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A Flexible Faith
Rethinking What It Means to Follow Jesus Today
Foreword by Dr. Gregory A. Boyd
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It is all too easy to fail to grasp the diversity of the Christian faith-especially for those who have grown up in one branch of the church and never explored another. We fail to realize how many ways there are to follow Jesus, convinced that our own tradition is the one Christian alternative to nonbelief.
A FLEXIBLE FAITH is written for the convinced and confused believer alike. It is a readable exploration of the lively theological diversity that stretches back through church history and across the spectrum of Christianity today. It is an easy introduction to how Christians have historically answered key questions about what it means to follow Jesus. Chapters will include 17 big theological questions and answers; profiles of relevant figures in church history; discussion questions; single-page Q&As-profiles of more unusual types of Christians (e.g., a Catholic nun or a member of an Amish community); and a guide to major Christian denominations today.
As Bonnie shares her wrestlings with core issues-such as who Jesus is, what place the Church has in our lives, how to disagree yet remain within a community, and how to love the Bible for what it actually is-she teaches us how to walk courageously through our own tough questions.
Following Jesus is big and it is something that individual believers, movements, and denominations have expressed in uncountably different ways over the centuries. In the process of helping us sort things out, Bonnie shows us how to be comfortable with diversity in the Body. And as we learn to hold questions in one hand and answers in the other, we will discover new depths of faith that will remain secure even through the storms of life.
When I was seventeen I found Christ—or better, Christ found me—in a radical Pentecostal church. It was a wonderful experience! The deep, meaningless void I’d been experiencing up to this point in my life was replaced with an overwhelming sense of God’s love and purpose. And for me, the latter was even more life-giving than the former.
For the most part, this sense of love and purpose remained intact for about nine months. Then I enrolled at the University of Minnesota. By the end of the first semester my faith was destroyed. Though some of my former Pentecostal friends claimed I abandoned the faith to enjoy “the pleasures of the world,” the truth is that I absolutely hated letting go of my faith. I loved believing that life had a purpose, and returning to my former belief that life was an absurd, pointless endeavor was existentially excruciating! I desperately wanted to believe, but my brain simply wouldn’t give me permission to do it.
You see, like so many other churches, the Pentecostal church I had been attending taught that a person is “saved” if, and only if, he or she believes the set of doctrines that specific church taught. And it was an all-or-nothing offer. I remember a sermon in which our pastor said, “If evolution is true and Adam and Eve were not literal historical people, then the whole Bible is just a book of lies!” That was pretty much the attitude this church had toward every one of their beliefs. So when I slowly began to be persuaded by the evidence that humans evolved (believe me, I fought it as long as I could), my belief in the Christian faith in general began to tremble. And as I said, by the end of the semester, my faith was in ruins.
Thankfully, I eventually found my way back to embracing Christ, but this unfortunately is not the case for the vast majority of people who undergo experiences like mine. And numerous studies show that such experiences are becoming so common among millennials that they are almost the norm. The core problem is that the faith that young people are taught in their churches and Christian schools is far too narrow to handle the complexities and ambiguities that characterize our pluralistic, information-intensive, postmodern world.
This rigid all-or-nothing model of faith was plausible for most people prior to the twentieth century because it was possible for them to live their entire lives without encountering people or arguments that seriously challenged their beliefs. Today, however, this model of faith is impossible for all but the most cloistered and narrow-minded to sustain. And for nonbelievers, many of whom have trouble even accepting the concept of objective truth, the idea that a particular group of people has cornered the market of truth, and that one’s salvation depends on accepting this, is nothing short of comical.
The tragic irony in all this is that, as a matter of historic fact, the Christian faith has never been narrow or rigid. Yes, the orthodox Christian faith has always agreed on certain essential core doctrines such as what we find expressed in the ecumenical creeds of the Church. But when it comes to how to interpret these core doctrines, and on myriad other matters of faith and praxis, the Christian faith has always included a vast plurality of perspectives.
