"Is Christianity too narrow?" I hesitate in writing a response as I think we sometimes hear this question & automatically start out on the defensive. The problem with this position is that we first need to address what it is we are defending before taking a defensive stand. So while it seems we would like to jump right in with an answer to the question, I'd like to propose we parallel it with a reflective counter question, "Is Jesus too narrow?"
Seeing these two questions side by side, I think we can begin to look at some of the definitions we create around them & address the polarizing issues that come up between them. By the end of the post, we will hopefully see that while finding an answer to our question, we are left with a million more, but the freeing experience to explore them anew.
Taking The Christ out of Christianity
Where did the word Christianity come from? Jesus' followers were not called Christians until we see it used in Acts 11:26. It wasn't a name they gave themselves but rather a classification by the greater Antioch society.
Antioch was a gateway city in northern Israel with a culture that was diversified by the global travellers & merchants who passed through the city. Their traditions & religious beliefs were wide in perspectives & while they recognized this small Jesus movement as having significant influence over the city's people, they wanted a way to classify & distinguish their particular teachings & principles. By subjugating Jesus' followers to a particular religious brand, they could compartmentalize its authority & power, so as to control & maintain a religious & social order. Christianity was not meant derogatorily necessarily but simply as a classification to citizenship within the empire.
That brings us back to our original question & understanding of the word "Christianity". Broken down or pulled apart, "Christ" refers to the Hebrew understanding of "Lord" or "Saviour", particularly in association with Jesus (Matt. 1:16; 26:63; 27:17; John 20:31). While the Hellenized or Greek term "ian" refers to the understanding of belonging to a certain group or party. So by calling Jesus' followers Christians, the Antiochian's were attempting to bring the authority of Christ Jesus under the powers & control of the Roman Empire. While not wanting to go to far down this historical rabbit trail, some might say that it was Constantine who epitomized this Christian demarcation by declaring Christianity as a Roman national religious identity.
Now, while some might celebrate this canonization of Christianity as a nationalistic or tribalistic institution, I don't think Jesus intended his followers to become exclusively a religious empirical society. When Ravi Zacharias states, "Truth by its definition excludes", it is not because truth is under a particular human societal or religious governance (democratic or hierarchical) but rather because it is set apart or above all human & creational governance. This means that Truth cannot be possessed in its entirety by any one religious or institutional body, but rather finds its authority over ALL religious & institutional bodies; Christian or otherwise!
Speaking to the religious elites, the Scribes & the Pharisees, Jesus says, "you are not to be called ‘Rabbi,’ for you have only one Master and you are all brothers. And do not call anyone on earth ‘father,’ for you have one Father, and he is in heaven. Nor are you to be called ‘teacher,’ for you have one Teacher, the Christ." (Matt. 23:8-10) To acknowledge that Jesus is the Way, the Truth, & the Life, is to also acknowledge that we as His followers, as His Church... are not!
The problem with limiting Christ's authority to the subjugation of the Church is that all to often systematic theology narrows down into right wing & left wing polarizing dichotomies bringing with it heresies such as slaveholder religions & nationalistic exclusionary rights. These systemic movements become ideologies that end up demanding penal self sacrificing defences from its followers & ultimately leading to idolatry to a god that looks nothing like the Christ found in Jesus of the gospels.
So what is the role of Christianity, the church? Where do we find the authority & power of the Christ?
Putting the Christ, Back Into Jesus
”All authority in heaven & earth has been given to me.” (Matt. 28:18) These were the words Jesus shared with his followers before sending them out to all the nations. It is worth taking a moment to consider who Jesus was referring to when he used the word nations. The Greek word used by Matthew in stating Jesus' commission was ethnos, which is not referring to specific political groups or rigid geographical boarders but rather simply people groups within cultures, traditions, & societies. So Jesus wasn't restricting his authority to just the narrow confines of a Christian culture, religion, or institution; he was radically expounding it over all cultures, religions, & institutions!
So how is it that Jesus would then see & exercise his authority? I think Brian McLaren might have revealed some of his perspective sharing that, "Jesus doesn’t dominate the other, avoid the other, colonize the other, intimidate the other, demonize the other, or marginalize the other. He incarnates into the other, joins the other in solidarity, protects the other, listens to the other, serves the other, even lays down his life for the other." Jesus's authority did not narrowly place itself over his followers alone but rather extended beyond them in relationship to all he would come to meet.
While I think there is probably an exhaustive look to which we could consider the ways Jesus expressed his authority, I'd like to maybe just consider three ways in this post.
That Which His Father Is Doing
There is a story where Jesus is in Jerusalem & while passing the pool of Beth-zatha he sees a sick man. Moved by his long suffering & desire for healing, Jesus restores him & makes him well. The Jewish community was dismayed by his actions as it was the Sabbath & labour of any kind was not permitted. They questioned Jesus' authority in this manner.
Jesus answered them saying, "the Son can do nothing on his own, but only what he sees the Father doing; for whatever the Father does, the Son does likewise." (John 5:19) It wasn't an act based on his own authority alone, but in the recognition of God's authority of compassion that transcends over earthly authority.
