The Fallacy of Christian
The history of Western
Christianity and many of our own perspectives on Christianity have been
shaped by a concept I'll call "One-True-Wayism." This article
will discuss this phenomenon with a view towards escaping the traps
that one-true-wayism brings.
The Birth of New Christian Movements
Throughout the history of Christianity, and especially in Western
Christianity since the time of Luther, various movements have arisen.
arise in reaction to something significantly wrong or deficient in the
experience. However, sometimes they are just an attempt by a leader to
gain a following or a subgroup to maintain a distinctive identity.
Regardless, they add to the kaleidoscope of expressions of the
The most obvious
example of this is the reformation spearheaded by Martin Luther.
Luther addressed various abuses and problematic characteristics of the
Catholic church. He did
not want to start a new movement, he wanted to change the Roman
Catholic church. But since religious systems resist change, he was
expelled (and nearly executed). A new movement was formed that
addressed these issues and
provided correction for those who felt correction was necessary.
Though this is a prominent example of a movement, it is not the first.
For example, in earlier
times Christians formed monastic orders to escape from the corruption
of the "worldly church." Various orders of monasteries
were formed, and they too often went through a life-cycle of
establishment, corruption and either renewal or abandonment.
In our days,
of a split in an existing church over one or more issues. Other new churches
may arise seeking to differentiate
themselves from other churches on various issues.
Some churches market themselves as "different than other churches" in
an attempt to reach those that have had bad church experiences.
Of course, there are
also new church plantings which more or
less maintain the values of the planting congregations.
In all but the case of church plantings, when a new
group is formed its very reason for being is that it is
different from other groups in a particular way. This isn't necessarily bad;
Christians need to follow their
consciences in matters of faith. It's great to be free to do that. And
it's OK to feel like you're
involved with the best thing
that you know of; that's part of having integrity with your faith. And
it's a good thing to be around other Christians of like mind on matters
you consider important.
So what's the problem?
One True Wayism
We get into trouble when we
have the the idea
that other "ways" are absolutely inferior to our way, and the followers
of these other ways are inferior to us. There's a
world of difference between simply having a sincere faith and good
conscience about what
believe and do, and looking down on others if they don't share your
preferences or beliefs about a myriad of issues. You can think your way
is better for you, but if you think it is better for everybody else,
you've crowned your way the "one true way."
One true wayism
brings about several
problematic dynamics. It's hard to know which of these is worse so
presented in no particular order.
Isolation, Disunity and Strife
One true wayism brings disunity and strife into the
church. This is
especially true in cases where there is an uncharitable separation or
parting of the
ways between groups. Torn between conscience in matters of faith and
either follow a new movement and suffer the pain of leaving the
established church, or they remain with the established church, suffer
inadequacies and watch their brothers in the faith leave because of
faith and conscience. Having been through this sort of thing personally
several times, I can say that being on either side in
this is one of the most painful experiences a Christian can have.
Groups maintaining their "one true way" status must constantly put down
other groups, isolate themselves from other groups and distinguish
themselves from other groups. It becomes an "us against the world"
mentality, not only against "the world" but also against other
New movements are reactionary. Some do this deliberately, others may
to but they cannot help it. Certain
issues are "on the table" as movements form and these are addressed as
fit. But other
issues that may be deficient in the old approach might not be
such and are brought into the new system. Some good
things about the old system might be tossed aside simply because they
are a part of the old system. And there may be things that are
out of view in both the old and new system that make both systems
Such reactionary systems will have their weaknesses
and deficiencies made evident in time, and this will demand a further
reaction. Where does it end?
Guruism and Elitism
The founders, leaders and thinkers/writers of
one-true-ways are often treated as gurus, as though they or their
closest associates were the only
people that could
point believers in the right direction. These groups become heavily
reliant upon leadership for their identity. Some of these leaders may
themselves to be like prophets of the Old Testament or like apostles.
for God using people,
and certainly the church needs leaders and thinkers-- but does he
really want leaders in the church to become so prominent
that they overshadow him?
