by David Phelps

“Do not wait for leaders; do it alone, person to person.” – Mother Teresa

February, 2015

They’re at it again. If you’ve been reading Person-2-Person for a while, you may remember the Chinese zoo in the People’s Park of Luhoe, in the central province of Henan, that replaced the lion with a dog, a Tibetan Mastiff (October, 2013). This time, a touring circus in Italy tried to trick school children in the northern town of Brescia, near Milan, into thinking dogs were panda cubs. The circus charged to see the phony “pandas,” and parents paid so their children could have their pictures taken with them.

The dogs, chow chow puppies, were spray-painted black and white to look like pandas. A spokesman for the circus said they hadn’t been trying to trick anyone. He said “It’s obvious they are dogs.” The authorities weren’t satisfied and the owners of the circus faced criminal charges. Police opened an investigation into mistreatment of the dogs and fraud.

It may have been “obvious” to the circus owners that the animals were dogs but it clearly wasn’t to the children who got their pictures taken with them. Just like last time, it’s a doggone shame. (Let me know when you’re done groaning.)

Back then, I wrote about whether or not we were genuine: “Are we the real thing or do we just look like the real thing?” But there’s some confusion as to just what “the real thing” is. There are major divisions in Christianity today and many people believe that only those who agree with them are “real” Christians. Unfortunately, this is nothing new: It’s been going on for centuries and I’m as guilty as anyone else.

But we desperately need to look toward the things that unite us rather than the things that divide us. There will always be divisions. The church hasn’t always accepted them though. Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth, “. . . I hear that when you come together as a church, there are divisions among you, and to some extent I believe it. No doubt there have to be differences among you to show which of you have God's approval.” (1 Cor. 11:18b-19 NIV).

In Paul’s world, those who disagreed (with basic Christian teaching and with him) were clearly not genuine and didn’t “have God’s approval.” And in Paul’s mind, his approval and God’s approval were the same thing. We do that today but—at the risk of sounding heretical—we should know better. The Latin phrase “In necessariis unitas, in dubiis libertas, in omnibus caritas,” which means in English “Unity in necessary things; liberty in doubtful things; charity in all things,” is attributed to Marco Antonio de Dominis, Archbishop of Split. It is this phrase—along with Jesus’ exhortation to the disciples that “whoever is not against us is for us.” (Mark 9:40 NIV)—that defines our relationship with other Christians today.

In some circles, Christians are known for who and what they hate. Personally, I’d rather be known for who we love. I’d like to think Paul would agree. All who confess Jesus as Lord and follow the Great Commandment are one in Christ. “Jesus replied: ‘“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”’” (Matt. 22:37-39 NIV). We may disagree on peripheral—or even central—issues but this is what unites and defines us as disciples.

There may be differences regarding baptism, interpretation of Scripture, or social or political issues but I believe these things are less central than we sometimes think. Christ is central. Doctrines can’t save souls or transform the world but Christ can. It isn’t what we believe about peripheral issues that matters but how well we follow Christ and how well we serve God’s people. This is how others can know that we “have God’s approval.”

“‘Master,’ said John, ‘we saw a man driving out demons in your name and we tried to stop him, because he is not one of us.’
“‘Do not stop him,’ Jesus said, ‘for whoever is not against you is for you.’” (Luke 9:49-50 NIV.)

Copyright © 2015 by David Phelps