Have you ever considered what circles you are part of?
I am part of two family circles, a church family circle, a loose professional circle, and a circle of friends. Then I’m part of broader circles like a circle of shared beliefs, circle of shared political views, and circles of shared interests like cooking, swimming, writing, films, etc.
Circles can be very comforting and provide a sense of safety and security. We know who is in our circles, we share commonalities, we sometimes even agree on things. I think we naturally gravitate towards forming circles. Circles help us define who we are - and who we’re not.
I was raised in a conservative family circle, both politically and spiritually. My dad was a Pastor for a conservative Wisconsin Evangelical Lutheran Synod (WELS) church. Together with our church, we formed a circle of tightly-knit Lutheran believers alone in a vast sea of predominantly Catholic believers. Our small church circle shared potlucks and picnics, VBS and Sunday School, weddings and funerals. We studied together, worshiped together, celebrated together, wept together.
As a child, the absolute certainty of being a part of this tiny Lutheran minority was a comfort and a kind of security. We all knew what everyone in our circle believed and why we believed it. We knew our circle had true answers for true believers.
Some of the beliefs we shared included:
- The body and blood of Christ should only be shared between those who are in full agreement on matters of faith and confession.
- Prayer and worship should only be shared between those who are in full agreement on matters of faith and confession.
- Abortion is murder and laws permitting any form of abortion violate God's law.
- Sex, outside of a one-man, one-woman marriage, is sinful.
- Same-sex relationships (assuming some sexual aspect) are sinful.
- Wives must submit to their husbands in all matters.
- Women may not become pastors or exercise spiritual authority over men.
- Evolution is a flawed theory undermining the authority of God’s word.
As a child, I knew that even if others around me didn’t agree with me, I still knew the real truth. Even if I couldn’t convince them of the truth, I was still right to believe it. I resisted any teaching that conflicted with what I believed to be true. I viewed myself as a witness and defender of God’s truth.
I am no longer a part of these same circles of belief today. Yet these are not arbitrary beliefs based on arbitrary rules. Those who adhere to these beliefs can reference passages in the Bible to support them. Many of these beliefs have deep roots in the church history and teaching. And those who hold these beliefs are not swayed by those who challenge their beliefs. They persevere on, zealously defending these beliefs. They are faithful witnesses to what they believe to be God’s truth and relentless fighters striving to preserve the purity of God’s word.
From experience, there is great comfort in being a crusader for truth. You know you have something real to lean on. You know that no matter what happens, no one can take the truth away from you. And in the end, you will have persevered, you will have stood firm in your faith, and you will have done your part in defending the truth.
I believed very deeply in the necessity of these teachings all of my growing-up years. In fact, challenging these beliefs seemed both pointless and dangerous. What good could come from challenging God’s truth? On several occasions, I listened as others in my childhood church challenged one or another of these points of teaching - and watched as they were gently but firmly silenced. Told to take the discussion behind closed doors. Told to meet with the Pastor privately. Relieved from teaching, reeducated in the truth.
And it all made sense to me. As a child, nothing could be more dangerous than corrupting God’s truth. Nothing could be a greater threat to a flock of believers than the diluting of the truth. I often heard many reminders of what could happen to those who “turned away” from these beliefs. I was often warned not to be deceived by “slippery-slope” teaching.
Fear of corruption, fear of losing purity, fear of dilution of truth - these are powerful fears and they can be crippling. Instead of love, fear can produce all kinds of bizarre responses. I remember one Sunday a former member who was also a young, expecting, unwed mother returned to visit our church. I was gently instructed not to ask about the baby or make her feel too special for having a baby. Because if she received too much attention or felt too special for having a baby, we might lead her astray and make her think that we were ok with premarital sex. And if she thought we were ok with it, then she might conclude God was also ok with premarital sex. Fear of leading her astray resulted in restrained compassion and love and an absence of physical assistance and general warmth. Instead, I mostly ignored her stomach and murmured in a sad voice, “We’re praying for you.”
She found herself outside the circle we had drawn. It’s tempting to think this is unique to certain churches. Or certain political affiliations. Or unique to judgmental people. But we are all naturally like this. Our first response is to evaluate those around us, judge them according to whatever standard we believe is correct, and then draw a circle around ourselves. Those outside the circle do not agree with us and are therefore wrong, while those inside the circle do agree with us and are therefore right. If we seek to invite others into our circle, it is to convince them to agree with us. But we don’t invite them to redraw our circle.
Churches are certainly guilty of this. But they are by no means alone. Politics is no different - those who agree with us are right and those who don’t are wrong. We make fun of, we verbally (and sometimes physically) attack, we bully and badger. We stop talking to people we were once friends with because they don’t share our political views. We de-friend them, unfollow them, shut them out. And even if we do none of these things, we have still drawn a circle around ourselves and view those outside our political circle with suspicion and judgement. We invite others to join, but we’re not interested in redrawing our circles.
