churches without borders

This month a nearby church changed its name from “Christ Community Church” to “C3Exchange.”  Besides the obvious benefit of being mistaken for a Star Wars character, the pastor said the name change indicates their desire to be an “inclusive, spiritual community” which includes Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, and even atheists. 

The church will remain true to its heritage by embodying words that begin with the letter C—“compassion, community, collaboration” and—wait for it—“conversation.”  The church also plans to take the cross down from its bell tower, for while “the cross is one symbol that is important to us…it’s not the only one.”  The pastor continued:  “We want to put something else on the wall that says ‘all are welcome,’ and we welcome people of all different paths.” 

The surprising thing is that until 1997 the church was a member of the Reformed Church of America—the same denomination that has room for Kevin DeYoung.  How does a church go from the RCA to full-blown liberalism in 13 years?

Part of the answer may lie in a column that Juanita Westaby, a reporter for the Grand Rapids Press, wrote for last weekend’s religion section.  Westaby mentioned how some Protestants were offended by tracts which suggested that everyone but pre-Vatican II Roman Catholics were going to hell.  Non-Christians were offended that these Protestants were offended, for they were only getting a taste of their own medicine.  How do the Protestants think others feel when they tell them that they are going to hell unless they are saved?

Westaby said that we will all get along better if we stop proselytizing.  Be content to love your God and live out your own faith.  If others are attracted to what you have, then fine.  If they aren’t, then nothing you can say is going to make them want it anyway.

Westaby makes a good point that the beauty of our lives should draw others to our faith, and there’s no point in trying to argue someone into your religion if they don’t like what they see.  But she makes the jump from it’s futile to tell someone that they need your God to it’s mean and offensive to do so.  She said that “whenever we are telling someone else how to live, who to believe in, how to believer, whether or not to believe,” then we are tearing “down another’s belief to elevate [our] own.” 

She complained that “in 15 years of religion reporting, I have been asked countless times if I am saved.  There is only one reason for asking that question:  that person thinks their six-geranium yard is better than Chris’ Garden, where I am heading” (Westaby compared a person’s sorry flowers to Chris’ beautiful garden to illustrate the difference between religions—people will head to the flowers they like, and nothing you can say will stop them). 

Westaby concludes:  “There are countless people in West Michigan who just do not want to be in your yard.  They want to climb mountains, sail seas, cross deserts and enter gardens of their own human experience without someone else’s religious prescription.  Please leave them be.”

Where does Westaby get the idea that it’s wrong to tell others they need Jesus?  Part of the answer may lie in the popular distinction between centered and bounded sets.  And here is where evangelical Christians need to be especially careful.  Two weeks ago John Ortberg wrote an essay for Leadership in which he argued that centered sets were better than bounded sets.  Agreed that we should be centered set people who focus on Jesus, the center of our centered set.  But it would have been helpful for Ortberg to clearly say that there is a boundary which we must cross when we move from darkness into the light, from death into life. 

“The key question” is not merely whether “someone is oriented toward [Jesus] or away from him,” but also whether their orientation has brought them across the line.  Agreed that “God is in a much better position than we are to know who’s in and who’s out,” but there still is an in and an out.  And we must not be afraid to say it.  Rather than succumb to the false dualism of centered vs. bounded sets, we should follow the Gospel Coalition’s lead in acknowledging our “centered-bounded set.”  Christians are centered on Jesus, and like every other meaningful set, we also have a boundary.

My point is not to blame Ortberg for C3Exchange—I am sure that he would be as horrified as me with the news from that church.  My point is merely to explain how the slippery slope to liberalism may occur.

  1. Evangelical Christians play the center off against the boundary, elevating the person of Jesus over the importance of believing the facts about him.  Concern over right doctrine is seen as a boundary play, which gets in the way of following Jesus.  [Please note that Ortberg does not make all of these assertions.  He merely emphasizes the center at the expense of the boundary, which inadvertently feeds the increasingly popular view that doctrine, inasmuch as it is associated with the boundary, is unimportant.  Given how widespread that view is, we are guilty of pastoral negligence if we discuss centered and bounded sets without declaring our need for boundaries and right doctrine].
  2. More progressive Christians emphasize that Jesus is love, and that he wouldn’t want us fighting over the facts about him.  As long as you love others, which cashes out as respecting their religious beliefs enough not to tell them that they are wrong, then you are following the way of Jesus.
  3. Liberal “Christians” figure that if Jesus is love, then we are being especially true to our faith when we open our churches to include those who belong to other religions.  Now we are all following Jesus, or Mohammed, or the Buddha, or whatever (in truth we’re just following ourselves).  And voila, you have C3Exchange.







74 responses to “churches without borders”

  1. Yooper

    I wonder, ought I view the removal of the cross and name change as an end of the hypocrisy that this local gathering is part of Christ’s Church? Or have the wolves become bold and hungry?

  2. What has happened in this case, and this is unfortunately not uncommon albeit usually less extreme, is that they don’t have a clear center. You are in real trouble when you have neither clear boundaries or a clear center.

    The centered-set approach has its risks, but so does any approach. The center must be clear and explicit. It’s not necessarily a slippery slope, but you must be attentive as you need to be in any community that is to remain vital regardless of approach.

    My Church is explicitly centered-set. If you come to my church, it is unmistakable that the center is Jesus Christ. There is no shying away from that. And it is fleshed out in a Vision statement which is the basis for everything we do. The Vision statement is worded like a vision (unlike a lot of such statements) which shows a direction. It is not framed as a doctrinal statement, although one could say that some doctrinal content is inherently embedded in it.

    We explicitly do not have clear boundaries. We are much more concerned with your direction than where you are right now. A clear vision and direction does serve to set boundaries to some degree, but they are not rigid and imposed. We have had many people leave because they decided that they did not really embrace our vision. They determined that they were not inside our boundary. We didn’t judge them and tell them to get out.

