Read­ing Time: 5 min­utes

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:

“Do not stop him; for no one who does a deed of pow­er in my name will be able soon after­ward to speak evil of me.” (Mark 9:39 NRSV)

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:

“Do not stop him; for who­ev­er is not against you is for you.” (Luke 9:50 NRSV)

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).

changed expectations

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.