Shades of Gray: Pursuing the Radical Center

By Ben Cachiaras

If you want people to buy your book, read your blog, or retweet your thoughts, try to say something extreme. To be considered edgy, you must sit on the edge. Take a bold stance that sounds radical. To accomplish this, do your best to cleverly discredit the opposing view so as to create a clear divide between its inferiority and your brilliant, better way.

06_Cachiaras_MT_JN2Newspeople understand this. That’s why our screens are often filled with controversial “experts” from polarized positions who appear in little boxes like they’re on Hollywood Squares. Via satellite feed, they take turns talking over each other with pithy sound bites and zingers. Environment. Immigration. Race. Politics. Sports. Faith. Pick a side and stick to your guns.

True confession: Sometimes I listen to Fox News. And sometimes I listen to National Public Radio. And sometimes I agree with things on both stations. Is it possible there is something to be gained from each?

Years ago a well-known conservative Christian college president suggested that a good way to address the rise of homosexuality would be to stone such folks, “like it says in the Bible.”

About the same time a Christian leader from a more liberal camp said it was time to stop looking to the Bible for how to deal with this kind of thing and that we needed to start loving people instead of worrying about their sex lives.

Then came the labels: conservative nut-job and liberal wacko. I remember thinking, these can’t be the only two Christian positions out there on the subject! I found myself wanting to agree with parts of what each was saying. I think we should pay attention to the Bible AND we should love people.

Do you ever find yourself asking, “Isn’t there a third position? A middle path? A better way?”

There is a new breed of Christian leader rising today. We are fed up with simplistic answers in a complex world. We accept clarity where it exists, but refuse to pretend that everything is as “black and white” as some say. Shades of gray have always made some Christians nervous. But, very often, the middle gray area is good, a place where God’s truth lives. And I believe history has demonstrated that thinkers and practitioners who understand the importance of living out of this tension are better shepherds and leaders. And they are the ones we want shaping the church.

I was whitewater rafting with friends on a class IV river (think hairy and scary). We had to sit on the edges of the raft to paddle our guts out much of the time. But when we came to threatening rapids, everyone knew to lean toward the center. The one time I didn’t, I got pitched out of the boat.

Christ followers are in rough waters these days. There are times to stay on the edge and keep paddling. But there are times when it’s important to lean to the center. If we don’t, we will be pitched out, discounted, ignored. Most importantly, we’ll miss out on the truth.

Move to the Middle

Ironically, in a world of polarized extremes, the most radical and difficult position you can take today isn’t pumping your fist for one extreme or the other, but moving to the middle to shake hands in the “radical center,” embracing the truth on both sides of an issue.

I believe it’s critical for Christian leaders to embrace the powerful genius of the “AND.” A mature reflection on the tensions within Scripture can help us get over our apparent aversion to paradox.

Think about Jesus. His message of good news has some strong either/or elements. You either trust and obey or you don’t. Either Jesus is Lord or he isn’t.

But look closely and you also see both/and lacing its way through his life. Both fully God and fully human. The kingdom he embodied was here right now and it will come in full later.

If we take our cues for ministry from Jesus, will we be concerned with teaching believers, preaching to unbelievers, or doing ministry in the world? The answer is yes (Matthew 4:23). Some build ministries around large gatherings. Others say no, it’s all about small groups. Jesus did both. Ignoring one or the other leaves out something important.

The Stone-Campbell Movement began with a strong rational component, as seen in the writings and debates of the Campbells, and the more experiential heart-religion associated with Stone and the camp meetings. Through the years, when we’ve been at our best we’ve made room for both. Too often we’ve leaned over to one side and fallen into the rapids.

To embrace the and by seizing the middle way is not the same as being wishy-washy or weak. It’s not about compromise or splitting the difference on a spectrum so we land in soulless centrism. I’m talking about clinging to the truth—even if you find parts of it at opposing extremes. I have found that doing so often stretches our arms so wide it can feel like we’re being crucified.

Protect Our Witness

This is a really big deal. The effectiveness of Christ’s witness depends on our ability to get this right.

Historically, we are pendulum swingers. About the time things swing out one way, we find the pendulum inevitably swings back in the other direction. Like Newton’s Third Law of Motion, for Christians it seems every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Every reformation, including the one in the 19th century, is about swinging the pendulum back the other direction. But the momentum can throw you clear off—where you can be ignored and forgotten.

Rigid fundamentalism rose up in reaction to modernity and fears of liberalism. But now it is weak and waning, having lost its voice in a culture that discounts it. The liberalism of recent decades has jettisoned too much of historic Christianity and lost its relevance as well. There are aspects of so-called fundamentalism and liberalism we would do well to leave aside.

But if conservative means conserving and preserving crucial things, clinging to a high and authoritative view of Scripture . . . and if liberal means being broad-minded and generous, willing to embrace reform when the Spirit indicates change is necessary—then I want to be conservative and liberal. Don’t you?

The truth can’t always be stuffed into the old, simplistic categories. The culture war plays out differently when we build bridges rather than drive wedges. The via media is unafraid to land where Jesus throws us, and therefore shows humility and grace, all for the sake of Jesus’ mission.

