Division in the Body of Christ

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Pseudo-Polymath has challenged Christian bloggers to defend whatever divisions among followers of Christ are justified (and I assume to explain which ones not are justified and why). He's been chronicling the responses so far.

I'm going to try to do something independent of what people have said so far, almost without referring to the other posts. If I focused on getting into everything the others have talked about, I don't think I would be focusing on the things I consider to be most important about this sort of issue. The one post I do want to mention is Jollyblogger's post. It's not in the roundup above, but I want something he says to be in the background as I move through what I want to say, so I'll start with a quick comment on what he says and then move into the more controversial claims I'm going to defend.

David argues that division on the level of denominations or separate congregations does not in itself mean disunity. Given that unity is something like acceptance of those who are different and love for those of different convictions in the non-essentials, I would tend to agree. He looks to Romans 14 for a good place to see this. I don't want to repeat what he said, so I'll leave his post to do what it's supposed to do. I agree with his picture of unity as how we treat each other and whether we can work together rather than whether we agree or gather for corporate worship in the same places or at the same times.

The fact of unity

Even stronger, I would say that we are in fact united. There's a tension within the scriptures, and particularly with the New Testament, between what scholars call the already and the not-yet. Now I realize that these are technical terms in need of careful definition, but I think you can get the idea pretty quickly if you just think of the already as the things that are already true of us based on what Christ has accomplished on the cross, whereas the not-yet is what will be true but has not yet been realized in the outworking of our lives.

Many concepts taught in scripture have aspects of both. Modern theologians act as if justification is the past achievement, and sanctification is the ongoing development of that justification in our lives. This is nonsense, biblically speaking. We are justified in being made just through the cross and as we are identified with Christ in his resurrection. Both terms admit of the distinction between the already and the not-yet, and defining the already as one and the not-yet as the other gets us nowhere.

We are being justified as we become righteous through the working out of that truth in our lives. We will be justified as our lives are made perfect in the resurrection. The words for sanctification are also used similarly in the New Testament. What's interesting is that the most common usage in the New Testament, even of sanctification terms, is in the already, the past accomplishment by Christ as God declares what's true of us as the basis of what will eventually be made real in a more ethical way. We are being made holy and will be holy, but in a more fundamental sense we are already holy.

The same is true of unity. It's hard to read Ephesians 4, particularly the beginning of the chapter, without concluding that unity is simply a fact. The body of Christ is united. Why? Because Christ is the head and maintains its unity. Because every single member of the body is in Christ, and in being united with Christ every single member of the body is thus in the one with whom all the others are united. That's the fact of unity. It's simply true. So no matter what ways we are not united, it is simply the gradual process of coming to be what we already are, just as with justification/righteousness and sanctification/holiness.

There is one body. That's simply a fact. All genuine disciples of Christ are part of it. There is one hope that we were all called to. There is one Lord with whom we are united. There is one faith that we believe. There is one baptism into Christ. There is one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all. That's the already.

Differences amidst unity

I think one of Jollyblogger's points is that diversity amidst unity is a good thing. I would go further and say that it's part of God's design. I'm not talking about all the things he's talking about, though. He's talking about differences of opinion and practice. I'm talking about giftedness and variety of service. What Paul moves to right after talking about the fact of unity in Ephesians 4:1-6 is the diversity amidst that unity. His focus is on the different giftings and ministries of members of the body. Difference ways of serving are all part of the body of Christ, and that kind of difference is intended by God for the well-functioning of a healthy body. I Corinthians 12 develops this theme in far more detail.

But what about the kind of difference Jollyblogger is talking about? He mentions a few, and I'm not sure I'd say the same about all of them. People have differences in doctrinal views or in fundamental differences in church practice, and many gather in racially segregated congregations. Some divisions are over style of music or organization of content in corporate worship. Some of the differences come in the area of criteria for church leadership or style of church governance. One of the many differences has to do with attitudes toward biblical intrerpretation.