The trouble is, people who have been taught the all-or-nothing model of faith are usually unaware of the diversity that characterizes the historic Christian faith, or if they have any awareness of it, they are taught that everything that disagrees with their own perspective is simply wrong and need not be given serious consideration. For the sake of the credibility and livability of the Christian faith of the future, this has got to change.
This is why Bonnie Kristian’s A Flexible Faith is such an important and timely work. This book insightfully illustrates the pluralistic context within which all theological thinking must be carried out today. To be clear, Bonnie does not succumb to the postmodern urge to sink into complete relativism. She holds fast to the core doctrines that have defined orthodoxy throughout the ages, and she offers her own conclusions on many of the various disputes she discusses. But Bonnie arrives at these conclusions in a dialogical rather than a dogmatic way, sympathetically discussing the viable and widely divergent ways that doctrines have been understood and applied.
Also extremely helpful in broadening the perspective of readers are the wide range of historical and contemporary spokespeople whom Bonnie brings into the discussion. While some of these voices, such as Saint Augustine, are standard “heroes of the faith” for Western Christianity, others represent beautiful expressions of the faith that I’m quite sure most readers may not yet know. How many readers will be familiar with Hildegard von Bingen, a medieval mystic and philosopher, for example, or Clare Stober, a contemporary member of a common purse Anabaptist community in New York? Yet readers will find that these voices, which lie outside the purview of most Western works of theology, greatly expand and enrich our faith when given serious consideration.
The final thing I’ll mention that makes A Flexible Faith an introduction to theology for our times is that Bonnie never for a moment separates faith from real life. The only thing less compelling than a narrow and rigid faith for people today is a faith that is merely theoretical. People want to know what difference embracing a particular faith perspective makes in the way a person lives. More specifically, they want to know how a faith perspective on a particular issue equips them to make a practical difference in our world. Throughout this work, readers will be challenged to consider these important matters.
I am certain few readers will agree with all of Bonnie’s own conclusions. Indeed, I suspect Bonnie would be disappointed if they did, for the conviction that drives her work is that the only kind of theology that is plausible and attractive today is a theology that gives space for people to think on their own, a theology of dialogue over dogmatism, a theology that is more concerned with living out the faith than with agreeing about all matters of faith, a theology that is solidly anchored in essentials but is graciously flexible in everything else.
I frankly know of no book that more beautifully illustrates this kind of theology than the one you’re about to read.
Dr. Gregory A. Boyd
Why should anyone read this book?
One of my closest friends in college was a socialist, vegan biology major who was raised in a pretty conservative Catholic context. I was a libertarian political science major maintaining a love affair with dairy products—oh, and I grew up in mostly Baptist churches where we weren’t 100 percent sure Catholics should be considered Christians.
Suffice it to say, we were an odd couple, but we got along famously, united by our shared interests in trying new foods and studying day and night so we could graduate a year early. Somewhere in there we found time to talk theology, and my friend shared her dilemma: She loved the church in which she was raised and she didn’t want to leave. But she couldn’t bring herself to stick with a faith that required her to believe the world was just a few thousand years old or that, as a woman, she must set aside her career ambitions to be a homemaker.
She felt torn between two sets of convictions, and she was worried that if she couldn’t accept what she’d always heard was the Christian perspective on evolution and roles of women, she’d be forced to abandon her faith.
If this story sounds familiar, that’s because it’s increasingly common, particularly among my generation, millennials. As numerous polls and studies have shown, millennials are at the forefront of a rising population of religious “nones” in America. It’s not that they’re leaving the Church because they’re converting to another religion—they’re just opting out of organized faith altogether. When you ask what their religion is, they simply say, “None.”
In a landmark study of the state of American religion in 2014, the Pew Research Center found the number of nones jumped from 16 percent of U.S. adults in 2007 to 23 percent just seven years later. As cultural shifts go, this is a big and speedy one, and a single generation, millennials, make up nearly half—44 percent—of the nones.