    Where we are at is far different from where this community is at. And where we’re at doesn’t set us on a slippery slope to that position.

  3. Tertullian2010

    Something I just don’t get: according to C3E’s pastor, they have a number of “atheists” at the church (or is it just a community now?) What in the world does an atheist get out of going to church? Seriously, what possible benefit can an atheist have in attending a worship service – any service? What are they worshipping? What kind of encouragement/challenge/motivation are they expecting from a bunch of people who are deluded and wasting their time on a fairy tale? No matter how you slice it, an atheist at a worship service is an exercise in hypocrisy and self-delusion, so even the possibility of true fellowship is excluded (the atheist is playing a part instead of being true to him/herself, so the “fellowship” is with a projection of the atheist, not the atheist him/herself.) I just don’t get it. If you don’t believe in God, why in the world would you want to worship him with those who do believe?

  4. mikewittmer


    Are you an updated version of Tertullian2009? 🙂 You ask a good question, which may equally be asked of Buddhists, who also are atheists. Why go to all that trouble if there is no God? Even more, why do anything if there is no God? So I guess that worship, since it is an activity, is no more irrational than anything else that an atheist might do. But its inconsistency is more glaring.

  5. Tertullian2010


    I think it is a stretch to go from “why worship” to “why do anything at all.” Even if there is no God, one can still find value in loving your family and neighbors, being a good employee, and other acts of service that foster community and/or nurture life. Worship, though, is a different type of activity, since it is inherently religious. I don’t think that being a conscientious citizen is necessarily inconsistent for an atheist, but certainly participating in specifically religious activities is inconsistent.

    And, yes, I am an “updated” version of T09 – trying to stay contemprovant.

  6. It’s called “3C” yet stands for “compassion, community, collaboration, and conversation.” Can I suggest another C? . . . “Counting”?

    Ironically, Tim Keller’s recent post ( provides a discussion of this issue using some insight from Lloyd-Jones. (With Keller, it’s usually Lloyd-Jones or Tolkien.)

    He provides warnings to both sides of the debate.

    To the liberal: “So when you say, ‘I don’t care about doctrine, it’s how you live that matters,’ you are ironically promoting the doctrine of justification by works. ”

    He warns fundys who “have made accurate doctrine an end in itself, instead of a means to honor God and grow in Christ-likeness. ‘Doctrine must never be considered in and of itself. Scripture must never be divorced from life’”.

    I found the entire post helpful.

  7. Bill Samuel

    Matthew, on the liberal side the problem is usually that the “how you live” tends to be human-centered. It can come to at least border on creating a false god.

    The “how you live” needs to be deeply rooted in the person of Jesus Christ as our Teacher and Guide, both through the written scripture and the work of the Holy Spirit. If approached from the understanding that we need to be transformed by Christ acting through the Holy Spirit, and that what we do then flows from who we become in Christ, then you are not promoting justification by works.

  8. Romans 1:25 would be a great theme verse for them, “They exchanged the truth of God for a lie.” Uuugh.

  9. From time to time I still visit your blog and of course this entry was quite interesting to me. I want to thank you for adding the direct references to others work in your commentary. Having read Ortbergs article I believe his concluding remark was a diamond in the rough…

    ‘Somebody wrote that in Australia there are two main methods for keeping cattle on the ranch. One is to build a fence around the perimeter. The other is to dig a well in the center of the property.

    I think Jesus is more like a well than a fence.’

    Well played. The tone of the statement reminds me of one of my favorite quotes from long ago.

    ‘If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather the wood, divide the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.’–Antoine de Saint Exupery

    Jesus is someone we desire more than something that we believe. Anyone, at anytime, can be drawn to him and become a disciple of Him. He can become their ‘beloved’ that is always near the center of their thoughts. They yearn, they thirst, they desire Him and His presence. Is that not Christian?

  10. mikewittmer


    The problem with your view is that it is too one-sided. Of course Jesus is more like a well than a fence. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t a boundary. Try pastoring a church without a boundary. How would you begin to practice church discipline? Of course Jesus is more than human words can convey. But he is not less than.

    Isn’t it obvious that both/and is better than a lop-sided extreme? We need both doctrine and ethics, right beliefs and love (1 Jn. 3:23).

  11. Fences tend to proclaim “Keep Out” to strangers. If water is life-sustaining, do we really want fences to keep people out?

    In reality, we have constructed fences in our efforts to teach ‘right belief.” I long for the day when the people of God invite people to the well without expecting them to climb over, through, or under our fences.

  12. The question regarding C3Exchange isn’t whether they have a fence or a well…..they have neither (and THAT is the problem).

    Fine, try to have a churches without fences….more power to you (though I would tend to agree with Mike that such a statement is logically absurd—plus contrary to Jesus’ own very clear exclusive teachings about himself). But for crying out loud at least have a well.

    C3 offers a Jesus that lets atheists stay atheists, Muslims stay Muslims, and Buddhists stay Buddhists. It isn’t a place where one comes to hear the Good News from Jesus, but according to the “pastor” will be “a place where people can come to exchange ideas.” Thus, their well is one they have dug themselves. Instead of the life-giving water of Jesus it is only the contaminated water of the world.

    I pray that God raises up fences to protect people FROM that evil well.

  13. Rather than keeping people out, one purpose of a boundary is to let people know if they are out. If there is safety within, and danger without, then the loving thing is to mark the boundary clearly.

  14. Mike,

    To follow up on (and agree with) your comments about fences: I find it interesting that many people cling to the “No Fences” mantra. Anytime we say ANYTHING about Jesus it is a fence (or better yet, boundary). How would those pastors even say anything about Him? If they say he is a great moral teacher, isn’t that a boundary line that separates them from people who say he is not a great teacher? If they say Jesus really lived, isn’t that a boundary against those who claim there was no such person as Jesus of Nazareth?