Jollyblogger's point is that we can be unified despite these differences, and we don't have to be in the same congregation with someone else to be unified with them. I agree. We don't have to be. However, if the only purpose for the division is something that need not require another congregation, then I think we've fallen short of the ideal. I won't repeat myself, but I've argued previously that many theological differences do not justify different congregations. I've also argued that congregations divided by race are an affront to the fact of unity in Christ. I'm sure there are a number of distinctions along which Jollyblogger thinks it's legimitate enough to have denominational or congregational lines drawn but along which I think it's immoral to divide. (Though we'll see later on that I don't think drawing divisions and continuing them necessarily amount to the same, morally speaking.)

Here is my basic reason. Each congregation of believers is a manifestation of the heavenly reality that is the body of Christ, the temple of God, the gathering around the throne, i.e. the church. If we make a manifestation of the one heavenly gathering to be the one for those who baptize infants and the one across the road to be the one for those who dedicate their infants and then wait for baptism if and when someone has clear demonstration of belief, then we have prevented each of the two manifestations of the one church from manifesting the church accurately. It's as if there are two churches, and each is manifested in a different place. The same is true of Calvinist churches and Arminian churches, charismatic churches and non-charismatic churches.

For those who doubt that such differences can coexist in one congregation, doubt no longer. The congregation I've been part of for the past 7.5 years has members who are Calvinists and Arminians, charismatics and non-charismatics (and probably anti-charismatics), paedobaptists and credobaptists. Church policy is to emphasize only the eseentials. When a controversial issue comes up in the regular teaching of the church, as it will happen in a congregation that insists on teaching through the scriptures book by book, as I think a congregation should do, the teachers in the congregation must after serious study and prayer teach the views that they think are biblical. They also must emphasize that Christians disagree on such things. Some positions must be taken by a congregation, simply because you need a philosophy of ministry. A decision must be made on how the congregation's leadership will be structured, what relevance if any gender will play in who occupies which avenues of service, and so on.

I know from experience that you need take no position on paedobaptism vs. credobaptism, since my congregation leaves that to the conscience of parents, and the elders themselves disagree on which is biblical. Each side sees the other as doing what they do but calling it by a different name. With what are commonly called charismatic issues, you can simply follow the scriptural regulations on issues like tongues, not allowing them without knowing someone will interpret, always evaluating prophecies and interpreted tongues, etc. My congregation does that. We have not had someone offering a tongue in my time, but in the past it was much more frequent. I know there are members of the congregation who privately practice the gift of tongues. The congregation has deliberately not made this an issue of division, and I think that's the ideal view to take. Those who do not do that aren't inferior, but I do think this is the ideal way to do it.

I'd say the same about racial divisions, though I think that's worse. The white congregations who insisted black Christians form their own congregations were foiling the working out of the biblical teaching on what the church is. It's not two bodies, black and white, each manifested in different places. It's a heavenly reality that includes all believers, and it manifests itself in each location out of the people there, no matter their ethnic background. To form congregations purely based on race is therefore contradictory to the truth of what the church is, a union of all who are in Christ from all peoples and nations. It's different if people on opposite sides of the world or in different periods of time aren't meeting together. [We often ignore believers across time when thinking of who is a member of the church, but they are united with Christ as much as we are and are part of the heavenly reality of believers gathered around the throne.]

Where do we go from here?

I know I sound like a hardliner on this, but I think this is the biblical view. What's not so obvious to me is how this should affect us given that so many congregations and denominations already exist and are divided along such lines. That's where I'm going to sound much less like a hardliner, and this is why in the end I might agree with Jollblogger on many of the practical elements. I think it would be difficult to insist that a black congregation and a white congregation that meet across the road from each other should immediately stop meeting separately and combine forces. I think ideally they would seek to figure out how to do exactly that over time, but I don't think you can just have one join the other as it stands. The fact that they meet right next to each other without acknowledging that they are one in Christ is an affront to the unity that already exists. They are able to meet separately and acknowledge to a degree that they are one, but if they really were to acknowledge it fully they wouldn't be content with meeting separately.

Of course, the facts about why they were separate to begin with and how they have come to reflect different structures of organization and different views and practices will make resolving the situation much more complex than simply saying they need to combine congregations. The post I linked to above tries to get into that issue. The same is true of divisions along denominational lines. I do think we have a moral obligation to try to seek to overcome our tendency to congregate with those like us rather than to reflect the diversity God has created his church to have. I also think we need to think creatively and prayerfully about how we might seek to move more toward the sort of thing the congregation I'm in has. They were able to do this because they formed with the very idea of looking something like this. Already existing congregations don't have that luxury.