Reflecting on those numbers, author and pastor Andy Stanley makes a key point. “The dechurched who grew up in church exit because they find the version of Christianity they’ve grown up with unconvincing, uninspiring, and irrelevant,” he says. But it’s “important to recognize that millennials don’t perceive their understanding of Christianity as a version of anything. For them, their version is the only version. The version of Christianity they were raised on is Christianity.”
So when, like my friend in college, millennials realize the Christianity of their childhood is “ill-suited for the undeniable realities, both scientific and sociological, of the world in which they find themselves,” Stanley adds, they think this means it’s time to quit their faith. If they can’t reconcile, say, the understanding of evolution they’ve learned as a biologist with what they’ve been told about the creation story in Genesis, well, Genesis must go.
For my friend, college turned out to be an eye-opening experience. She learned the version of Christianity she’d heard as a kid was far from being the only expression of our faith. She found out that there are Christians—even in her own Catholic tradition—who share her views on the origins of the earth and how women are supposed to behave. And she ultimately decided she didn’t have to leave the faith she still held dear despite all the reasons she’d been given to become one of those nones.
Too many other millennials (and Christians of all ages) won’t get that same opportunity, and even those of us who don’t face a similar dilemma tend to never look beyond our own version of Christianity. After a lifetime in one particular tradition, the church down the street may feel as foreign as another religion entirely. Just like the dechurched millennials Stanley describes, we unconsciously start to think our version of the faith is Christianity.
The problem is, that couldn’t be further from the truth. In fact, church history is full of one argument after another, as faithful Christians have sincerely (and yet vehemently) disagreed with one another about a huge range of issues, from the meaning of communion to what hell is like, from why we practice baptism to, yes, what women should be allowed to do in church. (In one early disagreement, gangs of competing Christians actually roamed city streets singing songs and making graffiti about why they were right!)
Christians are still having these debates today—though usually not with the songs and graffiti. And what we all too often forget is that even in really serious disagreements, both sides are still Christians. Maybe they can’t attend the same local church, but they’re equally part of the Church universal. Maybe they’ll never agree on a single version of Christianity, but that’s okay.
A vibrant diversity within Christian orthodoxy—which is simply to say a range of different ways to faithfully follow Jesus—is a strength of our faith, not a weakness.
Now, that’s not to say Christianity should be randomly bent to fit any preference or lifestyle. We can’t set ourselves up as individual arbiters of what’s right and wrong, true and false, deciding that Christianity is whatever we personally want it to be. Diversity within orthodoxy still has its limits. For instance, one of those singing gangs thought Jesus was divine, but not equal to God the Father; and after a bunch of prayer, study, and debates, the early church determined that was incorrect—Jesus is fully God as well as fully human—and that this issue is too important to simply agree to disagree.
But the same can’t be said of every theological question. The stuff that was troubling my friend in college, like the role of women, is obviously a big deal, but it’s not on the same level as whether Jesus is God. Christians can and do disagree about whether a woman can pastor a church, for example, but we can’t disagree about the divinity of Christ. That’s the very center of our faith. It’s our defining conviction. Throw out Jesus and there’s really nothing left—no churches for people of any gender to pastor.
So to understand that difference and figure out how it applies to other parts of theology, I like to use a system introduced to me by Greg Boyd, a pastor and theologian where I live in Minnesota who is also the author of the foreword of this book. Picture concentric circles (like the Target logo). In the middle, in the smallest circle, is Jesus. He’s the heart of our faith—and this isn’t just our belief that he exists and is God, but the actual person of Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, who wants to have a relationship with each of us that can transform us and even the whole world. The life and character of Jesus tell us what God is like and how much he loves us. Jesus is the nonnegotiable anchor of Christianity.