    The issue here isn’t the presence of boundaries…C3 of course has them as to the most rabid fundamentalists…the real issue is which boundaries we happen to agree with. The earliest apostles were more than willing to set boundaries (1 John 4:1-3), as was Jesus himself (John 14:6).

    I, for one, am more than willing to let Jesus, John, Peter, and Paul set the boundaries (and dig the well). We would do well to ignore the boundaries and wells offered by others, whether it be C3 from Spring Lake Michigan or First Baptist from Hammond Indiana.

  15. My kids know that they can play on the yard but not on the street. Because I love them, I am glad that they can tell what the boundary is between the grass and the road.

    But what if I take the strategy of only having a centered set? I will make sure there is something desirable at the center of the property (maybe a swing set or a Wii inside) but other than that they can go wherever they want. After all, who wants a restrictive father?

  16. If we drink from Living Water, we long for the things of God. We find that living around the well is superior to the desert.

    The cattle of the western plains of America know enough to stay around the water source. Why wouldn’t people created in the likeness of God not want to stay near the water source?

    In reality, we’re scared of the moving of the Spirit apart from the theological fences that we set up. We still prefer the control, and we prefer not to acknowledge that we have little control. Let’s get over ourselves and proclaim the kingdom through our words and actions, through our monetary choices and our willingness to invite everyone to the banquet.

  17. mikewittmer

    Josh and Nate:

    Amen and well said. Sometimes the truth is so obvious you have to work really hard to ignore it. But never underestimate the industry of an autonomous heart.

  18. Jonathan Shelley

    If only the cattle of the western plains knew enough to stay near the water source, then all those ranchers and cowboys wouldn’t have to risk their lives rounding them up. Too bad cattle need more than to just stand next to a well and drink all day. Instead, they wander off in search of food or shade or adventures on the high seas, and they get lost, or injured, or attacked by predators. They get scared and run away. And we, just like cattle (or maybe just like sheep) have all wandered away from the water source, and we are blessed that God in his grace has erected a fence around us for our protection and well-being. Let’s not foget that Jesus himself claimed to be the gate to the fenced in area for his sheep. I guess if Jesus was OK with the idea of fences and boundaries and keeping out false teachers, thieves, killers, wolves, and the sheep that didn’t belong to him, maybe we – being Christ-like in our actions as well as our doctrine – should be OK with those ideas, too. Well, assuming that we care about everything Jesus said and not just the parts we like.

  19. Randy,

    You said: “Why wouldn’t people created in the likeness of God not want to stay near the water source?”

    That statement simply astonishes me. Have you never heard of a little biblical concept called sin? You act as if Romans 3:11 was never written (” “there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks after God”), or as if Genesis 3 isn’t part of the Biblical record.

    Why are their atheists, Mormons, pedophiles, burglars, abusive dictators, and mass acts of genocide? It is precisely because humanity, who are created in the likeness of God, have rejected the ‘water source’.

  20. Tertullian2010

    Go, Josh, Go!

  21. Randy,

    You wrote, “Why wouldn’t people created in the likeness of God not want to stay near the water source?”

    Jeremiah wrote, “My people have committed two sins: They have forsaken me, the spring of living water, and have dug their own cisterns, broken cisterns that cannot hold water.”

    Sin doesn’t make sense. Yet, that those are the facts on the ground.

  22. So, it’s our job to keep people from sin? Are we really the one’s who keep our flock from sinning?

    Here are the three primary differences between our understanding of the watering hole.

    One – I believe the kingdom of God is appealing when we live into it with the fullness of the Spirit. Goodness, kindness, gentleness. Faith in something bigger than ourselves. Hope for the future. The never ending love of God. These are things that a hurting, broken, and sinful world deeply desire. The watering hole shouldn’t need fences around it.

    Two – It’s not my job nor your job to save people nor keep them from sinning. We proclaim the kingdom of God, the reality of Jesus Christ as risen Lord, and we expect the Spirit of God to move. It’s never our job to erect a fence to keep people in or out.

    Three – A robust theology of the Holy Spirit means God is always in control. It means the Sprit will protect the people of God. “I will never leave you nor forsake you” rings through the ages.

    This also means we believe in the priesthood of all believers and take it seriously. I won’t hedge that I know more or have a greater faith because I have more knowledge of God due to some seminary degree. We’re all followers of Jesus Christ and trying to live into the kingdom of God. Let’s do so with confidence rather than fearing sin.

  23. “who wants a restrictive father?” You sound like you’re advocating paternalism. I have concerns about the model of pastor/leaders as father and all other believers as little kids needing to obey the father.

    Who really is our Father in the community of believers? I don’t think it is some human in a hierarchical system. I think it is God himself.

    If other believers are treated like little children who can’t be trusted to do anything without instruction from a human leader, it doesn’t seem to me that the chances of growing in Christ are very good. We should be dependent upon Christ, not upon a human hierarchy.

  24. “How would those pastors even say anything about Him?”

    The argument that saying anything establishes a fence assumes a rigid, hierarchical model where a pastor is a semi-god. I do not believe this is Biblical. There is a difference in a pastor speaking the truth as he/she understands it, and the pastor as a jailer who sets up cells so that the people can not escape.

    “The earliest apostles were more than willing to set boundaries (1 John 4:1-3)”

    Read the text. This is an apostle telling the PEOPLE to test the spirits. He didn’t set a rigid set of rules and say obey them because I say so. He was telling believers that they need to stay entwined with Christ, the true Teacher who can lead them in the way they need to go.

