The Human History of Building Fences

There are only two things you need to know about Luigi – he lived in a small seaside village, and he was a painter. Not a house painter but an artist. He spent many days sitting on the hill outside his cottage, gazing into the ocean, and painting what he saw. One day it all came together for Luigi, and he painted the most amazing landscape ever seen.

Being proud of his accomplishment, Luigi hung the painting in the front room of his small house and invited his neighbors to view his work. They did, and they were amazed. The picture looked as real as if they were gazing out the back window toward the real ocean. They couldn’t keep quiet and kept inviting friends to see the amazing painting. It was apparent that Luigi could not keep the painting in his small front room, so he wrapped it up and carried it into town to the local museum.artist

The curator was not interested in Luigi at first, but once the painting was unwrapped, he immediately grabbed it and hung it in the prime spot in the museum. Soon there were long lines of people waiting to see the painting. But there was a problem. The painting was so real that people were tempted to touch it just to make sure they weren’t looking out a window or that the water wasn’t real.

The curator couldn’t have people touching the artwork, so he positioned a small fence to keep people back. Yet the attraction was so great that many would stretch across the fence and touch it just to make sure. So he moved the fence back a few feet but still folks would climb on top of the fence and stretch just to touch. The curator had to build a taller fence, and eventually, he put a clear Plexiglas shield in front of the painting. Eventually, he even put a cover over the top to make sure people wouldn’t try to throw a coin or something else into the picture of the ocean.

Now people could not actually see the painting, so the curator printed brochures that described the painting and provided it for the people to read as they stood in line. The painting was just as beautiful as ever, and people came to the museum from all over the land, but all they ever saw was a nice brochure and a good fence.

I like fences. Since I grew up having to walk on crutches, balance has always been a primary concern for me. A good fence often serves as protection, to keep me from falling off a ledge or stepping into something I should avoid. I always loved handrails on stairs, which are very similar to fences. They provide protection and security.

Several years ago our family visited one of those big caverns that tourists like to tour. We went to the bottom of the cave, taking my wheelchair all the way down. We were then told it was necessary to climb about forty-five narrow stairs in order to exit the cave. We looked for other options, but there were none (a rather long story not necessary for my purposes here). My brother had to pick me up and carry me up the stairs, holding me out over the railing in order to maneuver the narrow stairs.

I trust my brother completely, and I have full confidence in his physical ability to carry me – he is a large guy. However, I must confess it was rather stressful since the fence that was designed to keep folks from falling off the stairs would have done me no good if he had slipped. Imagine standing on the edge a fifth-floor balcony without a fence. I do like fences.

All of us appreciate fences. In fact, humans have been building fences for a long time. Fences keep us safe and provide a feeling of security, allowing us to hold certain things in and providing a barrier to hold other things out.

Religious fences are also important. When I first became serious about being a student of the Bible, I learned the Pharisees of Jesus’ day were excellent fence builders. Every Bible teacher worthy of the title taught the concept of Pharisees using their plethora of laws as a means of building a fence around God’s law. It was their way of protecting themselves from being disobedient.

Perhaps the clearest expression of this kind of religious fence building was the way they handled rules about the Sabbath. The Sabbath was established by God and made His list of top ten (see Exodus twenty).  However, the problem with God’s law-giving is that He was seldom specific enough for us. Ok, so I want to keep the Sabbath holy but what does that mean? How do I do that? What should I do on the Sabbath? What should I not do on the Sabbath? These are all important questions.

Since God wasn’t talking, the Pharisees decided to specify what could and could not be done, just to make sure that everyone was safe. They calculated how much distance a person could walk before the Sabbath became unholy. They also specified how much weight you could carry, what kind of work you could do, everything down to the minutest detail. They had hundreds (some have suggested thousands) of laws designed to protect the holiness of the Sabbath.

Like Luigi’s painting, the Sabbath actually disappeared from sight. It no longer mattered. All that concerned the Pharisees was maintaining the fence. By the way, they did this with all of God’s laws, making all of them inaccessible. Jesus came along and turned their world upside down by suggesting God wasn’t interested in their fences.

I understand why the Pharisees did what they did. Have I mentioned that I like fences? It is comforting to know that if I do certain things and avoid other things God will be pleased. Just tell me what to do, and I will do it. Even if I lean up against the fence, or God forbid, climb over the fence on occasion, at least it keeps me far enough away that I won’t be doing anything offensive to God.

Although the Pharisees were excellent fence builders, the practice did not stop when they disappeared from the scene. Church folks have been building fences ever since.

It is often said that people like Jesus but they don’t want anything to do with the church. I think what that means is they like Jesus, but they don’t like the fences that we have built around Him.

We have built numerous fences, for several reasons. First, we want to make sure the right people get in. We want churches that have people just like us, or at least people who want to be just like us. That is why affinity churches are so popular.

One of the latest fads is cowboy churches. I attended one a while back, and the entire sermon was on how to bridle a horse for the best control. They frequently (perhaps every Sunday afternoon) gather for a roping in a rodeo arena after church. You are most comfortable wearing jeans and cowboy boots. Sure, they talk about Jesus, but perhaps the best thing their fences do is to make sure they get the right people in.

Just as important to fence builders is to keep the wrong people out.  If you don’t want anyone who likes to have a glass of wine or an occasional beer, build a fence and simply declare that real followers of Jesus don’t drink. Fences come in a variety of shapes and styles. If you don’t want to associate with Democrats, just adopt the Republican platform as something blessed by Jesus. Certainly, you don’t want your children influenced by gays so build a fence that keeps them out.