But then there’s the next circle, which is a little bigger. In this circle are what we might call dogmas, a very limited set of basic beliefs about God and what it means to be a Christian. A good summary of Christian dogma might be the Apostles’ Creed, which is believed to be the oldest extrabiblical statement of faith we have, developed within the first hundred years after Jesus. Here’s what it says in a modern translation:
I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy universal Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
You might notice there’s really not a lot of detail here. For instance, the creed doesn’t have anything to say about baptism. It never mentions whether God picks and chooses who is a Christian or if we have free will to make that choice ourselves. It doesn’t specify how or when God created the earth, only that it happened. And because all those answers—and many more—are left out, the Apostles’ Creed can be universally accepted among orthodox Christians. Ask a Catholic, a Presbyterian, and a Baptist if they can endorse the content of this creed and they can all say yes. That’s dogma.
But all those missing details matter, too. Those go in the next concentric circle, which is bigger still, and contains what we can call doctrine. These are the sorts of issues that divide denominations. For instance, the Presbyterian will disagree with the Catholic and the Baptist on the question of free will, while the Baptist will disagree with the other two on how and when baptism should happen. Those are doctrinal differences.
The last and biggest circle holds opinions, where differences of belief can peacefully coexist within the same denomination or even congregation. This could be questions like the age of the earth, whether there are animals in heaven, or what happens to people who never hear about Jesus.
The concentric circle scheme helps, I think, because it finds a middle ground between insisting my version of faith is Christianity, on the one hand, and making our faith totally open to everyone’s individual interpretation on the other. It lets us say diversity within orthodoxy is a good thing, especially for Christians like my friend who have become uncomfortable with what they were taught as kids.
I’m passionate about theological diversity because I don’t want to see my generation leaving the Church over an unnecessary misunderstanding. I don’t want to see Christians becoming nones because they’ve been falsely told there’s just one way to follow Jesus. That’s why I think there’s a lot of value to introducing Christians to our siblings and even distant cousins in the faith, particularly if that’s what it takes for some to remain in the family. If there’s a version of Christianity someone can accept, why would we present them only with a version they have to reject?
Unfortunately, it’s all too easy to miss this diversity, though it stretches back through church history and across the range of Christianity today. As wonderful as my Sunday school teachers were, they left a lot out—and I’m betting yours did, too. We can get so stuck in our own little pool that we never notice the stream of orthodoxy is wide and deep and beautiful. Without even realizing it, we can become convinced our own tradition is the one Christian alternative to nonbelief.
That limited perspective is dangerous for the convinced and the doubtful believer alike. For the confident, it makes it difficult to work across denominational lines to serve a hurting world and share the gospel message. For the confused, it suggests that losing conviction in the exact theology of one’s youth or conversion means losing faith altogether.
These are both avoidable tragedies, and that’s where this book comes in. It’s designed to be an easy introduction to the many ways one can follow Jesus, a friendly tour guide to the wide range of views Christians have long held on key issues of the faith.
Here’s the plan: I’ll run through seventeen big theological questions and for each one explain the main ways Christians have answered over the last two millennia. In some cases, there will be as few as two options, but most will have three or four. Every option I present is safely inside the range of orthodoxy—in other words, they’re the sort of thing where one Christian might say to another, “If you believe this, I think you’re wrong,” but never the sort of thing where we might fairly say, “If you believe this, you can’t be considered a Christian.” These are doctrines and opinions, never dogmas.
With topics where I’m particularly enthusiastic about one perspective—we all have our pet theologies, right?—I’ll share with you where I land. Of course, my goal is to be as fair as possible to every view I describe, but just in case my bias gets the better of me, I want you to know where it might be creeping in.
I’ll also include a few discussion questions for each of the seventeen issues in case you want to use this book for personal reflection or in a small group study. Plus, every topic chapter will have a brief historical profile of an interesting person from church history who is relevant to the issue at hand, as well as a list of resources to point you in the right direction for learning more on your own.
In between the topic chapters are five-question Q&As, profiles of more unusual types of Christians—for instance, we’ll meet a Benedictine nun, a racial reconciler, a member of a Latin American base community, and more. These are people many of us will never have an opportunity to meet in real life, but their lives are a fascinating and important part of our faith. They’re each living out a way to follow Jesus that might not be for everyone, but their unique version of Christianity is part of what makes the universal Church so incredibly multifaceted and appealing to all sorts of people.
