"Jesus says that narrow doors and gates offer the only sure and safe entrance into God's realm of life," writes Caroline Westerhoff in Good Fences: The Boundaries of Hospitality. "Gates that swing too wide and doors that open too fast do not give us the opportunity to slow down and decide what is important before we make our choices." Indeed, the only time the Bible tells us to "fling wide the gates" is so that the "King of Glory can come in."

The Early Church often worshiped behind closed doors, and joining the church involved a long process of instruction that could take three years. The lives of those who sought Christian instruction were examined, and people in questionable professions were rejected unless they changed their line of work. After three years of study, their lives were scrutinized again to see if they had been leading holy lives while they prepared for baptism.

Such a "narrow gate" philosophy was appropriate in a hostile culture where cycles of persecution came and went and being a Christian meant taking your life in your hands. Carefully screening strangers was both protection for the church and was only fair to the seekers: If it could cost them their lives, they needed to know what they were buying into.

Today, for better or worse, the church has adopted the wide-door strategy of retail marketing. When I go to a "big box" store like Target or Best Buy, I'm surprised if the door doesn't open automatically and wide for me. Churches that target the unchurched have noted this and a thousand other ways in which our retail culture welcomes all.

It is tempting to ask: Who should we emulate? The pre-Constantinian Apostolic Constitutions or Target?

But framing the question this way is unfair. ...

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Editor's Bookshelf
David Neff
David Neff was editor in chief of Christianity Today, where he worked from 1985 until his retirement in 2013. He is also the former editor in chief of Christian History magazine, and continues to explore the intersection of history and current events in his bimonthly column, "Past Imperfect." His earlier column, "Editor's Bookshelf," ran from 2002 to 2004 and paired Neff's reviews of thought-provoking books and interviews with the authors.
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