Frontier Theology by Wes Seeliger

[This story has come up in two conversations lately so I figured it might be a blessing for those of you who have never seen it. Of course I wish he’d used a different term than clergyman, but what are you going to do?]

There are two views of life and two kinds of people. Some see life as a possession to be carefully guarded. They are SETTLERS. Others see life as a fantastic, wild, explosive gift. They are PIONEERS. The visible church is an outfit with an abundance of settlers and a few pioneers. The invisible church is the fellowship of pioneers. To no one’s surprise there are two kinds of theology. Settler theology and pioneer theology. Settler theology is an attempt to answer all the questions, define and housebreak some sort of “Supreme Being,” establish the status quo on Golden Tablets in cinemascope. Pioneer Theology is an attempt to talk about what it means to receive the strange gift of life and live! The pioneer sees theology as a wild adventure, complete with Indians, saloon girls, and the haunting call of what is yet to be.

The Wild West offers a stage for picturing these two types of theology. Settlers and Pioneers use the same words but that is where it stops. To see what I mean–read on.

 

THE CHURCH

IN SETTLER THEOLOGY–the church is the courthouse. It is the center of town life. The old stone structure dominates the town square. Its windows are small. This makes the thing easy to defend, but quite dark inside. Its doors are solid oak. No one lives there except pigeons and they, of course, are most unwelcome.

Within the thick, courthouse walls, records are kept, taxes collected, trials held for bad guys. The courthouse runs the town. It is the settler’s symbol of law, order, stability, and most important–security, The mayor’s office is on the top floor. His eagle eye scopes out the smallest details of town life.

IN PIONEER THEOLOGY–the church is the covered wagon. It is a house on wheels–always on the move. No place is its home. The covered wagon is where the pioneers eat, sleep, fight, love, and die. It bears the marks of life and movement–it creaks, is scarred with arrows, bandaged with bailing wire. The covered wagon is always where the action is. It moves in on the future and doesn’t bother to glorify its own ruts. The old wagon isn’t comfortable, but the pioneers could care less. There is a new world to explore.

 

GOD

IN SETTLER THEOLOGY–God is the mayor. The honorable Alpha O. Mega, chief executive of Settler City. He is a sight to behold–dressed like a dude from back East, lounging in an over-stuffed chair in his courthouse office. He keeps the blinds drawn. No one sees or knows him directly, but since there is order in the town who can deny he is there? The mayor is predictable and always on schedule.

The settlers fear the mayor but look to him to clear the payroll and keep things going. The mayor controls the courthouse which in turn runs the town. To maintain peace and quiet the mayor sends the sheriff to check on pioneers who ride into town.

IN PIONEER THEOLOGY–God is the trail boss. He is rough and rugged-full of life. The trail boss lives, eats, sleeps, fights with his men. Their well being is his concern. Without him the wagon wouldn’t move–the pioneers would become fat and lazy. Living as a free man would be impossible. The trail boss often gets down in the mud with the pioneers to help push the wagon which frequently gets stuck. He slugs the pioneers when they get soft and want to turn back. His fist is an expression of his concern.

 

JESUS

IN SETTLER THEOLOGY–Jesus is the sheriff. He is the guy who is sent by the mayor to enforce the rules. He wears a white hat–drinks milk–outdraws the bad guys. He saves the settlers by offering security. The sheriff decides who is thrown in jail. There is a saying in town that goes like this–those who believe the mayor sent the sheriff and follow the rules won’t stay in Boot Hill when it comes their time.

IN PIONEER THEOLOGY–Jesus is the scout. He rides out ahead to find out which way the pioneers should go. He lives all the dangers of the trail. The scout suffers every hardship, is attacked by the Indians, feared by the settlers. Through his actions and words he shows the true spirit, intent, and concern of the trail boss. By looking at the scout, those on the trail learn what it really means to be a pioneer.

 

THE HOLY SPIRIT

IN SETTLER THEOLOGY–the Holy Spirit is a saloon girl. Her job is to comfort the settlers. They come to her when they feel lonely or when life gets dull or dangerous. She tickles them under the chin and makes everything O.K. again. The saloon girl squeals to the sheriff when someone starts disturbing the peace. (Note to settlers: the whiskey served in Settler City Saloon is the non-spiritous kind.)

IN PIONEER THEOLOGY–the Holy Spirit is the buffalo hunter. He rides along with the wagon train and furnishes fresh, raw meat for the pioneers. The buffalo hunter is a strange character–sort of a wild man. The pioneers never can tell what he will do next. He scares the hell out of the settlers. Every Sunday morning, when the settlers have their little ice cream party in the courthouse, the buffalo hunter sneaks up to one of the courthouse windows with his big black gun and fires a tremendous blast. Men jump, women scream, dogs bark. Chuckling to himself, the buffalo hunter rides back to the wagon train.

