Perimeters of Light
The Parable of the Two Missionaries
CHRIS WAS SURPRISED AT HOW MANY Nimo were wearing crosses. They were now friendly and were coming around the missionary compound. The younger missionary said, “It seems like everybody I saw was wearing a cross. I thought the Nimo were not Christians.”
The older missionary explained. “Among the Nimo, there are lots who are ‘Christians’ and lots who act like Christians. They pray to their ancestors, keep charms to protect them, and pray to Jesus to forgive their sins. They have some light but have not left the darkness.”
“Let’s get everyone who is not a Christian to take off the cross,” Chris said. He reasoned that way they could tell who was a Christian.
Robert had another idea, “Maybe wearing a cross will help them become a Christian quicker.”
“Suppose they don’t become a Christian,” Chris said.
“Suppose they do,” Robert replied.
Where is the perimeter of light located? It’s hard to determine where light stops and darkness begins. Light gently fades into night. Actually, the perimeter is not located at an exact spot, because if the fire burns brighter, the edge expands and enlarges the circle of protection. When the fire is almost out, the perimeter is so small it becomes almost too small to provide protection for one human. The perimeter of light changes according to the brightness of the fire.
The edge of light is not a line drawn in the night. The flickering flames of a fire make the edge dance; the energy of the fire determines how far the light reaches into a darkened night. The edge dashes out into the darkness when the flame sparkles or flickers brightly. It creeps away from the darkness back toward the campers when they allow the fire to diminish.
The edge of light between Christianity and the world is not a distinct boundary line that can always be easily seen. It is a perimeter. Even though we see gray areas in Christianity, nothing is gray to God. We don’t see things the way God sees them. God knows what is Christian and what is not Christian, even when it’s blurry to us. Christianity is not a religion, like joining a movement. Being a Christian means having a relationship with Christ. Christianity is about that relationship between God and His people.
If Christianity were a “religion,” it would have boundaries as do other world religions. You would do certain things and that would qualify you as a Christian. But Christianity does not have a fence to keep people in—or keep them out. Although it does have principles by which a person should keep in relationship with God, Christianity is not a set of rules that you have to keep to become or remain a Christian, though it does have principles by which you live for God.
Christianity is not about rules; it’s about a person. It’s about Jesus Christ, and if you are properly related to Him by faith, you’re a Christian. The light is Jesus, and the edge determines how close to Jesus you live.
The perimeter is not a boundary where the traveler passes from total light to total darkness. A perimeter is a “twilight zone,” where it’s not completely light, nor is it completely black. Sometimes it’s hard to see clearly at the edge of the zone—it’s hard to see the edge itself. God knows where Christianity leaves off and the world takes over. Even when you are not sure where the boundary is located, God knows.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary has defined boundary as “something that indicates or fixes a limit,” i.e., a separating line. The emphasis is on the actual point that separates two items or views. If you apply the concept of boundaries to Christianity, there are fences, or “property lines,” between Christianity and non-Christianity. The Oxford Dictionary adds the following definition to boundary: “that which must be limited, confined or restrained.” This means Christianity is limited or bound up. Therefore, the nature of Christianity would demand limits.
There are some boundaries that relate to practice:
• There is a line between an authentic church (Matthew 16:18) and a group that only has the title “church,” but is not a true church in God’s sight (e.g., the churches in Pergamum and Thyatira, Revelation 2:12–29).
• There is a difference between true worship (John 4:20–24) and activities that take place in a church but are not true worship—they may even be anti-worship (Colossians 2:16–23).
• There is music that points people to God (2 Chronicles 5:11–14) and music that does not (Isaiah 14:11–15).
• Somewhere between biblical principles of biblical evangelism (Matthew 28:19–20) and human methods (Matthew 7:26–27), there are practices that a church should not use in evangelism.
• Giving a religious speech and preaching the Word (2 Timothy 4:2) are not the same thing.
