Article published on the Desiring God website.
For many years my conviction has been that Christian unity and Christian truth are served best not by removing fences, but by loving across them and having welcoming gates. I don’t claim to do it well. I want to do it better.
The point is that minimizing truth, or filing down its clear edges, or blending it all into one indistinguishable mass, or focusing on prayer, service, and mission, rather than truth — none of these produces unity that honors truth, creates robust communities, or endures for generations.
That happens best when we live well in our communities of conviction, and love well across convictional lines.
Would Lewis Agree?
Would C.S. Lewis agree with this? Didn’t he write Mere Christianity? Doesn’t that imply we should lay aside our denominational differences and live in the visible unity of “mere Christianity?”
You may be surprised by what Lewis means by this phrase. But he tells us clearly. What follows is an excerpt (in italics) from the introduction to Mere Christianity(1943, xi–xii) broken into sections with my comments.
Not an Alternative to Creeds
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.
When Lewis writes about mere Christianity he is not criticizing Christian denominations. In fact, he says it’s not as though a person even “could” make mere Christianity a standing place. It would be like saying that the shirt I wear is neither sleeveless, short-sleeved, or long-sleeved. It’s just a shirt.
The Hall of the House
[Mere Christianity] 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.
Lewis loved the Church of England. It was his denominational home. But he did not see his calling as an advocate for Anglicanism. His calling was to lead people into the hall of the house of Christianity. And he knew that the hall was not the place anyone should live.
This is the mistake many have made about Lewis. He was not ecumenical in the sense of leading people out of denominational rooms into the hall of unity. His ecumenical spirit will be seen below as love between rooms, not the emptying of rooms into the hall.
The denominational rooms are where the fire and chairs and meals are. In other words, if you try to live in the hall, you will go without warmth and rest and food. Mere Christianity is not lived Christianity. Trying to make it a life is like trying to eat mere food but never eating any particular vegetables or fruits or meats.
Don’t Stay in the Hall
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.
He is so clear about the inadequacy of mere Christianity that he says that living the best you can in the worst Christian denomination is better than trying to live in the hall.
Enter a Room
*It is true that some people may have to wait in the hall for a considerable time. . . . 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?”*
This is one of the reasons I love Lewis. There is no gibberish here about all the rooms being equal. Or all the rooms having the same truth from different angles. Or personal experience being the main thing, while truth-claims are a human presumption. Or the inadequacy of saints to make good judgments about which denomination has truth. None of that.
No. Instead there is the straightforward statement that a crucial move must be made from the hall of mere Christianity to the doctrinal specificity of a room. To that end your primary task, once you are in the hall, is to discover the room closest to the truth. So he urges us to “keep on praying for light.” And to “ask which door is the true one.” And to inquire not whether we like the services but “Are these doctrines true?”
What the World Needs
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.
This is Lewis’s ecumenism. Choose a denominational room according to biblical truth as best you can. Then love those who choose differently, even if they turn out to be enemies.
What the world needs from the great house of Christianity is not that all the walls be knocked out between the rooms, but that we love each other in all the ways the Bible says, including defending and confirming the truth of Scripture as we see it (Ephesians 4:15).