The best we can do in the short run is what Jollblogger says. We must recognize that being in different congregations and denominations does not make us disunited, because we are united. That's a fact. We also can seek to treat each other with love and to work together. As I said, that's less than the ideal, though it's far closer to it than often happens. In the end, I don't know if I have very many individual obligations besides the ones Jollyblogger says I have, even if my ideal picture has much more to say about the ideal to shoot for.

I do think congregations might have obligations that he doesn't think they have, but I also don't have any idea what those are or the best way to fulfill them. It might be something that can't be fulfilled during anyone's lifetime, but I'm hesitant to say that. I hold out the hope that some creative visionaries gifted by God to bridge the divisions we have will be able to accomplish a task that looks nearly impossible. I don't have a clue how that would look, though, and I'm so far from being a big picture person that I won't pretend I will have any good idea unless I see it.

So the answer to the question is that we simply can't justify creating divisions over these things, and when they already exist we should seek to overcome them in whatever ways are possible (or at least don't counteract even more important considerations, and there are probably many that are more important, not least the considerations within such passages as Romans 14, some of which count against the most obvious methods of reintegration).

For that sort of reason, I just don't think the radically ideal picture that we have a moral obligation to strive for is what we should have in sight right now in most situations. We need to think more immediately about what ways we can slow down and eventually stop movement in the opposite direction. We need to figure out how to attain elements of the ideal picture that aren't already realized, and it might be little gains at a time. Those are worth shooting for. Those are things I might be better at, but one thing I'm not good at is thinking them up all ahead of time, so I won't try now but will instead just post this thing and prepare for the onslaught of resistance to my hardline view on these matters.

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3 Comments

Surely, brother, a diverse unity without division reflecting the unity found in the Godhead is a positional stance of all believers�yet in everyday practice I don�t see this happening on this side of eternity.

Jolly�s example of a Korean church is pretty good. I know of several gatherings which have been entrenched in a language barrier �to the point that nothing was said in English. English-speaking folks would come and be completely un-edified as a Dominican or El Salvadorian stumbled along in linguistics-butchering effectively cutting an hour of teaching down to 20 minutes. A divide over skin-tone or cultural background is purely ridiculous�but language does prove immensely difficult. Yet this type of problem only lasts about a generation anyway.

Some of these other divides are very unfortunate but very often are based on very deep convictions and a refusal to submit to the present authority. There are several modified Calvinists in my own gathering who teach their views and there are others who wax very Arminian when they preach but there�s no accusation of false gospel. And yet, I can see if one of these folks decided to get very hardline with his stance and starts equating his theology with Gospel (now I�m going to get chaff) and refuses to submit to authority, such a person may go their separate way. Sometimes, like Barnabas and Paul, it happens�and God still decides to bless.

I know, blessing isn't a sign of approval. I�ll rejoice in Heaven when I can meet up with my Calvinist friends without being accused of hellfire and meet up with my Arminian friends without having my eternal security questioned.

I never said anything about a divide over language. I did say something about a divide over race. There's a big difference. Korean congregations speaking in Korean is one thing, Korean congregations who speak English is quite another, partticularly when the only reason they form is merely because of race. Most Korean congregations have English services that have turned into congregations of their own. I know a number of people who are members of such congregations. There's nothing language-related about it.

Oh I know brother, simply adding thoughts on where separating proves useful. Although, I gotta say those language situations usually weed themselves out in a generation as folks come in and kids grow up who speak both languages. What gets stinky is when those churches which have now adapted begin to raise culture or race to such a level that the body is disjointed.

I know of one bi-lingual culturally Hispanic gathering which simply refuses to go one zip code over to a struggling non-Hispanic assembly. These non-Hispanics, hungrily reach out to the now Hispanic neighborhood around them with only tracts and hand gestures. I was there one day translating during the open air and night speaking and one of the women grabbed me, took me across the street and invited her neighbor, their kids and upon rejection preached the gospel. To see Christian�s this hungry to get the word out and other Christians on cultural pedestals ignoring the need because they want to make sure they remain a Hispanic gathering makes me a bit queasy.

I'm sure Paul and James would have had some heavy words to say...

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