Thursday, December 10, 2009 | By: Zachary Bartels

This is Me Painting a Bullseye On My Head...

I have a mostly-faded bumper sticker on my 1996 Lumina, nestled in amongst the many other sun-bleached slogans (and the still new and vibrant Ted Wins sticker), that reads EMBRACE THE TENSION. I bought it from myself on Café Press.

In addition to sounding deep, this phrase ("embrace the tension") is really the center of my theology. What many have called "mystery" or "paradox," I think is better described as theological tension. And, of course, when we humans come into contact with tension, our natural response is to ask, "How can I remove it?" Whether, we're talking about a relationship, a headache, or a tug-of-war contest, we see tension as a negative, and usually we won't rest until we've done away with it.



That's why Christianity—in its truest form—is such a hard sell, particularly to Westerners who really have the corner on approaching every tension as a logical problem to be solved. Christianity, at every turn, is concerned with owning the tension present when finite beings commune with, and try to understand, an infinite God. There's tension everywhere: God is transcendent and immanent. God is fully revealed and fully concealed (thank you, Karl Barth). God is three and one. Christ is human and divine. We are justified and sinful. God elects his own and exhorts us to preach the Gospel to all people. I could go on and on.

And what happens when a very analytical Western mind (like mine) starts trying to over-categorize and over-define these tension-filled doctrines? We fall into error. Either by inappropriately emphasizing one side of the tension to the detriment of the other (see: tritheism and modalism; Arianism and docetism; antinomianism and perfectionism) or by splitting the difference, thus creating some half-baked, half-way, tensionless Christianity.

After all, while "God is three, not really one" and "God is one, not really three" are classic Trinitarian heresies, the mean approach, "God is two," is so far out there, it doesn't even have a name ("bitheism," I guess). Another example: orthodox theology understands Christ as being human and divine (meaning Christ has two wills). That's a tension. To try and resolve this tension, the Monophysites tried splitting the difference, saying that Christ was sort of a hybrid half-God, half-man. This too is a dangerous heresy with far-reaching implications, even on the atonement.

It was finally making some peace with these tensions that led me away from Dispensationalism, to an amillennial view, recognizing that the Kingdom will neither be entirely realized in this world (a la postmillennialism) nor is it entirely for the Last Day and the days after that (a la premillennialism). Rather, the Kingdom is both already and not yet (as is reflected in our praying, "Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.")

So far, so good, right? Here's where the aforementioned bullseye gets firmly applied to my cranium. I believe that this theological tension should be applied to how we define the church, who is in the church, what constitutes a true church, etc. In short, to use a dirty word, I'm talking about Christian ecumenism.

Scripture teaches us to judge others carefully by their fruit (yes, Jesus told us to judge, John 7:24) , to determine if they are truly Gospel preachers and faithful teachers, or whether they are ravenous wolves, false prophets, depositors of dangerous leaven. Jesus also prayed that his followers would be one, even as He and the Father are one (John 17). Jesus told his disciples both, "Whoever is not against us is for us" (Matthew 9:40) and, "He who is not with me is against me" (Matthew 12:30). Jesus warned that wheat and chaff would grow side-by-side until the end (Matthew 13:30), while other passages indicate that the visible church is holy, separate unto God (Acts 2:38-41, 1 John 2:19).

Again, tension abounds. And, as with the doctrine of the Trinity, an attempt to compromise by splitting the difference is an absurd non-option. As a result, many Christians just run to one extreme or the other, clinging to their favorite proof-text while ignoring their opponents' choice verses (or re-interpreting them in light of one's own presuppositions). The result is twofold.

First, there are Christians and churches who would never even begin to define what makes a Christian. Doctrine is glossed over (after all, who am I to say?). Everything is considered a non-essential preference. The passive voice abounds. Go ahead and deny the divinity of Christ, the atonement, the resurrection, whatever—we can all sort of agree on a vague "parenthood of God and siblinghood of man" idea. Whatever it takes to avoid offending the golden calf of inclusiveness. This is the kind of ecumenism I hate. The kind that marks all doctrinal differences as out-of-bounds for discussion and sweeps them under the rug.

Then, there are Christians who go to the separatist extreme. Everything becomes an essential doctrine, especially if it can, in any way, be tied to how we understand what Christ did on the cross (although the more Fundie churches will disfellowship you for the most random, outlying belief). Much like the bishops of Rome and Constantinople simultaneously excommunicating each other, you wind up with Calvinists and Arminians trading anathemas, charismatics and cessationists mocking each other from the pulpit, and believers of all stripes making an absolute mockery of Christ's high priestly prayer (which, I could argue, constitutes a kind of practical Trinitarian heresy, as we grossly misrepresent the way Christ is in the Father and the Father in Christ).

This is the basis of a song I wrote a few years ago. (Yes, I'm an amateur musician, or at least used to be, and still enjoy writing music). A couple months ago, I tried laying it down in something of a flat-note-fest, and posted it to my facebook page. A couple of my facebook "friends" sent me strongly-worded rebukes and one of them, with a click, dissolved our "friend"ship.