    The assumption behind many of the comments here seems to be that the choice is between human leaders laying down strict boundaries on their authority or the body of believers having no rudder to guide them in the ship of life. This implicit assumption at least borders on blasphemy, IMHO. Jesus Christ told us he was leaving a Counselor on which we could rely. This was the Holy Spirit, not some humans setting themselves up as authority figures. Consider the possibility that Jesus may have been right on the money.

  25. Bill,

    So a pastor cannot say “Jesus is real”? Or, “Jesus loves you”? If he did, would he be guilty of adhering to a “rigid, hierarchical model where a pastor is a semi-god”???

    I guess Paul was a semi-god, as was John and Peter and James and Luke.

  26. Bill,

    I would humbly ask that you show me where I said human leaders are allowed to set boundaries? Find that in my comments please. In fact, I said the exact opposite. I clearly advocated allowing Scripture to set its own boundaries.

    C3 is setting human based boundaries. So is Jack Schaap in Hammond Indiana. So is Joel Olsteen. They all peddle a version of Christ and all make truth claims. The question is whether or not the boundaries that identify their movements are compatible with the words of Jesus.

    And for the record you have fundamentally misread John. His entire letter (1 John) repeatedly condemns those who deny that Jesus has not come in the flesh. He, in fact, says that if we deny the incarnation than we are not of Christ. So, for John, the belief in the incarnation was one of the “boundaries” or markers of true faith. A denial of it was a marker of false faith. John was not advocating rampant individualism (we all our own our own s

  27. (we all are on our own spiritual journey where we discover our own meaning), but rather a real relationship with a real Jesus of whom it is essential to know real truths.

  28. I think the analogy is getting taken too far. It’s simple: If you love Christ you will obey His commandments. This means that as we are drawn to Him relationally, we begin to act like Him. This means He is the center and because He is the center we will place boundaries on what we can and cannot believe and do.

    In a marriage (which is an exponentially better example than a field) the wife is drawn to the husband, but in this drawing certain boundaries exist. She can’t be with other men, she must look at his needs as well as her own, etc.

    With Christ, it is the same way. As we move toward Him, we must move away from other things. So we have a both/and – since Christ is the center, boundaries exist.

  29. Peter

    So Bill, it’s OK for Jesus to say the truth, but when we repeat the truth we are being rigid, controlling, and power-hungry?

    If a pastor says, “Jesus is the only way” he is being hierarchal?

    What about when Jesus said it? Or maybe it’s just easier to ignore words on a page than it is the man on the stage.

    No one here is arguing for some sort of rigid fundamentalism. But for crying out loud can we not take Jesus’ words at face value and preach them with confidence?

  30. “So a pastor cannot say “Jesus is real”? Or, “Jesus loves you”? If he did, would he be guilty of adhering to a “rigid, hierarchical model where a pastor is a semi-god”???”

    No, not at all. The pastor and any other believer should express the truth as they understand it.

  31. Peter

    Bill, so you think C3 is a legitimate expression of CHristianity that is faithful to the words of Jesus and the New Testament?

  32. Joel, on your both/and comment. If we live from the Center, allowing ourselves to be transformed by Christ, the boundaries really become somewhat irrelevant because we no longer have an inclination to cross them.

    Take an example. Scripture says that husbands should love their wives as Christ loves the church. If I, as a husband, live up to that, I would have no inclination to do the things that would be described as boundaries, like adultery. The boundary doesn’t limit me, because the depth of my love would mean that would simply not be an issue for me.

    Jesus said it is what is inside the cup that matters, and if we wash the inside of the cup, the outside will just naturally be clean as well. This is a metaphor for the transformation that Christ works within us. The laws and rules – the boundaries – aren’t what protect us from sin. It is Christ’s work within us which does that. Christ transforms us into the kind of a person who wouldn’t consider doing the things the laws prohibit.

  33. Randy,

    Do you believe that the watering hole is God Himself, or the Kingdom of God or the “things of God”?

    If the watering hole is God Himself, then how can you argue that people would not willingly walk away from Him when the specific sin in Jeremiah 2:13 is forsaking God as the spring of living water? Yes, God is intrinsically and supremely delightful, but the essence of sin is that we reject God as our highest treasure.

  34. Peter


    I agree with much of your last statement, but you seem to imply that it is somehow wrong to talk about moral boundaries. I find it interesting that Paul, in most of his letters, begins with a theological reflection of Jesus and ends with ethical specifics (love your wife, don’t gossip, etc). For Paul, reflection on Jesus causes reflection on God-ordained moral boundaries.

    It seems as if your saying any discussion of moral boundaries is somehow anti-gospel. Paul clearly preaches that moralism doesn’t save us (Galatians), but he also talks about moral boundaries in every single letter he wrote.

  35. “Bill, so you think C3 is a legitimate expression of CHristianity that is faithful to the words of Jesus and the New Testament?”

    Heavens, no. Read my first comment on Mike’s post. What they’ve done is throw out the center – the only foundation on which we can rely, Jesus Christ.

    I personally am a refugee from liberal religion which has largely discarded Jesus Christ, at least as anything more than a teacher who had some wise things to say. But I want to point out that this is only one trap we can get into. Another is the legalistic one that focuses on setting rigid boundaries. That’s another way of taking the focus off Christ.

  36. Bill,

    You may not believe that the boundaries protect us from sin, but wouldn’t you say that they are important in telling us when we have wandered into sin?

    Yes, you should be faithful to your wife more out of love for her than because other women are off limits, but do really mean to suggest that your wife doesn’t view it as a boundary that you are not to sleep with other women? Do YOU really not have a boundary in your mind as far as what you think is appropriate for your wife to do with other men? I can’t imagine that you don’t.

    (Do you think that spiritual adultery is possible for a Christian? Or are you a perfectionist or denying the reality of sin? Good advice for those in a human marriage is to recognize that any of us might fall into adultery if we are not vigilant. Those who think, “It could never happen to me” are often the ones who do fall into adultery.)