And this phenomenon isn't true with just leaders in a one-true-way sort
of a system. If people are following this one true
way, it usually gives them the idea that they are better than everybody
elitism present in such systems is self-reinforcing. Isn't this just
plain old pride?
The gospel gets
overshadowed and the "one true way" becomes
the new gospel.
but Silents Criticism
The mere claim of a particular way being the "one true way" invites
everybody else to challenge that claim. If somebody disagrees, even if
they do it in the most loving way possible, they can be labeled
"critics" or "persecutors" out to "destroy the faith" of adherents.
Reasonable criticisms that highlight any problems with the one true way
are not welcome.
Never-Ending Pursuit of One-True-Ways
As an attempt to get around some of the problems with one-true-wayism
(such as addressing known problems with the system),
people involved in this can get caught up in a treadmill of always
the latest one true way. This goes beyond a reasonable periodic
inventory of beliefs and practices that characterize a healthy
spiritual system. It becomes either a game of spiritual one-upmanship,
the objective is to always be the best or latest, or a form of
restless, persistent spiritual tinkering. The former is a symptom of
pride more than of spiritual nobility, and the latter reminds me of an
old saying we had in the defense business: "In the history of any
project, there comes a time to shoot the engineers and get on with
At what point can somebody quit having to define what a
Christian is and just be a
Christian? One true wayism makes the way more important than God, so
the way is always the focus. It's like we are bored with Jesus.
A one-true-way sort of a system typically requires affirmation and
proof to confirm that it
really is the
one true way. This will usually include some unbalanced presentations
of Scripture-- highlighting areas the group specializes in and
censoring or ignoring
other areas. If a group spends most of its time addressing these
favorite areas, the imbalance will cause problems over time.
Results and appearances are also important. Because of the claims of
the group, there will be pressure to
make sure the
system looks like it is the
one true way. All activity
may be focused to create the
"one true result," neglecting other important things. Negative results
may be ignored or spun to make the
system look good anyway. Members may be required to pledge allegiance to the one true way
and its gurus "or else." Using the people to serve a
system instead of the system
serving the people is inherently abusive.
who see the imbalance or don't share
the "this is it" mentality may be treated as inferior or wrong, with
condescending attitudes and shaming speech. They may be considered
divisive or be discredited or marginalized. These abuses and more
follow from one true wayism.
Door for Disillusionment and
Destruction of Faith
When somebody subscribes to a one-true-way approach, what happens to
their faith when the one-true-way doesn't work anymore? What happens
when the flaws and negative results are seen? What happens when the
love and acceptance they
felt as part of the group is replaced with suspicion and rejection
because concerns are voiced?
faith get ruined? Do they get cynical and disillusioned? Do
they become untrusting of religious leaders and systems? To whom can
they go? One true way systems often tout their results as proof of
their one true way, but the spiritual damage to one-time adherents is
fruit of a one-true-way system.
Damaged Witness to the World
This persistent focusing on differences and infighting among Christians
who all tell the world that they have the "true way" and all others are
wrong is a terrible witness to the world. Does this not denigrate the
Enough is Enough?
In spite of how many times this
scenario has played out in Christian history (and maybe even our own
lives), it is
Christians continue to repeat the process and think they can
actually "get it right." Some Christians continue to restlessly pursue
of a system
that is perfect, flawless, never in need of repair or revision.
Further, the pursuits of these better systems have often been
destructive, painful and counterproductive towards the Christian cause
long run. If history has taught us anything, it should be be that these
pursuits are futile.
Is there a better way to address the deficiencies of current systems
without all of this thrashing around, criticizing/defending and
The Real True Way
Given what has already been
said here, the mere title of this paragraph might just sound
can we agree on some things that are evident if not obvious?