Churches have built fences to keep people out based on lifestyle, belief, ethnicity, politics, race, and past sins. Virtually anything that you can use to classify a person can be and has been, used as a fence to keep people away from Jesus. We want church to be comfortable, so we find ways to keep out the people who make us uncomfortable. Our preference is that others find a church of their own kind. For example, the homeless should attend a church for the homeless but don’t stain our pews with your unwashed clothes and body odor.

Sometimes, the ones who most like fences are parents of young children. They want a safe environment that will pass on their faith to their children. So they gather in churches that offer colorful facilities, screened workers, and quality programs and activities. The more activities that keep their children busy and occupied the better. In fact, if the church offers all our children’s recreational, educational, social, and entertainment needs, that is ideal. There is no need to expose them to many other potentially dangerous influences.

I must hasten to add churches don’t blatantly advertise these fences. It is much more subtle. Say a young person comes to church one Sunday morning, hair spiked straight up and arms covered with colorful tattoos. The usher might actually speak a word of greeting and hand him a worship folder. But the fences immediately go up as people stare, point, and whisper to one another. Most of us are very adept at communicating our disfavor and unacceptance of another without actually saying anything.

At other times we are very vocal about our fences. Christians in the media speak of inappropriate lifestyles and condemn folks who don’t live up to our standards. It has taken years, but the church has effectively communicated that certain people don’t belong in our churches. These people know they are not welcome because they are on the wrong side of the fence. They are tired of being criticized, belittled, and ostracized. Consequently, they want nothing to do with the church, in spite of the fact that they like what they hear about Jesus.

A couple of years ago I met a very nice man in a hospital waiting room, and we had time for an extended conversation.  He talked for a long time about politics, being very clear about his desire to elect a new President and his confidence that if we simply choose a few more Republicans all of our problems will be solved. I didn’t offer much of an opinion since it was clear that his beliefs were much more important to him than mine were to me.  I listened patiently.

He then turned the conversation to his church. He spoke graciously about his church and pastor and suggested that I would like it. He even invited me to attend in the near future.  I’m sorry, but I could not resist the temptation to ask if it was necessary to be a Republican in order to come to his church. I even asked if they had a separate Sunday School class for Democrats.

My new friend was stunned for a moment, almost as if I had kicked his dog. We had a short conversation about making people comfortable or turning them away by our overly strong political opinions. Someone who favors the Republican platform would probably be very welcome; however, many young people are turned away, not because they are rejecting the Gospel but because they are rejecting the politics.

I have not attended his church, so I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that anyone not favorable toward Republican politics would soon feel like they were on the outside of the fence. It might be things said in the sermon or during a Sunday School class. Perhaps it is simply the hallway banter or overheard conversations in the foyer. It is easy to erect fences that keep people away while at the same time advertising that everyone is welcome.

The problem is that we have built so many fences over the years that nearly everyone who does not conform to a specific way of life feels like they do not belong. The more secular our world becomes, the higher we build the fences. It is tempting to circle the wagons even tighter in order to protect ourselves, our children, and our stuff.

A few years ago my next door neighbor’s house was burglarized during the day. The thieves went through his gate, broke in the back door, opened the garage and backed their van in and loaded it up. They stole some electronics and a few miscellaneous items, even a pizza from the freezer. My neighbor’s response was to get a new alarm system and build a bigger fence around his back yard. He tore down the builder quality fence that matched everyone else in the neighborhood and replaced it with a much taller fence and better wood. He even attached an expensive lock on the gate.

Robert Frost told us that good fences make good neighbors. However, they do not make good friends. Neither do they make for good churches.

1 Comment

Filed under Church, Evangelism, Jesus, Legalsim, Uncategorized

One response to “The Human History of Building Fences

  1. Terry, Your column brought two specific memories to mind. One is of the experience of my dear friend Jimmy Allen’s family 30 years ago. His daughter-in-law was given a blood transfusion during her first pregnancy; it was tainted with HIV, but they didn’t discover that until her second pregnancy. The second child died in infancy. The first one lived to the age of 12 or 13. However, when it was discovered that the child was HIV-positive, no church would allow him to attend their Sunday School because of the fear that other children would become infected with HIV. That’s on top of the fact that Jimmy’s son, Scott was fired from his ministry position with a church. Just because his wife had received a blood transfusion tainted with HIV. What’s that about Jesus and the lepers?

    The second memory is of a church that my wife and I attended for 17 years. I’m stubborn (and I guess way too prideful), so we stayed all those years, while I thought I could make a difference, talking about Baptist principles and getting mostly blank stares through those years. Anyway, in a sermon one Sunday morning in 1992 (this was 12 years before we left), the pastor proudly told of receiving a phone call from Adrian Rogers and other SBC leaders, asking him to help set things up for a George Bush (the elder) campaign appearance in Dallas. He was practically salivating, he was so excited to tell about this. Eleven years later, on the eve of the Iraq War, the same pastor used a Sunday morning sermon to launch a hateful diatribe against George W. Bush’s critics, including specific ones labeled “Hollywood liberals.” When he climaxed the sermon by shouting, “George W. Bush isn’t stupid; his critics are stupid,” the sanctuary rained down with Amens and applause the likes of which I never heard for Jesus in those 17 years. There was an atmosphere of hate and arrogance, and I sat in the choir loft, feeling terribly alone. Yes, I’m a Democrat, but it wouldn’t have mattered – I would have felt just as wounded and alone, for my main concern was that a time for worshipping Christ in God’s house had been turned, instead, into a political rally.

    But you’re right. They had built a fence that said, “No Democrats allowed.”

    Back then, I had a bumper sticker on my car, reading, “Christian AND a Democrat.” One of my friends at that church saw it and – only half-jokingly, I’m sure – said, “How can you be both?”

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