  37. Peter, I think it’s more a question of focus. It’s not about (pun intended) setting boundaries on what can be said.

    The trap that it looks to me like many get caught in is of focusing on boundaries, and the inward work of transformation becomes a relatively minor emphasis. This not only is not consistent with the Gospel preached by Jesus, IMHO; it also simply does not work. As Paul explicates in a number of passages, we can’t live by those boundaries through our own wills. It is Christ’s work in us that will keep us from crossing the boundaries, but then the law (as it is put often by Paul, at least as customarily translated into English) is no longer what binds us.

    I am pleased because I see in recent decades growing emphasis on the inward transformation by Christ, spiritual formation, spiritual disciplines. Another way to put what I’m trying to say is what Dallas Willard calls “the principle of indirection.” That is, instead of focusing on overcoming our sins which winds up being a human will effort, we focus on union with Christ thru such things as the disciplines, and then we can become the kind of person who doesn’t have the desire to engage in those sins.

  38. I agree completely with your last post Bill (though I’m still wondering how you thought I was advocating human-based rule-making and authority in my prior comments)

    However, I would say that it isn’t taking the focus off Christ when we make true statements about Christ.

    For example, if someone were to come to my church and become a Sunday School teacher, and then we discovered he was teaching that Jesus really wasn’t part of the Trinity (just a mighty good human teacher), we would have a problem with that and would need to remove him as a teacher. That wouldn’t be a debate that took focus off of Christ, but rather a central truth about Jesus that was being openly denied.

    That was my earlier point about all statements regarding Jesus being boundaries. Even saying Jesus actually lived is a boundary (or better stated, a truth-claim).

    Believing what Jesus said about himself and creating that as a standard for church membership isn’t setting up a human hierarchy, but is simply submission to Jesus.

  39. Nate, again it’s really the focus I’m getting at, not a rigid either/or.

  40. People have been using the term “boundaries”, but with varying definition—so we have two distinct conversations that have awkwardly blended.

    Moral boundaries – How Christians behave.

    Doctrinal boundaries – What Christians believe (about Christ).

    The original issue of the post was on doctrinal boundaries (what one must believe about Christ to be in Christ).

  41. Having read the above comments, I thought it might be fun to play with a text for a moment.

    “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”

    A church, by virtue of their virtueless deeds, had excluded their center and He was waiting outside their boundaries to be invited in.

    The message they needed to hear was that they were, “Wretched, poor, blind, and naked.” This stands in stark contrast to a common appraisal that humans (inside or outside the Church) are explorers, seekers, on their own journey to higher truths.

    …Maybe it’s more like jumping on a trampoline. You can get a lot higher if you jump in the center. But if you jump too close to the springs, you really need a fence to keep you from falling off. (By the way, It was purported in a book several years ago that it is okay to lose a few springs here and there. Let me tell you that that is patently false and clearly never tried by the author.)

  42. Seth, LOL. Some time back my friend set up his trampoline with a few springs missing. As 2 of his teens were jumping it broke and they tumbled onto the ground.

    Our wives first instinct was to rush to their aid.

    Conversely, I turned to my friend, almost instantaneously, and said “Look at that, Rob Bell was wrong after all….”.

    The wives were not amused. But probably neither was the Virgin Mary.

  43. I agree that it is more important to focus on the center as long as this does not mean that there are no boundaries or that there is never a need to be concerned about them. I also agree that the boundaries should not be more ridged than God intend, but neither should they be less ridged that He intends.

  44. Josh, you are right. The conversation has blurred between orthodoxy and orthopraxy. And although some would disagree… they are related, but distinct.

    BTW Seth & Josh, great trampoline posts!

  45. However, the more I think about it, the more I think that the whole analogy is flawed.

    When we think about the “center” we think about what is most important. In contrast to this “boundaries” has the connotation of issues that are peripheral–things that can be left aside. However, the real doctrinal boundaries to Christianity are the beliefs that are most at the heart of Christianity. The full deity and humanity of Christ and other issues are essential beliefs. They are at the center of Christianity but also distinguish Christianity from non-Christianity.

    Rather than thinking about either an outline of a circle or a central dot, perhaps it is better to imagine the essential truths as a large circle area instead of a single center point. Don’t imagine the circle as an outline, but as a filled in area. Anywhere on the circle is genuine Christianity. Anywhere not on the circle is not genuine Christianity. Anywhere on the circle, we are focusing on the real Jesus Christ, trying to know Him better and to adjust our minds and hearts to His self-revelation. Anywhere outside the filled-in circle, people do not yet have a relationship with the true God who actually exists.

  46. Bill Samuel

    “it is better to imagine the essential truths as a large circle area instead of a single center point.” Jesus said He is the Truth. A hard thing for our logical human minds to grasp, but I think He meant it.

    To make it easier for our minds to grasp, we try to make the Truth a set of statements about Jesus Christ, rather than being Him. The statements may be basically correct, but now we have moved our focus from Christ Himself to things about Him.

    So I say Jesus Christ must be the center, not a doctrinal statement.

  47. Jesus is the center, but there are some truths about Jesus that if we get wrong we are no longer talking about Jesus.

  48. “Jesus said He is the Truth.”

    Right! But who is the “he”? Since he is a real person, we cannot define him anyway we wish.

    No matter how hard I try, if I define Stalin as a peace-loving, black-man who grew corn for a living I would not be talking about the real Joseph Stalin. Likewise, if I define my wife as a blonde Swede who speaks fluent French (she is a native of India), I’m not talking about her no matter what I say.

    They each have “definitions”. When we say something that is untrue about them we have crossed a definitional boundary of sorts. Likewise, if we deny certain truths inherent to their nature we have also crossed a boundary (for example, if I described my wife almost perfectly but denied she is from India).

