“The Spirit of God doesn’t work where there is division, and what we want today is the spirit of unity amongst God’s children, so that the Lord may work.”D.L. Moody
I’ve never been at any risk of becoming double-jointed. When I watch my daughters do some of their gymnastics moves, it seems clear to me that if I were to bend my body like they bend theirs, I wouldn’t be able to walk afterwards. Occasionally I worry that they may be getting too flexible, but so far we are pain and injury free.
I suppose my concern comes from my background in personal training. Part of working as a personal trainer is thinking about joints. Whether it’s a knee, elbow, ankle, wrist, or shoulder, joints need to maintain a degree of stability to function properly. Barring more extreme injuries, when joints aren’t stable, one potential cause is the relative strength and/or flexibility of the muscles crossing a joint.
Joints have and need limits. The muscles surrounding them can’t be overly tight or infinitely flexible. The supporting tendons and ligaments can’t stretch forever and the bony supports for certain joins create hard stops that limit mobility. The point here is not to get caught up in an anatomy lesson, but to offer an illustration.
Joints are not unlike theological beliefs. Without sufficient mobility, a joint’s performance will be limited. Too much mobility and the anatomical pieces that make up the joint can’t hold it in place, creating friction points and weakness as the joint loses structural integrity. Theology isn’t that much different. When we are too rigid in our theological thought, we run the risk of limiting God. He becomes what we conceive Him to be and nothing more. But, theology without limits (a hyper-mobile theology) can often give the sense that theology has no boundaries or constraints when it fact, theology does have limits. There is an “out of bounds.”
Theological flexibility also has implications for our collective lives together. Too great an emphasis on flexibility and the church will become less and less distinct from the world. Too much rigidity and the world will “no longer see through our actions a patient, kind God committed to a unified body of Christ” (Thinking Christian). Christian unity is crucial because, as Dwight Moody said, “The Spirit of God doesn’t work where there is division, and what we want today is the spirit of unity amongst God’s children, so that the Lord may work.”
So, what might it look like for us to be theologically flexible without becoming double-jointed? It seems to me that there are three ways:
Remember that theology isn’t only about being right or wrong, but about building the body
In Romans 14-15, Paul talks about the sort of relationships that need to exist within the community of faith. He notes that the strong are not to cause the weak to stumble by doing something that is permissible but would “destroy the work of God.” Doing what we can doesn’t mean we are doing what we should. For theology to be flexible, we can’t just hold right positions. We must evaluate the manner in which our positions impact others. Theology isn’t only a question of right and wrong. It’s a question of building the body of Christ and being for others within the community of faith.
Develop humble strength
We contribute. We don’t dominate. When we consider how to be theologically flexible, we have to recognize that such flexibility does not mean that we surrender ourselves. It does mean that we remain humble in our strength knowing that anything we have to offer comes from God. It also means that those God has around us bring with them God’s gifts. They fill in what is lacking in our own strength. As such, we do not assume we know it all, but remain open and willing to admit that we don’t know it all.
Subject all things to God’s word
The word of God is the norming norm to which all our thoughts and positions about life and faith are evaluated. We cannot afford to read the scriptures selectively, nor do we need to make our conversations about the meaning of the biblical text contentious. We aren’t against one another. While we may agree to disagree on certain points, we are all seeking to know God more deeply. We will know him more deeply as we follow the full counsel of his word together.
Theological flexibility isn’t a matter of straying from the scriptures. It isn’t about abandoning historic creeds or doctrines. Instead, it is about understanding that the most well-crafted doctrinal statements don’t explain God fully. It means that we do our theological work with the recognition that God is vast. We do our best to render Him faithfully even as we acknowledge our inadequacy to do so fully.
JAMES SPENCER, PHD is President the D.L. Moody Center, an independent non-profit organization based in Northfield, MA, and author of Useful to God: Eight Lessons from the Life of D. L. Moody and Thinking Christian: Essays on Testimony, Accountability, and the Christian Mind.
Photo credit: Andrea Piacquadio