Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Divisions In The Church

There is a new  article at Christianity Today on church unity. Interesting thoughts. She calls it a lament. I think that is the appropriate response when we think of the divisions in the church. It is often the first thing people mention when they explain why they are not Christian. Christians disagree about what the truth is. 
Ecumenism is the word that de­­scribes the historical movement for global church unity. I used to think of it as either a boring academic exercise in doctrinal compromise, or a winner-takes-all struggle to forge one monolithic superchurch.
This is a big issue for a lot of people. We fundamentally disagree. In order to solve that problem we will need to deny some doctrines we think are true. That can't be good.  Then what are we to achieve. One big church? Often protestants don't even get why that would be desirable.  They typically like their current arrangement. Why rock the boat for something as nebulous as unity?
After five years in the field (I work for a Lutheran ecumenical organization), I'm no longer dismissive. The quest for church unity is a wild, wondrous, and strange act of penitence for Christians' often callous disregard of that little word one in John 17 and the Nicene Creed. We confess that the Holy Spirit has called one church into being. But almost all the evidence points in the opposite direction. What does this mean? And how should we respond to it?
This is huge. God commands unity. Yet it seems impossible. God does not command us to do something without giving us the grace to be able to do it. We need to trust God. If He commands it then it must be possible and it must be good.

Throughout church history, Christians have come up with many ingenious ways of explaining why the one church can be divided into many factions. The easiest, of course, is to say that everyone outside of a particular circle is not actually part of the church. That was how the church father Cyprian dealt with it: By definition the church is one, indivisible; so if there appear to be "divisions," the reality is simply the true church versus a wicked pretender. And outside the church, there is no salvation.
 I don't know that St Cyprian explicitly said no salvation. He said things like:
If someone does not hold fast to this unity of Peter, can he imagine that he still holds the faith? If he desert the chair of Peter upon whom the Church was built, can he still be confident that he is in the Church?"
So he says knowing you have the right faith or even a saving faith is impossible unless  you are connected to the successor of Peter who is the pope. Likewise knowing the church you are in is part of the one true church is impossible without such a connection. He does not say it can't be so. He just says we can't know it. Such a person is not on the rock but on the sand yet not all houses on sand fail.
So someone outside the church is missing something of great importance but they still might be saved.

But this approach works only if the isolation is strictly maintained. What happens if Christians in one "church" encounter those of another "church" and are startled to find genuine faith, piety, and good works?
This is the great hope for Christian unity. For centuries schism was maintained by minimizing contact between the different faiths. Then everyone could believe their faith was the one true one. In modern time that is breaking down. People don't refuse to talk to each other anymore. I know my mother is 80 and when she was a girl in Holland Catholic and Protestant kids were not allowed to play together. That does not happen anymore. Once they play together they start to get that these people are not less reasonable or less holy than us. There are even some who do what I did and marry someone from that other church.  
At this point the more generous but almost as problematic notion of the "invisible church" comes in. It's usually based on Jesus' parable about the wheat and the tares. The basic idea is that godliness describes only individuals, not institutions. We all know that our church is full of inauthentic Christians. Meanwhile, we've discovered that their church actually has some authentic ones. Therefore, the one true church is invisible, known only to God. Visible, historical communities are merely incidental to the business of being the real church.
This is typical. The protestant see an either/or and the Catholic response is both/and.  There is a visible church and an invisible church. Yes there are sincere Christians in other churches. No that does not make Catholic church structures unimportant.
These may seem like opposite solutions to the unity problem: one maximizes the importance of church structures, and the other minimizes it. But underlying both is a refusal to take church history seriously. And that's a problem.

If there's any doctrine that must take real, lived history into account in order to be meaningful, it's ecclesiology, the doctrine of the church. But both approaches ignore inconvenient historical realities. Defining a specific church as the church ignores the Holy Spirit's capacity to move beyond boundaries and structures created by humans. But defining the church as authentically Christian individuals, wherever they are, reduces structural divisions to matters of indifference, when in reality they foster hostility among those who should be calling each other brother and sister. The protracted religious wars in 16th- and 17th-century Europe were proof enough that the notion of an "invisible church" couldn't stop Christians from killing each other.
This is why the both/and works so well. Catholics were slower to understand the Holy Spirit working outside the visible church. Still when we got it there was no need to say Catholic doctrines are unimportant. It can even be extended to people of non-Christian faiths or even those who claim to have no faith. 
Embarrassingly enough, Chris­tians did not theologically confront their internal violence until outsiders called them out on it. It was the experience of competing on the mission field that exposed the hypocrisy (dare we say heresy?) of competing factions, all claiming to be the supreme bearers of the truth and love of Christ. Potential converts were not impressed, and the missionaries knew it.
Violence needed to stop but that is not near enough. You still have no intellectual credibility if you don't teach one truth and arrive at it in a non-ad hoc way. Christianity has been steadily losing respect since the reformation and that has moved from the intellectual world to mainstream society in recent decades.

The result, at the famous Edinburgh Missionary Conference of 1910, was the birth of the ecumenical movement. The primary goal was not fattening up an underdeveloped doctrine or even reducing intra-Christian hatred. It was about making a credible witness to those who did not yet believe in Christ. "By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another," Jesus said (John 13:35, ESV). But what if the disciples don't love each other, and even build up walls to keep it that way? Disunity is a scandal to the gospel and a stumbling block to faith.

