Amid the commemorations and celebrations of Martin Luther nailing several Latin points for disputation upon his local bulletin board, there has been some discussion about whether the Reformation “failed” or “succeeded.” The answer, of course, depends on what you think the Reformation’s goal was. But to enable you to reach your own conclusions, I thought a scorecard might be helpful. (more…)
Sometimes it is useful to look back to a time before the heated debates of the present were kindled, and see how cooler heads then discussed those issues. One of the heated public arguments of our time is the place of gender and gender expression in our society, and the degree to which those are God-given, naturally determined, socially constructed, or individually chosen. This past week the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW) published a “Nashville Statement” outlining what they regard as necessary Christian teaching on homosexuality and transgenderism. Reactions to the statement were covered in all the major and most of the minor media outlets. And this is only the latest flurry in a discussion which already goes back several years.
I recently read Margaret Widdemer’s 1915 novel Why Not?, written long before the current cultural uproar regarding transgender identity and gender expression. It includes, solely for entertainment value, a subplot surrounding a woman who wants to be a man, and how that turns out. In doing so, it raises possibilities that our modern gender pugilists do not consider, or even wish to foreclose. Let us examine those, looking for an alternative to a renewed culture war.
In any contentious debate, it is useful to reconsider the views that are taken for granted in order to facilitate dialogue. This is especially important for views that are shared by both sides, which may by their falsity enforce a sterile debate. One key tenet in much of the “gay marriage” debates, held by “liberals” and “conservatives” alike, is that each person’s sexuality defines them as a person. Your “sexual orientation” is an essential trait, perhaps the most essential trait, to your human personhood. On reflection, this is preposterous, and both conservatives and liberals should jettison the notion. This will enable much more fruitful discussion on contentious issues.
The issue of homosexuality has been prominent in church discussions for several years now, long enough for most parties to be sick of the issue and incredulous that other people don’t see the matter as seems obvious to them. In many ways, the debates have resembled the debates about American slavery in middle third of the nineteenth century: both sides dug in and called the others non-Christians, and almost every denomination split over the issue in the period leading up to the American Civil War (and indeed, the Southern/Northern Baptist split remains to this day, even if the Northerners changed their name to “American Baptists” with all the arrogance of military victors). The disagreements over sexuality persist, in part, because both sides have been making really stupid arguments which are easily caricatured by their opponents. Conservatives have been accused by liberals of simply reacting with a knee-jerk “yuck” and seeking to justify their irrational prejudice with appeal to the Bible and tradition. Conservatives in turn have accused liberals of throwing out all that characterizes Christianity in their desire to kowtow to the current cultural trends. (more…)
Peddling stereotypes is intellectually irresponsible, usually offensive, and occasionally funny. Along those lines, here is a list of parking lot layouts for various religious groups, in no particular order: (N.B. outside of America, “parking lot” is usually pronounced “car park.”) (more…)
In response to my long essay about the similarity, or lack thereof, between the earliest Christians and various denominations today, one commentator, Anna, offered insights which can jump-start practical ecumenical discussion among Christians. In her first comment, she opened the door to a principled ecumenism with a rejection of the extremes, both of judgmental conservatism and of mindless liberalism:
But I would like to suggest that there is a middle ground in between “you’re going to hell” and “all paths are equal”. The middle route says, “Yes, it does matter; but you’re not screwed if you get it wrong.”
She then established the value of ecumenical contact among Christians by pointing out how great it would be if we all took upon ourselves what each denomination does well: (more…)
My mom tells the story that when she was a child, she was not allowed to eat anything which contained ingredients she couldn’t pronounce, as they were probably harmful. This is the same way some Christians feel about ecclesiology: they can’t say it, so it must not be good.
Ecclesiology is just the concept of what the Church is. We all have an ecclesiology, even if only implicit. Is the Church a formal institution or an informal association of people? Is it a holy witness to the truth or a messy hospital ward for sinners? Is it the a tax-exempt charity or a political action committee? Or none of the above? There are many different ideas about the nature of the Church.
Do these ideas matter? In a sense, not nearly as much as other areas of Christian belief. Jesus never said, “You are blessed if you believe X, Y, and Z about the Church.” Nor did Paul write, “If you believe A, B, and C about the Church, you will be saved.” The central message of Christianity is that God became incarnate as Jesus Christ in order to redeem the world and fix the mess that we all have made by his death and resurrection. Christianity first and foremost proclaims Jesus Christ, who he is and what he has done and is doing.
But “not nearly as significant” as the most significant single event in the history of the universe is a far cry from “insignificant.”
Some might point out that ecclesiology remains perhaps the most contentious and debatable area of Christian belief, with more disagreement than agreement on the subject between Orthodox, Protestants, and Roman Catholics. And if the churches have got on well enough without a clear consensus on the subject (unlike, say, the doctrines of the Trinity or Christology), then ecclesiology must not be the most essential.
But again, “essential” is not the same as “significant.”
