Bridges or walls

I hear a lot about being bridge or wall builders. In essence, are you somebody you tries to reach across to people with whom you might disagree or are you somebody who erects walls to keep yourself from those with whom you might disagree. The idea is close to asking, are you a peacemaker who reaches out beyond your tribe or a defensively tribal sort of person.

I get why people want to ask these sorts of questions. It’s easy for Evangelical Christians to get in touch with their fundamentalist side. It is easy to see the absolute seriousness of the gospel, and the doctrines that underpin it, and rightly want to defend them. If these are the words of eternal life, we have no business messing around with them and we certainly don’t want to stand for people encouraging folks to disregard them. We don’t want to stand around doing and saying nothing while people are led astray.

But because of that impulse – a perfectly right impulse on some level – we are not beyond being seen as aggressive, defensive and tribal. And, of course, we all think we only ever get like this on questions and doctrines that truly matter. But, equally of course, we would think that what we believe matters are the actual things that matter that much. So, when we go to town on another believer for departing from the truth, we only see ourselves as defending vitally important doctrine. But they obviously disagree and see it as, at best, a secondary matter over which we can disagree without starting a civil war.

Let’s be honest, no fundamentalist ever really thinks of themselves as being unreasonable or defending matters of tertiary importance. It is just that for the fundamentalist, there are no matters of tertiary importance. Everything is a first order issue. By the same token, no liberal ever thinks of themselves as being compromised and woolly, giving in on matters of primary importance. It is just that for the liberal, nothing is a first order issue. Though increasingly, they do hold first order views, they just happen to land in very different places on those particular questions. But make no mistake, the days when they had no first order issues are gone – they tally very closely to Western cultural non-negotiables.

But what are we to do with the bridges and walls language? Should we be bridge or wall builders? I think the question of whether you are a wall or bridge builder is an unhelpful one for several reasons.

First, for the obvious reason that sometimes it is totally appropriate to build a bridge and other times it is more appropriate to build a wall. Neither bridges nor walls are inherently wrong or sinful. The issue is whether we are using them appropriately and building them in the right places. My garden does not need a bridge. My neighbours are better served by walls (or fences) to mark its boundary. My local river, by contrast, is a great place to build a bridge. My neighbours might want to cross from one side to another and a wall won’t let you do it. Sometimes, it is right to reach across a divide to another person or group. At other times, we need to draw a wall around something and say such people are not coming in. Walls and bridges are both appropriate at different times.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the walls and bridges aren’t really ours to build anyway. As Christian people, we look to the master builder for his plans. He determines where bridges might be appropriate and where walls might be needed. And make no mistake, there are clear examples in the Bible of reaching across a divide – so that must be right sometimes – and also walling ourselves off, which must be appropriate sometimes too.

The fact is, whether you consider yourself a bridge or wall builder (or you look and think someone else is one or the other), the walls and bridges aren’t really ours to build. Jesus tells us to have nothing to do with false teachers, for example. That has the ring of a fairly hard wall. But we are also told that we are to engage with the world as people who live in the world. That sounds more bridge-y, doesn’t it? In the church, we are told not even to eat with certain people who claim to be believers but whose lifestyles show they are not following Jesus. Hard wall. But Jesus himself ate with tax collectors and sinners, who knew they were tax collectors and sinners, apparently building bridges for the gospel. Sometimes we build bridges, sometimes we build walls. But the point is that we don’t decide when and where to do that ourselves. It is scripture that determines where the bridges and walls ought to be built.

It is neither always right to build bridges nor always wrong to build walls. But we ultimately work out which to do by looking in the scriptures. Jesus determines whether this issue is one to reach across or if it is one that requires us to protect something precious. Those lads who are always fighting for the cause of truth have cottoned onto the fact that scripture calls us to guard what Christ has given to us. Those lads who are always reaching out to people who seem to want to do things that will damage the church have cottoned onto the fact that we live in a fallen world and must be in it to win it. Neither of them can always be right, both of them are not always wrong. It’s just that sometimes we need bridges and other times we need walls.