Over the years, my friend has been a church hopper, but not because of perpetual dissatisfaction. He was in church the first Sunday after his birth. His father, during my friend’s first 18 years, pastured four different churches in three different states. As a college student, my friend visited various churches as well as touring three different summers with small musical groups. These tours took him to about 150 different churches from New England to Alabama, and Michigan and Canada to the Mid Atlantic. Once graduating from his undergraduate program, he continued his church hopping, but now with his wife joining him, in Illinois, Pennsylvania, Florida, Ohio, and Maryland.
“Come on”, you say; “that is enough. We are already up to around 200 different churches. But, that is not the end of the road. Then came international church hopping, south of the border to the far south of South America. That lasted for many years, and took him to churches in many countries. That brings us to at least 250 churches. “There can’t be much more now, can there?”, you say. Oh, but yes there are more. During visits to the States and in succeeding years, there were more tours that added another 100 churches. Interestingly, during those many decades and hundreds of churches, my friend would say, “I do have a ‘home church.’” But, knowing my friend, I wonder just how ‘home’ he ever felt in his ‘home’ church. I never asked him; it didn’t occur to me to put him on the spot. I figured he was just doing his Christian duty.
What did happen during those years when my friend was church hopping is that I became a fan of CS Lewis, introduced to his writings when reading for the first time Mere Christianity. By this point now in my life, I have read the book probably ten to fifteen times, and consequently have a pretty good feel for its contents. At one spot in the book’s “Preface”, Lewis addresses the question ‘To what Christianity does your book refer – the Christianity of the Church of England (of which Lewis was a member), the Methodists, Baptists, Quakers or the Eastern Orthodox, etc.?’ The question is another way of asking how Christians can get along with each other in light of their theological differences. In his response to this question Lewis uses the analogy of a large hall from which a person can then go into various rooms.
I hope no reader will suppose that ‘mere’ Christianity is here put forward as an alternative to the creeds of the existing communions – as if a man could adopt it in preference to Congregationalism or Greek Orthodoxy or anything else. It is more like a hall out of which doors open into several rooms. If I can bring anyone into that hall I shall have done what I attempted. But it is in the rooms, not in the hall, that there are fires and chairs and meals. The hall is a place to wait in, a place from which to try the various doors, not a place to live in. For that purpose the worst of the rooms (whichever that may be) is, I think, preferable. It is true that some people may find they have to wait in the hall for a considerable time, while others feel certain almost at once which door they must knock at. I do not know why there is this difference, but I am sure God keeps no one waiting unless He sees that it is good for him to wait. When you do get into your room you will find that the long wait has done you some kind of good which you would not have had otherwise. But you must regard it as waiting, not as camping. You must keep on praying for light: and, of course, even in the hall, you must begin trying to obey the rules which are common to the whole house. And above all you must be asking which door is the true one; not which pleases you best by its paint and paneling. In plain language, the question should never be: ‘Do I like that kind of service?’ but ‘Are these doctrines true: Is holiness here? Does my conscience move me towards this? Is my reluctance to knock at this door due to my pride, or my mere taste, or my personal dislike of this particular doorkeeper?’
When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; and if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house. (CS Lewis, Mere Christianity, HarperCollins, 1972. pp. xv-xvi)
If Lewis is correct to distinguish a broader Christianity from the various particular forms of Christianity, and I believe he is, Christians have the obligation to be adept at living in both the hall and the room of their choice, depending on the circumstances in which they find themselves. The nature of the conversations will adjust to the location. My theological comments made in the hall will respect the plurality of views found in the hall. Once in the room, the theological discussions can be more sectarian without people being offended or judgmental.
I suggest that the analogy leads to an additional conclusion. If a Christian is in a particular room, and for some reason realizes that smaller theological points commonly held in that room are no longer ‘working’, and discussions about those points are no longer productive, it is probably time to return to the hall where mere / basic Christianity is the coin and topics of conversation. There is nothing gained by destroying unity in the Church over second and third level theological points, which by nature are less theologically secure. Would Lewis say that his analogy includes this idea? I will have to ask him the next time we see each other. Don’t hold your breath waiting for me to get back to you with his answer!! (But, I do tend to think he would agree!!)