 

THE CHRISTIAN

IN SETTLER THEOLOGY–the Christian is the settler. He fears the open, unknown frontier. He stays in good with the mayor and keeps out of the sheriff’s way. He tends a small garden. “Safety First” is his motto. To him the courthouse is a symbol of security, peace, order, and happiness. He keeps his money in the bank. The banker is his best friend. He plays checkers in the restful shade of the oak trees lining the courthouse lawn. He never misses an ice cream party.

IN PIONEER THEOLOGY–the Christian is the pioneer. He is a man of risk and daring–hungry for adventure, new life, the challenge of being on the trail. He is tough, rides hard, knows how to use a gun when necessary. The pioneer feels sorry for the town folks and tries to tell them about the joy and fulfillment of a life following the trail. He dies with his boots on.

 

THE CLERGYMAN

IN SETTLER THEOLOGY–the clergyman is the bank teller. Within his vaults are locked the values of the town. He is suspicious of strangers. And why not? Look what he has to protect! The bank teller is a highly respected man in town. He has a gun but keeps it hidden behind his desk. He feels he and the sheriff have a lot in common. After all, they both protect the bank.

IN PIONEER THEOLOGY–the clergyman is the cook. He doesn’t furnish the meat–he just dishes up what the buffalo hunter provides. This is how he supports the movement of the wagon. He never confuses his job with that of the trail boss, scout or buffalo hunter. He sees himself as just another pioneer who has learned to cook. The cook’s job is to help the pioneers pioneer.

 

THE BISHOP

IN SETTLER THEOLOGY–the bishop is the bank president. He rules the bank with an iron hand. He makes all the decisions, tells the tellers what to do, and upholds the image of the bank. The settlers must constantly be reassured of the safety of their values. The bank president watches the books like a hawk. Each day he examines all deposits and withdrawals. The bank president is responsible for receiving all new accounts. This is called “the laying on of hands.”

IN PIONEER THEOLOGY–the bishop is the dishwasher. He does the chores so the cook can do his job. He supports the cook in every way possible. Together the cook and dishwasher plan the meals and cook the food provided by the buffalo hunter. They work as an

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28 Comments
  1. Roger June 3, 2004 at 1:22 pm

    I’ve read this somewhere before, but it is a great word-picture!

  2. Bruce June 3, 2004 at 2:08 pm

    Nice theory… but considering human nature, could "pioneers" ever be a reality?

  3. Roger June 3, 2004 at 3:41 pm

    I think there have been, and continue to be "pioneers", but "settlers" follow them, make camp, elect a mayor, hire a sheriff etc. and the "pioneer" either continues on, becomes a "settler," or is replaced by other "pioneers" blazing new trails.

    Every "church" movement supports this. Luther, Wesley, Calvin… More recently, Hybels blazed new trails in the 80’s, then set up camp and invited the settlers in. Warren blazed new trails in the 90’s…same thing. Hopefully, we will keep our boots dirty, compass handy, and pots full!

    Peace!

  4. Roger June 3, 2004 at 4:22 pm

    I’ve read this somewhere before, but it is a great word-picture!

  5. Bruce June 3, 2004 at 5:08 pm

    Nice theory… but considering human nature, could "pioneers" ever be a reality?

  6. Roger June 3, 2004 at 6:41 pm

    I think there have been, and continue to be "pioneers", but "settlers" follow them, make camp, elect a mayor, hire a sheriff etc. and the "pioneer" either continues on, becomes a "settler," or is replaced by other "pioneers" blazing new trails.

    Every "church" movement supports this. Luther, Wesley, Calvin… More recently, Hybels blazed new trails in the 80’s, then set up camp and invited the settlers in. Warren blazed new trails in the 90’s…same thing. Hopefully, we will keep our boots dirty, compass handy, and pots full!

    Peace!

  7. Steve June 4, 2004 at 7:14 am

    Good illustration of the differences between sojourners and city builders. In the early days of my Christian experience, I frequently heard a local gospel group that always touched my heart because of their humility and love of the Lord. They called themselves "The Sojourners". They just traveled around from place to place singing their testimony to anyone who would listen.

  8. Steve June 4, 2004 at 10:14 am

    Good illustration of the differences between sojourners and city builders. In the early days of my Christian experience, I frequently heard a local gospel group that always touched my heart because of their humility and love of the Lord. They called themselves "The Sojourners". They just traveled around from place to place singing their testimony to anyone who would listen.