    As a real person, we must treat Jesus with the same common sense respect we treat every other person. There are certain things we simply must believe about him. To make up things, or to deny truths about him central to his nature, is to in reality be speaking about a figment of our imagination—-not the real historical Jesus of faith.

    Sure, we get certain things wrong about Jesus (I can never seem to remember my wife’s favorite color…but that doesn’t amount to a denial of her identity—even though it make’s anniversaries a bit tense). But there is a “definitional core” that must be embraced.

    I think that is all that is meant by the “boundary” image (however poor that metaphor may be).

  49. Bill Samuel

    “I would humbly ask that you show me where I said human leaders are allowed to set boundaries? Find that in my comments please. In fact, I said the exact opposite. I clearly advocated allowing Scripture to set its own boundaries”

    That sounds good, but it isn’t real. Scripture must be interpreted. So when someone says scripture sets the boundaries, what it really means is some human’s interpretation of scripture sets the boundaries. You are proclaiming that you are the authority on the scriptures. But they aren’t your scriptures, and you’re not God.

    I suspect you don’t believe that everything in Leviticus applies to Christians today. What does apply and what doesn’t is a matter of interpretation, and different human “authorities” differ in what they think. Likewise, there is much in scripture that might seem to be contradictory. That doesn’t mean it really is, but there are a variety of ways people use to interpret the scriptures to demonstrate a unity in them.

    In fact, we can only properly understand scripture in the Spirit, and none of us are perfectly in the Spirit.

  50. Why do we always pick on Leviticus?

  51. mikewittmer


    You said: “That sounds good, but it isn’t real. Scripture must be interpreted. So when someone says scripture sets the boundaries, what it really means is some human’s interpretation of scripture sets the boundaries. You are proclaiming that you are the authority on the scriptures. But they aren’t your scriptures, and you’re not God.”

    I don’t think that’s fair. We all assume that Scripture, like everything else, must be interpreted. But just because we have to understand it doesn’t mean that we are setting ourselves as an authority over it. When my wife asks me to vacuum the living room, it would be silly for me to say, “Okay, but since I interpreted what you just told me that means that I am exerting authority over you even as I do what you asked me to do.”

    Furthermore, if your claim is true, then it is equally true about you, and you must agree that you also possess and exert authority over the Bible. Do you really want to admit that?

  52. Bill, your belief negates itself. “We can only perfectly understand Scripture when we’re in the Spirit. None of us are perfectly in the Spirit.”

    This translates into, “We cannot understand Scripture.” But we only know the Spirit exists because of Scripture. So your argument falls upon itself.

  53. “But we only know the Spirit exists because of Scripture.”

    Joel, that’s an incredible statement you make but I’m afraid that a lot of professed Christians actually believe it.

    If the scripture is inspired, the source of the inspiration is higher than scripture and has the ability to communicate directly with human beings – and had the ability to do so long before there was a written scripture through which they could learn about it.

    Talking about boundaries, this is humans trying to put boundaries on God. Can’t be done.

  54. So Jesus must be the center, not a doctrinal statement.

    OK. Please define “Jesus”.

    Is that just a sound the mouth makes when forming certain letters? Is it a kid from Mexico? Is it a baby that was born in Nazareth whose parents were a Jewish girl that was raped by a Roman solider? Is Jesus a prophet who was used by God to do amazing things? Is Jesus the fullness of God who only appeared to be human? Is he a magician? A moral teacher? A misunderstood carpenter? A Jew who trained with buddhist monks? A Patristic-Age mythical invention to help Constantine control the minds and lives of the citizens of the Roman empire?

    I believe Jesus isn’t a doctrinal statement. But a doctrinal statement defines who we are talking about.

    You seem to refuse this. You want to say the word Jesus, but refuse to allow any concrete statement (doctrinal) to be made about him. Yet, you HAVE a definition of Jesus in mind when you speak of him. You must, unless you want to maintain that words are simply meaningless gutteral sounds.

  55. Peter

    Bill says: “So I say Jesus must be the center”.

    Aha! A clear example of a hierarchal mode of thinking by an individual who has set himself as an authority over God and Scripture by imposing his own interpretation of Scripture upon others!

    Will this abuse and desire to dominate over others never cease!

    [Note: tongue firmly pressed into cheek].

  56. Peter

    Also, since we can’t say anything about God or Scripture with confidence (thanks to Bill), can we all try speaking in Pig Latin or Vulcan?

    Or perhaps this Sunday during the scripture reading I should (ala Peanuts) say, “Please listen as I read 1 Corinthians 14:9—“wa wa wa wa waaa, blah blah, blah, wa waaa waa wah. May God bless the reading of His word”.

  57. Bill,

    You misconstrued what I said. While the Spirit is higher than what He has said to us, the fact is that we wouldn’t know about Him unless Scripture existed. Simply pointing out that x is necessarily prior to y in order to know that y exists doesn’t mean that x is greater than y.


    I didn’t know there were children starving in Cuba until I saw it on the internet. Does this mean the internet is more important or higher than children starving in Cuba? No, it just means that without the internet, I wouldn’t have known there were children starving in Cuba.

    Likewise, while Scripture is below the Spirit, without Scripture we wouldn’t know the Spirit existed. Thus, your flippant attitude toward Scripture makes little to no sense and is self-refuting.

  58. Joel,

    It’s very well possible to know about the Spirit of God without the biblical text. To suggest that knowing the Spirit is dependent upon the Scriptures, limits God to the biblical text. That would be absurd.

    From a reformed perspective, to suggest that the biblical text is necessary to know the Spirit, also negates any sort of general revelation. The Psalms state, “The heavens declare the glory of God.”

    I concur with Bill and the Psalmist.

    Grace & Peace.

  59. mikewittmer


    From a Reformed perspective, you are wrong.

