In 1975, the late great Anglican pastor and theologian, John R.W. Stott, penned a little booklet entitled Balanced Christianity. “My concern is to draw attention to one of the great tragedies of contemporary Christiandom,” Stott wrote in the first paragraph (7). The tragedy he spoke of was polarization: a tendency toward extremism and imbalance, which may come in the form of divisive issues, theologically or temperamentally formed (8). Interesting. The kinds of polarizations Stott addressed in the 1970s included “Intellect” vs. “Emotions,” being “Conservative” vs. “Radical,” debates about “Form” of church structure vs. “Freedom,” and “Evangelism” vs. “Social Action.” Some things just don’t change. I think one reason such polarizations persist is that they feast off of a discontentment with what actually exists in a tension.
Fast-forward nearly 40 years, and consider the recently released book Both-And: Living the Christ-Centered Life in an Either-Or World by Rich Nathan with Insoo Kim (IVP Books, 2013). Both Balanced Christianity and Both-And recognize that one of the ways that worldliness manifests itself, even in the church, is by the kind of divisiveness that polarization animates.
Dallas Willard once said, “Holiness is more a matter of being than doing. Holiness is a matter of being from a different world.” But do we act as if that’s true? Are the people of God demonstrably different, even just by virtue of whether or not we fall under the spell of polarization? There’s wisdom to be minded about this fact, whether for pastors shepherding Christ’s church, or for laity co-laboring with others from different church backgrounds in order to strengthen a unity of service and mission in this world.
We Need a Kingdom-Informed Framework to Address ‘Polarization’
In my estimation, Both-And provides a service to the Vineyard by showing (among other things) that a coherent world-and-life view of reality emerges faithfully when we do not tolerate the kind of false dichotomies that exist frequently in an Either/Or world. Vineyard readers should read Both-And with an eye toward developing their own worldview and caring for the perspective of those they lead. Nathan and Kim’s fourteen chapters are centered on seven core areas. Here is my paraphrased summary:
1) What Is Our Identity? (Evangelical and Charismatic)
We need to be gospel-shaped people, having our lives centered on the authority of God in the crucified and risen Jesus. The Holy Spirit enables us to live in and access that divine authority. The Bible bears witness to that authority in an indispensable way, and helps to ‘norm our norms’ (our practices, knowledge and experiences). By the power of the Spirit, we bear witness to God’s life in and among us, including by how we reveal our need for real-life interaction with God, by His power working fruitfulness in our life, and by the ways God manifests His life through us with the spiritual gifts He gives us to bless others.
2) What Is Our Community? (Unity and Diversity)
We recognize that the Holy Spirit gives birth and sustains the Christian community as an inclusive community designed for mutuality, care for each other’s good, and submission together under Christ, the Head of the Church. Because of the good and life-giving nature of Christ’s authority, pluralistic tolerance or ruthless domination are not helpful ways to navigate “unity out of diversity.” The multidimensional good of Christian peacemaking is founded on the authority of the Prince of Peace. Peacemaking is not an add-on to life as a Christian, but the very way in which people marked by truth and grace ought to exist with each other and in the world. A gospel-shaped account of diversity intentionally endeavors toward the value and beauty of a global church which is racially, ethnically, culturally and economically and socially diverse. The goal is not merely diversity for diversity’s sake, but an authentic realization that the kingdom of God “is going to be thoroughly multiethnic, multilingual and multicultural” (76).
3) What Is Our Concern? (Mercy and Justice)
Because of our identity and the nature of our community, we are to be a people of mercy and justice, both by virtue of how we treat those within our community and especially those outside it. Mercy is “compassion in action” and works itself out in the mundane, ordinary endeavors of our life with others (88). It’s “giving people what they don’t deserve” (90). Justice sees and names things correctly, whether root causes and systems or in specific cases and situations. Justice and human dignity are not social constructs or mere legal pronouncements; justice recognizes what someone is morally due by virtue of them being made in the image of God. Because of the advocacy and action entailed by justice and mercy in public life, we want to be a people engaged with the “political but not partisan … principled but not ideological … civil but not soft … engaged but not used” (110-111).
4) What Is Our Method? (Proclamation and Demonstration)
The people of God exist as “sent ones” in cooperation with the mission of God in the world. So we proclaim and demonstrate the authority and life of God in our midst, wherever we are in God’s world. There is no space or place or people that should be excluded from hearing and seeing God’s rule and reign at work. In our evangelism, we learn to cooperate with what God is already doing, how He is inviting people into and enfolding people with His reconciling work. For the church exists not for herself, but for Christ and for the fame of His name before all in the world. The praise of God among the nations is interrelated with our good works for our neighbor, borne out of our union in Christ. We do what the gospel is (as both a message and the person of Jesus) by embodying it in our life before others. This doing is both supernatural and natural to who we are becoming as Christ’s servants.
