Perimeters of Light: Biblical Boundaries for the Emerging Church

(Paperback - Aug 2004)
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How far do we go to connect with our culture? Can we "sell" the Gospel like the world sells soft drinks? Where are the boundaries? The church today is walking a tightrope.On the one hand, we need to proclaim, and - perhaps, more importantly - live the Gospel in such a way that it connects with both seekers and younger people looking for community and authenticity. Yet at what point does this fall into "feel good" ministry at the expense of biblical truth? These are issues that God's people are now beginning to wrestle with. Towns and Stetzer provide an intergenerational perspective that sheds biblical light on some tough challenges facing the church.


  • SKU: 9780802415004
  • SKU10: 0802415008
  • Title: Perimeters of Light: Biblical Boundaries for the Emerging Church
  • Qty Remaining Online: 11
  • Publisher: Moody Publishers
  • Date Published: Aug 2004
  • Pages: 201
  • Illustrated: Yes
  • Weight lbs: 0.63
  • Dimensions: 9.02" L x 6.02" W x 0.49" H
  • Features: Table of Contents, Price on Product, Illustrated, Bibliography
  • Themes: Theometrics | Evangelical;
  • Category: CHURCH LIFE
  • Subject: Christian Church - Growth

Chapter Excerpt

Chapter One


Where is the perimeter of light located? It's hard to determine where light stops and darkness begins. Light gently fades into night. Actually, the perimeter is not located at an exact spot, because if the fire burns brighter, the edge expands and enlarges the circle of protection. When the fire is almost out, the perimeter is so small it becomes almost too small to provide protection for one human. The perimeter of light changes according to the brightness of the fire.

The edge of light is not a line drawn in the night. The flickering flames of a fire make the edge dance; the energy of the fire determines how far the light reaches into a darkened night. The edge dashes out into the darkness when the flame sparkles or flickers brightly. It creeps away from the darkness back toward the campers when they allow the fire to diminish.


The edge of light between Christianity and the world is not a distinct boundary line that can always be easily seen. It is a perimeter. Even though we see gray areas in Christianity, nothing is gray to God. We don't see things the way God sees them. God knows what is Christian and what is not Christian, even when it's blurry to us. Christianity is not a religion, like joining a movement. Being a Christian means having a relationship with Christ. Christianity is about that relationship between God and His people.

If Christianity were a "religion," it would have boundaries as do other world religions. You would do certain things and that would qualify you as a Christian. But Christianity does not have a fence to keep people in-or keep them out. Although it does have principles by which a person should keep in relationship with God, Christianity is not a set of rules that you have to keep to become or remain a Christian, though it does have principles by which you live for God.

Christianity is not about rules; it's about a person. It's about Jesus Christ, and if you are properly related to Him by faith, you're a Christian. The light is Jesus, and the edge determines how close to Jesus you live.

The perimeter is not a boundary where the traveler passes from total light to total darkness. A perimeter is a "twilight zone," where it's not completely light, nor is it completely black. Sometimes it's hard to see clearly at the edge of the zone-it's hard to see the edge itself. God knows where Christianity leaves off and the world takes over. Even when you are not sure where the boundary is located, God knows.


What Are Boundaries?

Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary has defined boundary as "something that indicates or fixes a limit," i.e., a separating line. The emphasis is on the actual point that separates two items or views. If you apply the concept of boundaries to Christianity, there are fences, or "property lines," between Christianity and non-Christianity. The Oxford Dictionary adds the following definition to boundary: "that which must be limited, confined or restrained." This means Christianity is limited or bound up. Therefore, the nature of Christianity would demand limits.

There are some boundaries that relate to practice:

There is a line between an authentic church (Matthew 16:18) and a group that only has the title "church," but is not a tree church in God's sight (e.g., the churches in Pergamum and Thyatira, Revelation 2:12-29).

There is a difference between true worship (John 4:20-24) and activities that take place in a church but are not true worship-they may even be anti-worship (Colossians 2:16-23).

There is music that points people to God (2 Chronicles 5:11-14) and music that does not (Isaiah 14:11-15).