Circles are always going to exist for two related reasons: 1) we don’t all agree and 2) we want to define who we agree with. And there’s nothing inherently wrong with finding ourselves in circles - it’s an unavoidable part of living and it helps us make connections, form relationships and find support and encouragement.
But here’s the problem with human circles: we want to enforce the boundaries of our circles. We only want the “right” people in our circles and we seek to enforce exclusivity. And that’s the problem because humans are imperfect and sinful with limited knowledge and sight. Even at our best, we cannot see all things, we cannot understand all things. Our judgements are imperfect because our understanding is incomplete and limited. Therefore are circles are imperfect and incomplete and whatever screening process we use to enforce the boundaries of our circles is also imperfect and flawed. Within our own circles, we may feel we have found the completeness of truth, but our vision is incomplete. We may view everyone outside of our circles as uneducated, uninformed, or just plain wrong, but our vision is again impaired.
We are all part of a bigger circle, which is humanity. We are all creatures belonging to the same Creator and same savior. God is the only one who is without sin, who knows all and sees all. God is the only one who can save, redeem, and teach us the truth. He is the only one who can preserve the purity of truth. So God is the only one who should be drawing a line in the sand or enforcing circle boundaries.
I think most people of Christian faith would agree.
So why are we still trying to enforce circles of inclusion or exclusion between ourselves? Well, we have still found a slick way to cheat to allow humans to enforce our own circles. It’s clever and super-effective. And best of all, it let’s each of us enforce own little circle of truth. It goes like this:
- God’s word is the only truth.
- We in this group understand God’s word, therefore we understand the truth.
- Having understood the truth, we now share the truth.
- If you disagree with the truth we share, you disagree with God.
- If you reject God’s truth, you have turned away from God and excluded yourself.
- Therefore, we have not drawn the circle - God has drawn the circle.
- Loop back to the beginning.
I call this reasoning a cheat because while it sounds logical and points to God’s word as the source of all truth, it fails to take into account the imperfect, sinful human factor. It’s a really good cheat because it says all the right things, it provides us with a sense of spiritual security, and it justifies enforcing exclusion boundaries. But breaking it down exposes the errors in this cheat.
- God’s word is the only truth. This is the first building block in establishing a boundary. It sounds good but it’s only a half-truth. Christ said of himself, “I am the way, the truth and the life.” Christ is the ONLY source of truth and he guides the believer (through the Spirit) into all truth. Which means, there is no truth without guidance from the Spirit. Simply reading or quoting Bible passages isn’t truth without the Spirit to teach our hearts and guide us into full truth. So really, the statement, “God’s word is the only truth” doesn’t quite present the full truth. Which brings us to the second conclusion.
- We in this group understand God’s word, therefore we understand the truth. This is the second building block in the boundary wall and it rests on the incomplete half-truth of the first building block. Truth doesn’t come from simply reading Bible verses. Without the Spirit’s guidance, we can read what the word of God says without understanding what the word of God means. Basically, we can understand the words but not the truth. Understanding is also not a finite, static state. Understanding comes through the Spirit to those who believe Christ and it is a life-long journey of learning and development.
Part of that development is also recognizing our own limited understanding. We see only partially, as God allows us to see. We are granted insights only into that which God has granted us insight. We cannot see all ends or see how all things fit together. God tells us, “Your ways are not my ways, neither are your thoughts my thoughts.” So we should be careful not become arrogant or complacent in our understanding. We should not conclude we have learned all there is to know or that the Spirit has finished speaking to us. Or that he speaks ONLY to us. We must be willing to humbly listen for the Spirit to speak and be willing to follow where he guides. Only then will we remain in the truth.
So to claim that “We in this group understand God’s word, therefore we understand the truth” again fails to accurately represent what is actually involved in understanding the truth.
- Having understood the truth, we now share the truth. We should absolutely share what the Spirit teaches us, assuming we are listening to the Spirit. But sharing the truth is different than dictating truth. Christ is the way, the truth, and the life. He is the only source. So our job is not to convince everyone else to share the same points of faith we believe or to agree with us on every point of faith. Or to conclude that if they don’t agree with us, they must be wrong. Rather, the job of a believer is to share Christ with everyone. Period. Christ will send his Spirit to those who believe him. Christ’s Spirit will guide them into all truth. And that’s just the point - Christ will do it, not us.
We share Christ and point to him as the source of truth. We provide encouragement, support, comfort and even correction to the best of our limited human capacity. But we do not define truth. We do not own truth. The truth comes from Spirit and is revealed to whom the Spirit chooses and how the Spirit chooses. In fact, the Spirit may use the lives and perspectives of other new believers to guide long-time believers into a new and deeper understanding of Christ. So rather than claiming “Having understood the truth, we now share the truth” we should should instead say, “Having the truth about Christ, we now share Christ with others.”