Crossing certain boundaries of practice can also lead to error. What we do does impact what we believe. Somewhere in the journey from true Christianity (1 Timothy 3:16) to heresy (1 Timothy 1:19–20), one crosses a point of no return, i.e., a boundary or property line. God’s property is located on one side of the fence; Satan’s property is on the other side. Somewhere in a journey from holiness (1 Peter 1:16) to ungodliness (2 Peter 2:21– 22), there is a boundary line beyond which a person should not step.
The issue of boundaries does not represent a new challenge, nor is it a new reaction. Even in the early church there were questions as to where the fences should be built. Four of the apostles issued warnings. John wrote, “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. ” (1 John 4:1). Jude wrote, “For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ” (Jude 4 NKJV).
Peter and Paul also issued warnings:
But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. Many will follow their sensuality and because of them the way of truth will be maligned. (2 Peter 2:1–2)
The Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons. (1 Timothy 4:1)
It seems every generation has battled with the boundaries issue. Most boundary debates involved doctrinal issues, but not all. Some were boundary issues of methodology, or “how to express Christianity.” Martin Luther rejected the enthusiasts. John Wesley was ridiculed for his new “methods” and was sarcastically labeled “Methodist.” Jonathan Edwards struggled with emotional expressions of revivalism in the First Great Awakening, and Charles Finney was criticized for embracing “the right use of appropriate means” in the Second Great Awakening. With each new outreach of the gospel, new methods have emerged. Reactions to the new methods are usually negative.
The very nature of Christianity implies that there would be an ongoing battle to keep the church pure. Satan is called “a liar” (John 8:44). Originally, he distorted God’s Word in the Garden of Eden. Is it not plausible that he would distort God’s Word and God’s methods today? The adversary still attempts to corrupt the minds of believers (2 Corinthians 11:3), and he blinds the minds of nonbelievers (2 Corinthians 4:3–4).
God divinely knew there would be attempts to both dilute His message and to add to it. The apostle John gave the following warning concerning the last book of the Bible, yet the meaning can be applied to all Scripture: “I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book” (Revelation 22:18–19).
For some, it is easy to draw hard edges. Some groups believe that they are the only correct church—and all others are in error. However, this makes little sense. Obviously, there are Christians who differ from us, and they are still Christians. The question is, How far can one be from the light and still be a Christian?
So it is obvious that the task is difficult, and the answers will not be perfect. As a result, few are addressing the issue from the center of evangelicalism. However, it is an essential need.
When dealing with an “edge” related to Christianity, a common problem is the creation of false boundaries—boundaries that are culturally conditioned but are not biblically required. It is important to know the difference.
The edge of error is to be avoided at all times. The purpose of the Christian, as well as the church and denomination, is to stay as far from the perimeter of error as possible. Yet, there must also be recognition that although we think we are as far from error as possible, there are other Christians who are wrong about some things but are still Christian brothers and sisters.
What does it mean to be “wrong” or “in error”? In today’s world, people object to the idea that someone is right or wrong. We will address this issue on a deeper level later. However, initially let us say that many Christians are wrong about certain things. Not everyone can be right. Either the Bible teaches that all true believers will persevere until the end or it does not; either speaking in tongues is the initial evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, or it is not. Both cannot be right.
The idea that the Bible can mean anything based on the response of the reader actually devalues the Word of God and destroys Christian unity. If the Bible can mean anything, then it really means nothing. Instead, the authors of Scripture had specific truths in mind when they wrote the Scripture text. They are either rightfully interpreted correctly, or they are wrongfully interpreted incorrectly. Some Christians are right, and some are wrong.
The problem is determining which Christians are right and which are wrong. In the New Testament era, there was already confusion. That confusion continues today. There are thirty-eight thousand denominations in the world today. All of them can’t be right in all issues.
