While this type of thinking and behaving comes naturally to humans it is nowhere more destructive than when it comes to religion because not only are we “in” but now, as Bob Dylan sang, we have "God on our side". When we get to this place, even as sincere believers, we can very easily end up aligned more with forces of destruction and division rather than redemption and reconciliation. Our words become arrogant and condescending, and even the truth we speak becomes tinged with venom—alienating rather reconciling, tearing down rather than redeeming, erecting barriers rather than building bridges.
One of the most revolutionary concepts in the New Testament is how completely Jesus has done away with the barriers in our world whether race, ethnicity, class, or gender. In Jesus we are reconciled and reconnected to God. Every barrier that kept us estranged from God has been dealt with. This fundamental reality has ramifications not only on our relationship as individuals to God but in relation to other people as well. In fact, the apostle Paul wrote in many places about how the identifiers and boundary markers of our world have all been done away with in Christ ( 1 Corinthians 12:13, Colossians 3:11, Ephesians 2:13 ).
Paul writes in Galatians 3:28,
There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
Paul makes the case over and over that the only thing that ultimately matters is where we are in relation to Christ. If Christ is truly the center of life then everything else should, like spokes on a wheel, flow from that center. This doesn’t mean that we will be some kind of homogenous group of people who all look, talk, and act alike, but it will mean that the kinds of things that separate folks who are not Christ-followers should not separate us who are endeavoring to follow Jesus. We live in such a way as to bring this reality to bear in our world. We are reconcilers because we have been reconciled!
Bounded Set and Centered Set
A helpful way of working this out practically comes from the world of math, specifically Set Theory. One of the most common ways of grouping people in our world can be referred to as a Bounded Set. A Bounded Set is defined by its boundary. The boundary may be the Republican political ideology, for example, so if you identify with that ideology and the actions of that group you are "in" with that group and if you don’t then you are "out". This way of understanding groups can apply to just about any type of group whether ethnic, social, niche, class, or even churches. You are ‘in’ each of these groups (Bounded Sets) based on your participation in certain activities, by living according to certain rules, and perhaps by the way you dress or talk. The Bounded Set way of thinking (which is most common in our world) by its very nature erects many barriers or boundaries to outsiders.
Have you ever been an outsider?
Have you ever been around a bounded set of people without being able to make it in?
Unfortunately this is what happens with many people when it comes to church. They may be sincerely interested in matters of faith. They may have even had some kind of encounter with God. The problem is that as far as they can tell there are too many barriers to overcome to connect with faith communities. And so because they don’t know the jargon or the customs of the groups which are concerned with spirituality they are left to journey through their faith questions and doubts alone.
Perhaps a more helpful way of looking at things in light of the reconciling work of Christ is another set theory called- Centered Set (see illustration). In a Centered Set people are not identified by being in or out of a boundary but by their relation or movement towards or away from the center (which for Christ-followers is Jesus). This is a very helpful way of looking at things because instead of thinking of church or faith as something you do once such as praying a prayer or becoming a member, it becomes a journey that is consistently defined by where we are moving in relation to the center (Jesus).
For instance, in the gospels Jesus has numerous encounters with Pharisees and scribes who were much closer to him in terms of morality and observance of the law than say the prostitutes, tax collectors or even fishermen. Yet time and time again we see how it was the prostitute, the tax collector, or even the Roman soldier who were actually moving towards Jesus when those who were closest such as the scribes and Pharisees were moving away from him. A Centered Set approach to faith does not emphasize boundaries but connects with people wherever they are and at whatever stage of faith in which they may be.
Have you ever experienced times in your Christian walk where you were doing a lot of Christian activities such as going to church, serving, or standing up for righteousness when in fact you were moving away from Jesus?
Have you ever experienced God when you were doing nothing "religious" or "Christian"?
How might our attitudes towards non-Christians be different if we took more of a Centered Set rather than a Bounded Set approach to church?