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“Bridge the Gap”: Charitable Theology in the 21st Century

By Brandt Montgomery

In his sermon to the Episcopal Church’s 80th General Convention, Presiding Bishop Michael Curry noted statistics from a commissioned opinion poll aimed at discovering what people thought about Jesus and modern-day Christians. Curry said that the poll was conducted amongst an array of people spanning different religious, political, social, and economic backgrounds. When it came to the Person of Jesus, 84% of respondents viewed him as “an important religious figure still worth listening to.” Regarding practicing Christians, the statistics are alarming. 50% of non-Christian respondents said they viewed Christians as being hypocrites; 49% said they were judgmental; 46% viewed Christians as being self-righteous; and 32% percent said that Christians were arrogant. But the most alarming statistic was that nearly half of those polled said they believed racism is prevalent amongst active Christians. As Curry said, “There is a gap between Jesus and His followers.”

Given these statistics, why should we keep evangelizing? Because 84% of that poll’s respondents believed that Jesus is still worth listening to, that’s why. For many in this world, there is something about Jesus to which they find themselves being drawn. God’s Holy Spirit is still at work. God is still in the business of redemption.

God’s continuing work of redemption in Jesus requires us to be hearers and doers of the Word (James 1:22). This makes Christian theology something we not only profess but also something that represents how we believe God functions in the world through our actions. If we believe that God is love and that we should love one another as God loves us, then why are we perceived as hypocritical, judgmental, self-righteous, arrogant, and even racist? Because there are pockets throughout the church in which one or more of these views are unfortunately present. This is a truth not unique to these times (though they have certainly amplified it). Sin has caused theology to become a weapon used against one another. Charity in our theological talk has been lost in segments of Christianity. The lack of charity has produced a gap between Jesus and his followers.[1]

Clair McPherson says that the reason we should take theology seriously is because of the times in which we live. The hypocrisy, judgment, self-righteousness, arrogance, and racism non-Christians think about us have caused the Church to face a host of questions regarding its relevancy in modern society. Theology helps us discern our answers to these challenges. The times in which we live call for deep theological thought, being, to quote Michael Ramsey, “the irritant that produces the pearl,” bringing greater awareness of God’s continuing involvement with us.[2]

One way of shutting the gap between Jesus and his followers is to return to an understanding of theology as a humble striving to know God and reflect his will for us in the world. Humility involves accepting that our words about God, no matter how correct they might be, cannot completely describe God’s goodness and majesty. “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the LORD” (Isa. 55:8). But what we do know is that God yearns to be with us. God’s grace gives us the courage to strive to live the way Jesus teaches so that all will know, from us being his disciples, that God is perfect good and the whole truth.[3]

Paul reminds us that “we do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s” (Rom. 14:7-8). This requires us to confront all the hypocritical, judgmental, self-righteous, arrogant, and racist tendencies within ourselves and from others and recognizing our fellow human beings as equal society members, despite their own differences. We are not to judge or exclude because of how we will one day be accountable to God (Rom. 14:12). Christ’s cross renders every premature judgment superfluous and increases the importance of mutual flourishing between one and the other.

The Christian life we commit ourselves to living should be the church’s theology in practice. We should be active images of the total giving of oneself over to the love and will of Jesus. The concluding collect from the 1928 Ordination Rite really homes in on this point, asking for God’s Word that will be spoken from the mouths of the newly ordained to have much success. “Grant also,” the bishop prays, “that we may have grace to hear and receive what they shall deliver out of thy most holy Word…as the means of our salvation; that in all our words and deeds we may seek thy glory, and the increase of thy kingdom.”[4]

As 21st century Christians, we must demonstrate for the church and those still seeking after the truth charitable theology. Charitable theology is our engaging of differing theological viewpoints in ways that respect the dignity of their human advocates. A charitable theologian does not view those with opposing views with contempt. Instead, she wants to better understand their experience and seek common ground through the theological tenets they can affirm. In this is seen the need for all within the Christian community to have genuine concern for others. With that comes a willingness to see the good in each other and to not let our disagreements tear us apart.

Though such theological engagement is respectful, it should not be taken to mean total acceptance of any and everything. There is still criticism of ideas, but in a way meant to build up, better understand, and sustain unity, not to tear down and destroy. Yes, there are things on which we may never agree, but we can still learn something from someone different when our common aim is God. Charitable theology is committed to maintaining relationship across divisional lines to the greatest possible extent. When we say that we “are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28) and there is “one God and Father of us all” (Eph. 4:6), we are acknowledging Jesus to be the foundation of our unity as the church. By humbling ourselves before God, things better than we can ask or imagine can come to pass through and among us (cf. Eph. 3:20).

Charitable theology comes from time spent with God in prayer and study. As Ramsey says

The daily time of being quietly with God becomes “adoration.” And because you are with him and near him whose Name is Love you will have the people you care for on your heart. In this way adoration turns into “intercession,” the bringing of people and needs and sorrows and joys and causes into the stream of the divine love. Be with God…with the people on your heart…It is like Aaron of old who went into the holy of holies wearing a breastplate with jewels representing the tribes of Israel whose priest he was: he went near God with the people on his heart.[5]

We need each other and all of us need God. We share a bond through our profession of Jesus Christ died, risen, and coming again. Jesus calls us to work together in confessing this faith, loving and welcoming others in this faith. Charitable theology bridges the gap through our intentional reconciliation with each other, in turn making our witness of Christ in these times effective. John urges us to “love one another, because love is from God” (1 Jn. 4:7). If we let God transform us, his love will make us through time become less hypocritical, judgmental, self-righteous, arrogant, and racist. By this will those seeking after the truth see us and gain the courage to themselves come to God, who is perfect good and the truth.

[1] See Uche Anizor, How to Read Theology: Engaging Doctrine Critically & Charitably (Baker Academic, 2018).

[2] C. W. McPherson, Understanding Faith: An Exploration of Christian Theology (Morehouse, 1998), 2-3; Michael Ramsey, The Christian Priest Today (SPCK, 1982), 6-7.

[3] Allen K. Shin and Larry R. Benfield, ed., Realizing Beloved Community: Report from the House of Bishops Theology Committee (Church Publishing Incorporated, 2022), p. 13.

[4] “The Form and Manner of Ordering Priests,” The Book of Common Prayer (1928), p. 547.

[5] Ramsey, The Christian Priest Today, p. 15.


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