Although some are wrong and some are right, we are unwise to think that we are always the “right” ones. On the one hand, we should think we are right. Even the world acknowledges that all religions think they are right. Recently, CNN’s Larry King interviewed a Methodist bishop who implied that Christianity was not the only way to God.1 King, hardly an advocate of evangelicalism, was surprised the bishop did not believe Christianity was the only way. (In a news release the next day, the United Methodist Church distanced itself from the comments of Bishop Talbert, indicating, “United Methodists believe faith in Jesus Christ is the only way the Bible gives to salvation and heaven.”2)
Both authors came to Christ in other denominations and determined that they were wrong about certain doctrines—we both became Baptists because of what Baptists believed. We thought (and still think) that our denomination is the closest we can find to a correct and right interpretation of Scripture.
However, we are pretty sure that some of the things we believe will be corrected when we get to heaven. (We don’t know which—if we knew that we would change!) There are just too many Christians who differ on too many issues for us to be sure we have every doctrinal distinctive correct. Yet, for now, we think they are wrong (or else we would hold their views).
So, if edges are important, then the question of how wrong is essential. Charismatics can be wrong (or, if you are a charismatic, those Baptists!), but they are still our brothers and sisters in Christ. Yet, Mormons are not. What about Catholics? What about liberal Protestants?
The diagram below, “Toward the Edge: Leaving Christian Truth,” attempts to illustrate the “edge.” We do so with great trepidation. Who are we? Why do we get to judge? Well, we do not. Ultimately, only God can make the determination of who is faithful and who is not. Yet there is a tremendous need to look at this issue today. As the diagram below indicates, heresy, whether in doctrine or immoral action, moves a person, church, or denomination to the edge. Our hope is that the diagram below will help you to discuss these edges.
The issue may seem unimportant—unless you are part of a church or a denomination struggling with the issues. The issue of the “edge” is on the front pages of Presbyterian, Methodist, and Anglican publications around the world. For those of us outside of these communities, the issue is also important—it frames how we will relate to these groups and others.
Many of our brothers and sisters are wrestling with the issues every day. A few examples:
• The Anglican Church is gripped in a worldwide struggle for what is evangelical, while some of its third-world bishops are sending missionaries to the United States, calling the Episcopal Church here an apostate church. (Several dioceses in the United States are formally agreeing with the third-world bishops, asking to be placed under their authority and out from under the US Episcopal Church.) The impetus is the advocacy of homosexual ordination, even as the church’s most problematic retired bishop (James Spong of New Jersey) asks if Jesus was a homosexual.
• The Confessing Movement of the Methodist Church is struggling to return the church to an evangelical conviction, as part of the denomination refuses to remove a lesbian pastor.
• The Evangelical Theological Society addressed (in its 2002 annual meeting) the boundary of evangelicalism itself, rejecting as heresy the idea of open theism (the idea that God does not know the future) but not removing members who hold that position.
For many of you reading this book, “the edge” may seem to be too abstract to consider, but for others, this book is about a life-and-death struggle.
Throughout history, groups have always needed to define their edges. In some cases, they did so very clearly by signifying what they believed and what they did not. For example, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy explains in Article I: “We affirm that the Holy Scriptures are to be received as the authoritative Word of God. We deny that the Scriptures receive their authority from the Church, tradition, or any other human source” (italics added).
In some cases, we have to look at what is outside of and what is inside of the edge of light. This is not an easy task, because genuine people are often misled. If a Mormon believes that she is saved by temple rituals, it is important for us to tell the truth about conversion. She is outside the edge of light. Here the edge is clearly static and fixed.
On the other hand, there are some who are backing away from the light—churches and denominations that were once in the light (sometimes they were key denominations in the light), but they have gradually withdrawn from biblical fidelity. However, it is not just historic churches and denominations but even some emerging-church leaders in a desire to be culturally relevant who are pulling away from the light.
Christian brothers and sisters are faced with painful decisions regarding whether to leave or stay within their own churches and denominations as these entities have receded from the light. J. I. Packer wrote an explanation of his own actions of walking out of an Anglican Synod that was endorsing homosexuality. “Why did I walk out with the others? Because this decision, taken in its context, falsifies the gospel of Christ, abandons the authority of Scripture, jeopardizes the salvation of fellow human beings, and betrays the church in its God-appointed role as the bastion and bulwark of divine truth.”3
Packer determined that the edge of error had been crossed and he could no longer participate.
