Calvin Brown is a former Executive Director of The Renewal Fellowship.
Fences can be theological, social or physical. Do we need them and how are they to be used? Gary Walsh of the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada tells a story of a traveller to Australia who marvelled that in the vast cattle country there were no fences and the cattle of various herds often grazed together. When a visitor asked about this the rancher said that they had decided long ago to put all their energy into building and maintaining wells rather than fences.
Fences are indeed a mixed blessing. Fences keep children safe from running into the street or hikers from taking a precipitous fall from a cliff but they have also been used to keeps blacks off segregated beaches. Fences have been used to keep cattle "out of the corn" so the corn could be saved to feed them over the winter; but fences have also kept refugees from getting to the land of opportunity and a safer and more prosperous life. Theological fences (called Creeds and Confessions) have served to help people understand both who they were and who God was and so enabled a better and closer relationship with God, but they have also served as a basis for persecutions. Part of the difficulty is the temptation to over-simplify and to see things as all or nothing. Our Reformed forebears tried to make distinctions without absolutizing everything. Although strong in their convictions they almost singularly recognized that humans (even the Church Assemblies) could and do make mistakes — therefore they needed to recognize that while their judgments were tentative (therefore part of our ethos is reformed and always reforming according to the word of God as the Holy Spirit continues to illumine us) they were still required to hold deep convictions according to their consciences if they were to be faithful. The words of St. Paul come to me: Brothers if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently. But watch yourself, or you also may be tempted (Galatians 6:1). The danger we face is to tear down all fences rather than develop the maturity to discern which fences are good and which ones are not. As one of the church fathers put it: "In things essential — unity; in things non-essential — liberty; in all things — charity." It is my prayer that we will have good fences that make good neighbours and that together we will ensure that we also dig deep wells of spiritual renewal for all to drink at to quench their thirst.