During Jesus' trials, he was brought before the Roman Governor Pontius Pilot who when questioning him stated his power over Jesus' freedom or death. Responding to him, Jesus pointed to a greater authority saying, “You would have no power over me unless it had been given you from above.” (John 19:11)
It seems that even Jesus himself sees & acknowledges the Father's authority being exercised through secular & divergent cultures from his own. Should we then not also seek discernment in God's Kingdom presence within diverging cultures, ethnicities, & dare I say, even religious traditions besides our own?! Far be it, that I should narrow the requirement of the other to narrow their awareness of God's authority to the singular expression of my own!
He Stripped Bare & Kneeled
At the very centre of Jesus' actions was the heart & authority of servanthood. During the last supper after they ate, he took off his robe & wrapped a towel around himself. As I reflect on the intimacy of this act, I can't help but see Jesus' humility within the authority he presented. Frail, exposed, & open to ridicule, Jesus bared his authenticity before all with a driven purpose while freely admitting the appearance of absurdity but giving the promise of clarity. He then knelt down before his disciples, submitting to their lowest need, the repulsed dirt of their souls, & washed their feet.
So often humble servanthood is narrowed to voluntary projects & serving programs within the church; simple acts like greeting at the church doors & taking offering in the pews. These are valuable acts of service for sure but, lets get real for a moment. What are the most grotesque needs & dirtiest physical or psychological places we so often reject engaging with servanthood authority out of a self imposed sense of purity or piety? These are the places Jesus is calling us to go!
Kenneth Leech writes that,
True religion helps us to grow, but pseudo-religion hinders growth, for it creates & maintains obstacles & barriers. Thus it is that much religion merely censors experience & does not liberate it, stifles human potential & does not allow it to blossom. Much religion is superficial & does not help the journey inwards, which is so necessary to spiritual health. There has to be a movement toward the still centre, the depths of our being, where, according to the mystics, we find the presence of God.
"You call me Teacher and Lord—and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet." (John 13:13-14) The servanthood authority that Jesus models before us is radically revealing a salvation work not narrowed solely in bringing others into the vision of a life that we are eternally going to, but also a life that is seeing & participating with the most repulsed people & places of the earth while discovering the buried riches & the presence of God among them.
He Wrote In The Sand
Jesus was not a push over either. He radically & often, abrasively sought justice. In a story told while he was still in Jerusalem, Jesus had gone to the Temple & began teaching the people. The Pharisees brought a women before him who had been caught in adultery. Now whenever I hear this story brought up, my mind always turns to the thought, what about the man she was with? Where is he? Hoping to test Jesus, they questioned him as to how to judge her while expecting to stone her.
Without words Jesus bent over & began writing with his finger in the sand. What was he writing? Why would he be so slow to respond to the demand for justice & righteousness? Let's face it, this world is full of dictating warmongering maniacs, leaders & nations who cry "Me First!", & injustices that demand immediate reform. If Jesus has the authority to command penal repentance & social reform today, why doesn't he do it?
Perhaps the authority of righteousness is not based in the unified conformity of individualistic fairness or earned self perceived rights. Justice is not found in the personal or communal punishment, whether temporal or eternal, of those who fall short of the glory of God. (Rom. 3:23)
"Let anyone among you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her." (John 8:7) As the woman's accusers all shuffled away, it seems Jesus' authority for justice is not found in the fair judgement of a specific individual event or person. It is in the recognition of a failure that goes beyond just that of a specific event or person.
The Widening Multiplication Of 30 Lashes
Last weekend I listened to the story of a great tribe & its tribal leader as he tried to deal with the loss of control over his people, presented in the act of theft. Continually increasing the severity of penalty, the tribal leader continued to fail in the subjugation of his society. Finally, a person of guilt could be pointed out & punishment administered. The tribe gathered to see who it was so that they might witness the repudiation of what they saw as wrong & in shock found a frail old women, the mother of the tribal leader. Not wanting to disillusion the people of the realities to punishment, the tribal leader demanded 30 lashes. Moved by compassion, the tribal leader stripped his back bare & wrapped himself around his mother, the frail old women, while the punishment was given.
My mind was swamped in questions of injustice & where the God of mercy was that I knew so well (Matt. 9:13). Did no one ask why this frail old woman was stealing? Was it solely because of her own decisions or might the society have any responsibility? The story seems to be motivated by unspoken expected idealisms & not meant as an open fable in search of real truth.
Nevertheless, embracing the metaphor I asked myself, who was the old women & who was the tribal leader? While yes, the tribal leader could be represented as the person of Christ, I'd like to think the answer is greater then this.
Jesus never gave a gospel that spoke of bearing the cross alone but rather told his followers, "take up your cross & follow me." (Luke 9:23) Like the eye of a needle, the narrow authority of the Christ is firmly placed within Jesus & he is widening the call to the whole church to go into all the earth; “Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?” (Isa. 6:8) THIS is the gospel!!
Is Christianity too narrow? If we fail to place the authority of the Christ in the creative & ever widening presence of Jesus' Lordship in all the world, and instead reduce it to a singular answer of institutional interpretation in right or membership; then yes, Christianity is too narrow. But if we allow our imaginations to expand beyond singular definitions of Christian absolutes, Christianity can embrace an inclusively wide open & eternal experience of the Kingdom drawing near to all.