Most recently what I’ve come to appreciate is that I was raised to ask questions and think critically. Listening to and learning about differing views was encouraged. Usually when we think of Christians avoiding and fearing differing views, we think of other religions. However, there’s also a sad history of avoiding and fearing differing views within Christianity. Sometimes people get so caught up in their own denomination that it becomes spiritually destructive. So I’m glad I was also taught to not put a ton of stock in denominational authority.
I was raised in the Church of God, and I currently attend a Church of God. I love my church. I agree with their thinking on many things, especially the role of women in leadership. However, I haven’t spent my life engulfed by the Church of God; I don’t believe the Church of God has a corner on the truth, I question my pastors and leaders, and I consider other perspectives. That’s been very important, nay, crucial for my spiritual development.
Perhaps in another post I’ll discuss why I’m a big supporter of public schools, but for the purposes of this post, the advantage that public schools offered me was exposure to diverse belief systems. This is where I met not only people who had beliefs outside the Christian faith, but also Christians who believed some very different things than I did. I met people who believed in praying to saints, I met people who believed you shouldn’t celebrate Halloween, I met people who believed pastors were always men. It’s important to understand that it wasn’t enough that I simply met or was exposed to these people. I developed relationships with them. One of my best friends in high school was a girl whose religious upbringing taught some very different things from mine. I very strongly disagreed with some of her beliefs and she with mine, but we respected each other. That was important in my development as a Christian (and probably in hers).
This exposure continued at the college level when I chose to attend a public university for many of the same reasons my parents put me in public schools growing up. It was the financially prudent thing to do, and it was the wise thing to do in terms of personal growth. Okay, mostly it was because Western paid me to go there. But I also chose a secular university because they don’t attempt to control students’ behavior beyond protecting other students and property. Christian schools have “honor” codes and all sorts of rules about behavior. I remember hearing a friend who was applying to Christian colleges telling me that one of them required students to submit their music collection to college authorities for approval. Rules at some Christian colleges include not drinking alcohol (at all, even off campus), not dancing, restrictions on dating, strict dress codes, etc. A governing authority making those decisions for students does not help spiritual growth and maturity. It creates Christians with a serious case of arrested development who are unable to think critically. Students need to be able to determine for themselves which behaviors are appropriate or not. Furthermore, most of these rules can’t be defended biblically.
There are good, Christian universities that don’t micromanage students, nor do they participate in denominational indoctrination. They may be affiliated with a particular denomination, but their professors do not have a denominational agenda. Unfortunately in many smaller Christian colleges this is not the case. Students’ behavior is not only strictly monitored and regulated, their thinking is too. They are taught their denomination’s doctrine and are encouraged to parrot their professors rather than question whether other denominations might have a point on one or two issues.
On secular campuses, students who are in Christian organizations choose to go to Bible study; they choose to go to fellowship nights. It’s not a requirement, which says something about the students’ commitment to spiritual growth. And these organizations are interdenominational. So when I went to Bible study and made friends, again, it was with people who had different ideas than mine. Western is where I engaged in hardcore debates about predestination vs. free will. It’s where I became close friends with two girls who were raised Baptist, where I accompanied Catholic friends to mass and another friend to an African American church. These relationships and experiences challenged my thinking. I changed my mind on some topics while on other topics I retained my original beliefs, but on all of them I thought them through more thoroughly than I had before. It’s that whole Proverbs 27:17 thing, “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.”
Here’s a fun anecdote: One of my best friends from college was raised Baptist and, while we were attending WMU, I’m pretty sure she didn’t share my beliefs on women as pastors. A few years later, though, she told me of a guy that she and her husband were friends with. “We thought about setting you two up, but when we told him you were a youth pastor, he said, ‘What? Women can’t be pastors! I’d give her a piece of my mind.’ I said, ‘Maresha would chew you up and spit you out.’” One of the sweetest things a friend has said to me, and evidence that when we develop genuine relationships with people of differing views it changes our patterns of thinking and our behavior.
You might not change all your beliefs. In fact, you probably shouldn’t. But some of them will change, and more importantly, your behavior will change. Take, for example, any hot button topic like gay marriage, abortion, immigration. There is a marked difference in how people talk about it based on whether they have a personal relationship with someone directly affected by it. For example, people who are opposed to abortion speak differently about it if they, or someone they know personally, has had one. They understand that it is not an easy decision for women to make, that it is often emotionally painful and damaging to the psyche. Rather than speak in a tone of judgment, they speak from a perspective of compassion that addresses not only the death of the child, but also the harm done to the woman. Often their suggested solutions to the problem are access to birth control, and counseling and financial assistance to women facing crisis pregnancies rather than confrontational and sometimes violent interactions outside abortion clinics.
So, too, your discourse changes when you have a good friend who believes in predestination or that the Eucharist literally becomes the blood and body of Christ or that there will be a literal 1,000 year reign. Rather than write them off because you know “the right” way of thinking on these things, you try to understand their view. You recognize more thoroughly that, (as Rom. 14, 1 Cor. 8, and Col. 2:16 suggest), there is room for differences within Christianity when it comes to secondary and tertiary issues of doctrine and that these differences of opinion do not determine whether a person is a “good” Christian or not. For example, we Meads were raised in an Arminian tradition. My elder brother now attends a Calvinist church. While he isn’t Calvinist in his thinking, he recognizes that this is relatively unimportant compared to the fact that his church is theologically sound on the important issues, is doing God’s work in the community, and offers his family solid, Christian fellowship.
When someone first steps outside their denomination in any meaningful way*, it shouldn’t surprise us if their reactions indicate fear or confusion or anger. It is similar, in some ways, to visiting a foreign country. You expect people to be different, and they are, but not radically so. The surprise is that they are more like you than you expected, and that can be confusing or convicting when you compare reality to your preconceived notions. Over time, though, with repeated forays into unknown realms, you grow. Be patient with yourself as this growth takes place, but most importantly, push yourself beyond your comfort zone so that it does take place.
*By meaningful, I mean developing relationships and dialoguing with people. Visiting a church of a different denomination for one Sunday, reading about another denomination, or briefly meeting someone of a different denomination at a conference, while helpful in some ways, is like dipping one toe outside your comfort zone and quickly bringing it back inside. You can afford to get more uncomfortable than that.