We are creatures and thus we must go through a life-long process of learning about the physical world, ourselves and the culture(s) we are reared in. Being human is a wonderfully complex experience and it is fraught with dangers and potential for delight and joy in fellowship with God and other people. The community of God’s people in any given generation or geographical location is of crucial importance precisely because the Church (his people on earth) is God’s primary instrument to testify to his truth and love and justice. So many people are turned away from the door of the Church precisely because God’s people do not represent faithfully their King and his Kingdom. Indeed, this was a core aspect of the message of the prophets of the Old Testament and of the Lord Jesus himself.
This is not a new phenomena peculiar to modern times but I think that it is particularly problematic for Western Christianity in the modern world. The reason for this is based upon the fact of the profound historical heritage of Christianity on Western culture—through European history and culture. Biblical and Christian values, beliefs and principles are infused into the fundamental values of Western culture. This affirmation is not to say that they are they only source of values, law and principles in the Western tradition—but rather that the Christian interpretation of the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations has shaped and formed the identity and perspectives modern people hold to regarding the value of human life, law, and government (to name just a few examples).
The door of the Church, whether I or my readers like it or not, has been identified and regulated according to human traditions. The simplest way to confirm the accuracy of this statement is to carefully study the official “gate-keepers” of the Christian tradition(s)—those revered from the past and current leaders. What do these people teach and direct people to do? What, according a particular stream of Christian tradition (pick one), makes one belong to the church (or to be a Christian)? How this question is answered is telling—for that answer also demonstrates what the leaders and people within that church/denomination have determined the properties and specifications of the door to be; and thus the means of entry into the door of the church.
This week I went for a teeth cleaning at the dentist office. I do not like going to the dentist because it is physically uncomfortable to have my teeth scraped and my gums poked. I also do not like being told that I need to floss more often and come back more frequently (instead of going several years without a teeth cleaning). Also, I would rather not spend money on dental work if I do not have to—I would rather buy books!. I feel very much at the mercy of the dentist as I lay back in the chair and try to keep my mouth open.
I would suggest that, oddly enough, there is a parallel here to the dynamics of the people of God as they wrestle with identifying what the entrance to the Church is and requires. Namely, that we deeply resent being told that we need to do anything that is difficult, painful and requires renouncing our desires—our will being done is paramount. Even if it is good for us and beneficial to our health we still resist! Just as I put off going to the dentist for years so also human beings tend to avoid what is necessary as long as possible.
Applied to the Church and our traditions about how one enters the Church the rubber meets the road in believers practice of faith. Is the Lord Jesus the “gate” through which we ourselves consciously enter in and go out? If we have devised some alternative means to enter the Kingdom (complete with carefully placed biblical terminology) then we will make an invitation to unbelievers to enter our kingdom in the same way. And if we are in error then we will lead others to embrace the same error.
The Lord Jesus spoke clearly that he himself was the door (the way to enter) into God’s redeemed community. “I am the gate. Whoever enters by me will be saved, and will come in and go out and find pasture.” (John 10:9, NRSV) In practice, leaders and people in the Christian churches have at times taken upon themselves the responsibility of defining who enters (or does not) God’s sheep pen (the Kingdom of God)—mainly by defining the exact requirements necessary for this. A careful study of Church history demonstrates that some leaders and teachers have followed in the path of the Pharisees and actively blocked people from entering the Kingdom (see Matthew 23:13-15).
Others have treaded the path of the heretics and devised alternate (and frankly quite imaginative) theological explanations of Scripture, the Person of Christ and the power of the human will to enter God’s Kingdom. I think that it is a miracle that the historic statements of the earliest Church Councils kept a balanced and biblical response in the face of these challenges. They did this because the Holy Spirit guided them to affirm the truth that in Christ alone is salvation; this kept their formulation of theological responses grounded. If any of us begins to deviate from this conviction of Christ himself as the source of our salvation and the progressive spiritual understanding of it in practice then we are endangering ourselves as well as any who may hear us testify to the Gospel.
Paul plainly described how one enters the door and comes to belong to the Kingdom—which is essential for being a member of the Body of Christ.
“For once we too were without understanding, disobedient, misled, habitual slaves to all sorts of passions and pleasures, spending our lives in malice and envy. But when the goodness and lovingkindness of God our Savior were brought to light, He saved us, not for upright deeds that we had done, but in accordance with His mercy, through the bath of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, which He abundantly poured out upon us through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that we might come into right standing with God through His unmerited favor and become heirs of eternal life in accordance with our hope.” (Titus 3:3-7, The New Testament, Charles Williams [Moody Press:1950])
This is that hope and the experience of faith that true disciples of the Lord are granted. This is characteristic of the Spirit’s activity and the response of those who belong to God through the Lord Jesus Christ. And this what we are called to testify to and try to explain to those who have yet to enter through the true door of the Church. The demons labor hard to get believers off the narrow path of Christ because he knows he can then weaken the witness of the Church in that time and generation.
Among the Christian people I know I often hear conversation about how Christians can “reach out” to others and make the Gospel relevant to a non-believing person. I understand the point and the value of thinking strategically, having studied the intellectual and cultural context in which we live today, and intelligently seeking to speak the message of Christ. However, are we so sure that we ourselves understand the Gospel? Are we communicating with our lives and our words a message which exalts Christ himself as the only hope of salvation? For did he not say plainly that he is “the way, and the truth, and the life. No one come to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6, NRSV)
We will present to others only what we ourselves are convinced is true for ourselves. Thus the metaphor of the door is valuable for further reflection and what shape and contour spirituality needs to take for me personally and how I would advise others about how to walk the spiritual path. The door of the Church is primary and important in the same way that it is important in physical house. If we are deceived about how to enter then how could we ever expect to know what is inside and what the Master of that house requires of those who live there?