Monday, February 25, 2013

Duking It Out In The Church

Many things – such as loving, going to sleep,
or behaving unaffectedly – are done worst
when we try hardest to do them.
~ C.S. Lewis

Chris: That behaviour is a sin – the Bible says so here and here…

Lee: No, no – you are interpreting those verses from a narrow perspective. Scripture writers wrote within the contexts of their cultures, but we have new information and interpretive techniques now and should update our theology accordingly.

Chris: A sin is a sin, no matter the cultural context.

Lee: Sigh! Jesus said that the Law was all about love – for God and our neighbour. We must have compassion for our neighbour – walk a mile in her shoes before we stand in judgement over her.

Chris: Yes, I agree about that. I’m just not so sure that we understand God’s love as much as we like to pretend. In fact, I think we try to make God adapt to our standards rather than vice versa. We decide, according to our own lights, that some of his judgements and actions seem unloving, so we try to interpret them right out of the Bible and onto the scrap heap.

Lee: And maybe we like to focus on the sins of others so we don’t have to acknowledge our own. We should be asking ourselves if we are walking justly and loving mercy rather than lambasting fellow Christians for their perceived moral lapses. 

And so on and so on, ad infinitum…

Christians have argued and split into factions since the dawn of the Church. Even the first apostles had to agree to disagree on certain issues and nothing has changed since. The matters of contention vary, depending on the times and cultures and I think that the imaginary exchange above reflects some of the issues under debate today. 

It is understandable that Christ’s followers would want their faith to rest on solid doctrine and right practice. After all, the Apostle Paul did warn Timothy that  “…the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear.”  (2 Timothy 4:3) 

Does that mean the Church should close all its theological doors and stop trying to come to terms with challenges to its teachings? Fresh movements of the Spirit tend to start with a rush of enthusiasm for God, a new understanding of his ways.  We were blind, but now we see!  Our instinct is to try and preserve this with doctrines and practices, but the more we try to control it, the more quickly that first love, that life force, slips from our grasp. Eventually, we’re left with a pretty, but somewhat empty shell.

But then, how many layers of doctrine may we safely peel away and discard in our quest to discover the Love at the heart of it all? How do we discern the difference between sound doctrine – those things that define our faith - and inessentials that we may cast off with no ill effect? Sometimes I despair of the whole tug-of-war, as we yank Scripture verses back and forth, hoping to tie them to our own points of view. I find myself wishing that God would make it clear once and for all what he thinks about the issues in question.

It is apparent, looking back on centuries of divisions and even violence, that the Church has never been able to say, “Finally – we all agree and are at peace with one another.”  It is especially difficult to discern truth and falsehood these days because Christianity seems to be many things to many people. The internet vibrates with competing views on "how to be a good disciple". Should we be modern day John the Baptist types, calling a sinful world to repentance or should we soften our harsh edges and warmly welcome one and all into our church sanctuaries, “just as you are”?  Or can we do both and if so, how would that look? 

Whether we wish to protect the tenets of our faith or to change them, I am discovering that barricading ourselves behind doctrinal certainties or, alternatively, pushing through with trendy new theologies serves more to hide Christ than to reveal him in our midst.

I say that because Jesus made it clear that people would be able to recognize disciples of Jesus by how they love one another. Not by who has the best doctrine. Not by who best serves the community. Not even by who displays the best morals, the best success in life or best promotes peace and justice in the world. Jesus said that our love for one another would prove to the world that we are his disciples. Loving one another well is harder than any of the good things I just listed. Two thousand years of infighting has made this quite clear. 

I was struck by something Apostle Paul said to the Corinthians. “…it sounds as if more harm than good is done when you meet together. First, I hear there are divisions among you when you meet as a church…But of course, there must be divisions among you so that you who have God’s approval will be recognized!” (I Cor. 11:17-18)

Bible commentators vary in their understanding of these verses, but all agree that Paul was talking about a certain prideful attitude. In the passage context, he is instructing the church how to live and worship together. The Corinthians should have been imitating Christ, but their “me first” attitude was antithetical to how Jesus lived his life on earth. They were proud of their wealth and position in society, trying to carry that over into congregational life. They argued about whose theology was better.

Above all, they seemed to forget that they were to prefer one another above themselves. Jesus laid down his rights and his lofty position in order to come down among us – to identify with us and to love us. He chose to serve rather than dominate. Paul talks about Communion (or the Lord’s Supper) in order to illustrate what it means to walk in love as Jesus did.

And of course we want to be like Jesus!  We desire more than anything to speak the truth in love with one another and we try to get it right. But we fail. I like the way D. Thomas, a Bible commentator, described our dilemma:
…assembling together for religious purposes does not necessarily imply unity of soul. It does not follow that because people are brought together in the same church that they are united together in spirit. Two people may sit in the same pew, hear the same discourse, etc., and yet in soul be as remote from one another as the poles.”
And then the clincher: “No real spiritual unity can exist where there is not a supreme affection for Christ, who is the only uniting place of souls.” *
When I read that I feel a tinge of despair because my affection for Christ can hardly be described as “supreme.”  But then a verse from Philippians comes to mind. "For God is working in you, giving you the desire and the power to do what pleases him."  Oh yeah…mustn’t forget the good news about what Jesus has accomplished for us! We are not able to manufacture authentic Christian unity because that can’t be built from the outside in. Despite our best efforts, we have no idea how to go about it. It’s kind of a mystery, really. But God’s Spirit has access to the building materials and knows exactly where to commence renovations within each individual Christian heart.

Can we trust him enough to allow him access to our inner wreckage? If so, he’ll poke and prod and dismantle and build. Slowly, slowly, we’ll relax and let him love us. Inch by inch, our love for him will blossom and grow, like wildflowers after a drought. Perhaps we’ll notice a new sense of freedom – freedom from the desire to lord it over each other or to protect our spiritual turf from intruders; freedom from the need to judge and find wanting, or to nurture a sense of offense.

Instead, with mental swords beaten into plowshares and emotional fists unclenched, we’re likely to find ourselves speaking the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church. (Eph. 4:15)

We come to love not by finding a perfect person, but by learning to see an imperfect person perfectly. ~ Sam Keen

* D. Thomas, The Biblical Illustrator

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