Ecclesiology makes a difference to many areas of our understanding of Christianity. Here, I will take just one example: ecclesiology determines how we evaluate which religious events are good or bad. In particular, whether a Christian who is not of your group is an ally or a rival, whether you should celebrate or abominate their successes, and whether you regard their ideas are stepping stones or snares, are all questions of ecclesiology which have a large impact on how we live in a society with multiple Christian denominations. A number of examples will clarify the case.
John of Monte Corvino was a Franciscan missionary to China in the early fourteenth century. At that time, there were a significant number of Eastern (non-Latin) Christians in China under the Mongol Yuan dynasty, and because he did not regard their churches as in any way valuable or conferring salvation, he focused his efforts on converting them to his own Latin Christianity. According to his account, he succeeded in converting a prominent statesmen who belonged to the Church of the East, namely King George of the Onggut, and cherished high hopes of leading most of that people into submission to the papacy. By doing so, he elicited strong opposition from the clergy of the Church of the East, and he complained that they were attempting to prevent him from saying mass or baptizing anyone. (It is not simply ironic, but rather a reflection of the ecclesiology of his church, that back in Europe and in the Crusader states his fellow Latin clergy sometimes likewise hindered other Christians from celebrating church services.) His actions and his complaints make sense, if he took a narrow interpretation that outside of his (Latin) Church there could be no salvation. But from an ecclesiology which values ecumenical cooperation (and since 1994 the Vatican has acknowledged that the Church of the East is not teaching Nestorian heresy, as they had previously thought), these strategies are back-stabbing and sheep-stealing. What looks like Christian love and missionary zeal, from one ecclesiological perspective, appear instead as arrogance and hypocrisy, from another.
In 1548, Luther’s followers were in crisis. The Holy Roman Emperor Charles V, a staunch supporter of the papacy against “Lutheran heretics,” had defeated the Protestant princes in the Schmalkaldic War, and he decreed religious uniformity throughout his realm by ordering all people to go back to mass. The only concessions to the reformers were communion in two kinds (bread and wine for laity) and clerical marriage. A revised version the following year explained the doctrine of justification by faith in a Lutheran sense, thanks to the input of Philip Melanchthon, and was more acceptable by some, though not all, of Luther’s followers. Melanchthon argued that the Roman mass itself was adiaphora, neither commanded nor forbidden in scripture, and therefore obedient attendance was permitted. His critics, including Matthias Flacius, said that nothing idolatrous (as they viewed the Roman mass) could be adiaphora, and a split developed between the “Philippists” and the “Gnesio-Lutherans” (the name means the “True Lutherans”), which would only be healed a generation later, after both Melanchthon and Flacius were dead. Was Melanchthon correct to be willing to compromise with the Roman Catholics? Certainly not, if they had nothing to do with Christ’s true Church, as the Gnesio-Lutherans claimed. Were the Gnesio-Lutherans right to break away from Melanchthon and other “compromisers”? Only if preserving the “purity” of their church was more important than unity with Christians who thought differently on these points. (It is ironic that there was a controversy over adiaphora, literally “things that don’t matter.”)
A third example: Rev. Billy Graham preached an evangelical Protestant message of salvation by faith in Christ from the late 1940s to the early 21st century. His revival “crusades” in a location were organized by clergy in that city or area, who would then direct follow-up efforts with new converts and incorporate them into their churches. These clergy would often sit on the platform behind Graham while he preached. Beginning in the late 1950s and early 1960s, Billy Graham’s “crusades” made two inclusive moves. He racially integrated the clergy on the platform, and he invited Roman Catholic clergy to participate in the revivals. These views were not universally popular, and he earned a lot of criticism from more conservative Protestants, especially for encouraging lapsed Catholics to return to the Roman Catholic Church. Ecclesiology again determines whether Graham was right or wrong to cooperate with Catholics. If the Roman Catholic Church is simply the bondage of demonic idolatry, as some of Graham’s critics assert to this day, then sending would-be converts to Christianity to them is to short-change them of salvation. (Lest you think I’m making this up, here is one webpage critical of Graham along these lines, and by no means the most extreme.) But if the Roman Catholic Church is a valid church through which people may experience Christ’s redemption, then Graham’s cooperation with them is another instance of his evangelical priority to work together to spread the good news of Christ’s love and redemption.
Ecclesiological issues inform many of the debates between liberals and conservatives in most major denominations. Among Protestants, the liberal/conservative divide for the past century and a quarter has frequently lined up over the issue whether the Church should seek to ameliorate the world or should seek to rescue sinners out of the world. (Some are increasingly realizing that this need not be an either/or.) Among Roman Catholics, the division between sede vacantists and papal loyalists turns on whether recent popes and the Second Vatican Council have started promulgating falsehood or have merely exercised their divine right of doctrinal definition. Among papal loyalists, the divide between liberals and conservatives includes the question whether the Church should change to accommodate modern notions of progress and mores, or whether the Church should timelessly hold its essential teaching in defiance of contemporary social developments. In order to navigate these debates, and to rejoice in those things which honor our Savior, Jesus Christ, we need an ecclesiology which is accurate and astute. May the Holy Spirit guide his Church into all truth, as our Lord promised.