What’s Your Sign?
If you’ve come here looking for something from the Jeff Foxworthy comedy tour I am sorry to disappoint you. This past weekend our denomination held their Regional Assembly here in Denver. I am a part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) which is a mainline Protestant denomination. (The denomination as a whole is pretty liberal, but they tolerate a few Evangelicals like me.) As I sat through a number of sermons and presentations I began thinking about the symbol (or sometimes symbols) various streams of Christianity take as their defining symbol. It struck me that each of these can be very helpful at its best and harmful at its worst.
Evangelicals: People of the Cross
This is the stream of the church where I lived and worked for the first 31 years of my life. It is still the stream I resonate with most strongly and where I locate myself theologically. Evangelicals are people of the cross. Most Evangelical churches have a cross or multiple crosses in their churches, if they have any symbols at all. Sermons regularly focus on the devastation of sin and the need for forgiveness which is offered through the sacrifice of Jesus–on the cross. Evangelicals encourage us to come to the foot of the cross (for repentance, to give our burdens to Jesus, to receive healing, etc.). We love to sing songs about the cross, whether you’re old school and prefer hymns like “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” or newer-school and prefer “Lead Me to the Cross.” For Evangelicals the cross is at the center of the gospel of Jesus.
At it’s best this focus on the cross is a reminder of the prevalence of sin, the need for a Savior, and the reminder that salvation comes by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. It is a reminder of our call to lay down our lives and pick up the cross of Christ in service to the world.
At it’s worst the focus on the cross becomes limited to personal salvation and punching a ticket to heaven. Faith becomes no more than a transaction between an individual and God.
Mainline Protestants (or at least the Christian Church (DOC)): People of the Table
Disclaimer: I am a newcomer to the Mainline church. The majority of my knowledge of it is limited to the Christian Church of which I am a part. So any Mainliners that read this, feel free to fill in your tradition!
At the Regional Assembly last weekend I think the word “table” was used at least 500 times. We celebrate Communion every time we gather. If a church service had no worship or preaching it could still be okay if there is Communion. However, if we skipped Communion and did everything else people might riot. “The table” is the symbol of unity and acceptance. We are fond of saying “all are welcome at the table.” The Communion table is prominent in our sanctuaries. When we talk about the gospel much of what we say is wrapped up in the inclusivity of the table Jesus invites people to (with references to Levi’s house and the various other times Jesus ate with “sinners” (though our denomination might be hesitant to use that word!).
At it’s best this focus on the table is a reminder that Jesus welcomes all people, no matter what they have done or what background they have, to come and find communion with him and his church through repentance and faith. It reminds us that there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, but all are one in Christ Jesus. And it reminds us that there is power in hospitality offered in the name of Jesus.
At it’s worst this becomes a religion that seeks to be palatable to our culture by accepting any and all behaviors. Sin is dismissed as an antiquated concept and one that injures people’s self-esteem. The faith becomes less about Jesus and more about acceptance based on nothing but acceptance.
Charismatics: People of the Spirit
This is admittedly the stream of Christianity I’ve had the least contact with. I rely on some good friends who are pastors and participants to make any observations at all. Charismatics have an insistent focus on the Holy Spirit. They will often refer to themselves as “Spirit-filled” to indicate a level of faith that goes beyond “regular Christians” (somewhat similar to Evangelicals who call themselves “born again believers”). In some streams the charismatic gifts of the Spirit, especially speaking in tongues, are seen as an essential sign of the baptism of the Holy Spirit.
At it’s best this focus on the Holy Spirit brings deep faith, passionate prayer, joyful worship, and a reliance on the ways and power of God over the ways and power of man.
At it’s worst this sets up a caste system within Christianity where the most outwardly supernatural gifts are made a test of true faith. The focus on miracles can also fail to leave any place for a biblical understanding of grief.
Taking the Best
All of these streams and their symbols point to aspects of the gospel and Christian life that are essential. Our challenge is to take the good while leaving the potentially harmful negatives behind.