Bound or Centered (Feb 2012)

By Matt Dabbs

By Scott Simpson

Identity’s everything when you’re a kid. But since identity is really a set of beliefs, a set of assumptions we make about ourselves, kids don’t think of it that way because children are unaware of the gap between the mind and reality. For a child, if I think it… that means it is.

Some people never outgrow that state.

So as we gain awareness about what our parents do, who they are, what they believe, what team they cheer for, what president they voted for, what make of automobile holds their loyalty, we plant our flag with each of those markers and begin defending them as though we’d believed them all along—because, for a child, there is no gap between belief and reality.

That’s how we come to develop our sense of family, our sense of tribe, if you will, and what it means to be a part of it.

There’s a lot of emotional weight placed on that sense of tribe. At some point, if I find my internalized ideas about Chevy pickups, or about President Obama, or about the Broncos coming into question, then not only is my identity threatened, not only is my sense of my parents’ or my group’s worldview threatened, but my sense of REALITY is threatened.

For the first time, I may begin to realize, “If I was wrong about THAT, then what else might I be wrong about?”

This emotional weight is why we look for boundaries. It’s why any interaction with others often leads us to a much clearer sense of how they are different from us, rather than how they might be similar, or at least moving in the same direction as we are. I need to affirm my identity, my family’s identity, my group’s identity. I need to affirm reality.

Groups define themselves in at least two fundamentally differing ways: 1) by their boundaries, and 2) by their center. Clubs are good examples of bounded groups. People are either in or out. If you’ve paid your dues, if your name’s on the roster, if you’ve completed the initiation, then you’re in. Otherwise, you’re out.

Solar systems are a good example of centered groups. In a solar system, “out” and “in” are defined less by specific boundaries than by their relational attraction to the center: the sun.

Sure, we can speak theoretically about the farthest distance the influence of a particular star reaches, but the defining factor isn’t distance or position. The defining factor is influence. As soon as a body comes under the influence of the unifying center, it’s part of the system, part of the group.

When I was young, I was part of a bounded church. Our identity came from our clearly defined boundaries. Being a “bounded” church strongly impacted my own sense of confidence, my sense of others (who were outside our boundaries) and resulted in the strong presence boundary issues had in our group’s teaching.

Confidence

As a child in church, at first, of course, what my tribe believed was reality because my tribe believed it. But as I gained a broader sense of the world—came to understand that there were other perspectives, other ways of seeing and understanding things, and intelligent, good people who saw and understood them in these other ways— I needed something to ease the cognitive dissonance created by a world full of seemingly trustworthy adults who were often at odds.

What I got from my church—almost all of the time—was the “evidences” approach. In other words, the way to solve doubt (and, of course, doubt was a thing to be solved) was through proof, by building scriptural evidences concerning the correct boundaries.

The issue here isn’t really whether the proof was valid or not, the issues were that, 1) knowing I was “in” was all important, and that, 2) knowing came by proving—usually “proof-texting.”

The difficult thing for me was that this method was really only a Band-Aid on the ache of waning confidence, and, in fact, it built the emotional weight up to a crushing level. Think of the MASS of mounting evidence, placed like chips on a roulette wheel, all on one single number, MY church’s number. If at any point, an objection arises that I can’t prove away, everything tumbles. This weight actually undercuts the confidence it’s trying to build.

This was how our church defined faith in God, or faith in scripture—you worked yourself up rationally toward an absence of doubt— an absence of unanswered questions. But really, it was faith in my tribe’s set of assumptions about God or about scripture. And the very lack of questioning, the squelching of doubt, insured actual faith in God wouldn’t be grown. If we’d have had faith in God, we might not have been so scared to entertain real questions. We’d placed our bets, and it was all or nothing. In a situation like that, you know if you lose—really lose—there may be no coming back.

My church’s confidence builders didn’t build confidence; they constructed a stadium-sized domino design just waiting for a slight breeze, or a falling twig… or a smart agnostic.