I have a Pentecostal friend who talks as though what’s most important is a personal relationship with Jesus and Holy Spirit-filled worship that touches the heart. My Episcopal friend says we have a corporate faith and the intellect is as important as the heart. Isn’t it time we figure out asking “who’s right” is the wrong question?

When Christians get polarized, the church becomes paralyzed. Debates can be healthy, but division dilutes our mission. We need leaders who won’t be backed into a corner where they are told they must decide between two supposedly opposing choices. Perpetuating the myth of false dichotomies is trendier. And it’s far easier. But it mutes our message and misguides our methods. And we’re paying a big price.

Which Is Better?

Each of the following poses a choice. What do you think?

• Is it better to be “missional,” telling our people how important it is to scatter and go live as missionaries every single day because it’s vital to be the church outside the walls of our church buildings? Or is it better to be “attractional,” telling our people how important it is to gather for powerful times of worship, feeding, teaching, fellowship, and encouragement?

• Should we focus on “evangelism”—being a place that really cares about lost people and connecting them to Jesus for the first time? Or should we focus on “discipleship” that helps followers go further and deeper on the way of maturity with Christ?

• In our worship gatherings, is it important to have a sense of reverent awe before a holy and transcendent God—or to have a sense of intimacy and closeness before an approachable, personal, and immanent God?

• Should the good news be advanced through the Word by preaching, proclamation, and verbal witness—or through deeds, putting Christian love in action through service and social engagement?

• Should the church today be historic, tethered to ancient truths—or contemporary, connected to where people live today?

• Should our Christian communities make room for deep thinkers who skeptically analyze things with their intellect—or should we be home to feelers who process more emotionally from the heart?

• Do you think it’s more important to be relevant to the culture you’re trying to reach—or countercultural, so you have something to offer?

• Should we hold that believers make real choices and are responsible for how they exercise their free willor that when you’re saved you’re secure and don’t need to worry about Satan snatching you away from Jesus?

• In our ministry, is it most important to pay attention to people’s spiritual needsor to their emotional and physical needs?

• Should we tell our people and church staffs to work hard, pouring themselves out like a drink offering—or to practice rhythms of rest and refreshment, so they are working hard and resting well?

• Should Christ followers connect with other believers to be built up—or with people far from God to reach out?

• For the greatest impact, should we invest in church plantingor try multisite?

• Should we always be marked by truth—or grace?

• Should we strive to penetrate the world’s darkest places—or strive to be pure enough to stand apart?

• Should we make an impact globally through missions around the world—or should we focus on transformation close to home in our own backyard?

• Should we work on having a strong elder team mature and united to protect the vision—or strong staff who are capable and competent to lead the ministry?

Well, which is it?

The answer to every single one is a resounding YES!

Our world is increasingly polarized and vitriolic. We are shouting louder, listening less, and divided more deeply than ever. How sad when Christians play the same game.

Embrace the “And”

It’s time to pursue the radical center. Embrace the “and.”

Some don’t like tension. It’s easier to ignore half of the truth, pretending the simplistic black-and-white, either/or categories hold.

But the string on a crossbow needs to be attached firmly on both ends. Struggling to accomplish that allows your arrow to fly much farther. I believe Jesus wants the arrow of his mission to go far and fast. But that can’t happen without the tension.

Ben Cachiaras serves as senior pastor with Mountain Christian Church in Joppa, Maryland. He is also a Christian Standard contributing editor and a member of the Publishing Committee.

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Read the sidebar, “Voices from the Middle.”

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2 Comments

  1. Lyndsay Jacobs
    June 21, 2015 at 3:44 am

    Thank you Mark & Ben. Very helpful indeed. Blessings

  2. Dean Kennedy
    June 21, 2015 at 11:52 am

    Well said, Pastor Cachiaras!

    The middle-of-the-roader is often derided as “too wishy-washy to take a stand.” And being able to see both sides of an issue is more often seen as a weakness than a strength. But I freely choose to describe myself as a militant middle-0f-the-roader. Not primarily because it is “safe” or “balanced,” (though it may be both of those things) but because it is biblical.

    One of the symptoms of polarized thinking in churches is factionalism within the body. Could the Apostle Paul possibly have been any clearer when he wrote, “I appeal to you, brothers, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another so that there may be no divisions among you and that you may be perfectly united in mind and thought.”? (1 Corinthians 1:10). Yet despite this clear biblical statement, church people too often follow the pattern common in secular politics, forming contentious coalitions in order to win majorities instead of spending the effort to discover solutions that everybody can support. They often fail to see that any decision or action, no matter how good, may and probably will have at least some downside (if we cured cancer, what would happen to all the doctors who are no longer needed?), and no matter how bad, may have some upside (a catastrophic hurricane is a great thing for those in the home repair industry). The challenge is to realistically face all of the advantages and disadvantages of every decision, and, beyond that, to factor in the importance of peace within the body (it is usually better to win one’s brother than it is to win the battle), and to find the decision that the whole church can stand behind. This decision will typically be somewhere in the middle, not at one extreme or the other. You are spot-on in your analysis.

    Dean Kennedy

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