  9. andrew in vegas June 4, 2004 at 3:37 pm

    that’s some good stuff. in trying to express my journies (pioneer) to friends and family, this will help tremendously.

  10. andrew in vegas June 4, 2004 at 6:37 pm

    that’s some good stuff. in trying to express my journies (pioneer) to friends and family, this will help tremendously.

  11. Dave A. June 8, 2004 at 8:04 am

    I love that piece. It speaks to me everytime I read it. Perhaps those "pioneers" that you mentioned, Roger, were more interested in just fixing the system with some new movement rather than living forever more as pioneers. The system or anything that smells of it can never satisfy like the awesome freedom of simply following Jesus in the company of fellow travelers.

  12. Dave A. June 8, 2004 at 11:04 am

    I love that piece. It speaks to me everytime I read it. Perhaps those "pioneers" that you mentioned, Roger, were more interested in just fixing the system with some new movement rather than living forever more as pioneers. The system or anything that smells of it can never satisfy like the awesome freedom of simply following Jesus in the company of fellow travelers.

  13. andy July 1, 2004 at 2:13 pm

    i have a tape from 1982 of brennan manning giving this exact same pioneer vs. settler theology talk. i think it’s a wonderful picture of the contrast between real life in Christ and the that other thing we do.

  14. andy July 1, 2004 at 5:13 pm

    i have a tape from 1982 of brennan manning giving this exact same pioneer vs. settler theology talk. i think it’s a wonderful picture of the contrast between real life in Christ and the that other thing we do.

  15. Ruth Seeliger March 17, 2005 at 11:23 am

    Hi, someone just forwarded this to me on 3/16/05. Seems to me that "Roger" and "Dave A." captured the vision that Wes had in mind in Western Theology. Having been married to him, I know the battle that went on between his settler self and his pioneer self. His organization, the Foundation for Contempoary Theology, seeks to forge ahead as pioneers, knowing that if we don’t, we too will become settlers. It’s hard to find pioneer theologians these days, but we’re doing it. Yes, let’s keep our boots dirty, our compass handy and our pots full!! As Wes would say, "Onward through the fog!"

    Blessings and Namaste, Ruth Seeliger

  16. Ruth Seeliger March 17, 2005 at 2:23 pm

    Hi, someone just forwarded this to me on 3/16/05. Seems to me that "Roger" and "Dave A." captured the vision that Wes had in mind in Western Theology. Having been married to him, I know the battle that went on between his settler self and his pioneer self. His organization, the Foundation for Contempoary Theology, seeks to forge ahead as pioneers, knowing that if we don’t, we too will become settlers. It’s hard to find pioneer theologians these days, but we’re doing it. Yes, let’s keep our boots dirty, our compass handy and our pots full!! As Wes would say, "Onward through the fog!"

    Blessings and Namaste, Ruth Seeliger

  17. Wayne March 17, 2005 at 2:35 pm

    Hi Ruth,

    I’m honored you stopped by Lifestream and had a look around. I have loved your husband’s piece for a long time and in fact had it out again last night for a conversation with a friend. It is such a poignant, humorous and good-spirited contrast in thinking.

    May God continue to lead, provide and hold you in his heart in whatever circumstance you find yourself. I bet you miss Wes terribly…

  18. Wayne March 17, 2005 at 5:35 pm

    Hi Ruth,

    I’m honored you stopped by Lifestream and had a look around. I have loved your husband’s piece for a long time and in fact had it out again last night for a conversation with a friend. It is such a poignant, humorous and good-spirited contrast in thinking.

    May God continue to lead, provide and hold you in his heart in whatever circumstance you find yourself. I bet you miss Wes terribly…

  19. Dave Lewis May 1, 2005 at 11:59 am

    Most of Israel’s history was spent in the wilderness, and the Lord’s Prayer fairly cries out that we are in wilderness, too. Most of our political activism, though, assumes that we’re in the Promised Land and all those who don’t conform must die. No wonder the Holy Sprit has to sneak into town on Sunday.

  20. Dave Lewis May 1, 2005 at 2:59 pm

    Most of Israel’s history was spent in the wilderness, and the Lord’s Prayer fairly cries out that we are in wilderness, too. Most of our political activism, though, assumes that we’re in the Promised Land and all those who don’t conform must die. No wonder the Holy Sprit has to sneak into town on Sunday.

  21. Dakanawida May 11, 2005 at 2:04 pm

    So, what does that make Indians?

