wrote about my theory that the church is not effective in large part because of its divisions, that this ineffectiveness and division leave many people wandering and doing what seems best to them and that in order to counter this the church needs to reconsider its basic conception of itself. Today, I want to discuss a bit further what would/will need to happen for us to overcome our divisions and create more effective churches.
A month or so ago, I was involved in a discussion in the comment boxes over at Jesus Creed where regular commenter (and sometimes fill-in blogger) RJS said this:
I am an evangelical Christian and a scholar – but – I would not teach at an evangelical Christian institution with a restrictive statement of faith beyond essentials, even a statement of faith with which I currently agree. I am also ambivalent about church membership in any restrictive denominational church, despite the fact that I think we must affiliate in local congregations. We are called to be part of the body of Christ – the Church. Attaching much importance to nonessentials sets a bar for Christian fellowship beyond Christian faith. I think that this has at least three, and probably more, truly negative impacts. (1) It divides Christians, despite the fact that we are called to unity. (2) It leads many to an unhealthy ironic faith (borrowing Scot’s term) where one may not really believe that to which one gives nominal assent. (3) It prevents many of us from ever feeling truly secure in Christian fellowship.”
I have thought about this quite a bit since reading it a couple of weeks ago. Can we Christians simply decide that anyone who is willing to affirm the early church creeds (Apostle’s/Nicene Creed) belongs in full fellowship with us? What would happen if those who believe in eternal hell couldn’t write off those who believe in universal salvation as heretics? Could those who believe women should be in a subservient role abide with a church which affirmed the call of a woman to a leadership position? Can those who believe that the taking of the bread and the wine is symbolic respect the reverence of those who believe in transubstantiation towards the elements of communion? Can those who believe in the necessity of the “sinner’s prayer” resist harassing those who don’t over potentially losing their ticket to heaven?
My first impulse would be to say that it’s impossible. We’ll never be able to agree on these things and people aren’t going to be willing to let them go. However, what if we had no choice? What if our church was like a marriage or a family where no matter how strongly you may disagree with another, there is no “out” clause? How would having to learn to actually love one another rather than simply tolerate each other from a distance shape us as people of faith? It would probably force us into the habit of loving the unlovable a little more freely. It might also force us to concentrate on that love and our bond with each other as a counterweight to the conflict which could tear us apart. We may even decide that the best way to stay together despite our differences would be to focus on serving each other and our communities. Nothing diffuses conflict like coming together for common purposes. And over time, once we could no longer simply write off someone who’s ideas we find wrong headed or heretical, we might even begin to see a little more clearly why someone else’s ideas might have more merit than you had previously thought.
Ultimately, while all churches claim to be pointing people to God, most of them ask and offer very little to their members. At the worst, they assure their members that if they just believe the right things, doing the right things will get easier and salvation will be theirs. We’ve spent a long time now arguing over what the right things to believe are. And while that can be an interesting parlor game, parlor games don’t change people’s lives. A growing, intimate relationship with God and man does. And whenever something stands in the way of those things, we need to seriously consider if the matter is important enough to justify a barrier. Really, how many of the things we are divided over are important enough to justify separating two believers who are brothers in Christ?
There is so much more to say about this. But if anyone wants to see both the reality of God’s expectation for unity in the body and the difficulties in pulling it off, I would suggest taking a gander at 1 Corinthians. This study of the book does an excellent job of explaining what was going on there. Cliques and religious puffery, competing ideologies and sexual impropriety. There’s nothing new under the sun. It’s all been with us since the beginning. However today we so often pack our bat and ball and head home to find others who think like us to play with. I believe that the time has come for us to bring all of our equipment back to the ekklesia and relearn how to play together. There’s too much important work which needs to be done for us not to.
It is my prayer that as our next generation of Christian leaders comes online, more and more of them will be brave enough to eschew denominational affiliations and even restrictive statements of faith. Let’s see what happens when we open our doors to all Christians and really mean it. Because if we could do that, and figure out how to function like that, we really would be offering a peek into the kingdom, for ourselves and for those looking in. I am reminded of Romans 8:38-39 “For I am convinced that death nor life, nor angels nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor heights nor depths nor any created thing can separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus, our Lord.” If none of those things can separate us from God, who actually does have all the answers, then what right do any of us have in claiming that there is something important or essential enough for to separate from each other?