Wednesday, June 2, 2010

A divided Church, purity or pride?

We hear a great deal about sustainability these days. More and more, I find myself questioning the sustainability of the Western church's trajectory.

Can we churches continue to split-hairs and divide ourselves one from another in order to distinguish ourselves as the most Jesus-like or the coolest? How long can we compete with one another on the grounds of having "better worship," "stronger teaching" or "purer doctrine?" Must we--like a centrifuge--continually throw to the fringes everything that cannot cling to some enigmatic standard or another? Must we purify ourselves of other sincere Christ seekers and followers?

Is this sustainable? Are we all straining at gnats and swallowing camels (insisting on our own peculiar standards, and ignoring Christ's call for unity)? Surely this is not what Jesus meant by, "I pray that they may one..." Is it not time for humility and unity?

We have developed rules to follow and items to believe which define for us the true followers. So who is it that has the best set of beliefs? Are all the rest of us lost?

Thank God, Jesus did not lift the standard so high when asking disciples to follow him. "Follow me" was all he required. His followers didn't even believe he was the Messiah at first! (And then only when God's Spirit revealed it--not a clever emotional sermon followed by a "sinner's prayer.")

I'd guess on judgment day he'll trash most of us and welcome the wise few?

No? You don't believe that?

Question: Then why not swallow our pride and unite with others who are on this journey of following the ONE?

Answer: Because Jesus alone isn't enough for us anymore. And that being true, beneath what banner could we possibly agree to bow?


bikehiker said...

I like your creative connection linking divisions in the church to sustainability, David. With you in this lament...and hope.

Because I think rather independently and critically, find fellowship with both mainline Christians and unorthodox folks and also--through my service to Christ and the church in urban areas--because I have developed a more progressive political perspective, I have at times both feared and felt diminished about being lumped with the "not spiritual enough" folks by the "bigger, greater, Spirit-filed, emergent, etc." spiritual gang movements that seem to come in shifting waves decade after decade. But I no longer fear them and I am more certain and at home than ever in the grace by which I stand.

For whatever it's worth, the folks spit out and left behind in the wake of the super-spiritual (Paul dealt with this pathology, remember?) are sincerely still Christ followers and more ready-- both for their woundedness and grasp on prop-less grace--to reach across the battle lines and cross borders to link with all who hunger for God.

David said...

Our times remind me of another time when there were those who would listen to...and those who would not hear Jesus. I find myself running to the security of having my ears that won't hear--because I already "know" far more often than not. Paul also said that knowledge "puffs up."

Zee said...

this past Sunday, i decided to be curious about this Reinhard Bonnke guy (famous evangelist, or so people say)... i still have issues with his teaching / preaching, but since everyone from the youth group was going to this "Faith Festival," i thought "why not? at least i'll be able to say what i think about it from personal experience and not from what i've heard."

as we got out of the metro, there was a free bus to the place of the festival and on the bus stop a young Christian-looking cheerful gal gave out booklets. i briefly glanced at it, "Oh, Ukrainian Orthodox Church, interesting."

as i waited for a couple of my friends, i didn't have anything else to do but read, so i perused this little booklet... and was appalled at what i saw.

what it was basically about was (and this is a direct quotation, albeit translated!) "one of the 'leaders' of this Pentecostal movement is Reinhard Bonnke. but beware of their theology - it's not following the basic rules. although they hide behind Nicene creed, they are not following it...."... on and on they ranted, and then there was a paragraph that made me stare and read to mom later, (all formatting preserved)

"if you really want to learn about God and the gift of salvation, you can do it only at the Orthodox Church - the Church that has been established by the Christ Jesus Himself"

sorry for rambling, but when i read your post i immediately thought of that... and that's the major religion in Ukraine... the religion that is separating people. thank God, Jim and Donna and later you guys came over to Ukraine. if Orthodox Church was the only Church that told me about God, i would not want to believe such a God ever.

so... call me stubborn-headed, but i refuse to unite with such "Christians." true believers - i have no trouble with.

David said...

There is an old joke along these lines. A tour of new people in Heaven is taking place, the guide is pointing out places of interest and suddenly whispers for all to be quiet. The tip toe past a neighborhood, and finally the after they are a safe distance away, the tour guide explains, "That is where all of the ________ (fill in the blank with your preferred exclusive group) live. They think they are the only ones up here."

In the spirit of that story, do you think there will be people in heaven who think they are the only ones?

Further, I have heard orthodox people teach that they are the only true Christians, but I have also heard orthodox Christians, including priests, absolutely refute that...expressing that all Christian faiths have sincere and faithful followers. Now, I will say they tend to believe they have the purest teaching. But don't many of our denominations, if not all by implication, teach this?

Zee said...

if those people would still think that they are the only ones in heaven, that would be hell, won't it? since for real heaven you need God... and if those people don't realize the truth even when they get to heaven, then i am truly sorry for them. the eternity in heaven's gonna be one hell of a boring place.

yes, i am not saying all orthodox churches are like that. there are "real" Christ-followers there, but to be honest, i get lost in an orthodox churches. may be just me - i am not claiming i got it all figured out.

and i don't believe that the Church of the Nazarene got the purest form... and neither has any other Church in this world. we cannot. Churches consist of people and people are never perfect (and if they say they are, they are blind or deceitful) *sigh* i am rambling again. but this is just one of those issues that bugs me.

you were right - why can't we just unite? why do people still squabble over stupid things?

