It seems strange to many modern Christians, I think (or postmodern, as the case may truly be) that we would have standards of fellowship at all. In an age when the church is judged more by her numbers than by her programs, most of us are eager to count among us whoever we can count - to say that we have X number of persons in our fellowship.
And furthermore, we've been taught by our postmodern culture that whatever is true for you is true for you and whatever is true for me is true for me and that neither of us has any right to question what someone else says is true for them (unless, of course, you are questioning the faith itself and then, apparently, you are well within your rights to trash it completely as disagreeable...but I digress). So we are conditioned to think that if someone says they believe in Jesus and they love God, then we have to take them at their word and that's that. We are not allowed to ask any follow-up questions or to demand proof from their living that what they say is true. They said it, so it must be true.
Taken together, these two things have led us to largely abandon ideas of 'central doctrine' - the agreed-upon ideas that bind us together as a fellowship - and to embrace more of an 'anything goes' approach so that we can justify...whatever it is that we're trying to justify, which often includes our buildings and budgets but sometimes also includes ourselves.
So this notion of a 'closed' Communion, where we might not allow someone around our table because they do not live according to our central doctrine, really strikes at the heart of the place where culture meets Christlikeness.
Most of us are willing to draw the same kind of lines that Joe Biden has tried to draw in response to the Catholic church's criticism of him - the way that I act is not necessarily the way that I believe. He claims to be a man who values life and who might even personally be pro-life, but his policies are pro-choice because he says he's a man who cannot impose his faith on everyone else. So we would look at that and say, "Well, he does believe the Catholic teaching and agree with it. He says so." But what the church is looking at is whether or not he lives it.
The truth is that none of us believes what other persons say as much as we claim that we do or claim that we should. If someone sticks their hand in hot water and pulls it back quickly and exclaims how hot it it, most of us are walking over to stick our hands in and see for ourselves. If someone recoils from the smell of a container they just opened in the fridge that's been in there a little too long, we, for some ungodly reason, walk over to take a whiff ourselves. We say that we believe what others say, but the truth is...we don't.
And then we say that, well, that's different. Those are tangible things, things we could all experience. What we're talking about here, we say, are more of ideas - intangible things. There's no way to verify when someone say they really enjoy the color purple or the sound of rain in the evenings. We just have to take them on their word at this. So we say that faith is more like these things. Faith, we say, is basically an idea. Thus, we cannot question what someone else says about it.
But this is exactly contrary to the history of the Christian faith, to its very foundations, to everything we know about the faithful life from "in the beginning." There's not one story in all the Bible that says, "And then he sat on his couch and believed, and his whole life was blessed because of it." Even Jesus Himself said they will know you by your love. And love, by the way, is not just an idea, either; it, too, is an action.
The first thing we have to do, then, when we start talking about open and closed Communion (or open and closed fellowships, for that matter) is to realize that Christianity is more than an idea; it is a tangible reality. It is lived out in our loving, declared by our actions. Therefore, we are completely justified in wanting to see the evidence of it in someone's life and not just take their word for it. In fact, we must demand it.
It's the only way that being a Christian means anything at all. (To be continued.)