Finally, I’ll end with a guide to major Christian denominations in the United States today. The idea is that we can move past superficial differences like worship style or church architecture to get a better understanding of what that church down the street is all about. If you’re confident in your current church context, think of this as a family reunion where you catch up with cousins you haven’t talked to in years. Or, if you find you’re no longer comfortable with the church you grew up in, use this guide as a handy introduction to new denominational options you might want to explore. To that end, the same chapter starts with a brief guide to choosing a church.
My first working title for this book was 200 Million Ways to Follow Jesus, because it’s a rough calculation of how many different combinations of beliefs any Christian could select from the options I present for all seventeen topics. (Well, the real total was 201,553,920, but that’s a mouthful.) As we move on to examining this diversity within our faith, remember the sheer size of that number. It gives a little glimpse of how following Jesus is a big, weird, amazing thing that individual believers, movements, and denominations have expressed in remarkably different ways over the centuries.
As the Apostle Paul wrote in his first letter to the Corinthian church, we as the body of Christ are not “made up of one part but of many” (12:14)—and this book is about telling the foot that the elbow exists.
What does it mean to say the
Bible is God’s Word?
This spring I ran a ten-mile race, and before race day I had to pick up the paper bib I’d pin to my shirt to track my time. The pickup was held at a running store across town, and I found myself driving to this shop with just minutes to spare. The store was open until 8:00; I rolled in at 7:56.
My trip was successful because I live in a precise, modern society. A century ago—and in other parts of the world today—this store might have closed at sunset, dinnertime, or whenever the shopkeeper felt like going home. But today, I could show up four minutes before close confident I’d have exactly those four minutes to get my stuff.
That modern sense of precision is a major player in this chapter’s question: What does it mean to say the Bible is God’s Word? “All Scripture is God-breathed,” the Apostle Paul wrote to his friend and student, Timothy, “and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). On this, Christians agree.
But ask them to explain what it means to say God “breathed” the Bible and how we should interpret what it says, and that agreement instantly dissolves. What we mean when we say Scripture is the Word of God is a contentious question, particularly among Christians, like me, who have that modern precision mind-set. We want to know if a story about 2,050 guys means exactly 2,050 guys, or whether a genealogy listing thirty generations gets everyone’s names precisely right.
Though this debate has intensified in recent decades, it is hardly new. Christians over the centuries have answered this question in three primary ways: affirming the Bible is either inerrant, infallible, or merely in some way inspired. I’ll explain these options, and then, before sharing my own perspective, add four brief notes about biblical “literalism,” biblical authority, how Scripture was assembled, and why different Christians use different Bibles. (Most chapters won’t have notes like this—but most chapters don’t deal with topics as complex as Scripture!)
The inerrant perspective on Scripture says the Bible is “without error” of any kind: The Bible is inspired by God, and God never errs, so logically the Bible can’t contain errors. It is correct on all matters of Christian belief and living, as well as everything it says about history, science, or any other type of knowledge. When we try to sort Scripture into categories of faith and history, this view says, we end up making ourselves the authority over the Bible instead of the other way around.
The classic modern expression of inerrancy comes from the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, written in 1978. “Being wholly and verbally God-given,” the statement says, “Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.”
Crucially, as the Chicago Statement adds, this approach says the Bible is without error in its original text. This means, first, that God selected every single word in the original version, and second, that the version on your nightstand—after centuries of careful but ultimately imperfect transmission and translation—may have a few minor mistakes.
The inerrancy perspective doesn’t mean the Bible can never be misunderstood. In fact, when we encounter what appears to be an error or inconsistency in Scripture, Christians who affirm biblical inerrancy say the real problem is a translation screwup, wrong interpretation, or perhaps human failure to comprehend God’s truth.
