and oppositional thinking than I used to be. I am more aware of we and less likely to see them.
How do you get past us and them thinking? Share your experiences below.