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being vague

by Jared Byas

In our day, it’s almost a requirement for our pastors to admit, even from the pulpit, that they too are sinners. Which is okay when they say that, in general. In fact, it’s “authentic” and “real.” But, if ever our pastors got specific it would get super awkward super fast. If instead of “I’m a sinner” he or she said, “Last night, I indulged in inappropriate thoughts about my secretary” or “I often neglect my family for my work and they resent me for it,” all of sudden, their confession seems a little less admirable.

This “general/specific” trick can be seen in many areas of American Christianity. It’s our way of dealing with an issue deep enough to check if off the list but superficially enough to ignore the implications.

One day several years ago, in our weekly staff meeting, we were discussing someone who had expressed interest in becoming a member though it was apparent she didn’t live according to the doctrinal standards in our membership guidelines. There was much debate until our Communications Director at the time put his hand in the air with a big smile on his face. “I know!” he said excitedly. “I know a Church right down the road whose doctrinal standards are different. What if we formed a partnership with them and passed all the folks who differ in this area to their church for membership?”

Poor, innocent man. With no training in church politics and certainly oblivious to the “general/specific” line that ought not be passed, he had no idea the glares and head-shaking he was about to receive in that meeting. Needless to say, that idea got shot down without a second thought. Why?

Because he crossed that fine but important line between “general” unity and “specific” unity.

What do I mean?

Well, when I ask people if Methodists, Southern Baptists, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Catholics, Evangelicals, etc. can all be faithful and growing members of the body of Christ, I almost always get a resounding, “Yes!” When we are talking “general” unity, it’s all good.

But when we get to specifics, things get awkward. When we add a “So then, can a faithful and growing Christian be pro-choice?” then some of the “uh, well, I’m not sure” statements begin. Any specific doctrinal statement will work: Can a faithful and growing Christian believe in evolution? Believe that the Bible has errors in it?

Of course, this works the same way for the more “progressive” Christians who fight with the “conservatives.” They too are all for tolerance and unity with other Christians in general. But when you get specific, people get uneasy. Can a good and faithful Christian believe in a literal and eternal hell? Can they believe in a 6-day creation? Can they be against homosexual acts?

This unfortunate reality reveals how complicated true diversity can be.

Jared Byas, M.A.

As a former teaching pastor and professor of philosophy and biblical studies, he speaks regularly on the Bible, truth, creativity, wisdom, and the Christian faith. Tweets at @jbyas