First, Scripture unambiguously states that Jesus is "the way:"
said to him, "I am the way,
and the truth, and the life;
no one comes to the Father, but through Me. (John 14:6)
The early church was known as
for letters from him to the synagogues at Damascus,
so that if he found any belonging to
the Way, both men and women, he
might bring them bound to Jerusalem. (Acts 9:2; also see Acts
18:25-26, 19:9, 19:23, 24:14, 24:22)
Even the Didache (dated
about 100 AD) reflects this terminology:
There are two ways, one of
life and one of death, and the
difference between the two ways is great. (Didache 1:1)
Second, the early church was diverse, and probably more diverse than
most 21st century Christians realize. For example:
A similar walk through the
demonstrates a rich diversity in key aspects and elements of Christian
If we were to examine
the rest of the New Testament, we would see that Christians
did what they did according to the circumstances, the need, and their
ability or giftedness to act. The way was diverse,
- In Acts 2, the people
- In Acts 6, some fed
- In Acts 7, they
- In Acts 8, they were
scattered during a persecution.
- In Acts
9, they made goods for others.
- In Acts 11, they
engaged in pastoral
- In Acts 13, they
embarked on missionary journeys.
- In Acts 20,
they engaged in discussions.
Going Way-ward: Misinterpreting
Modern movements have mis-applied certain characteristics of
the early church in at least two
ways. First, a movement can
take any of these reasonable expressions of faith and
"the most important thing." It will see all of life and faith through
issue. In time, it is ever so close to declaring itself
the "one true way" because it excels at the "one
true thing." The imbalance in these sorts of approaches are
Or, a movement can take many of these various expressions of
"harmonize" them into what all Christians must do in order to be "true
intent may be is to create a
well-rounded, balanced or thorough paradigm, but the result is often a law that
makes the law of Moses look
There are serious problems with these harmonizations:
Let's elaborate on the
question of the interpretation of biblical narratives and consult some
- This creating of
lists has more to do with a modern approach to
things of logic than good biblical interpretation or theology. As a
culture we'd rather hear "3 things I can do to xyz" than "understanding
xyz." The former sounds like an easy path to desired results while the
latter sounds like we might have to think and expend effort. And even
still might not have results to reward us for our efforts. Now we use
enumerated or numbered lists to aid in our
thinking, I even did it in this paragraph. But spiritual ideas are more
complex than this, and we should not mistake lists used for teaching to
be definitive, exclusive, one-size-fits-all checklists for spiritual
- The creation of lists
selective and thus open to the charge of
bias. If a set of things are harmonized into a nice little package, why
that set of things and not some other things? Are these things not
chosen out of bias or reaction to something else? While such sets might
be useful for a particular time and situation,
not everybody is in that situation.
- All Christians have
diverse gifts (Romans 12, 1
Corinthians 12, 14, et.
al.) and are given diverse opportunities. The diverse examples from the
New Testament show
what people with various gifts and opportunities did with those gifts
and opportunities. Harmonizations remove this God-given diversity from
often misinterpret biblical narratives. Just
because some Bible
characters did something, it doesn't mean all Christians today must do
those things. Not only must these examples be understood in context (no
generally examples of what we might
do, not what we must do.
hermeneutical question here is whether biblical narratives that
describe what happened in the
early church also function as norms intended to delineate what must happen in the ongoing
church. Are there instances from Acts of which one may appropriately
say, "We must do this," or should one merely say, "We may do this?" Our
assumption, along with many others, is that unless Scripture explicitly tells us we
must do something, what is merely narrated or described can never
function in a normative way. (How to Read the Bible for All Its
Worth, Gordon D. Fee and Douglas Stuart, Academie Books, Grand Rapids,
MI 1982, p. 97, italics in original)
Historical precedent, in order to have normative value, must be related
to intent. That is, if it can
be shown that the purpose of a given narrative is to establish precedent, then that
precedent should be regarded as normative. (Fee and Stuart, ibid, p.