Somewhere between biblical principles of biblical evangelism (Matthew 28:19-20) and human methods (Matthew 7:26-27), there are practices that a church should not use in evangelism.

Giving a religious speech and preaching the Word (2 Timothy 4:2) are not the same thing.

Crossing certain boundaries of practice can also lead to error, What we do does impact what we believe. Somewhere in the journey from true Christianity (1 Timothy 3:16) to heresy (1 Timothy 1:19-20), one crosses a point of no return, i.e., a boundary or property line. God's property is located on one side of the fence; Satan's property is on the other side. Somewhere in a journey from holiness (1 Peter 1:16) to ungodliness (2 Peter 2:21-22), there is a boundary line beyond which a person should not step.

The issue of boundaries does not represent a new challenge, nor is it a new reaction. Even in the early church there were questions as to where the fences should be built. Four of the apostles issued warnings. John wrote, "Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world." (1 John 4:1). Jude wrote, "For certain men have crept in unnoticed, who long ago were marked out for this condemnation, ungodly men, who turn the grace of our God into lewdness and deny the only Lord God and our Lord Jesus Christ" (Jude 4 NKJV).

Peter and Paul also issued warnings:

But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will also be false teachers among you, who will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing swift destruction upon themselves. Many will follow their sensuality and because of them the way of truth will be maligned. (2 Peter 2:1-2) The Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons. (1 Timothy 4:1)

It seems every generation has battled with the boundaries issue, Most boundary debates involved doctrinal issues, but not all. Some were boundary issues of methodology, or "how to express Christianity." Martin Luther rejected the enthusiasts. John Wesley was ridiculed for his new "methods" and was sarcastically labeled "Methodist." Jonathan Edwards struggled with emotional expressions of revivalism in the First Great Awakening, and Charles Finney was criticized for embracing "the right use of appropriate means" in the Second Great Awakening. With each new outreach of the gospel, new methods have emerged. Reactions to the new methods are usually negative.

An Ongoing Battle to Keep the Church Pure

The very nature of Christianity implies that there would be an ongoing battle to keep the church pure. Satan is called "a liar" (John 8:44). Originally, he distorted God's Word in the Garden of Eden. Is it not plausible that he would distort God's Word and God's methods today? The adversary still attempts to corrupt the minds of believers (2 Corinthians 11:3), and he blinds the minds of nonbelievers (2 Corinthians 4:3-4).

God divinely knew there would be attempts to both dilute His message and to add to it. The apostle John gave the following warning concerning the last book of the Bible, yet the meaning can be applied to all Scripture: "I testify to everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues which are written in this book; and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his part from the tree of life and from the holy city, which are written in this book" (Revelation 22:18-19).

For some, it is easy to draw hard edges. Some groups believe that they are the only correct church-and all others are in error. However, this makes little sense. Obviously, there are Christians who differ from us, and they are still Christians. The question is, How far can one be from the light and still be a Christian?

So it is obvious that the task is difficult, and the answers will not be perfect. As a result, few are addressing the issue from the center of evangelicalism. However, it is an essential need.

When dealing with an "edge" related to Christianity, a common problem is the creation of false boundaries-boundaries that are culturally conditioned but are not biblically required. It is important to know the difference.


The edge of error is to be avoided at all times. The purpose of the Christian, as well as the church and denomination, is to stay as far from the perimeter of error as possible. Yet, there must also be recognition that although we think we are as far from error as possible, there are other Christians who are wrong about some things but are still Christian brothers and sisters.

What does it mean to be "wrong" or "in error"? In today's world, people object to the idea that someone is right or wrong. We will address this issue on a deeper level later. However, initially let us say that many Christians are wrong about certain things. Not everyone can be right. Either the Bible teaches that all true believers will persevere until the end or it does not; either speaking in tongues is the initial evidence of the baptism of the Holy Spirit, or it is not. Both cannot be right.

