Faith’s a lot more than passing a test

Photo: Ben Mullins, Unsplash.

I repeatedly tell my students that I am more interested in who they are becoming than how they do on exams.

Getting straight A’s tells us nothing about the most important parts of who we are. An A on an exam reveals that a student can memorize the concepts of sociology, but it says nothing about whether they are learning the principles that can help them negotiate life’s challenges. 

The longer I pastored, the more I realized that too often the church had become all about getting an A on the exam. 

It was especially important that the pastor ace the test. In our polarized context, every sermon is an exam. And fewer people are signing up for the job of taking a test in front of a congregation every Sunday morning.

Prior to the progression of Parkinson’s disease, I used to be asked to help organizations or churches negotiate the minefield of doctrinal statements and differences in belief that divide us. 

History has shown that when we try to judge each other’s faithfulness by whether we pass the test on measures of belief, we will continue to fracture. Anabaptists have been especially vigilant in judging and testing.

And so, while the fad in missional circles is “multiplication,” we just keep dividing. We teach multiplication but live division. It’s easier than teaching love, and it pays consultants a lot more.

One organization asked me to assist in developing a statement of belief to ensure that all staff were on the same page theologically. My response was that I never begin a consulting project with what we believe. I begin with “Who has God called us to be?” and “What is the mission God calls us to join?” The organization agreed.

But when I got the invitation to the initial meeting, it was still focused on developing a belief statement. 

Why? Because we can (apparently) quantify and measure belief. It is much more difficult to tell whether one is becoming one of those whom Jesus says in Matthew 5 will see the kingdom. It’s much more difficult to measure whether we are loving God and neighbor than whether we are keeping the Ten Commandments.

Besides, who among us really wants to be one of those kingdom “see-ers” — the meek, the mourners, those who are just children or who are persecuted (sometimes more by the church than by the world)? 

It is easier to put together an exam about the Ten Commandments than the Beatitudes. But I suspect that if we focused on these words of Jesus, we might do less dividing. 

At the end of the service to celebrate the ministry from which Heidi and I retired, a person who had concerns about what I believed approached me and said that, despite our differences, he had repeatedly heard me call for all of us to practice a life with God and that I had always preached about Jesus. 

He said, “I think that if a life with God and walking with Jesus are our focus, we will all get to the same place.” 

One of the things I most appreciated about my journey over the past year with theologian Walter Brueggemann (as I wrote his biography) was learning about the history of the German Evangelical Pietist tradition out of which he emerged. 

This expression of Christian faith was formed by the late 18th–century Prussian Union of Calvinists and -Lutherans, who had tired of quarreling (an understatement) over creeds and catechisms. 

German Evangelical Pietism accepted the catechisms of both groups, saying that where those statements differed, they would rely on Scripture. But in doing so they were committed to “in essentials unity, in nonessentials liberty, and in all things charity.” It was a beautiful, neighborly and biblical expression of Christianity.

And it needs no consultants. It needs no statements of belief. It only requires a responsive heart to the One who showed up with tiny hands and reached out to our hearts rather than handing down stone tablets for us to create a multiple-choice exam. 

Given the way the first approach had worked, God tried the second. Coming not with fire, God came in water. Coming not with words of judgment, God came speechless. Coming not with the law, God came with love.

That is what I want my students to know. No exam can measure whether they are getting it. But I will keep preaching it to them, without fear that they are testing my beliefs.  

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