99, italics in original)
I would add that whenever there are diverse examples of something in
the same vein (such as the distinctive characteristics of a particular
group of believers), it is unreasonable to view any of these
characteristics as normative. What is normative is the diversity. For
example, the Acts 2 Christians shared possessions, but there is no
evidence that the Antioch Christians did the same. In time, they were
instead known for grappling with Jewish-Gentile issues and supporting
missionaries (Acts 13, 15). It is silly to criticize the Acts 2
Christians for not dealing with Jewish-Gentile issues or not supporting
missionaries, and it is equally silly to criticize the Antioch
Christians for not sharing possessions.
Klein et. al.
also reject allowing casual narratives from functioning
in a normative manner except under some very specific circumstances:
Nevertheless, one must proceed
more cautiously when direct commands are absent. How then should we
proceed to interpret Acts? Primarily, we need to study the entire book
to determine if specific events form a consistent pattern throughout or
if the positive models Luke presents vary from one situation to
another. The former will suggest that Luke was emphasizing a normative,
consistent principle; the latter, that applications may change from one
time and place to the next. (Introduction to Biblical Interpretation,
Dr. William Klein, Dr. Craig L. Blomberg, Dr. Robert L. Hubbard Jr,
Word Publishing, Dallas, TX 1993, p. 350).
Those who take the
"most important thing" or
and try to turn it into law for everybody are attempting to cram all
Christians into one mold and expect them
to perform identically. Isn't this approach doomed to failure? Doesn't
the body of Christ need many members to do the many works that are
God in a Box?
When I was in college, the chapel on campus was a square-shaped
building that was known as the "God box." I am convinced that these
attempts to cram Christians into these
"one-true-way" boxes are attempts to cram Jesus into a box. Can we
finally see the folly of this and quit doing it?
Focusing so much on imitating what early
Christians did with their
gifts and opportunities misses the point. These diverse expressions of
faith ought to
lead us to empower individuals and movements to examine their gifts
and opportunities and do what God puts on their hearts to do, without
judging them according to what God has put on somebody else's heart
with respect to their gifts and opportunities. Christians answer to
God, not other Christians. As Jesus told John,
Jesus answered, "If I want him to remain alive until I
return, what is that to you? You must follow me." (John 21:22)
Recognizing that other people do
something different than what you do is good for God's mission in the
world. By opening the door to allow people to do what God puts on their
hearts, we allow
of God's influence to expand. Isn't that a good thing? Must we criticize or judge them at every
to our little box?
said John, "we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we told
him to stop, because he was not one of us."
"Do not stop him," Jesus said.
"No one who does a miracle in my name can in the next moment say
anything bad about me, for whoever is not against us is for us. I tell
you the truth, anyone who gives you a cup of water in my name because
you belong to Christ will certainly not lose his reward. (Mark 9:38-41)
Now certainly these will be
issues where Christians will differ. We are
human and will make mistakes from
time to time, in large or small ways. But can we discuss these in a way
that fits the gospel and honors God? In spite of these disagreements,
can we love and respect each other and praise God for what good he
in those circumstances, even if we don't agree on some things? If we
want freedom to do what we believe God is leading us to do, aren't we
grant that same freedom to other believers as well?
Sometimes differences may require that somebody move on to a new
situation, a new movement, a new phase of their lives.
When that happens, can we do it like Paul and Barnabas did in
Acts 15: without the destruction but rather with a blessing? (See this article
for more on this dispute between Paul and Barnabas). Or
we have to keep trashing everybody different from us to make ourselves
Healthy Christians will spend their lives learning and outgrowing their
systems. But the point of these systems should be to draw people to God
and accomplish his purposes in that place and time, not to make
celebrities out of the gurus or canonize them for all places and times.
Christians always be in
touch with what God wants today, not yesterday nor tomorrow, may they
be free to pursue it, and may God be glorified in it.