Like with most Midwesterners, my world as a young lad was small. I grew up in a small town where you could run into every school teacher at the movies or the bowling alley. It’s what kept us children in our place and sometimes thinking of new ways to be sneaky. No one ever wanted his parents to run into a teacher on a Friday night who would expound upon the misdeeds of their secretive, yet innocent child.
The smallness of the town made my Christian world even smaller. The church was small. The building was small. For my childhood, the smallness was great, wonderful, and comfortable. I knew my Christian friends well and they knew me, probably more than I knew myself. The church camp I attended was small, but again, the people there knew me and cared for my spiritual growth. There was just something about the smallness that was endearing and comfortable. It provided stability, and everything about the environment made me who I am today. Although I no longer reside in that small town (and that small town no longer exists!), the influences will never entirely fade away.
There is, however, something about smallness that can be deceptive and allure us to places we ought not go. My small Christian world led me to believe that Christianity was quite small. I had come to believe that if one were a Christian, he had to believe and practice exactly as I did about every aspect of the Christian faith. To detour from anything I had been taught, I thought, would be to compromise. For example, if another Christian differed about the nature of baptism, the Lord’s Supper, or some other Christian practice, the person became very suspect. He may not even be a real Christian.
These ideas were not necessarily taught to me. Sure, maybe a lot of people who instructed me may have believed these things or implied them. It seems, however, that such ideas were just the nature of smallness and infantility. When a person is small in stature living in a small world, the nature of things just makes it so.
There comes a time, however, that we all must grow up and no longer be a child in a small world. This does not necessarily entail giving up one’s idiosyncratic beliefs and practices of the Christian faith. It just means that one needs to become more aware of the differing conclusions that other stripes of Christians have come to and why, and that it does not necessarily mean that another Christian is somehow less than Christian. We have to remember that the Christian world was much larger and varied quite a bit even in the first couple of centuries of its existence. There were Alexandrians; there were Antiochenes. There was the East; there was the West.
On the other hand, there are particular doctrines that must be believed in order to be Christian. One cannot deny the deity of Christ and be a Christian. One must accept that Jesus died and rose again on the third day. There are numerous other important, essential doctrines that must also be believed in order to be a Christian. Most of these are helpfully outlined in the Nicene Creed.
The question we all need to face is whether we can discern between the “core” of Christianity—that which must be believed—and those doctrines that are not. Must we divide and label others as less Christian because they differ on the Lord’s Supper, church government, or baptism? Where does one draw the line? Ultimately, where the line is drawn indicates how spiritually mature we are: will we be like the Pharisees who made a list of essentials so long that they kept people out of God’s kingdom, or will we be more like Jesus who seemed to unsettle the legalistic religious zealots of his day? We live in a time and culture in which such questions may be more important than we think. The answers we give and the lines we draw just might be the difference between an enemy and a friend, or perhaps more precisely, a brother.