Yeah, it's that kind of deal. So in this, my hundredth blog post, let me blow your mind with my horrible, horrible ecumenism:


  • At a youth work camp, this past summer, while we were meeting in the sanctuary of a Catholic church, one of our kids asked if Catholics are Christians. I answered, "Yes, of course."

  • I am part of an inter-denominational clergy group comprised of ABC, PC-USA, ELCA, UMC, UCC, Episcopals, and several very socially active, predominantly African-American denominations. And I love it when we worship together.

  • I signed the Manhattan Declaration, not because I think it will do any good, but because I saw so many self-designated protectors of the Reformation getting their boxers in a bunch because the document was somehow watering down the Gospel.

  • Tent revivals and Pentecostal preaching really get me excited, as long as the cross, blood, and wrath of God are clearly preached (and they usually are).

  • I still love Billy Graham and still want to meet him before he dies.

So, I'm just a theological liberal, right? Well, consider:



  • I'm a five-point Calvinist. Every week from my pulpit, I preach total depravity, unconditional election, irresistible grace, and the perseverance of the saints. Sometimes I touch on limited atonement :).

  • I believe that, while he was defeating Satan (Heb 2:14-15) and giving us an example of how to love each other (1 John 3:16), the primary effect of the cross was that Christ bore the wrath of God in our stead.

  • I reject all "purpose-driven," seeker-oriented, man-centered approaches to the church and the Gospel.

  • I subscribe to the 2nd London Baptist Confession.

  • I believe that God created the world out of nothing and created humans as humans at the beginning of time.

  • I believe in a literal virgin birth, resurrection, and Second Coming. I believe that Jesus Christ was (and is) GOD IN THE FLESH.

  • I believe that Jonah was very literally swallowed by a whale and very literally puked onto a beach.


Tension, tension, tension. Am I trying to eat my cake and still have it? If so, I guess that's the case with the dual nature of Christ and the Trinity as well. Am I placing my brand of ecumenism on the same level of importance as these central doctrines? Of course not. But I do believe that the same theological tension is present.

I have more to say on the subject, particularly 1.) how Baptist distinctives have informed my ecumenism and my living out of same, and 2.) how I can worship with someone whose understanding of salvation differs from my own. But I shall do that in my next post. For now, the bullseye has been painted. Take your shots.

Soli Deo Gloria,
Pastor Zach

10 reader comments:

Joseph Louthan said...

Tension in theology is awesome. That is why I signed up. Theology is something you can NEVER master and as a Christian, I am suppose to be a theologian anyways. Am I right?

This post is quite wonderful. Thank you so much for sharing.

For the record, I am a 5 pointer myself, who at one time, couldn't come to grips with 4 of the points. Sanctification is a beautiful thing.

I love sharpening with Arminians so long as they are Biblical Arminians (the glory belongs completely to God and none to ourselves).

Joshua Ottinger said...

Good stuff.

Ted Kluck said...

On an ecumenically-unrelated note, that's one of your best drawings yet. Also one of your best blog posts, besides the interviews with me of course.

David Marvin said...

Great post!

Scott said...

Episcopalians introduced me to the concept of religious tension, using much the same terms you did.

I like to use the analogy of martial arts. Karate is a form of martial arts, as are boxing, wrestling, etc. You can have a self-defense festival that honors all those forms. But when you go to martial arts school, it's best to pick one form and stick with it.

Meagan Sauve said...

It's weird that that's what amounts to a metaphorical bullseye for you, because that's exactly the frame of mind that makes me want to hear/read what you say/write. Um, 7 o'clock on a Friday and my brain is fried, apologies for being inarticulate, but you get my point.

Val said...

Nice post! Do I get credit for slugging said youth group kid after he asked the question? On behalf of all my Catholic friends and family, I was completely ticked.

ZSB said...

"Ticked?" Because someone asked a question? That seems a very weird response for someone whose daily vocation involves educating children (many of whom, undoubtedly, ask stupid questions). Blame not the evangelical children who have not been catechized (especially, considering that the catechism I intend to use at Judson will have to be redacted so as not to call the Pope of Rome "the antichrist.")
You get points, instead, for bringing the Orthodox flavor to our Baptist party in your own little ways.

Val said...

Yes, ticked. I've met way too many Protestants in my life who believe or assume that Catholics aren't Christians. I'm highly annoyed by Protestants who think that anyone who is doesn't go to their particular church is going to burn.

By the way...the questions the kids ask aren't half as stupid as their parents' questions. Those are the irritating ones.

John said...

Good post, pastor Zach. I recently had lunch with our local SBC director of missions, and he told me that many would consider my views "very liberal." I was stunned, considering my theological views. But after thinking about it, I took it as a compliment.

Come write at While We Sojourn!