David said...

This is interesting discussion! "That would be Hell, wouldn't it?" Wow, that is a fascinating concept. Reminds me a little of The Great Divorce, by CS Lewis.

Zee said...

yeah, it's one of the books that i really want to read (but keep coming across russian copies...). heard a lot and not one bad review (except one gal who saw the name of the book in my friend's "My favorite book" question and gave one of those once-over glances... *shrug*)

but yes, i guess my understanding of hell is a bit different than the most people's.

Debbie said...

Instead of thinking that there are too many not united isn't it more that the Harvest is so big and ripe that every available source is needed to make sure none is lost ?

david said...

Yeah, Debbie, this could be a glass half empty post. And I agree that we need all available to help share our good news. The picture we share is quite tainted however by a divided church. I have no fix for this, and I carry my own "dividing biases" I assume. I'll always wonder why we need to narrow the borders of our individual kingdoms in order to justify our separations. And do we indeed "harvest" more by being divided? Diversity perhaps could help, but division?

Debb said...

I have been thinking a lot about unity, and division, lately. During Easter, I went to a church other than the one I have attended for several years. It was a different denomination. I was awed when as a precursor to communion the pastor announced that only those of that particular denomination were welcome to participate in communion. Communion is about a mutual participation. I kept thinking that this couldn't have been of God's design, but of human design.

Not long after that, I read a meditation by Max Lucado, which addressed my thoughts:

“There will be one flock and one shepherd.” John 10:16

God has only one flock. Somehow we missed that. Religious division is not his idea . . . God has one flock. The flock has one shepherd. And though we may think there are many, we are wrong. There is only one.

Never in the Bible are we told to create unity . . . Paul exhorts us to preserve “the unity which the Spirit gives” (Eph. 4:3, NEB). Our task is not to invent unity, but to acknowledge it.

Zee said...

@Debbie: ouch... obviously that pastor didn't count the fact that Jesus served the first Communion to Judas as well as the other disciples. *shrug*

David said...


I think you are on to something with the "preserve" rather than "create" unity. There is indeed a unity provided by God's Spirit. He himself is a participant in an eternal unity, and creates it wherever he is present.

Using your example of restrictions at communion, I have permission in my denomination to welcome all to the table. But let me push those lines a bit. By recognizing unity, does that mean there would be no people we would keep from the table? Is there any type of person you would not want welcomed?

In the meantime, I'm going to chew on what you have said, enjoy my unity with you--even though we haven't met--and carry on. There is a body of Christ, but we probably can't point anywhere and say: "His church is there/" Or, maybe it would be more accurate to say that we cannot point anywhere and say: "Well, we know it is NOT there!"

In a hurry here, so I may need to rethink all of this. I'm grateful for your participation!

Debb said...

Ah, David, you raise an interesting question on the issue of unity, as you ponder if there are those we wouldn't/shouldn't welcome to the table. Or perhaps your question is whether there are those "I" wouldn't welcome to the table.

Your questions raise a few questions for me. If we are preserving (rather than creating) the unity that God has created, "should" we refuse anyone? Is it our right?

These questions bring to mind a few scenarios. One is your comm"unity" garden that I read about in an earlier blog. That garden is a wonderful example of coming together in the unity that God intended. Is there anyone that you would refuse to allow to participate in that garden?

Another scenario that comes to mind is a personal experience. I had the privilege of participating in mission work in Austria. Rather than sending missionaries to various countries, TCMI, trains people for ministry in their own countries. While I was at TCM, there were students present from 9 different countries. Some of the countries represented were Russia, Bulgaria, Belarus, Romania, Moldova, Croatia. You get the general idea . . . . there were times that some of these countries had been enemies. One of the most profound communions I've ever experienced was when the students from all of these countries came together at the communion table. As I participated in that communion, with tears in my eyes, I felt certain that this is what God intended . . . all of us setting aside our differences whatever those differences might be, and remembering our unity.

Your questions brought one more scenario to mind, David. That is the scenario of Jesus' return to Galilee after his resurrection. I think about his encounter with Peter on the shore of the lake . . . the very Peter who had denied his association with Jesus. It would seem that Jesus couldn't have been very happy with Peter, after all he had tried to teach him during their three years together. But despite Peter's denials, not once but thrice, Jesus welcomed Peter to the table as he not only shared breakfast with him, but prepared breakfast for him.

As I reflect on these three scenarios, it seems to me that there isn't anyone we shouldn't welcome to the table . . . I'm not referring to only denominational differences, but any differences . . . cultural, religious, gender, etc.

Your question about whether or not there is a person I would not want welcomed . . . I'm certain that there have been times in my less grace-filled moments, when I forget to remember that whatever our differences that I am as much of a sinner as that person, and only welcomed to the table and into God's presence by the grace of God. Or when I have been consumed by the fear of difference rather that the grace of the love that binds us together. But if God created the unity, and my job is to preserve it, do I ever have that right?