  22. Dakanawida May 11, 2005 at 5:04 pm

    So, what does that make Indians?

  23. Shirley November 23, 2008 at 10:22 am

    It is the year 2008. As I read Brennan Manning’s book, the theology has totally gripped me for future writings to my on-line group of weekly devotional readers. I understand the original theory about pioneers needing freedom and that settlers appear very sleepy and rigid in the faith. But I can see the value of both in my fellow believers.
    I am a settler by nature, like to feel safe, and remain in the comfort of my home and invite others in. My husband is a pioneer. We would not have blazed new trails in ministry if it had been left to me, the settler. I have followed him because I see his vision for future ministry and the cause of Christ, and because he uses wisdom before he rides out onto the prairie. My apostle husband forges new ministries that are successful because he engages others as important team members to follow the dream. Another pioneer I know, voraciously pursues new horizons in ministry, but he heads out alone without the chuck wagon and continues to feel a sense of failure when the emigrants do not follow him. I believe a healthy church takes both kinds of people doing their part, the God inspired part. I love this theology lesson.

  24. Shirley November 23, 2008 at 1:22 pm

    It is the year 2008. As I read Brennan Manning’s book, the theology has totally gripped me for future writings to my on-line group of weekly devotional readers. I understand the original theory about pioneers needing freedom and that settlers appear very sleepy and rigid in the faith. But I can see the value of both in my fellow believers.
    I am a settler by nature, like to feel safe, and remain in the comfort of my home and invite others in. My husband is a pioneer. We would not have blazed new trails in ministry if it had been left to me, the settler. I have followed him because I see his vision for future ministry and the cause of Christ, and because he uses wisdom before he rides out onto the prairie. My apostle husband forges new ministries that are successful because he engages others as important team members to follow the dream. Another pioneer I know, voraciously pursues new horizons in ministry, but he heads out alone without the chuck wagon and continues to feel a sense of failure when the emigrants do not follow him. I believe a healthy church takes both kinds of people doing their part, the God inspired part. I love this theology lesson.

  25. Ruth Seeliger January 26, 2010 at 12:35 am

    To Dakanawida:
    Whether “Indians” refers to people from India (as I suspect it does) or to Native Americans, “Western Theology” was written to address the problems in the Christian church, as Wes saw/experienced them. Insofar as this book touches you, you will have to decide whether or not “Settler” or “Pioneer” are even appropriate terms for anyone outside the Christian tradition – especially in the “wild west” part of the United States.. Wes came from Texas, so was oriented to a western U.S. view of life. Nevertheless, the subjects of 1) relevancy of the Christian tradition to the world in which we live, 2) the sense of adventure with the Source of Life and 3) the challenge to create and live life to its blessed fullness for everyone can be addressed to any tradition. That makes Indians human like everyone else living this miracle called Life. Christians are not “special”. They are to be awakened, like the Buddha, to what is Reality, and live out of that Reality with compassion and authenticity – and adventure!

  26. Ruth Seeliger January 26, 2010 at 3:35 am

    To Dakanawida:
    Whether “Indians” refers to people from India (as I suspect it does) or to Native Americans, “Western Theology” was written to address the problems in the Christian church, as Wes saw/experienced them. Insofar as this book touches you, you will have to decide whether or not “Settler” or “Pioneer” are even appropriate terms for anyone outside the Christian tradition – especially in the “wild west” part of the United States.. Wes came from Texas, so was oriented to a western U.S. view of life. Nevertheless, the subjects of 1) relevancy of the Christian tradition to the world in which we live, 2) the sense of adventure with the Source of Life and 3) the challenge to create and live life to its blessed fullness for everyone can be addressed to any tradition. That makes Indians human like everyone else living this miracle called Life. Christians are not “special”. They are to be awakened, like the Buddha, to what is Reality, and live out of that Reality with compassion and authenticity – and adventure!

  27. Dakanawida May 6, 2010 at 9:09 pm

    Thank you Ruth Seeliger for the kind words.
    As part of Gods congregation I may have lent my wander either to far in the future, the statement in some isolation within the range from congregations on thru”clergymen” and our paths to relationships with God; in that, harmony with the locals; kind of the Odyysey and Illiad

  28. Dakanawida May 7, 2010 at 12:09 am

    Thank you Ruth Seeliger for the kind words.
    As part of Gods congregation I may have lent my wander either to far in the future, the statement in some isolation within the range from congregations on thru”clergymen” and our paths to relationships with God; in that, harmony with the locals; kind of the Odyysey and Illiad

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