Some thoughts on belief, behavior, and belonging
Something I have noticed and occasionally remarked on, over the years: Birthright members of a community possess greater freedom to deviate from the norms of the community than naturalized members. Those who have always been "one of us" are tolerated in their deviations from those norms, whatever they might be, while newcomers might not be. For example, many of my Catholic or Baptist or Pentecostal friends, lay and clergy, occasionally express themselves as somewhat agnostic or skeptical in re:
certain of their doctrinal or behavioral distinctives. When they are not acting as doorkeepers to their communities, they may even acknowledge the goodness of each others' theological formulations and ecclesial formations. But I know that if I were to seek to join myself to any of their communities, I would have to agree to every jot and tittle of their unique theologies and practices, without any mental reservation whatsoever. Any responsible catechist would not admit me as a member until all my doubts had been resolved in favor of their teaching.
I was thinking about this, then, in connection with some of the controversies within The United Methodist Church. I look at some of my progressive colleagues, and I notice that many of them are from long-established families in the faith -- and the clergy. Indeed, many are PKs. They have inherited their Methodism. This is not to say that they are not sincere in their beliefs, but it does mean that they are freer to deviate from traditional beliefs, I think. No amount of heterodox thinking, you see, can ever rob them of their birthright membership in the church. They may have "evolved" in their doctrine and values, but they can't imagine that not being okay. Likewise, I note that many of those who are most willing to disobey our rules -- at least, the ones I know personally -- are children of the church. Their sense of belonging seems never to be imperiled by their behavior. And those who love them and are so proud of them indulge them in this.
But I am not a birthright member of The UMC, still less a child of the parsonage. When I joined up, nobody spoke up for me, nobody claimed me and enthused over my stepping forward in faith. I was nobody's son, and no one's fair-haired boy, either. I think that has made me more sensitive to the meaning of my doctrinal commitments and my duty to obey the rules. They were integral to my belonging, which was contingent, not inborn. I have wrestled at times with myself, to hold myself to the teaching and the rules. I have had to choose the church again and again, for if I felt myself to have changed, my sense of integrity might call upon my soul to resign rather than go through the motions without true agreement and at least minimal performance.
And as I can imagine leaving,
if and when I might find myself no longer able to fulfill my vows, so I can imagine being expelled
for no longer believing or behaving up to (an admittedly gracious) standard. My colleagues and acquaintances who are birthright members of the church -- progressive or traditional -- I don't think can actually imagine either contingency. They have always belonged; therefore, they always will belong. "Not height, nor depth, nor any other thing in all creation can separate them" from the church of their birth. Ah, but I was a wild olive, grafted in to the domestic rootstock. It makes a tremendous difference in one's outlook.
It also, I think, makes a difference in the challenge of making disciples. Not that I am necessarily better at this because of my background than some who have always belonged, but
I think I understand conversion
more deeply than many of my colleagues and fellow-members. I know I see many who would like to belong, or whom I can imagine belonging, who are consistently ignored by those who have always belonged. So maybe I am just prejudiced in favor of my own experience, but I think that we need to plumb the depths of lost
-ness if we say we are looking to find
people -- and those who have never been very lost often don't know where to look to find anybody. Except in one spot: they look at those who grew up in the church, but who don't want to believe and behave as the church teaches, and they think "finding the lost" means changing our standards of belief and behavior in order to reclaim for the church those who have always belonged but are feeling rather alienated from their birthright.
For those who value belonging over belief and behavior, Christianity is just "what Christians do," and it can accommodate whatever the members who currently belong want it to. But for those who embrace belief and behavior as the gateway to belonging -- who see God calling us to be different from our natural inclinations and be made anew after another pattern -- a pattern of teaching and a discipline of life that is semper, ubique, et ab omnibus
-- we struggle to match ourselves to the goal of the upward calling of Christ Jesus in a whole different way. And just to be crass about it, I have to ask: which approach do you think will lead to the growth and vitality of the church? If we are going to reach those without previous commitment to Christ or experience of the church, which approach will work better?