    From a logical perspective, you confuse ontology with epistemology. Saying that we know the Spirit from Scripture hardly limits his activity to the Scriptures, for as you cite from the Psalms, Scripture tells us of general revelation.

    From an emergent perspective, I’m surprised that you are content to “know about the Spirit of God.” That seems to be the quintessential, fundamentalist, bounded-set position which I thought you stridently opposed.

  60. Peter


    I agree with you very much, so don’t take this as a criticism. But you made this comment: “Likewise, while Scripture is below the Spirit…”.

    That kind of language has always made me uncomfortable. I remember a pastor’s luncheon at Zondervan HQ where Rob Bell was the speaker. During his ramblings, he held up a copy of the Bible and said, “We are not supposed to worship this book! We are supposed to worship God”. All the pastors ohhed and ahhhed and Amen’d. I felt sick to my stomach.

    Yet while there is a distinction between God and His word, I’m not sure I comfortable with the idea of saying that what God says is ‘below’ (less important than) God himself.

    I don’t believe YOU are saying that. BUT, this emergent crowd IS saying that (at least the more prominent ones).

    I think the real problem with the emergent movement is, for all their talk about relating to Jesus as a person, they don’t treat him like a real person. They divorce Jesus from definition. They divorce God from what He has said. They promote a God who cannot be known, cannot be heard from, and cannot communicate clearly. Every character in the Sunday Newspaper cartoons has more personality than this stale, lifeless, shapless deity. We hear that the Red letter are more important than the black letters, only to hear that SOME red letters are more important, only to hear that any attempt to re-state those red letters is imposing our own interpretation upon the text.

    The God of Deism was blind. The God of the emergent movement seems mute as well.

  61. Bill Samuel

    Peter, I don’t understand this “they don’t treat him like a real person.” I’m sympathetic to the emergent movement, and am a member of Cedar Ridge Community Church, founded by Brian McLaren, and one of the things that attracts me is treating Jesus more like a real person.

    “They divorce Jesus from definition.” From rigid box definitions, yes. This IS treating him like a real person. This is how emergents teach dealing with ordinary human beings as well. We try to learn not to say for example, “She’s a lesbian feminist. I know exactly who she is.” or “He’s a Calvinist white man. I know exactly who he is.” We understand that these stereotypes don’t tell the full story, and deprive us of the richness that is in each person. So it’s quite consistent with our approach to people next to us in church or on the street to object to defining Jesus into a narrow box (it occurs to me that a narrow box can be a coffin, but Jesus could not be kept in a grave).

    “They divorce God from what He has said.” Huh! In my church, when we look at issues, we look at what Jesus said and did. We consider ourselves part of the great story that starts in Genesis.

    We believe that God is alive and speaking to us today, just as he has always been. He is certainly not mute. I wish you had heard the stories people in my discipleship group told last night of God’s dramatic intervention in their lives. They heard Him speaking, and it changed their lives. Praise God!

    Our emphasis is on a God that is interactive with us. Most definitely NOT “stale, lifeless, shapeless.” We know a God who actively transforms our lives.

  62. From a reformed perspective… I suppose we will always disagree on a reformed perspective since I come with a strong dose of Abraham Kuyper in my veins.

    As for the perspective/God of the emergent movement, I’m in the midst of it. So, I’m positioned to fairly say something about it: The reason I find myself with these friends is because the evangelical church is poorly equipped to declare the fullness of the kingdom of God to those who find themselves outside of the church.

    At heart, I desire nothing more than for people to fall in love with the ways of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. Yet, our theology, and particularly our ecclesiology, keeps unbelievers at a distance.

    “Oh, no single piece of our mental world is to be hermetically sealed off from the rest, and there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!” ~ Abraham Kuyper

  63. Peter


    So, since you seem to believe that God is a speaking God, I also assume that you believe God is fairly intelligent and capable of being understood when he does speak.

    Therefore, I assume you and your church believes there is a Hell where those who do not have Christ as Savior spend conscious eternity—since this is what Jesus (and others in Scripture) clearly said.

    I assume you believe that Salvation is only found by confessing Jesus as Savior—since this is what Scripture clearly says.

    I assume you believe that Salvation is found in no one else and in no other religion—since this is also clearly communicated in Scripture.

    I assume you believe that homosexuality is a sin—also clearly communicated in Scripture (and that Christ forgives and heals from that sin, as he does from all other sins).

    I assume you believe that Jesus died on the cross to atone for our sins—yep, also in Scripture.

    I assume you believe in Heaven, sanctification, the New Earth, the necessity of evangelism (that is, actually sharing with someone how they can be saved through Christ), future glory, present tribulation, the Holy Spirit, etc—all of these things being in Scripture.

    I assume you believe that Jesus was a real historical person who was truly God (your former pastor praises those writers who deny this truth).

    I assume you believe God is love.

    I assume you believe, as the NT teaches, that nonbelievers are “children of God’s wrath”.

    I assume you believe, as Jesus said, that the Holy Spirit convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgement (which also means God does judge sin and sinners).

    I assume you believe in faith, grace, mercy, hope, and love–“especially to the household of faith”, but certainly to all mankind.

    If you believe these things, then praise God. You should have no problem communicating them, and should therefore not resort to charges of “hierarchy” or “paternalism” against those of us who simply re-state what is clearly stated in Scripture.

  64. Peter


    You said “At heart, I desire nothing more than for people to fall in love with the ways of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God. Yet, our theology, and particularly our ecclesiology, keeps unbelievers at a distance”

    Isn’t that a quote from Friedrich Schleiermacher?

    I too hate it when that pesky theology of Jesus gets in the way of people coming to Jesus.

  65. Yooper

    Those who champion the cause of a god who resides outside of a box have created their own boundaries. And, oh the hypocrisy of those who claim that God speaks today and yet deny that God has spoken.