The idea that the Bible can mean anything based on the response of the reader actually devalues the Word of God and destroys Christian unity. If the Bible can mean anything, then it really means nothing. Instead, the authors of Scripture had specific truths in mind when they wrote the Scripture text. They are either rightfully interpreted correctly, or they are wrongfully interpreted incorrectly. Some Christians are right, and some are wrong.

Who Is Right? Who Is Wrong?

The problem is determining which Christians are right and which are wrong. In the New Testament era, there was already confusion. That confusion continues today. There are thirty-eight thousand denominations in the world today. All of them can't be right in all issues.

Although some are wrong and some are right, we are unwise to think that we are always the "right" ones. On the one hand, we should think we are right. Even the world acknowledges that all religions think they are right. Recently, CNN's Larry King interviewed a Methodist bishop who implied that Christianity was not the only way to God. King, hardly an advocate of evangelicalism, was surprised the bishop did not believe Christianity was the only way. (In a news release the next day, the United Methodist Church distanced itself from the comments of Bishop Talbert, indicating, "United Methodists believe faith in Jesus Christ is the only way the Bible gives to salvation and heaven.")

Both authors came to Christ in other denominations and determined that they were wrong about certain doctrines-we both became Baptists because of what Baptists believed. We thought (and still think) that our denomination is the closest we can find to a correct and right interpretation of Scripture.

However, we are pretty sure that some of the things we believe will be corrected when we get to heaven. (We don't know which-if we knew that we would change!) There are just too many Christians who differ on too many issues for us to be sure we have every doctrinal distinctive correct. Yet, for now, we think they are wrong (or else we would hold their views).

So, if edges are important, then the question of how wrong is essential. Charismatics can be wrong (or, if you are a charismatic, those Baptists!), but they are still our brothers and sisters in Christ. Yet, Mormons are not. What about Catholics? What about liberal Protestants?

Finding the Edge: A Diagram

The diagram below, "Toward the Edge: Leaving Christian Truth," attempts to illustrate the "edge." We do so with great trepidation. Who are we? Why do we get to judge? Well, we do not. Ultimately, only God can make the determination of who is faithful aim who is not. Yet there is a tremendous need to look at this issue today. As the diagram below indicates, heresy, whether in doctrine or immoral action, moves a person, church, or denomination to the edge. Our hope is that the diagram below will help you to discuss these edges.

The issue may seem unimportant-unless you are part of a church or a denomination struggling with the issues. The issue of the "edge" is on the front pages of Presbyterian, Methodist, and Anglican publications around the world. For those of us outside of these communities, the issue is also important-it frames how we will relate to these groups and others.


Present and Historical Examples

Many of our brothers and sisters are wrestling with the issues every day. A few examples:

The Anglican Church is gripped in a worldwide struggle for what is evangelical, while some of its third-world bishops are sending missionaries to the United States, calling the Episcopal Church here an apostate church. (Several dioceses in the United States are formally agreeing with the third-world bishops, asking to be placed under their authority and out from under the US Episcopal Church.) The impetus is the advocacy of homosexual ordination, even as the church's most problematic retired bishop (lames Spong of New Jersey) asks if Jesus was a homosexual.

The Confessing Movement of the Methodist Church is struggling to return the church to an evangelical conviction, as part of the denomination refuses to remove a lesbian pastor.

The Evangelical Theological Society addressed (in its 2002 annual meeting) the boundary of evangelicalism itself, rejecting as heresy the idea of open theism (the idea that God does not know the future) but not removing members who hold that position.

For many of you reading this book, "the edge" may seem to be too abstract to consider, but for others, this book is about a life-and-death struggle.

Throughout history, groups have always needed to define their edges. In some cases, they did so very clearly by signifying what they believed and what they did not. For example, the Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy explains in Article I: "We affirm that the Holy Scriptures are to be received as the authoritative Word of God. We deny that the Scriptures receive their authority from the Church, tradition, or any other human source" (italics added).

Examples of a Static Edge and a Receding Edge

In some cases, we have to look at what is outside of and what is inside of the edge of light. This is not an easy task, because genuine people are often misled. If a Mormon believes that she is saved by temple rituals, it is important for us to tell the truth about conversion.



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