new command

Having Come Lately

I tend to think that I came to the question of divisions among Christians rather late in the day.  We all have.  Most of the divisions among Christians which exist now already existed before any of us were born.  The division between European Christians and most varieties of Middle Eastern and African Christians happened fifteen centuries ago; the division between Eastern Orthodox and the Latin West is almost a millennium old.  The Protestant Reformation is approaching half a millennium old, and even the Methodists are a quarter of a millennium old at this point.  Many of the Pentecostal denominations are older than a century, as is the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy which sprouted new denominations.  All of these divisions occurred before we were born.  So the question facing us is what to do about those divisions now, given the history that has already transpired.

There are many ways one might answer that question.  Some people regard it as an intellectual challenge, to discern which denomination is the True Church and join it.  Others regard the divisions among Christians as evidence for falsity and abandon the religion, or refuse to join it.  Some people think the correct response is to convince everyone else to join their own group; others prefer  to pretend there are no divisions among the groups.  Perhaps the vast majority of Christians just ignore the issue, staying in the church where they are and ignoring other denominations as irrelevant to them.  None of these is my response, although the reason why will require some background narrative of my own experience. (more…)

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The Argument from (Dis-)Similarity

Will the real Church please stand up?  Go to a phone directory of any moderately sized settlement and see if the listings for “churches” don’t rapidly get bewildering.  Indeed, such an exercise is often an education into varieties of Christianity we didn’t know existed!  How should those who worship Christ sort through this denominational chaos?

One method frequently suggested by Roman Catholics, Eastern Orthodox, and Disciples of Christ (along with a few Baptists, on occasion) is to look at the evidence for early Christianity and see which contemporary denomination is most similar to the churches of the apostles and their successors.  This is the argument from similarity.  I recently read a blog post making this argument against Protestants of all stripes, and a commentator here pressed me to consider the same line of reasoning.  It was not the first time.  I have heard this argument made in favor of multiple different branches of contemporary Christianity.  I like to imagine the question by asking which church would look most familiar to the apostle Peter or any of the other earliest Christians, if he were sent on a time-travel expedition from AD 60 to the present.  I prefer someone else to Jesus for this exercise because Jesus is the God who knows the hearts, and this is usually posed as a question about external appearances. (more…)

Obligatory Ecumenism

A friend at another blog linked to an important article about ecumenism, which I wanted to discuss here.

(First, a note to the reader: after today this blog will be Out to Lunch, probably for the next couple weeks, as I take care of some physical world tasks that need doing, and I will be without internet access for part of that duration and with very little free time for even more of it.  Some readers may feel that the posts have been out to lunch for a while now, but this is not an admission of doctrinal error…)

I particularly appreciated Dr. DeVille’s points #5 and #7 (with honorable mention to #6).  Top-level ecumenical contact may often elicit a “who cares?” from the people in the pew.  After all, what could such contact possibly accomplish?  At this stage, perhaps the best it can accomplish is to provide a model for friendship and cooperation to all Christians.  The biggest obstacle to ecumenism is not what so-and-so did to such-and-such back in the X century (whether that’s 431 or 538 or 1054 or 1204), nor even disagreements about ideas and practices (though such disagreements are real).  The single biggest obstacle to real church unity is a nebulous congregational sense that those people over there are not like us.  I have been asked, in all sincerity, whether Catholics and Evangelicals worship the same God (and the person was very reassured when I gave a positive answer).  And the best way to allay misconceptions is to get to know people.  (This works equally well for allaying misconceptions about anything, for example racial differences, Islam or other religions, and political partisan differences.)  Such conversations can (and perhaps should) start off away from the topic at issue and just involve getting to know another human being.  And after you discover that the other person does beautiful handicrafts, or likes the same sports team you do, or has a funny sense of humor, or has excellent taste in wine (or books or music), in other words, after you discover that the other person is a human being, then you can approach the topic at issue with the curiosity to discover how is it that your new friend thinks differently than you.  Dr. DeVille gives other very easy suggestions in his piece, so you should go read it.

But Dr. DeVille’s most important point point is #7.  Ecumenism is not optional.  In addition to our Lord’s prayer in John 17 which he cited, my mainstay is the only command which Jesus added to the Law: “34 A new command I give you: that you love one another, so that just as I have loved you you may love one another.  35 By this all people will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:34-35).   Dr. DeVille makes the point that church division hinders Christian witness, because God is one, so why aren’t we?  This was exactly my experience.  Before I became a Christian (over a decade ago now), I had a ready answer to any Christian friend who asked why I was not Christian: “Those Christians are so divided they don’t even know what they think about anything, so why should I join them and add to the muddle?”  But God had grace and mercy on me in my blindness, and he dragged me to himself; only after I was there did I see that there is a deeper unity among all true Christians which transcends denominational structures and differences of dogma (which is not to say that either structure or dogma are inherently unimportant!).  I am grateful for God’s grace, and I continue to pray for my family members and friends from that period to find, or rather be found by, the grace that I have.  But I also wish to take practical steps to make it harder for people like me to use visible Christian divisions as an easy excuse not to believe.  Christians are already one, in the one Holy Spirit of God, but we need to live visibly in light of this fact.  Ecumenism is obligatory, not only for pope and patriarch, but for all people.

“All Things are Yours”

After the divergence of Christian denominations, important spiritual writers were located in different branches.  I think of Brother Lawrence among the Roman Catholics, John Bunyan among the English non-conformists, Fyodor Dostoevsky among the Russian Orthodox, more recently C. S. Lewis among the Anglicans, and Billy Graham among American Evangelicals.  But when people of another denomination read and cite with approval such a writer, members of that writer’s own denomination sometimes object to what feels like poaching.  Surely, the sentiment may be expressed, that writer is “ours”; what write have “you” to appropriate him?  Indeed, some Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox feel that way even about writers from before the schism.  I have heard Eastern Orthodox Christians object to any “Western Christian” (Roman Catholic or Protestant) claiming Athanasius or the Cappadocians, and I have heard Roman Catholics object to members of other churches citing Aquinas or Gregory the Great.  Is there any legitimacy to this objection?

The short answer is “no.”

The present is not the first time that Christians have fought over names.  Already in Corinth in the middle of the first century, Christians were claiming to belong to different denominations, whether Peter’s, Paul’s, Apollos’s, or Christ’s (1 Cor 1:11-12).  (It is unclear whether this last group were claiming to be mere Christians, including the others, or holier-than-thou, excluding all the others.)  Among Paul’s many responses to this sorry state of affairs is the following gem:

So then let no one boast in men. For all things belong to you, whether Paul or Apollos or Cephas [Peter] or the world or life or death or things present or things to come; all things belong to you, and you belong to Christ; and Christ belongs to God.” (1 Cor 3:21-23, NASB)

All those, then, who belong to Christ may rightly claim and profit from all those who have gone before.  I am a late-comer to Christ, I know, but even so my heritage includes Moses and all the prophets, all the apostles, the early Christian writers, the medieval Christian writers of East and West (and of whatever language, whether Latin, Greek, Syriac, Armenian, Arabic, or any other), the early modern reformers (such as Erasmus and Luther) and mystics (such as Theresa of Avila and John of the Cross), and modern thinkers and activists (such as Dorothy Day and Martin Luther King, Jr.).  We have this great shared heritage, because it is Christ’s “inheritance in the saints” (Ephesians 1:18) and we are “joint heirs with Christ” (Romans 8:17).  Let us all, then, profit from the riches of that heritage and be prompted by it to fulfill the New Command of our Lord: “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you also love one another.  By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.” (John 13:34-35, NASB)