Recognizing this edge of error is essential yet at times elusive. How is a person to decide when others are in error? The task is not easy. The Anglican Church is an example. There are biblically faithful evangelical Anglican churches around the world. As a matter of fact, the majority of Anglican churches outside the English-speaking world are Bible believing and evangelical. But among its churches in England, Canada, and the United States, Anglican denominations have compromised in many ways.
Some would question why Packer did not walk out earlier—or why he is still Anglican at all. We will examine that later, as well as how far is too far and how we relate to those who have gone too far.
The edge of culture is different than the edge of error. The Christian needs to get as far from the edge of error as possible. However, that is not true for the edge of culture. Instead, we need to approach the edge of culture without going too far. The question is, How far is too far?
Of course, many will strongly object to the paragraph above. Some will think that culture should never influence what we should do. I (Ed) remember attending seminary chapel one day when the speaker shouted, “We must not let the hell-bound culture determine what takes place in our churches.” Lots of “Amens!” were shouted. It sounded good, but it was ultimately unworkable.
You see, he was wearing a business suit (twentieth-century culture), preaching after singing eighteenth-century hymns, while sitting in pews that only became popular in the fifteenth century. He had no problem with culture influencing almost everything he did, as long as it was church culture.
If only it were so easy. If only we could all be spiritually Amish. We would never have to worry about what is appropriate in worship and why. We would never be concerned about what people wear. We would never have to worry about any issues of culture.
Yet, that is not our call. Our call is to take the never-changing message into an ever-changing world. Our task is to be living incarnations of this message in a new culture and place. We cannot be biblical when we condemn culture, but neither can we be biblical when we adopt every cultural norm. Somewhere there is a limit. Somewhere there is an edge.
The edge of culture is different because we need to go there—but not too far toward the edge. Some think that there is no cultural edge that is too far to reach people for Christ. That position is as unworkable as the preacher who thinks that culture does not matter. If we adopt every value of the world in order to reach them, how are we different? Yes, lost people matter to God and we should go far to reach them. However, if we compromise in order to do such, then we destroy the very message we are seeking to proclaim.
The edges of culture are different than the edges of error. There are two edges to culture—and our job is to steer the middle course. On the one side, we are so afraid of culture that we stay far away—and the gospel is unclear and obscure. On the other side, we are so connected with the culture that there is no difference. We have become part of the culture and our faith is compromised. There are false edges on both sides.
Why go to the edge? Why not stay as close as you can to the light? That’s what we do with theology—get as close as we can to a pure understanding of Scripture. Why not do the same with culture? It’s safe. No chance of compromise; no problem with worldliness. The Amish never have to worry about the world—they are completely safe and engaged with the light.
It is interesting to note that we are not called to stay away from the darkness. We are called to come to faith (light) and then to participate in the divine nature (2 Peter 1:4). But central to that new life is a call to go to the darkness and to bring light into the darkness.
One of the fundamental definitions of a Christian is a Christ-follower. Jesus said, “As the Father has sent me, I also send you” (John 20:21). So, we are sent like Jesus into a dark and dying world. Jesus is called the Apostle in Hebrews (3:1). An apostle is one who is sent with a message. Jesus says we are sent in the same manner.
We are sent—and being sent means we take the light to the darkness. In order for the lost to see the light, they must be able to understand it. This is where many people will not go. In order for the lost to understand the light, we must share our faith in ways that they can understand. We must go to connect with them through their cultural expressions.
Let us illustrate. Today, a debate is raging in the Russian Orthodox Church and among some split-off groups. For centuries, Russian Orthodox priests dressed a certain way—long black robes, beards, and large crosses. Their attire proclaimed that they were representatives of the light. Today, some priests believe that they can better share the light if they do not look so odd to the people around them.