5) What Is Our Ethic? (Personal and Social)
A Christ-centered life cares deeply about what is good and right as both a personal and social ethic. Our ethic influences the plausibility of how our method and message are believed. Unquestionably, holiness unto the Lord is what should mark the personal ethic of any life that seeks to follow Christ and fruitfully manifest His life in this world. Our sexual ethic is integral to our life as a holy people, because God cares about both the holiness of our soul as well as our body. The church must resist the commodification of relationships and of sex. Sex is for a “covenant commitment,” and God never designed for our lives to be led by merely the fulfillment of our desires (142). The role of self-control and learning to live a disciplined life is indispensable to having a life that is healthy and maturing. A Christian approach to homosexuality must distinguish between a Christian ethic, Christian pastoral care, and a Christian approach to public policy. What’s wrong with sex in a committed homosexual relationship is that it fails to point to how sex-in-marriage is supposed to be as a pointer to God’s created order and design (of fulfillment in our counterpart, our complementary other, not a person of our own gender).
6) What Is Our Expectation? (Already and Not Yet)
Christ-centered people approach life with the expectation that God is in our midst: “He is here, and He is not silent,” as Francis Schaeffer said. Thus, we long with hope for the power of God to be made manifest in our world, that the rightness of His rule and ways would govern all life. So we pray with expectation for God to bring justice where there is injustice, for God to bring healing where there is sickness, and for God to usher in the totality of His shalom (a peace that is far more than the mere absence of conflict) in our world. So much of the worldview of Western societies has become naturalized and secularized. But the Christian expectation here has the power to orient life with openness to an eternal hope and perspective incomparable to the wasteland of modern and late-modern expectations of hope. The invitation to expect God to move in our day is based on the faithfulness of God’s work of creation and preservation already in effect in the world. ‘Signs and wonders’ are not some add-on to God’s creative activity. They are a powerful extension of God’s providential care. But suffering and sickness persist in this life because of sin and evil. The fullness or totality of the Kingdom of God has not yet been realized.
7) What Is Our Calling? (Relevant Practice and Orthodox Doctrine)
We want to communicate and embody the message and life of Jesus and His Kingdom wherever and whenever we are. Thus, we seek to faithfully translate and contextualize our invitation and witness to life in God in light of the social-cultural-historical conditions that shape our life with others. We want to astutely and wisely discern how people hear and receive us. The goal here is not to sloppily accommodate our message so that it compromises its integrity yet ‘gains’ a following. We want to show the ‘cash value’ of our understanding of the world from a Kingdom perspective. Part of this showing and demonstrating comes in the form of deconstructing the worldly powers at work, including consumerism, militarism, social and personal isolation, addictions, fatherlessness, etc. We should diligently study and learn what makes the Church winsome in our culture in order to strengthen the winsome communication of our authentic dogma and distinct doctrines to a skeptical, sometimes cynical, and often apathetic world. An “orthodox life” includes correct dogma and doctrine, but also involves a life that rightly bears witness to what is true, good and beautiful. Nathan and Kim write, “The great challenge for Christians today is to live out our Both-And existence in a world that is hostile to both Christian belief and Christian practice” (230).
Note the interrelationship of these seven areas. For example, how we understand identity will shape how we view community, but also shape method and calling. Nathan and Kim did not intend to provide a comprehensive list of how all ‘both-and’ issues and practices are relevant to the life of a Christian. But Vineyard and non-Vineyard readers alike will profit by taking stock of at least these seven areas and pondering their lead-questions.
One of the major benefits of Both-And is the framework that it provides, both for identifying what can be polarizing and also for showing why a both-and perspective is not only possible but fruitful. Nathan and Kim are skilled and trustworthy soul-physicians, trying to discern what it looks like to be a “both-and Christian.”
A both-and Christian is not a super-spiritual Christian. Both-and Christianity is not just meant for pastors and movement leaders. It’s not some far-fetched ideal inaccessible to everyday life. It is, unmistakably so, Christ-shaped and Spirit-empowered. It’s not something novel or a new, hip way of talking or conceiving of what it means to be Christian in a post-Christian world. If anything, contemporary polarizations require a renewal of historical understanding and practices to responsibly discern what’s been lost if such polarizations are to be defeated. It’s not accidental that ahistorical and ‘triumphalistic’ understandings of the gospel are fuel for polarization’s strange fire.
