In our passport countries our churches have a particular way of interpreting Scripture, a certain style of worship, and a particular organizational model. The characteristics that make our church or our denomination distinct are important to us. One of the outcomes of this distinctiveness is that we are given the luxury to be, at least subconsciously, somewhat exclusive. Not every believer is this way. But, it is very normal for people to become a bit exclusive. And if we become exclusive, we can view followers of Christ in other theological or ecclesiological streams as somewhat below the mark.
This exclusiveness gets challenged the longer we work overseas in the hard places. This is because believers are often few in number and they are from other church traditions. Over time we discover that we need these other believers to survive. When this need arises, our church’s distinctive teachings and practices begins to lose their significance. Just getting together with other followers of Christ and worshipping together is what refreshes and strengthens us. So, our new contexts change us and make us inclusive of those whom we might have excluded before we went overseas.
Yet, when we first go overseas, being inclusive of other believers is not so easy. The differences in our theology and in our ecclesiology are just too glaring. One person may be too Methodist for the one who is Presbyterian. We may not have realized before getting overseas that someone could actually be Lutheran and evangelical! If we are Baptists we may want our Presbyterian and Lutheran friends to get spiritually complete by being rebaptized. Those of us who are Pentecostals may be hoping that the Baptists will soon see the light and get baptized in the Spirit and start speaking in tongues.
In addition, before we moved overseas we looked at these differences and we instinctively asked: “Which view is biblical?” This seemed like a perfectly reasonable question. Our communities modeled the assumption that God clearly teaches one theological position and one ecclesiastical model in the Bible. So, this creates a problem for us when we go overseas into an area where there are few believers. God gave us the Scripture as the final authority; and all believers read it. But, we believers don’t always derive the same meaning out of the same passages. What do we do with this diversity among those who know and walk with the Lord?
The Body of Christ happens to be diverse. It would be great if we all read the Scripture the same way and agreed what any given passage means; but, we don’t. In a way, this is Jesus’ fault. If He hadn’t accepted into His Body those who read the Bible in a different way than we do then we wouldn’t have this problem. But, he accepted them into His Body. The fact that he has accepted them kind of compels us to accept them and give them space to read the Scripture in a different way than we do.
Please don’t get me wrong. Becoming inclusive does not take us down the slippery slope of relativism; and this does not mean that we all have to agree. We are free to disagree. Nonetheless, for us to be able to work together and to thrive in the hard places we are kind of compelled to give one another space for holding different theological and ecclesiological positions.
In conclusion, most of us who work overseas find that we live and work in multi-cultural, multi-denominational communities. As we enter in relationships with people from differing theological and church traditions, we begin a process of learning to accept those who are different from us as fellow members of the Body of Christ. We also begin a process of learning to place our interpretations of Scripture in proper perspective, that is, we learn that love is more important than “right.” So, we put Jesus’ command to love one another as He has loved us before our particular understandings of the Bible. Putting love first enables us to give one another the freedom to hold differing interpretations of Scripture. We gradually become inclusive of others who are believers but who think differently. And as we journey along this road of inclusivity, we soon discover that we respect one another even in the midst of our theological differences. Later on, we find that we not only respect one another, we actually appreciate one another. Then, after some time, we discover that we truly love one another…
James 3:17-18 shapes the way we hold our own understanding of Scripture in the midst of other evangelical understandings: But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, accommodating, full of mercy and good fruit, impartial, and not hypocritical. And the fruit that consists of righteousness is planted in peace among those who make peace (ESV).