A few decades ago, a very astute, witty (even mischievous) Episcopal priest by the name of Wes Seeliger wrote a colorful, border-line irreverent, and yet most revealing book about two common appraisals of life and of the church. The book is entitled: Western Theology In it he sees two visions of life, and two kinds of people. The first see life as a possession to be carefully guarded.  They are called settlers. The second see life as a wild, fantastic, explosive gift. They are called pioneers.

These two types give rise to the 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. The Wild West is the setting for both theologies.[1]

In Settler Theology, God is the mayor, and the church is the courthouse. It is the center of town life. The old stone structure dominates the town square. It’s windows are small and this makes it dark inside. Within the courthouse walls records are kept, taxes collected, trials held for bad guys. The courthouse is the settler’s symbol of law and order, stability, and most-important security. The mayor’s office is on the top floor. His eagle eye ferrets out the smallest detail of the town’s life. In Settler Theology, God is the mayor. He is a sight to behold … but since he keeps the blinds drawn no one sees him or knows him directly, but since there is order in the town, who can deny that he is there.

In Pioneer Theology, the church is the covered wagon. It’s a house on wheels, always on the move. The covered wagon is where the pioneers eat, sleep, fight, love and die. It bears the marks of life and movement—it creaks, it is scarred with arrows, bandaged with bailing wire. The covered wagon is always where the action is. It moves toward the future, and doesn’t bother to glorify its own ruts. The old wagon isn’t comfortable, but the pioneers don’t mind. They are more into adventure than comfort. 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 people. Without him the wagon wouldn’t move. The trail boss often gets down in the mud with the pioneers to help push the wagon. … You begin to get Seeliger’s analogy.

In Settler Theology, Jesus is the sheriff who is sent by the mayor to enforce the rules. In Pioneer Theology, Jesus is the scout. He rides out ahead to find out the way the pioneers should go. The scout suffers every hardship that the pioneers do. In Settler Theology, the Christian is the settler. In Pioneer Theology, the Christian is the pioneer. In Settler Theology, the clergyman is the banker who keeps within his vault the values of the town. In Pioneer Theology, the clergy is the cook who doesn’t furnish the meat, but dishes up what the buffalo hunter provides. In Settler Theology, faith is trusting in the safety of the town: obeying the laws, keeping your nose clean, etc. In Pioneer Theology faith is the spirit of adventure, the readiness to move out, to risk everything on the trail. … and so it goes.

Sound familiar. I love the analogies. Comfort-zone Christianity is one of the most pernicious heresies we encounter. Christ’s calling is to a life that is only secure in our obedience to him. The true church is always a company of pioneers. I couldn’t resist sharing (maybe confusing you?) with Seeliger’s analogy.

[1] I think that much of this comes from a digest of the book by Brennan Manning that I copied years after reading the book.



About rthenderson

Sixty years a pastor-teacher within the Presbyterian Church. Author of several books, the latest of which are a trilogy on missional ecclesiology: ENCHANTED COMMUNITY: JOURNEY INTO THE MYSTERY OF THE CHURCH, then, REFOUNDING THE CHURCH FROM THE UNDERSIDE, then THE CHURCH AND THE RELENTLESS DARKNESS. Previous to this trilogy was A DOOR OF HOPE: SPIRITUAL CONFLICT IN PASTORAL MINISTRY, and SUBVERSIVE JESUS, RADICAL FAITH. I am a native of West Palm Beach, Florida, a graduate of Davidson College, then of Columbia and Westminster Theological Seminaries.
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2 Responses to

  1. Craig Wertz says:

    Well if it’s a black and white choice you can probably call me a settler Bob. Wanting to have a firm foundation and stability upon which we can focus on loving others and be loved in a community, instead of wandering in the wilderness, might be argued to be one of the allures of Christianity. Must we all be pioneers?

    • rthenderson says:

      You need to have a sense of humor to deal with humorous caricatures such as WESTERN THEOLOGY. That said: Christ’s call to all of us to engage in his mission requires a pioneer mentality, willing to engage the darkness in whatever form. We’re blessed at ASF to have church leadership that is cognizant of that, i.e., a missional church.

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