On the night of his arrest, Jesus prayed three times to the Father on behalf of his disciples "that they may be one as we are one" (John 17:11, 21–22). The desire to uphold that prayer has been the driving force of the ecumenical movement. But the way forward has hardly been obvious. The oneness of the church has proved to be a paradox like the other great paradoxes of faith: the humanity–divinity of Christ, the already–not yet of salvation, the sinner–saint reality of the believing Christian. The church is divided and yet somehow still one.
A great paradox? It is amazing to me how someone can understand the ecumenical landscape so well yet not consider the obvious solution, one subgroup of Christianity is right. There is just an assumption that that could not happen. Then if it did happen how would you recognize the right one? It is impossible to imagine even God solving these problems. Solving them in a way that requires a response of faith
Though they haven't solved the problem of disunity, ecumenical efforts have made a difference. Pan-Christian solidarity played a vital role in ending Communism in Eastern Europe and apartheid in South Africa. It has fostered joint service projects between Christians who previously wouldn't have trusted each other with their money. And through careful dialogue, it has discovered the astonishing commonality among Christians—far more than an emphasis on divisive issues would lead anyone to believe. At its best, ecumenism seeks to hold together matters of doctrine, church governance, and missional outreach.
This may all be true. How would anyone know? Ecumenical ministry tends to be invisible. Often it involves secular people as well. By the time you get to the lowest common denominator that produces agreement what you have left is frequently something with broad public support outside of Christianity as well. It is great to do these things. It is just not the remarkable unity Jesus had in mind that would convince the world that He was truly sent by God.
It would be tempting to blame some particular person or party for church division—somebody who disrupted the ancient harmony with false teaching or bad behavior. But that disunity began in the pages of Scripture.
I find it funny that a Lutheran wants to avoid naming names regarding who caused church division. Luther's name would obviously pop to mind. The cause of the reformation is much more complex than one man but he didn't help.
Dissension within the church started early. Think of the break between Paul and Barnabas, the conflict between Peter and Paul, the unjust Communion practices at Corinth, and the false teachers who led the faithful astray. Paul endlessly exhorted his fellow disciples to love each other, as did John. They wouldn't have had to repeat themselves had unity been happening naturally and automatically.
The point is they recognized common leaders. Unity will never just happen yet if we can agree on who we are supposed to unite around we can work with a lot more dissent. The apostles were the leaders instituted by Jesus. Jesus still works the same way. He gives us leaders and tells us to make it work. The successors of the apostles are called bishops. The successors of Peter are the popes. 
There are many reasons for internal conflict, some sinful and some legitimate (though nearly everyone thinks their reasons are legitimate and only minimally sinful). But Paul makes an important distinction: While he acknowledges that "there must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized" (1 Cor. 11:19, ESV), there must be "no divisions among you" (1:10). The Greek word there is schismata, from which we get "schism." And the reason is that "in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and all were made to drink of one Spirit" (1 Cor. 12:13, ESV).
I wonder about the Greek word translated "factions." The NIV translates it "differences." Sure there will be differences but Paul assumes in the next verse that they come together for the Lord's Supper. This means he is talking about differences way less serious than those that separate protestant denominations. As much difference as the common leadership allows rather than completely separate leadership with unlimited difference. So Paul cannot be understood to be saying denominations are OK.
Church turns divisive and ideological when it is severed from the gospel that brought it into being. And at its most simple and radical, the gospel is this: "While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). God came after sinners who wanted nothing to do with their Creator, gathering up a community of enemies and making them into a family, a fellowship, a church. The church is the epicenter of enemy reconciliation in the world, starting with the severest estrangement possible—between God and human beings—and working out from there to repair all forms of human estrangement.
The trouble is as soon as you make precise what this means you get big disagreements. You can't avoid it. That is why you need leadership. If you don't then Christ will look like He can't even bring reconciliation between pastor and pastor. 
There is a serious objection to all of this and to ecumenism itself. What if enemies of Christ have snuck inside the gates? False teachers were condemned and sent away by the apostles; shouldn't we do the same? Isn't division preferable in certain cases?
That is a problem. Any ecumenism that can't exclude anyone will get pulled further and further from the radical truth of the gospel. There must be some mechanism for saying you have strayed too far. You are no longer Christian. You cannot be part of our community.
The matter finally comes down to how we view the "enemy" that the false teacher has become. Is the heretic an enemy like Satan, to be thrown into the lake of fire and tormented forever? Or one of the lost sheep whom Christ goes to great lengths to rescue, the ungodly for whom Christ died? The truth is, no heretic will recover from his heresy as long as the orthodox permanently reject him. And there's always the possibility that buried beneath the heresy is a neglected shard of truth. Lutheran theologian Arthur Carl Piepkorn liked to say that heresies were Bußpredigten, meaning "repentance sermons": They were rebukes to the mainstream church for overlooking some aspect of Christian truth and love.
Excommunication is a biblical concept. It does not mean permanently rejecting someone. It does not mean they are going to hell. It excludes them from the church fellowship to protect the covenant community and to make clear that there is a serious problem. You still call that person into full communion as you call every person who is outside the church. Can we learn from their heresy? Sure. We can always learn even from those outside the church. Still if the matter is serious enough
Many still doubt the importance of unity. Often that's because of false perceptions about what unity might actually entail. And often it's due to a sinful protectiveness regarding one's own corner of Christen­dom. But refusing to strive toward unity is like saying, "Why bother trying to be holy when God has already declared us righteous?" God has given us the gift of salvation; we can live in contradiction to that gift, or we can be transformed by it into holy people. Likewise, God has called one church to be the one body of Christ; we can live in contradiction with that one church, or we can reconcile and make visible our unity in Christ. 
We can't live in contradiction to the gift of salvation without losing that gift. Same goes with unity. There is only one church for the same reason there is only one heaven. God's call to love means everyone. If we are not interested in being in God's one church then we are living in contradiction to our salvation.

Jesus said unity would show the world that He is really sent by God. We are part of the world. We need to learn He is really sent by God. That is why He calls us to join a church that is truly amazing.

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