Back when I was the Herald-Leader’s religion reporter, I was writing one of my periodic roundup stories.
I don’t remember the topic — it could have been anything from trends in church attendance to tenets regarding divorce — but I was calling clergy from various denominations and faiths to sample their groups’ views.
I asked the Rev. Ted Sisk, then the senior pastor of Lexington’s Immanuel Baptist Church, what Baptists thought about the subject at hand. (Sisk passed away in 2017.)
It was difficult to generalize, he replied. He could tell me his opinion, but he couldn’t speak on behalf of his brothers and sisters.
There were all kinds of Baptists who thought all kinds of things, he explained. There were conservative Baptists and moderate Baptists. There were charismatic Baptists. There were black Baptists and white Baptists. There were Baptists from up north and there were Southern Baptists.
Baptists, he pointed out, were not a single-minded mass of automatons. There were about as many opinions as there were church members.
His response has stuck with me. I’ve interviewed thousands of people who’ve told me innumerable things, the vast preponderance of which I’ve forgotten (both the folks and what they said, unfortunately).
But I remember what Sisk said. I remember it because it’s so true. It’s true not only of Baptists, but of Christians of every stripe.
I imagine it’s equally true of Muslims, Jews, Buddhists, Hindus and atheists, but I’m not as familiar with them as I am with Christians.
I recall Sisk’s observation almost every time I read a news article about the interplay of religion and politics. By necessity, if not ignorance, reporters frequently refer to “Christians” or “evangelicals” as if they’re a unified mass.
I understand that. There are 2 billion Christians in the world, so if you’re writing a short news story you can’t possibly delineate the variations, quirks and complexities of each of those myriad humans.
But it’s good as we read to always keep in mind that the church is multi-varied, multicolored, international. It’s organic and, ultimately, individual.
No two Christians are exactly alike, much less any two congregations, much less any two denominations, much less all of Christendom.
Last month, I wrote about Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg, who’s gotten a lot of ink after declaring himself a dedicated Christian. Among other things, he also supports legalized abortion and is married to a man.
I received several irate responses from readers who declared in graphic terms that Buttigieg couldn’t be a true Christian because he’s gay.
(Oddly, given the usual rhetoric of the culture wars, surprisingly few of my correspondents criticized his support for Roe v. Wade.)
I pointed out in my column, however, that while conservative Christians might not think a fellow Christian can be gay or pro-choice or in favor of a strong national social-safety net, there are millions of progressive Christians who would disagree in the strongest possible terms.
They love Jesus as much as their conservative counterparts do. They study their Bibles, too. They happen to read those Bibles using a different theological paradigm and thus draw different conclusions.
Indeed, I’ve run into progressives who don’t believe conservatives are real Christians.
Suspicion goes both ways, I guess.
The differences among Christians aren’t all about politics.
Again, as Sisk said, it’s hard to generalize, but I’ve noticed that on certain issues black Christians tend to understand their faith differently than white Christians do.
There are Catholic Christians and Orthodox Christians. There are Christians who believe in predestination and Christians who believe in free will.
There are Christians who sprinkle and those who immerse. Christians in robes and miters and Christians in cutoff jeans and biker vests.
There are Christians who believe in social action, Christians who focus on individual salvation and Christians who seek a middle ground between the two.
There are Christians who go off to a monastery, devote themselves to prayer and avoid interactions with outsiders. There are Christians who can’t wait to find the nearest Super Bowl, throw themselves among the crowd and try to convert everybody.
There are Christians with Ph.D.’s and Christians who are illiterate.
There are Christians who horde money and Christians who’ve given every dime to the poor.
Scandinavian Christians, Chinese Christians, Chilean Christians.
You know what? This diversity isn’t something to loath. It’s something to celebrate.
Once I heard a preacher named Dan Stone say God knew that not everybody would like oranges, so he also made bananas. But he knew not everybody would like bananas, so he made apples. And grapes. And pears. And figs.
His point was that God, in his love and grace, made something for everybody and everybody for something.
St. Paul put it like this: There’s one Spirit, but a variety of effects.
Our differences remind us nobody has a corner on the truth, nobody has mastered everything there is to know about God. We’ve all got a little glimpse of who he is, but nobody sees the entirety.
If nothing else, his church, his body, all of us who consider ourselves made in his image — taken together reflect how big and creative and open-minded he must be.