That raises yet another question for me. If we are each a reflection of God, regardless of the differences, how can we deny another to come to the table or share in the unity? Aren't we bound to preserve that unity?

I'm thankful for our unity. I'm also thankful to you for raising questions that cause me to ponder on a deeper level.

David said...

I like where you go with this. So many people--and I feared you might--express the place where they must draw lines. I agree that we can reject no one. I too believe that grace is our role. Jesus told his disciples in the upper room after at the resurrection, "if you forgive anyone, they are forgiven. If you do not forgive them, they are not forgiven." I believe this was not intended as a carte blanche for judgement on the part of the church, but a warning of what our refusals of grace could bring about.

Now, if that is true, could our lack of tolerance in any area be not so much dividing the church, but be destroying the intended "good news" we are called to carry to those who don't believe? Is our role to share news of forgiveness, and thus welcome into the "family," or to post a contingent welcome?

David said...

One more thing, when the church was originally tempted to reject Gentiles, they chose instead to free them to follow Jesus with only two conditions: Avoid sexual immorality and blood sacrificed to idols. They had several hundred other rules they were used to, but they cut it down to these. "it seems good to the Holy Spirit and to us...". How good is the good news? Kind of good? Or a gracious welcome to all comers? I like grace. And we don't sing "Pretty decent grace, how ho-hum the sound....."

Debb said...

"Pretty decent grace, how ho-hum the sound....."

David, you made me laugh aloud with your final comment. Like you, I believe that grace is our role. I can recall several years ago, sitting in the meditation room of one of the Ronald McDonald Houses. I was writing a note. Wanting to include a verse of scripture, I grabbed the Bible that had been left on the corner of the writing desk, to make certain that I quoted the scripture correctly. It was a different translation than my own Bible. I was looking for Hebrews 13:2 "Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers . . . ", but in my rush, I stumbled upon Hebrews 12:15. In the translation of the Bible that I held in my hands, the verse was: "See to it that no one misses the grace of God . . . "

I'll never forget the feeling that coursed through me when I read those words. I knew that I hadn't "stumbled upon those words by accident". I knew that those were words that I was meant to live by.

But I can't help but wonder, if we know that grace is our role, and are amazed by the grace that has been extended to us, why is it so difficult to extend grace to all? The verse didn't say "See to it that 'some' don't miss the grace of God", it clearly said "See to it that NO ONE (emphasis mine) misses the grace of God . . . " That seems pretty clear to me, but so often we struggle, forgetting unity. Instead we find it easier to draw lines in the sand, wanting to mete out grace and the good news of forgiveness only to those we deem worthy.

How do we right ourselves, getting back to the center, and "Oneness with God and with others" if you will, and truly see to it that NO ONE misses the grace that has been so wonderfully and amazingly offered to each of us . . . all of us?

David said...

A friend sent me this article link from Christianity Today. Interesting tie-ins here.

David said...

A friend sent me this article link from Christianity Today. Interesting tie-ins here.

Debb said...

The article from Christianity Today certainly does tie-in to our discussions/thoughts about unity.

When I read about the different pastors in the city serving communion at the one gentleman's church, I couldn't help thinking about my Easter experience and the closed communion.

This article reminded me of a couple other examples of unity that I've experienced. While living in New Hampshire, we lived in a small, rural, community. Our church had a small, but active congregation. On a good Sunday (other than Easter or Christmas Eve), we fixed communion for 50. Instead of trying to offer Sunday school solely to the children of our small congregation we joined forces with the Catholic church across the river from us. In that way, we were able to serve many, many more of the children in the community, as well as having more volunteers to assist with Sunday school. It was a wonderful and memorable experience for the kids.

I headed the mission board of our church. When I assumed that position we were distributing 20 Thanksgiving baskets. I decided to place articles in the newspaper about the endeavor. The first year I distributed Thanksgiving baskets, we moved from 20 baskets to 125 baskets. Several of the congregations in the community assisted us, including the local Synagogue. But, the assistance was limited to just churches. A few of the companies in the community offered the assistance of their employees, as well as offering additional foods, and funds for foods. (Employees were required to do so much community service per year or per month, and this was a perfect venue.)

By the time I moved from the community, we were distributing 275 baskets and feeding over 1000 people. I'll never forget the sense that God was smiling on me when I was out in a farmers field (who wasn't affiliated with any church) digging carrots & turnips with pre-school aged children and retired men of all faiths.

I shall continue to hope and pray that we truly live in the unity that God intended.

David said...

Once again, thank you for your response. I love the stories of unified service when you lived out East. What beautiful word pictures of unity. You certainly provide worthy aims for all of us to pursue. I like the focus on the "half full" side of things, verses the "half empty" place I began!

Debb said...

I am reminded of a Harry Belafonte snippet with the Muppets. As Belafonte is explaining the song, he makes a key statement:

"There really isn't any difference in any of is if we take time to understand each other."

Ah, if we could but remember this unity, and forgo the dividing walls