To say Scripture is infallible means believing it won’t fail us on any matter of Christian faith or practice. It tells us everything we need to know about following Jesus—how to be saved, what to believe, how to live. It is trustworthy and true.
Where this view differs from inerrancy is about all the other stuff the Bible includes, like some historical details and prescientific ideas about the world. For example, describing the time Jesus sent his disciples out to preach, the book of Matthew says he told the disciples to take no bag, no extra tunic, no sandals, and no staff. Telling the same story, the book of Mark says they should take sandals and a staff, but no money.
- "Many thoughtful Christians I know struggle to articulate what they believe, how they came to believe it, and what traction that belief has in their lives. I am now delighted to be able to hand these friends A FLEXIBLE FAITH. Offering valuable perspectives from across centuries and cultures, Bonnie Kristian makes theology accessible, meaningful, and relevant to readers."—Margot Starbuck, author of Small Things With Great Love
- "Diversity of beliefs and perspectives has characterized the Christian faith from early on. And yet, at the same time, the person of Jesus and a basic set of core beliefs have brought unity to this diversity. In A FLEXIBLE FAITH, Bonnie Kristian provides a very helpful roadmap for navigating this diversity at a number of key points. Her discussions of the various viewpoints are clear, balanced, and winsome. Highly recommended."—Paul Eddy, pastor, professor of biblical and theological studies at Bethel University, and author of Across the Spectrum: Understanding Issues in Evangelical Theology
- "A FLEXIBLE FAITH is a necessary and powerful exploration of the many perspectives and possibilities contained within Christian orthodoxy. At a time of sharp decline for American Christianity, Bonnie Kristian's work offers hope: that both church history and contemporary practice offer more than just the religious options we grew up with or see plastered across our newsfeeds. With journalistic precision and experiential insight, Kristian masterfully maps a way forward-by calling us back to our beautiful Christian story."—Zach Hoag, author of The Light is Winning: Why Religion Just Might Bring Us Back to Life
- "Any book that compares Christianity and its beliefs to a series of concentric circles with Jesus as the center of all circles not only has my attention but gets it right. A FLEXIBLE FAITH works from that Jesus center through the various levels of consensus and then to disagreements at the periphery with admirable clarity, fresh perspectives, and compelling conviction. This book will serve churches well if they want to introduce Christians to Christian theology but do so in a way that celebrates both where we agree and where we differ."—Scot McKnight, Julius R. Mantey Professor in New Testament, Northern Seminary and author of The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible
- "What a terrific service Bonnie Kristian has provided! With her A FLEXIBLE FAITH, anyone who is curious about the contemporary Christian Church will find clear guidance regarding beliefs and practices, enabling that person to make thoughtful decisions along their spiritual journey. As a longtime pastor and teacher, I eagerly recommend A Flexible Faith and can see myself inviting people-especially millennials-to read and reflect on the book."—Dennis R. Edwards, senior pastor of The Sanctuary Covenant Church and affiliate professor at Northern Seminary
- "In a culture that increasingly asks us to draw lines in the sand, A FLEXIBLE FAITH is a timely reminder that the church has always made space for disagreement and debate on many matters of belief and practice. Bonnie Kristian has created a thought-provoking guide to cultivating diversity instead of division. This is an eminently practical resource for the believers, seekers, and the spiritually skeptical."—Jonathan Merritt, author of Learning to Speak God from Scratch
- "As Christianity becomes more polarized, there's a deep need for bridge builders and spiritual companions, people who can create space for followers of Jesus that help us honor a wide range of beliefs and practices and find ourselves in the story, here and now. In A FLEXIBLE FAITH, Bonnie Kristian offers not only real stories, practical resources, and points for discussion, but she also highlights the beautiful textures of diversity within our faith that will be healing and hopeful to many."—Kathy Escobar, co-pastor at The Refuge and author of Faith Shift: Finding Your Way Forward When Everything you Believe Is Coming Apart
- On Sale
- May 15, 2018
- Page Count
- 272 pages