Christianity too often has been divided as a result of failing to emphasize unity amid its various faith expressions.
Missiologist Paul Hiebert has offered a positive alternative, sketching out two ways to determine who should be considered a Christian.
His concern was the new believer from a non-Christian background who, though desirous to follow Christ, would require months of teaching in order to fully understand the faith and adhere to even a simplified doctrinal statement.
Hiebert used two mathematical concepts – “bounded sets” and “centered sets” – and drew application to how we determine who belongs in the faith.
Bounded sets draw tight boundaries which define orthodoxy (right belief) or orthopraxy (right behavior) or both.
This way of thinking is common and useful in many cases but there are also negative aspects.
For example, it is reductionist (adherence to a doctrinal statement equals orthodoxy) and cerebral (requiring little if any change of behavior).
Thinking in terms of a “centered set” offers another way of determining belonging. It is based on a common agreed-upon “center.”
The primary criteria for belonging is the direction a person is moving in relation to that center, thus a “centered set.”
I know; it’s too simple and too idealistic. But someone should ask the question, so I’ll go ahead and stick my neck out: Why can’t the various church families agree on a center – an axis around which the Christian faith revolves?
Issues of whether we should accept one another’s baptism, intermarry or serve one another the Lord’s Table could be decided based on each denomination’s embrace of that center.
Why not let the center be the Nicene Creed? We don’t agree on the filioque clause, but if we at least agreed on a common center, we could move toward a greater unity.
Perhaps the ancient creeds would supply the framework to move us in the right direction.
I am not suggesting that we suddenly dissolve our denominational distinctives. I’m not asking Presbyterians to pray with the aid of icons or Catholics to baptize only adult believers or Lutherans to believe that the communion bread becomes the body of Christ.
Various church families will continue to hold their distinctives in faith and practice. But why should those distinctives continue to be an obstacle to the greater and overarching unity for which Christ prayed?
As we recognize that we are moving toward the center, we can begin to overcome the hindrances to unity that have plagued us for hundreds of years.
Maybe we’ll even discover that our traditions and diversity can be mutually enriching.
When we fail to recognize the baptism of another church family, are we not practicing a “Christian” form of “takfÄ«r” (anathematization) – a holdover from medieval times that can now safely be discarded?
Today, the ideology of takfÄ«rÄ« groups (for example, ISIS, al-Qaida and so on) draws a very tight circle around what is acceptable belief and practice.
In order to belong to the group, one must repudiate moderate interpretations of the Islamic faith in order to conform to takfÄ«rÄ« values and behaviors that are compulsory with very little room for variance. TakfÄ«rÄ«s control through power and enforce conformity.
Don’t you think it’s time we got rid of every vestige of takfÄ«r? Maybe we can learn from the takfÄ«rÄ« groups to clean our house thoroughly – to clear out the old leaven of religious compulsion and replace it with the grace-filled center of Jesus’ life-giving gospel.
Let’s purpose to be different. Shepherds, can you find a common center, rather than a restricted pin, so that the sheep know where to find green pasture?
Can we bury the hatchet and take practical steps toward unity that lift a burden from believers and portray a unified body of Christ to a watching world?
Ephesians 4:4 declares: “There is one body, and one Spirit, even as you are called in one hope of your calling; One Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all, and in you all.”
I think the apostle would find the situations I mention above baffling, if not maddening, and would call us to base our unity on the one crucified and risen Lord whom we worship.
Mike Kuhn is a professor at the Arab Baptist Theological Seminary in Beirut. He has lived in Middle Eastern countries for 25 years and previously served as pastor of a church in the United States. A version of this article first appeared on the Institute of Middle East Studies blog and is used with permission.
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series. Part one is available here.