- If you disagree with the truth we share, you disagree with God. Here’s where things really fall apart. In order for this piece of the boundary wall to hold, one must first conclude the Spirit is no longer actively revealing new depth of truth. Only then, in theory, could humans - with enough devoted, Spirit-guided study - ultimately grasp the fullness and depth of Christ. Assuming such a possibility, one must now assume that some favored humans have actually achieved this level understanding - with the same clarity as God - and that these humans can now serve in place of Christ as a source for the fullness of truth.
This is epically, emphatically wrong. First, Christ is, and always will be, the only source of truth. Second, the Spirit is still actively teaching believers. Third, humans will always be humans - imperfect and limited. They will be never a unfailingly reliable source of truth.
Finally, a disagreement between humans is not the same as challenging the authority of God. In fact, disagreement can be a necessary part of growth and deepening of understanding. If led by the Spirit, disagreements between believers can refine our faith and lead to a more robust and expanded understanding of the truth. It can also lead to the strengthening of both the believers involved and the broader church. Even when disagreements are unresolved, it does not mean one person has rejected truth or is in opposition to God. In fact, differences of opinion or differences in faith can serve to advance the spreading of Christ in new and unforeseen ways.
The statement “If you disagree with the truth we share, you disagree with God” should instead be “If you disagree with our understanding of the truth, we welcome an opportunity to grow in understanding together.”
- If you reject God’s truth, you have turned away from God and excluded yourself. This statement, one its own, is true. If one rejects Christ, what is left? Christ is the way, the truth and the life and rejecting him separates one from God. As long as we reject Christ, we have rejected truth and excluded ourselves from his mercy.
But let’s be clear: disagreements over points of faith is not the same as rejecting Christ. Rejecting Christ and the Spirit’s guidance to instead willfully pursue our own ways - that is rejecting God and his truth. That’s how you exclude yourself from mercy. But asking difficult questions, searching for answers, challenging the status quo, examining long-held teachings, and sharing new insights from the Spirit is all good. Necessary, actually. It can absolutely lead to disagreements, discomfort, and even disruption. It can alter the course of history. But it is not equivalent to rejecting God or truth. Following the Spirit IS following the truth, even when it leads to disagreements or a shake-up in understanding.
- Therefore, we have not drawn the circle - God has drawn the circle. God desires ALL to experience new life in him, without exception. The circle of his love is big enough to include us all. The only question is whether we believe him. Do we believe his promise? Do we believe Christ is really the way, the truth and the life?
If someone does NOT believe God’s promise, know that God is still relentlessly pursuing them with love and new life, every moment of their life. And as members of Christ’s body, we should follow his example. How can we demonstrate love to that person? How can we better step beyond our circles to welcome them?
If someone DOES believe God’s promise, they are our sibling in Christ, no matter what disagreement we have with them. No exceptions. Therefore, they are already encircled in God’s love so we have no business enforcing our own human barriers. Don’t exclude your siblings, don’t shun them, don’t malign them - no matter the difference in faith, politics, or sin they’re accused of. Embrace them with love and compassion. Humbly, let the Spirit guide you both to grow into understanding and unity. Watch for and encourage fruits of the Spirit in the life of the believer and trust the transformative power of Christ - in both of your lives.
Enforcing circle boundaries is a broken human construct. The comfort I felt as a child in staying within the safe circle of those who agreed with me was just an illusion. Instead of focusing our energy on attempting to defend the legitimacy of our human, self-defined circles, we believers should be seeking to break down every barrier. Christ is for everyone and we are his fearless ambassadors. Christ reaches out to the rejected, to the worthless, to the shame-filled, to the refuse of the world, to those furthest removed from any circle - and we should go and do likewise.
Those people we haven’t yet reached - they are missing members of our own body and we are incomplete without them. They don’t look like us, sound like us, dress like us, worship like us. But we need them. We need their skills, we need their perspectives, we need their disagreements, we need their Spirit-filled lives, we need their love.
When it comes to our circles, we have to admit the truth. We cannot bring about unity - but Christ can. We cannot ensure the purity of truth - but Christ can. We cannot see the complete fullness of Christ’s body - but Christ can. We cannot control the direction of unity within the body of Christ - but Christ can.
Here’s what we can do. We can tear down our boundaries. We can go out from our safe circles. We can boldly, unreservedly share Christ’s love with the most undesirable, the most unfit, the most disagreeable. We can forgive. We can embrace them, love them, welcome them into our circles of friendship, family, and love. And we can trust Christ to encircle us, bless us, and unify us all in himself.