I’ve seen it time and time again. We’ve all done it at some point. We passionately reject one extreme only to embrace another. O how the proverbial pendulum swings to the opposite end of the spectrum! Regrettably, when it’s happening we usually don’t realize that’s what we’re doing.
About 10 years ago I left vocational ministry due to several bad experiences that left my family hurt and confused. The time away was a real blessing from the Lord, but it’s no secret that for a season I was influenced by the thinking that the “institutional” church was of the devil and that the only faithful Christians were those who met in house churches with no leader.
Yes, that was extreme. But some people out did me! The church to these extremists was some sort of nebulous idea involving a couple Christians getting together in a coffee shop—a concept born right out of Western individualism.
But Paul didn’t write letters to saints scattered throughout Starbucks or those who choose to “worship God in nature” while out hiking the trails with a friend on Sunday morning. He wrote to intentional worshipping communities.
It took me a few years to start coming out of this reactionary thinking and see it for what it is. Since then I feel like the Lord has heightened my senses to all manner of extremes embraced by well-intentioned people, especially within the church. So now I see it everywhere I turn. And I’m continually examining my own beliefs and behaviors as well. We’re always susceptible.
I don’t think I would be exaggerating if I said that it is our embrace of the extremes that has become our greatest hindrance to peace and understanding today, in the world and the church. It’s in politics, academia, and in religion.
These extremes begin with the either-or, in or out, love us or hate us, for us or against us mentality. In the church we even fight among ourselves over who is the most faithful to Jesus in their doctrine and church practice, we want to argue that our group is more “authentic” than your group.
(Sigh) Man, this stuff gets old.
As I recently said in a sermon about justice, I even see many “progressive” Christian friends of mine, particularly young Anabaptists, leaving right-wing politics (which I applaud) only to embrace the left and its agenda, which amounts to a purely secular worldview baptized in Gospel lingo.
Clearly we’re still playing Caesar’s song, just a different verse.
What’s so refreshing about Jesus is that he rejected the polarities and extremes. He rejected them because he saw through them. It’s merely different sides to the same coin. It’s easy and expedient, but it’s not the way forward.
Let’s admit it. It’s hard to break free from the polarities.
Good news! Jesus gives us a way out. While I’m not always sure what that way looks like, if I’m honest, I usually know what it doesn’t look like. And if I’ll listen to the Spirit within me, I’ll eventually stumble down the road of Christ.
Jesus was a radical rabbi, but he wasn’t jumping to extremes. He wasn’t a fundamentalist. He challenged the polarities. We should do the same.
Fundamentalism is an attitude. It can be conservative or progressive. It is elitist and violent, in words and/or actions. It is dogmatic and narrow-minded about many issues. It’s emotionally charged and needs to offend people in order to survive. Without her enemies, fundamentalism has nothing to say.
Now that isn’t to say that God’s truth and the third way of Christ isn’t radically subversive or provocative within a culture of scoffers and skeptics, but it is to say that any ideology that purposely spends its time ridiculing, shaming, or doing violence to others is most definitely an extreme to be rejected, dare I say repented of in Jesus’ name. We need to stop it now. Not tomorrow. Now.
So I want to ask myself, where do I have a tendency to accept the extremes and spread the infection that is having negative effects on our families, churches, society, and culture?
It needs to be said that fundamentalism of any kind is born from a mixture of pain and irrational fear. Her symptoms are superiority, arrogance, and intolerance. You can find this sort of thing among Christians, Muslims, agnostics, and atheists… from Franklin Graham to Richard Dawkins.
If you’re truly concerned about peace and understanding, I would look elsewhere, where there is no fear-mongering, name-calling, and bitterness. Even from those who do it in subtle ways.
The following are some questions that I’ve often asked myself when listening to the news, examining an idea, surveying social media, or reading a book. I think these questions can help disciples of Jesus avoid the polarities and extremes.
7 Questions to Help Us All Avoid the Extremes
- Do I love the truth or just my version of it?
Contrary to postmodern relativism, there is such a thing as objective truth. Asking this question can help us step outside of ourselves and our cultural conditioning in order to consider the truth that is usually hidden beyond and beneath our personal biases, presuppositions, and emotions.
- Can I see a spectrum of views (or a third way)?
There’s usually more than just two sides to a matter. If it’s always black and white to you, you’ve probably not paid enough attention to Jesus and his “third way” living. This myopic attitude leaves no room for grace or the possibility that there is more than one way to be faithful.
- Have I honestly considered other respectable positions?
In other words, have you listened to the best voices on the subject–qualified folks you may not agree with but can still respect? If you haven’t, you’ll end up demonizing one extreme only to embrace another. You’ll become another version of what you hate. Ironic isn’t it?
- What does my community think?
We are more fully human in healthy relationships. What does your church, organization, or your circle of trusted friends think? Are you listening? Shutting out an opposing opinion might make you feel better about your position, but it doesn’t make you right.
- Where is Jesus in this?
That’s much different than asking what “side” is he on. It should allow us to see Jesus in more places than one. This may seem totally subjective, but it really isn’t. Our discernment comes from a full contextual reading of the Gospels (historical Jesus) and our sensitivity to the Spirit.
- Where am I in this?
Following Jesus isn’t simply doing whatever you imagine him doing. It means obeying and acting out of the time spent listening to his desires for you and the world. Once you’ve felt his heart on a matter and have seen where he’s at work, are you willing to join him there?
- No really, where are you at with Jesus?
If you’re busy trying to serve Jesus and do ministry but not regularly practicing spiritual disciplines in order to abide in Christ, I wouldn’t be so confident about your positions and heart on any matter. We must be connected to the Vine if we want to know his heart and bear his fruit.
I think these questions can help us to see that we’re always dealing with people created in God’s image and not just hot-button issues. This helps me to love people while simultaneously loving the truth and boldly navigating culture, even if it means hardship and suffering for being faithful to Jesus.
Can we rise above the extremes in our pursuit of truth? I believe so. But we need to know that the truth lay quietly in the fertile soil of grace and humility. Out of this soil will come conviction, but never condemnation.
In this way I get to love the truth and keep my mind.
Will you join me?
D.D. Flowers, 2015.
This article was also posted online at Relevant Magazine.