Ultimately, Nathan and Kim address the deep consequences of reductionism: reducing the gospel to just x, y or z. The gospel is not just about forgiveness of sins; the Kingdom of God is not only about signs and wonders. The authors attempt to discern the problems and consequences that emerge when something fundamentally irreducible becomes reduced to either/or binaries. That has theological as well as pastoral implications to be discerned.
Some Recommended Uses and Further Development
- Laity have, perhaps, the most to gain by learning from Both-And. For one thing, we probably come closest to the everyday phenomenon of polarization in our culture … not because pastors live culturally insular lives, but because of the distinct purpose and presence laity have in the world. My dear Vineyard pastors, please routinely address the kinds of lead-questions listed above for the sake of your congregation’s vitality and for the healthy, ‘salty’ presence of your laity in the world. It’s not enough to just affirm or maintain or even ‘preserve’ Vineyard values. Laity need to see those values and theology at work from the standpoint of their lives in their world. Maybe we need ‘polarization detox’ recovery groups? Just a thought.
- Integrate the perspective of Both-And in any pastor and laity leadership development training. In my estimation, it seems that too much of leadership development through a local church can become reduced to ‘how to’s’ … how to plant a church, lead a small group, preach and teach, pray for people’s healing … as if the service of laity is only about service in the church. But if polarization in our culture is as omnipresent as we suspect it is, I don’t see how leadership development can be immune from addressing that social-cultural problem which confronts laity in their world. Can you imagine people being trained for their specific leadership and place in God’s world in such a way so as to be peacekeepers, proclaimers and demonstrators of the Kingdom – concerned with mercy and justice, serving through their various vocations and professions? Could it be that the next move of God is catalyzed in this way? I pray toward that end.
- I encourage SVS members to ‘think with’ Both-And; to wrestle with and further develop what it seeks to address (“living a Christ-centered life in an either/or world”) by adopting its priorities and perspective (even if only for a season) and seek to integrate them as part of their own ‘scholarly projects.’ I think there is, at the very least an adequate amount of ‘meat’ in these pages for SVS members to have a sense of ‘buy-in,’ whether by virtue of the topics addressed or the perspective offered. In short, any SVS conference presenter should consider how their work contributes to the lead-questions that this book presents. Note: we should avoid a kind of disciplinary reductionism, triumphalism or tribalism – thinking that any of these questions or their answers are only ‘owned’ by one discipline (e.g., theology). For example, these questions and their answers are as much open to the purview of theology as they are philosophy. But they are also questions with a historical pedigree too and evidenced as sociological phenomenon as well. As Amos Yong would counsel, let the many ‘tongues’ of our disciplines be heard on these and related questions.
- How might we understand “polarization as a form of worldliness”? More SVS work needs to be done in this area. We need interdisciplinary understanding. How might historical biblical and extra-biblical cases of polarization illuminate conditions, dynamics, consequences of worldliness? How might the insights of sociologists and anthropologists be gained on this front (one thinks of Vineyard scholar, Christena Cleveland, especially her latest book, Disunity in Christ, in dialogue with this thesis).
- There’s an interesting ‘meta’ question lurking in the background of Both-And, which we might articulate as this: “Which ‘Both/And’”? and “Whose ‘Both/And’”? Obviously, Both-And is written from the perspective of Vineyard pastors. But non-Vineyard readers are also being addressed and benefitting from this book. So, it would be a mistake to think that only those ‘from within’ a Vineyard framework can realize the meaning and value of this book’s thesis. But why these ‘Both-And’ issues and not others? What might be some other ‘Both-And’ issues to discern and promote? How do we discern these? Are these discerned only as reactions to false either/or thinking? How might collective ‘Both-And’ thinking that addresses polarization issues help toward the advancement of a Vineyardly pastoral-moral-spiritual theology in our movement?
Bottom line: Nathan and Kim’s Both-And is ripe for further discussion among Vineyard pastors and scholars. It’s the kind of gift that keeps on giving. May more Vineyard pastors offer us such framework-shaping books, not merely for the sake of discussing and debating, but for the sake of integrating understanding and wisdom for life.
Reviewed by Joe Gorra
Joe Gorra is a grateful member of the laity at Vineyard Anaheim Church, involved with publishing developments at Biola University, and the founder and director of the religious nonprofit, Veritas Life Center, which seeks to show the relevancy of Christianity as a tradition of understanding and wisdom for living a flourishing life. Twitter: @GorraResearch.