After being in Portland for only four hours, I suddenly want to live there. The city lights, the sky-scrapers, the amplified-Eugene feel just appeals to me in a way I can’t really explain. I’m sure it has its drawbacks, but what town doesn’t? Lincoln City has the beach, but it also has thousands and thousands of tourists during the summer. But unlike Lincoln City or Eugene, Portland has a mysterious feel to it. The last time I was in downtown Portland or even near it was when I was in eighth grade. I’ve driven through Portland and gone to several places on the outskirts, but I haven’t actually been in the city for eight years. And since I don’t go there often, I don’t know the city very well. There’s a mystery about it because I’m incredibly curious. And I’m easily distracted by shiny buildings and bright lights.
When I think about moving away from Eugene, though, I get a little nervous. Not only would I have to meet a bunch of new people, but I’d have to find a healthy church, a Christ-like church. Here in Eugene, I’ve been with Calvary Fellowship my entire college career and it’s been awesome. I’ve been challenged spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, and sometimes even physically (we have a former wrestler as one of our pastors and sometimes he gets that fire in his eyes and attacks whatever moves next to him). I’ve grown to appreciate Danny O’Neil’s style of teaching every Sunday morning and his overall way of looking at Jesus. It’s encouraging and inspiring. But does Portland have that?
Taking a step back and looking at the surface of Christianity, which is usually what the Christian pop culture looks like, I see a side of it all that I want to avoid. I see a side of Christianity that stresses believing the right things, learning from the right pastors, going to the right churches, and knowing the Bible through the lens of systematic theology. It carries the illusion of simplicity without the challenge. It makes being a Christian look like a style of career, not a style of living. You go to church every Sunday, tithe once a month, learn all the right verses to all the right doctrines, and basically prepare yourself to defend what you believe. What’s wrong in all of this? Well, certain Scriptures get overlooked, like the words of Jesus.
No, not all the words of Jesus go overlooked, but the ones that are considered are looked at because of what doctrines they imply. For instance, when Jesus prays to God asking Him to sanctify His disciples “in the truth; [His] word is truth” we don’t read this as a prayer asking God to sanctify His people in Himself; we read it as how Jesus supposedly affirms the doctrine of inerrancy. There are plenty of other references to Jesus’ words in light of doctrines, but my point is this: we take our only insight into what Jesus said and we kill the life of it by making a systematic theology out of it. We don’t feed off God’s Word as in God’s “Logos”; we feed off our own organized religious interpretation of the Bible, the second testament to the Word of God. What gets overlooked when we doctrinalize Scripture is the style of living (living in the day to day) that Jesus calls us to. If it doesn’t get overlooked, at the very least it’s treated with lesser importance than walking in “sound doctrine.” All the while, we ignore how Jesus defines “sound doctrine”; loving God and loving others.
The doctrine of unconditional, selfless love isn’t being written about that often these days. Instead, books about what every Christian should believe are rising to the top of the Best Seller list for Christian literature. Entire series of sermons that go through long books of the Bible are devoted to teaching people “sound doctrine” through the lens of systematic theology. The problem with systematic theology is that it is un-Christ-like; it’s systematic. If you read Scripture just to read it, throwing aside whatever we’ve understood about doctrine and theology, we see a Christ who was known and loved because He loved, not because He went around thumping everybody’s head with a Bible. He listened to the people’s stories, He empathized with the people’s pain and suffering (whether they were rich or poor, healthy or sick), and He “came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many,” (Matthew 20:28).
The religious elitists of our time, who are most frequently ourselves, take the truth of Jesus, the truth of Scripture and lord it over everybody else. But yet it’s Jesus who says, “It shall not be so among you,” (Matthew 20:26). Humility and servitude and selfless love are the things that should be at the top of our doctrines. Then why are most followers of Jesus abandoning ship when a tradition gets questioned and flocking to churches that “have it all together”? Why, instead of listening and trying to understand those who disagree with us, are we defending our beliefs against theirs? When we’re quick to defend our beliefs, we’re quick to assume that anyone who disagrees with us is attacking us. But if we take a step back, set our egos aside, and open our ears, we might realize that those who disagree with us are merely offering up alternative ways of looking at life. They offer different perspectives.
We don’t have to believe what they offer us, we don’t have to agree with them, but at the very least we can show them Christ’s love by trying to listen and understand what they’re saying. It seems to me that we have a bad tendency (myself included) to get emotional when we’re told our beliefs are wrong. Instead, maybe we should humble ourselves and listen to what the arguments and ideas are before we try to prove them wrong. The University of Oregon has had a debate team for quite some time. When they first started out, they implemented a new style of argument: cross examination. This style beckoned the Oregon team to understand the opposing teams’ arguments before presenting their own. If you’re like me and have the tendency to argue, then maybe this approach would help you be more Christ-like in the whole process.
But before we even consider arguing our beliefs and defending our doctrines and proving ourselves in the right, we have a third option: we could let go. We could turn the other cheek by saying, “Okay, I understand where you’re coming from, but I just disagree,” and then move on to more important things like loving others as Christ would. I might be crazy, but I think when the end comes, Jesus won’t evaluate how well we defended our doctrines and systematic theologies; He’ll look at how well we reflected His character.
This is the kind of church I’d want to find if I moved to Portland. Yeah, no church will ever do this perfectly and that no matter what I’ll have to take the good with the bad. But at the very least, I think the church (the global one) should have the primary focus of reflecting Christ’s character. And if I’m not at a church (smaller, local one) with this vision – this Christ-exalting, Christ-amplifying, Christ-loving vision – then I shouldn’t consider it a home church. Thankfully, though, I won’t really have to worry about all that for a while since I’m not looking to move to Portland any time soon, at least I don’t think so anyway. But I think I should keep this in mind even while being a part of Calvary Fellowship. Right now things are good, vision is set on showing Christ’s love, and people are being active with their faith. Things could change, though, and I think every follower of Jesus should be aware. And if change does come, I think it’s important to remain committed to that church. With as many churches as there are out there, it’s so easy to bail out to the next one when we see something we don’t like. I don’t want to do that if I move to Portland and I don’t want to do that now. Endurance and patience are, after all, Christ-like characteristics.
If Jesus were around today, I’d wonder what He might say to our doctrines and systematic theologies. I wonder if He would do like He did when He overturned the merchants’ tables in the Temple. Or maybe He’d walk right past it all and hang out with the homosexuals and the Muslims and the drug addicts, not because He believes everything’s relative, but because He is love; because love is humble. I want to meet Jesus one day, face to face. And if it turns out that He comes back and immediately goes to the marginalized, I can only hope that I’d be there with them to meet Him.