Have you ever noticed the trees for sale at your local nursery, most of which aren’t yet tall enough to reach your shoulder? If so, you know that their roots are compactly housed within small pots of soil not much bigger around than a basketball. As long as the trees are of such diminutive stature, these pots provide enough space for the root systems on which they depend. But if you happen to purchase one of those trees and take it home, you’ll obviously need to get it out of that pot and into the ground in relatively short order. A tree left forever in its little plastic pot is a tree that will never thrive. The pot is too restrictive, too limiting. It needs to be planted in the ground where its roots can spread and its branches can rise. If the tree is ever going to reach its full potential, you have to give it ample space to grow.
What if Christian community works the same way?
Toward the end of his life, Jesus told his band of followers, “I give you a new commandment that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).
Despite the familiarity of these words, they continue to be deeply revolutionary for those with ears to hear them. Jesus is addressing those who have attached their lives to his, and he tells them that when he’s gone, it will be their shared love for one another that will set them apart. Not their religious vocabulary or the crosses they put on their jewelry. Not their political influence or their inroads with celebrities. Not their CCM radio stations or their boycotting of Starbucks at Christmas time. When the watching world encounters followers of Jesus, it will know them by their love.
And yet, does it? Is this how the world recognizes those of us who walk in the footsteps of Jesus? We might be known for many things. But love? I’m fairly certain that’s not our distinguishing mark among our neighbors.
Most likely there are plenty of reasons for that. But what if our failure to live into Jesus’ revolutionary vision is at least in part the result of not allowing ourselves enough space? Like a tree confined to a tiny plastic pot, what if our standard expressions of Christian community simply don’t have the room for attention-grabbing love to flourish? What if our borders are too small, our walls too narrow?
I’m wrong about many things, and this could well be one of them. But recently I’ve been wondering: If our church communities could become more theologically diverse and inclusive, would it allow us to practice a more robust and distinctive form of love? As we lean into conversations about diversity along such lines as race, age, and economic status – all wonderful things! – should we be exploring the need for greater doctrinal diversity, as well?
In the average local church, doctrinal fidelity is a big deal. And rightfully so. Nobody wants false teachers or heretics running around unchecked, undermining the life-giving message of Jesus Christ. But I fear that in far too many cases, our concern for doctrinal fidelity has given way to a trajectory of theological narrowness that homogenizes the church, stunts its potential for radical love, and restricts its missional impact within the world.
Take your typical church’s statement of faith for example. A statement of faith has the job of articulating what members of a given church do and do not believe. So, for instance, it might say something about the inerrancy of the Bible. Or about the presence (or absence) of certain spiritual gifts. Or about the nature of God’s sovereignty in salvation. Or about baptism. Or about gender roles. Or about marriage and sexuality. Or about the end times. Or about the process of sanctification. Essentially, the statement of faith is a church’s way of saying, “Here we stand.” It’s a convictional stake in the ground. It’s a border defining the limits of the community.
Now there’s nothing inherently wrong with a statement of faith (in fact, there are many compelling reasons for a church to have one), but it’s not hard to see how such an articulation of theological boundaries can lead to a natural restrictiveness in our expressions of community. If a church community draws a tight circle around certain theological beliefs, then it cuts its members off from the opportunity to interact with good-faith followers of Jesus who happen to believe differently than they do.
And herein lies the problem. If we aren’t in meaningful proximity to fellow Christians whose beliefs and practices differ from our own, then we won’t ever learn to love them. We won’t need to. We’ll simply remain comfortably entrenched within our monochromatic, self-selecting groups of like-minded people who are already predisposed to get along reasonably well. And so long as we’re “getting along reasonably well,” we’ll be coming up well short of the love Jesus said we should be known by. The love that transcends differences, embraces enemies, and allows space for disagreements.
But what if we could offer the world a more compelling picture of revolutionary community? What if we created spaces in which doctrinal differences were normalized? What if we drew the circle of theological fidelity as broad as the kingdom itself? What if we no longer were satisfied with experiencing community life within a cozy little plastic bucket and instead planted ourselves in the wide open yard?
The result would certainly be messy. We’d have disagreements and misunderstandings and plenty of awkward moments with people whose convictions at times seem a long way from our own. But we’d also have room for love. We’d open ourselves up to the present realization of what we’ll ultimately spend all of eternity doing: living in submission to King Jesus alongside brothers and sisters whose theology differs from our own. Pacifists and war vets. Calvinists and Wesleyans. Feminists and complementarians. Straight-laced cessationists and people speaking in tongues. Biblical inerrantists and theological progressives. In a world where it seems we have a million reasons to hate each other and go our separate ways, wouldn’t it be a genuinely impressive and countercultural statement to commit ourselves to being a family of difference-transcending love?
Sure, we’ll still need some boundaries. After all, the church is always going to be opposed by spiritual forces keen on its downfall, and we’ll need to be on guard against imposters, idolatries, and false gospels. But surely we can effectively keep the sheep away from wolves without feeling like we also have to keep the sheep away from other sheep who happen to chew their food differently.
I’m no sociologist, but from where I sit, I can’t help but sense that people are longing – perhaps subconsciously – for something more than the endless tribalism that the world seems to offer them. The narrowness is suffocating. The echo chambers are becoming too small.
For followers of Jesus, this presents a true missional moment, an invitation to display the one thing that seems so rare in our cultural ecosystem: inclusive, supernatural, expansive love. This is what we should be known by. This is what should distinguish our communities.
But we’ll never get there by remaining saplings in the nursery – fragile, stunted, and entirely unimpressive. If our local expressions of community are going to be known for their love, sooner or later we’ll need more space. We’ll need to leave the buckets behind.