The Barnabas Ministry

The Fallacy of Christian One-True-Wayism
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. These typically arise in reaction to something significantly wrong or deficient in the present church 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 Christian faith.

The most obvious example of this is the reformation spearheaded by Martin Luther. Luther addressed various abuses and problematic characteristics of the Roman 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, sometimes churches arise out 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 you 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 these are 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 relational unity, people either follow a new movement and suffer the pain of leaving the established church, or they remain with the established church, suffer with its 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 matters like 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 Christians.

New movements are reactionary. Some do this deliberately, others may try not to but they cannot help it. Certain issues are "on the table" as movements form and these are addressed as seen fit. But other issues that may be deficient in the old approach might not be recognized as 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 completely out of view in both the old and new system that make both systems equally deficient.
Such reactionary systems will have their weaknesses and deficiencies made evident in time, and this will demand a further reaction. Where does it end?

Creates 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 consider themselves to be like prophets of the Old Testament or like apostles. I'm all 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 else. The elitism present in such systems is self-reinforcing. Isn't this just plain old pride?

Sectarian Gospel
The gospel gets overshadowed and the "one true way" becomes the new gospel.

Invites 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 pursuing 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, where 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 production."

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.

Tool for Abuse
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. A
ll 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.

People 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.

Opens 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? Does their 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 also the 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 gospel itself?

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 amazing that Christians continue to repeat the process and think they can actually "get it right." Some Christians continue to restlessly pursue a "one-true-way" sort 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 in the 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 destructive carnage?

The Real True Way
Given what has already been said here, the mere title of this paragraph might just sound preposterous. But can we agree on some things that are evident if not obvious?

First, Scripture unambiguously states that Jesus is "the way:"

Jesus 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 "the Way:"

...and asked 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 epistles demonstrates a rich diversity in key aspects and elements of Christian expression. 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, not monolithic.

Going Way-ward: Misinterpreting Biblical Narratives
Modern movements have mis-applied certain characteristics of the early church in at least two distinct ways. First, a movement can take any of these reasonable expressions of faith and declare it "the most important thing." It will see all of life and faith through that one 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 evident.

Or, a movement can take many of these various expressions of faith and "harmonize" them into what all Christians must do in order to be "true Christians."
The 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 simplistic.

There are serious problems with these harmonizations:
  1. 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 then, we 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 faithfulness.
  2. The creation of lists is subjective, 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.
  3. 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 the equation.
  4. Harmonizations 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 small task), they are generally examples of what we might do, not what we must do.
Let's elaborate on the question of the interpretation of biblical narratives and consult some scholarly references:

The critical 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 "harmonizing" approaches 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 necessary?

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 the borders of God's influence to expand. Isn't that a good thing? Must we
criticize or judge them at every step according to our little box?

"Teacher," 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 might do 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 obliged to 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 do we have to keep trashing everybody different from us to make ourselves look better?

Healthy Christians will spend their lives learning and outgrowing their church 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. May 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.

Copyright © 2006 John Engler. All rights reserved.

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