Subsets of Christianity.

You don’t need to speak overtly about religion in order to get a message across.—- Fred Rogers

There have been times as an adult that I’ve watched Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood alone, with no kids, because I needed to feel seen.  As a college student, the show bothered me.  I felt like Mr. Rogers was talking just to me, and I found it unnerving.  I understand now that his transparency and sincerity seemed false, because I didn’t believe it could possibly be real.  After becoming Presbyterian myself, I wasn’t the least bit surprised to learn that Mr. Rogers was too.  

Growing up as a Church of Christ kid, I was taught to say I was “Christian” when anyone asked me what denomination I belonged to.  It was very important that the focus be on being Christian first.  A name might take away from that and bring attention to people over Jesus.  Like any idea, there are both pros and cons to this.  First, identifying as Christian does highlight Christ, but in doing this, all other identifiers are left out.  Next, the community of believers at large is referenced in the name “Christian”, but what does Christian actually mean?  I can guarantee you that the Christian I am now is not Christian enough to many who claimed me prior.  The absence of names provides camouflage, and you’re able to hide what you really believe and what you really believe about others.  The ambiguity of “Christian” can lead one to feel good things or negative things, depending on previous experiences.  Calling yourself a “Christian” says everything and nothing at all.  

As a teenager, I used to wonder at my classmates who readily identified as Catholic, Lutheran, Methodist, and Baptist.  I heard them talk about themselves like subsets in a set.  I admit, I envied them a bit.  I never felt that connection to my church.  There were moments I felt proud, but even then, there wasn’t a name.  “Christian” wasn’t the right adjective.  They were Christian, but they weren’t exactly like me.  I was Christian and I wasn’t just like them.  In my own church’s attempt to be non-denominational they created a denomination with no name and no way for a young person like myself to express the subset I belonged to.  If we were the right kind of “Christian” like so many adults had told me, then why were we not confident enough to claim a name as everyone else did?  On the other hand, why were we so confident that we felt we could claim the entire set, as if we decided what that set included?

As I’ve shared before, Churches of Christ are autonomous units.  Each congregation is different and subject to its own rules and guidelines, though there are some relatively consistent traits.  Churches of Christ usually do not use instruments and are complementarian with a greater focus on the New Testament over the Old and a general belief in their primacy.  In one church, clapping may be allowed.  At another, clapping is the use of a percussion instrument and must not happen.  In others, women teach bible class up to youth group age, while others allow women to teach only nursery school. In the latter, boys that have been baptized are considered men, therefore women are no longer allowed to teach them.  I’ve seen Church of Christ preachers who have been divorced, and I’ve seen preachers lose their jobs because of getting divorced.  Some churches welcome women praying, and some ask that even girls in youth groups remain silent.  In an effort to respect individuality, Churches of Christ leave a great deal of confusion in their wake.  Unless you’ve grown up in them, they look like they never really know who they are, what they believe, or what they expect, but you can assume they believe they’re being the right Christians.  Since there are no true, permanent characteristics, Churches of Christ give themselves authority to judge others while not really judging themselves.  When you don’t have rules, what do you follow?

I know the answer I would be given to that last question.  The bible has the rules.  We follow the bible.  Churches of Christ pride themselves on a scriptural focus.  Kids raised in these churches often know bible verses by heart, can recite the books of the bible in order, some even down to identifying minor prophets versus major prophets.  We’re taught to use the bible to guide us, but we’re not taught that the bible might guide us to say our church is wrong.  Even if you believe the bible is infallible, you have to consider that there are things in our modern day not mentioned in the bible.  It doesn’t have all the answers.  We as Christians interpret events from an entirely different time, place, and culture and try to apply them to our lives now.  In the bible there is slavery, women considered unclean during their menstrual cycles, animal abuse, child abuse, references to dragons and a unicorn, among others.  These are all things that currently we frown on or we dismiss.  Unicorns are considered mythical and dragons are from stories.  Typically, no one questions whether it’s wrong to beat your child or your pet.  Women regularly go about their days on their periods and slavery is highly problematic.  If I followed the bible as if it were truly inerrant, I’d need to sleep in a hut outside my house every month.  Suggesting that we need no rules because the bible has them all is just a ruse for plausible deniability, whether intentional or not.     

I prefer having a name.  This may not be what others want.  “Christian” may be all they need, and that’s ok.  For me, I need to know what subset I belong to and what traits make it that subset.  I wasn’t surprised that Mr. Rogers was Presbyterian, because Presbyterian means something.  When I was looking for churches, I began to look at what each subset of Christian believed.  I knew from studying the PCUSA’s website that social justice is a tenet of the church.  I could expect a general belief in supporting gun control, supporting full inclusion, and advocating against capital punishment.  In addition, the PCUSA acknowledges that reproductive healthcare isn’t mentioned in the bible, therefore the answers regarding abortion are not clear and subject to interpretation.  The general assembly  “challenges the faithful to exercise their moral agency responsibly”.  

The PCUSA considers its progress “slow”, which I find laughable given my religious background, but I appreciate this humbleness.  This self-reflection indicates an understanding that the church has failed and in some ways, continues to do so, and will in the future.  I grew up believing women couldn’t be elders, yet the PCUSA allowed female elders almost a century ago and female pastors well before my birth.  People of color were in positions of leadership in the General Assembly before the Voting Rights Act was passed and the church was fighting for the civil rights of the LGBTQ community in the 1980s, around the time that I learned in church that fag had more than one meaning.  I’m aware that the church I now belong to has a storied history of harm.  I don’t mean to disregard the damage it has done.  I do want to show the contrast between a church that does not hide its beliefs and a church that hides behind the bible.  I wish the bible were enough.  If it was, there would only be one set and “Christian” would mean something more than it does.

Of course Mr. Rogers put his feet in a kiddie pool with a black man on national television in 1969.  Of course one of his staff was gay and he saw it as a problem of pragmatism, not of morality, recognizing that parents were not ready to embrace something they didn’t understand.  Of course he believed children needed to be nurtured and loved, to be given a voice.  Of course he took his marriage vows seriously.  Of course he studied other religions.  Of course he got angry and sad about the world and the things happening in it.  Of course he didn’t want being Presbyterian to be only what people remembered about him.  Of course, his message was clear.  I know that Mr. Rogers isn’t for others what he is for me.  He is human, therefore he hurt people.  There is no way he didn’t.  It’s possible that the man with the cardigan who made me feel like even adults struggled to tie their shoes (and they do, which I had no idea as a kid) is just a persona for television. I’ve never met the real Mr. Rogers, but maybe I have. For me, I watch him now, and I understand why we belong to the same subset.  Just like Mr. Rogers, I don’t want my church affiliation to be my only identity, nor do I want it to draw attention away from Jesus, but I’m grateful to those leaders willing to take the risk to categorize what the subset of PCUSA looks like.  It takes great responsibility and trust in the Holy Spirit to make decisions and speak on behalf of thousands of people where the bible is silent.  Because those leaders have, I know my name, and I know what that name means.

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