  66. Randy,

    What would an emergent Christian say if a conservative Christian wrote, “I desire nothing more than for people to fall in love with the doctrines about Jesus Christ”?

    Yet you wrote, “At heart, I desire nothing more than for people to fall in love with the ways of Jesus Christ and the kingdom of God.”

    Really? You don’t desire people to fall in love with Jesus Himself rather than “the ways” of Jesus Christ?

    I suspect that you might not have meant that as written. But please remember that if emergents can accuse conservatives of focusing on doctrine over Christ Himself, emergents can be accused of focusing on practice more than Christ Himself.

  67. Randy,

    I’m not too concerned with what the reformed perspective is. What I’m saying is that we wouldn’t know fo the Spirit outside of specific revelation. The reason for this is that while we can know God exists through general revelation (which, btw, is also a Roman Catholic idea and is not limited to reformed thinking), we can know nothing of His nature outside of what He reveals to us.

    The reason for this is that He is above us. Thus, unless He reveals to us what type of God He is, we’re left guessing. Now, could He do so without the use of Scripture? Obviously so, otherwise how would we get Scripture? But does the revelation that befell the New Testament authors befall all believers? There’s no reason to indicate that such an event occurs, since there was continuity and consistency among the authors while there are a multitude of disagreements among believers.

    Thus, unless you’re a New Testament author, without Scripture you will not know the Spirit. Thus, to act flippantly toward Scripture (which only the uneducated and ill-informed would dare to act in such a way – and that’s a quote from Peter before you call foul on me) is quite absurd. It is by Scripture that we are welcomed into the relationship with Christ. We find out about Christ through His word and this opens up the path to a relationship with Him.

  68. Peter,

    Before commenting on what you said, I wanted to comment on one particular thing you said:

    “I think the real problem with the emergent movement is, for all their talk about relating to Jesus as a person, they don’t treat him like a real person. They divorce Jesus from definition. They divorce God from what He has said. They promote a God who cannot be known, cannot be heard from, and cannot communicate clearly. ”


    I’ve suspected this and said it for a while. I’ve had various interactions with emergent leaders and even befriended one of the “up and coming” emergent authors. In all of their talk on relationships, they make God completely and totally transcendent, but they don’t even realize it.

    As for what you say about Scripture, I agree that what I say could be misconstrued, but I think that knot in your stomach is just an overreaction to the low view of Scripture the modern world holds. For instance, it is true that God is above what He has said. Though what He has said is infallible and inspired, He is still above it. The written word is not an extension of God or a person of God, but instead is God’s communications with us.

    Now, the Emergent will take this and go, “Yeah, so we don’t have to follow it!” But that’s just silly. Yes, God is above His written word, but we are not. We are below His written word and therefore subject to is.

    God is still more important than His word. To the illiterate, the study of Scripture is limited and this can limit their relationship with God, but they can still have a relationship with Him outside of His Word (it just won’t be as fulfilling). We need that relationship with Him in order to understand the deeper things of Scripture (as well as study…I’m not advocating illumination). But in all of this, God is greater than His written word, but we are not greater than the written word, therefore we are subject to the written word.

    Does that make more sense?

  69. Bill Samuel

    Joel, you are charging God with ignoring those who don’t have the scripture. Your God is too small and it is not the God of scripture. God actually does care for everyone, not just those some human gets to with the written word.

    You may have a high view of scripture, but you have a low view of God. This is very sad.

  70. Peter

    Bill, since you did not answer my questions about your views of scripture I can only surmise you would not affirm many of those statements.

    The God I worship actual meant what he said in scripture. I cannot dismiss God or his word as easily as you can. Apparently, your god is small enough to ignore.

    Why even call yourself Christian when the clear teachings of Jesus mean very little to you? Just come out and be honest…you don’t believe the bible is God’s revelation for mankind and the only authority for faith and practice.

    Emergents, like their classical liberal forefathers (who were more honest, btw) ultimately worship humanity, not God.

  71. Bill Samuel

    Peter, I don’t intend to answer ad hominen attacks.

  72. mikewittmer

    This is probably a good time to put a stop to this thread. I think that some extremely wise, valuable, and foundational comments were made, and I’m very thankful for them and for those who made them. Also, anyone who peruses this thread can easily see what the issues are that divide us–and that’s useful. But it’s also obvious that neither side will persuade the other to concede much of anything, so there is little point in carrying on. I think that we’ve taken this as far as we can, and it’s time to shake hands and walk away.

    It’s also a good time to stop because it’s the fourth of July weekend, and we all should be outdoors with our families (mine is going to the beach). So if you log-on to make a comment between now and next week, you’re probably living in sin.

  73. Jon

    Since Jesus Christ is the center, then our lives should be shaped by our love of Him. Jesus said, “If you love me, then keep my commands.” His cammands are found in the Bible as doctrine and they are a necessary component to our “Christ centered” life. It is important to have Christ at the center but out of that comes an obedience to him – thus, we have boundaries.

    Churches should not shove others out the door because they are different, but rather, they should reach out to others in love. We can’t push others away by condemning them but we also can’t let them go on living in sin without showing them their need for a savior. It is just as unloving to tell someone living in unrepentant sin that they are okay as it is to shove someone away because they don’t believe the same way as you.

  74. Sorry to jump in when the thread is ended, but I just want to say that I believe in Jesus as both the well giving abundant life, and the gate through whom the sheep enter. And gates do have fences.

    How can we read Ephesians from start to finish and think that it is mere human interpretation to say that Paul warns us to have nothing to do with the fruitless deeds of darkness, but rather to expose them. And we need all of the rest for sure.

    But it seems like an imposition on scripture to say that grace means boundaries are no longer needed. That we don’t need to express such, when scripture itself plainly does.

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