The Grand Canyon (Sep-Oct 1999)

By Matt Dabbs

by Timothy Alexander
September – October, 1999

I have an image of myself, thirty years from now, pudgy and gray, railing about the imperfections of the church. Nobody is listening. My wife is loyal, but listless, her head drooping at yet another tirade from her husband-who-never-grew-up. My children are nowhere to be seen. They shield their children from the embarrassment that Dad has become.

The Eagles had a song long ago called Desperado. The last lines speek to my sense of disconnection to my own fellowship.

Desperado, why don’t you come to your senses?
Come down from your fences, open the gate.
It may be rainin’, but there’s a rainbow above you.
You better let somebody love you before it’s too late.

My nghtmare is waking up to an eternity of remembering all those opportunities I let slip through my fingers like a greased string, all those opportunities to have let somebody love me “before it’s too late.”

Yet there remains a single gnarled blackened stump that no fear of being unloved has been able to haul out of the field of my perceptions. It has been a constant presence, deeply embedded in my conscience. Over the years, this unyielding conviction has expresse itself in unpleasant, at times even sinful ways. If only I could take back some of the harsh tones and angry words … but I can’t. God knows I’m sorry and I know I’ve repented. But feelings linger. Memories can be stubborn, as well as soothing.

This immovable object is what I call the “Grand Canyon.” It is a divide so deep and wide that no bridge can be built across it, no tunnel can be dug through it. It is the distance between grace and law and it expresses itself to me in one simple question: “Are there Christians outside of my fellowship?”

For over a decade I have answered “yes” to that question. At first I answered “yes” because I was (and remain) bowled over by my own ignorance. If I accepted that others who called Jesus their Lord with sincerity could be lost in sin, then I had to accept that I could call Jesus my Lord and be lost in sin. I had to entertain the possibility I could be wrong, even if in my heart I thought myself to be right. Further study helped me to see a larger picture of God’s purposes in history and frame my own experience, knowledge and convictions within that larger picture. That God’s purposes are larger, and his family more expansive, than the limitations of my own relatively small fellowship is no longer an issue for me. They are and it is.

But the Grand Canyon looms large. That simple question reveals either grace or law. All other topics are peripheral, all other questions subordinate to that question. The answer to that question exposes salvation received or salvation earned.

My fellowship, at times, can resemble the Radio Shack of American Evangelicals. We have demonstrated a willingness to re-invent a number of wheels, the most recent turn being the various “men’s gatherings.” Many could not bring themselves to go to a Promise Keeper’s event because of its broad, multi-denominational character. But if “our” people do it, then it becomes acceptable. Much the same could be said for any number of service projects, relief agencies, social services, even educational institutions. I am thankful to have been blessed by many of these efforts and I hope they continue to do much good for many people. But my point is that at least some of the reason for their existence is found in our answer to the simple question: “Are there Christians outside my fellowship?” Answering “no” gives rise to the need to come up with a host of ministries because a “no” means not connecting with any ministry outside our fellowship.

There is a temptation to attempt to paper over the Grand Canyon. It is an old temptation, at least as old as Galatians 2. Peter thought he could finesse the distinction between grace and law. Paul called his bluff in 2:14, “How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?” It is interesting Paul doesn’t criticize Peter for following customs. In order to promote peace Paul submits to a Jewish custom and has his head shaved (Acts 21). Paul is not against Jewish customs.

But Paul understands the real-life implications of forcing Gentiles to follow Jewish customs: Fellowship. Who is “in” and who is “out.” Not being willing to eat with somebody, even today, sends a strong message abut what you think of that person.

The message sent into the world of the New Testament was even more stark. Offering, or denying, table fellowship sent a message of acceptance or rejection of the entire person. Paul said such behavior was “not acting in line with the truth of the gospel.”

The temptation remains today. Some well-intended, but misguided, people believe the Grand Canyon can be smoothed over. It is thought to be a mark of maturity, even leadership, to try to be credible to both sides of the Grand Canyon. Cmmon sense tries to achieve consensus, strives for the middle ground. But the reality is, there is no middle ground. Either I accept there are Christians outside my fellowship or I don’t. No wiggle room, no fuding, no shiny shoes tap-dancing under a Hollywood smile. If I truly believe there are not Christians outside of my fellowship then I am bound to view the world through those lenses. Integrity means I will be concerned for the salvation of not only those who have never heard of Jesus, but for those who call upon Jesus differently than I call upon him.

On the other hand, if I accept there are Christians outside of my fellowship then integrity demands I treat them as brethren. Paul called Peter’s behavior “hypocrisy.” Peter thought he could have it both ways. As long as the men from James stayed away Peter sat at table with the Gentiles. But when the Jerusalem patrol appeared, Peter had a “coming to James” experience and withdrew from the Gentiles. Suppose Paul had never confronted Peter. Suppose the men from James came, stayed a while, and then went back home. Would the Gentiles have welcomed Peter back at the table? I kinda doubt it.

Would you?

Mike Cope popularized a quote from T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral: “The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.” The quote so captivated me I bought and read, and re-read, the play. The quote comes at the end of a sequence of temptations to Thomas Becket. Becket finds himself under immense pressure to yield his “means” in the service of the king’s “ends.” But Becket knew what any high school debater on ethics would end up telling you, that is – the ends do not justify the means.

The climax of the play comes when four knights in the service of the king kill Becket. The priests bar the door, hoping to prevent the killers from entering. Becket thunders to the priests:

Unbar the doors! Throw open the doors!
I will not have the house of prayer, the church of Christ,
The sanctuary, turned into a fortress.
The Church shall protect her own, in her own way, not
As oak and stone; oak and stone decay,
Give no stay, but the Church shall endure.
The church shall be open, even to our enemies.
Open the door!

I like the words Eliot places in Becket’s mouth because they express an unfettered hope in the ability of God to sustain his church. A few lines later Becket says, “We are not here to triumph by fighting, by stratagem, or by resistance, not to fight with beasts as men.” Those are sentiments that hold to the conviction God is stronger than our strengths and that only when we are weak, then we are strong.

Paving over the Grand Canyon turns the santuary into a fortress, trusting more in oak and stone than in the sustaining power of God. “Are there Christians outside of my fellowship?” is the acid test of whether we believe in a living God of and over history. If we answer “yes” then we proclaim trust in God’s power to sustain the church in spite of our shortcomings and misunderstandings. We acknowledge the power of God to create a people for himself in all ages and circumstances. If we answer “no” then we proclaim trust in our ability to know it all and get it right. We acknowledge that it is only through our skill at finessing the details a church is maintained.

I do not want to end up like Desperado. I love my fellowship. i love ministry. I love preaching the gospel of Jesus, the message of the cross. I want to leave a legacy to my family of a man who followed God with joy, and not with anger.

But what do I do about the Grand Canyon?

What do you do about it?Wineskins Magazine

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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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