In their attempt to proclaim the light, their very desire to avoid compromise causes the world to miss the message. It’s easy to point a finger at the Russian Orthodox (after all, they do dress funny), but how many people in North America think that being a Christian means being a conservative Republican, having a short haircut, and having no facial jewelry. When becoming a Christian means changing political affiliation or changing appearance, we have created a false gospel. Coming to Christ means coming to Christ where you are and then changing as He, not we, directs.
Some will go too far in an attempt to take the light into the darkness. They will adopt too many of the values of the world around them, and they will compromise and dilute the gospel. This is technically called syncretism—when the values of the world are mixed with the true faith.
Some will not go far enough. They will wear their robes, beards, and crosses while the world considers them quaint but irrelevant. They cause the world to confuse the true faith with rules (robes, beards, political party, length of hair, etc.). This is technically called obscurantism—when rules and traditions obscure the true faith and confuse the world.
The ultimate challenge is for the church to be biblically faithful and yet to be contextual. In other words, it is an appropriate expression of the gospel in a certain context. We would expect a Korean church to look different from an African church, and both of those would look different from an Anglo church in Alabama. They can all be biblically faithful in their context while dressing differently, singing different kinds of music, and even listening to the Word preached in a different manner. They are contextual biblical churches.
However, this is never easy. The edge between the light and the darkness is always difficult to define. As Dean Gilliland has cautioned,
Contextualization [is] a delicate enterprise if ever there was one . . . the evangelist and mission strategist stand on a razor’s edge, aware that to fall off on either side has terrible consequences . . . Fall to the right and you end in obscurantism, so attached to your conventional ways of practicing and teaching the faith that you veil its truth and power from those who are trying to see it through very different eyes. Slip to the left and you tumble into syncretism, so vulnerable to the impact of paganism in its multiplicity of forms that you compromise the uniqueness of Christ and concoct “another gospel which is not a gospel.”4
Considering Gilliland’s cautions, we could illustrate the edges of culture with regards to the faith this way:
It is important to note that there are two errors—one on the right and one on the left. Having a church that never struggles with cultural compromise and as a result, isolates itself from reaching the world, is sin—a grave sin. Yet, so is a church that compromises by selling out to its culture. There are boundaries. There is an edge of the light.
The task is to go to the edge of the light but not to go too far and become like the darkness. The good news is that this makes us like Jesus. He became incarnate—He became one flesh in the world with its customs, values, music, culture, etc. Then He sent us—to incarnate the unchanging message into new customs, values, music, cultures, etc. We are to go to (or be in) the world but not be of the world. This is the edge of the light.
In the history of Christianity, there are more failures than successes. Most churches retreat into the light and refuse to make changes that will help them “send the light.” Many churches look so much like the world that it is hard to see the light. This book is an attempt to help you go to the edge, but not to go over it!
There are different forces and pressures on the church today, so we must reexamine our boundaries. We should not change the biblical nature of the church, nor should we change the boundaries of Scripture. But some of our past boundaries were not biblical. In some instances they were culturally driven; in other cases they were fences that we erected out of fear, embarrassment, or ignorance. As we grow in our understanding of Christianity, perhaps we need to reposition our boundaries.
Today, we have to think like missionaries. We need to think of North America the way we have always thought about the “pagan” world. We have to ask: How do we take the gospel into the pagan darkness that is post-Christian North America?
As the world in which we minister, the people to whom we minister, and the way in which we communicate all change, what implications does all this have on our ministry? Read on!
1. What are some ways that we go to a culture with the gospel of the light? What parts of your culture are dark and what parts can God use?
2. How do you differentiate between the edge of error and the edge of culture? How do these two edges interact with each other?
3. What are some boundaries from the past that seem “quaint” today—based on culture and not Scripture?
4. In what ways is the light of the gospel losing its brilliance in America?
5. Who is responsible for the low flickering of the light of Christianity in America?
6. What are some ways that we carry the gospel of the light into a culture’s darkness?