Others

We knew other kids who called themselves Christians, but we also knew EXACTLY why they weren’t really Christians. We could show you the book, chapter and verse. In fact, a youth-group buddy of mine, when we found ourselves on a school trip and in the church building of a group that was “other” than us, picked up a Bible from one of the pews and started thumbing through it.

“What are you looking for?” I asked him. He glanced up and smiled.

“Acts 2:38. I’m seeing if they have it in their Bibles… I know they don’t believe it.”

We were a bounded church because the boundaries we had all studied so desperately to prove to ourselves that we were right, became the relational lens through which we saw the rest of the world. It wasn’t just an intellectual thing for us. We felt the authenticity of others who disagreed with things we had learned were foundational to our identity as God’s people. We knew that in other areas, these were good, trustworthy, genuine people. That meant that it was dangerous to allow ourselves to actually know these others—we could only know about them. Trusting them threatened our whole system. And so what we knew about their beliefs came from tracts and youth studies on how to give answers to the false arguments of others. We didn’t move among them, we stood in the wings quoting the tribal scripts we’d practiced.

Many of them were quoting theirs right back, because they were bounded too.

Boundary Teaching

The problem with teaching boundaries is that it assumes and promotes a non-relational system. You are in or you are out based solely on the rules and your particular actions in regard to them. That’s fine… but that’s not at all what we actually find in the Bible concerning God’s Kingdom.

Bounded groups create an “us” and a “them” but Paul says Christ came to tear down dividing walls and that ours is a ministry of reconciliation. (Eph. 2 and 2 Cor. 5)

Bounded groups gain identity from the details of their boundaries: what we believe about this issue and that issue; what we believe about the how, when and where of getting saved and added to the church; what we do and how we do it when we get together to do worship. But Paul tells us our identity is hidden with Christ in God. (Col. 3)

Bounded groups treat others as projects to be won over, convinced or converted, but Paul tells us that it’s while we were yet sinners that Christ enacted His gracious act of death and resurrection out of love. (Rom. 5)

Most importantly, bounded groups can’t call you brother or sister until you do certain things, perform certain acts or commit publicly to certain propositions about God or Jesus, while Jesus claims to be drawing ALL to himself, attracting everyone into a salvic system centered on himself. (John 12)

His gravitational influence is far wider than the walls of our churches.

In the parable of the wheat and the weeds, the disciples were taught very specifically that their job was not to sort. They were told that the field of the Kingdom would be filled with both wheat and weeds and that the sorting out was NOT their place.

In the parable of the banquet, those who should have been at the table didn’t come, and those who, by all accounts, shouldn’t have been there were brought in by the Master and seated and fed.

I’ve known all my life that religion is by definition bounded. But more recently, I’ve also realized that God, the God who is agape love, is NOT bounded. He is, through Christ, destroying boundaries, opening up spaces for relational living, and transforming his good creation back into the kind of place that is centered on that love-nature so perfectly demonstrated in the cross and the resurrection.

The Kingdom of God is not bounded and boarded up like everything WE create.

Religion tries to teach people how to dress, how to act, what to say in order to enter into the banquet of the Kingdom. But Jesus? Well, he just sets the table and opens the doors, knowing that hungry people will come, and that good food sustains and transforms the dying into the living.

Whatever can be said about the issue of who we fellowship, I’ll only find MY sustenance at the table Jesus has set.

If the table I’m at is pretty exclusive, then it’s probably not His.

categoria commentoNo Comments dataNovember 22nd, 2013
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Profile photo of Matt DabbsThis author published 1583 posts in this site.
Matt is the preaching minister at the Auburn Church of Christ in Auburn, Alabama. He and Missy have been married 12 years and are raising two wonderful boys, Jonah and Elijah. Matt is passionate about reaching and discipling young adults, small groups, and teaching. Matt is currently the editor and co-owner of Wineskins.org.

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