On the one hand, we have issues that seem trivial to most observers (from within and without). What kind of songs can/should be sung in worship? Which translation of the Bible should we use? Can art can be hung in a place of worship? On the other hand are more fundamental, sharply defined doctrines, which have classically defined the Christian faith: the deity and messiahship of Christ, trinitarian monotheism, baptism and eucharist, the resurrection, justification by grace through faith. The former set of questions are typically resolved by the local eldership/pastor, while the latter are defined (e.g. Nicene Creed, Westminster Confession) and upheld (consider the recent reaction to Rob Bell) on larger, ecumenical scales.
Somewhere in the middle are topics debated quite frequently amid interdenominational exchange: the mode of baptism, covenant status of children, eschatological hope (or non-hope) for the church, role of law in Christian piety, election and the scope of the atonement, and—should I say?—creation. Many Christians effectively reach across these doctrinal boundaries (e.g. Desiring God Ministries), but the prevalence and openness of debate has the potential to wear on the human spirit and cause tension, if only intermittently.
So far, this structuring to Christian disputes may seem obvious, or even too simplistic. Well, I am guilty on both accounts. But let me move on to my second observation. All of the issues mentioned above have been used by Christian congregations, at one point or another, to break fellowship with others. Not simply to form a new congregation or denomination, but to sever dialogue and cast out. What some deem trivial quibble (or part of Christian cultural tradition, not to be bound to the conscience), others may view as a means to bring schism and condemnation.
At the same time, there is great danger in blind ecumenism. If our goal in promoting Christian unity is God’s promise through his covenant, then theology matters, and though it may cause tension among us, we cannot treat the pain with apathy. For the church to survive itself, our attempts at reconciliation in doctrinal disputes must embody a healthy balance between obedience to the Word, and compassion for the man.
Easier said than done? Well, yes, but it has been done—if only once.
A kingdom-oriented approach to reconciliation
The canonical gospels, while rich in story and teachings, were not primarily written to provide an historical account, or even to establish a uniquely Christian belief system. Each gospel recapitulates the story of Israel using early 1st century events to establish that Christ is the climax to the Jewish narrative, and that through Christ, God has inaugurated his kingdom on Earth. Paul summarizes the act in saying “[God] rescued us from the domain of darkness, and transferred us to the kingdom of His beloved Son” (Col. 1:13). As the “image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation” (Col. 1:15), Christ represents that to which Adam and, by proxy, ourselves were called, but have failed. Elsewhere, Paul expands on this point through an early Christian hymn:
Unlike Adam in the Genesis narrative, Christ did not “grasp” (as toward the fruit) at his “equality with God” (echoing the serpent’s promise to Adam; Gen. 3:4). Moreover, he remained obedient to the Word (his own divine nature and the Father’s will) unto a death that was intended to reconcile God’s creation to himself—slaves to the Master; sinners to the Holy One.
Theology in practice
What makes the gospels so vital to the life of the church is that they reveal to us not only what Jesus said and did, but who he was and how he felt. Jesus loved his own (John 13:1), even when they were blind to the obvious truth. Through compassion, he revealed the will of God to those that just didn’t get it (Mark 10:21). Whether in breaking cultural boundaries (John 4:1–26), or following the road to cavalry, Jesus’ compassion for man was such that he faced humiliation on every possible level. He forfeited reputation and reward for the sake of reconciling others to God. But he also wept at the face of death (John 11:35), elucidating the fragility of the human heart. Finally, he succumbed to frustrations with the outright mockery of God’s temple (Matt. 21:12), revealing an uncompromising commitment to God’s commandments and glory. All in all, the gospels provide a ‘kingdom-oriented approach’ to Christian unity through the character and person of Jesus.
We will, inevitably, fall short of this expectation when actually dealing with others in the church (or outside). Our interaction is complicated by the fact that each of us is not only fallible, but actually inclined toward reinforcing our own pride and reputation. The poetic words of Alexander Pushkin are very appropriate here: “The illusion that exalts us is dearer to us than ten thousand truths.” Unfortunately, it is not always obvious when we lie to ourselves to protect our vested interests. John Calvin’s sentiment regarding the first commandment was nearly identical, when he said “the human heart is a perpetual factory of idols.”
To compensate for our intellectual frailty and proclivity to idolatry, we cannot afford to shut out the words of others, even when we think the truth is obvious. Accused dissidents of Christian orthodoxy should not “be marked out and avoided,” as one blogger put it. Out of respect for the truth, and the hope of God’s kingdom, we must face the issue head on—both academically, in open dialogue, and privately, through prayer—as Jesus did toward the Pharisees and as Paul did toward Peter and the Galatians.
Controversy over creation
There are many Christians who purport that belief in a 6-day creation should make or break fellowship. To them, it falls in that set of fundamental doctrines, on which there can be no compromise. Others, like Ken Ham, are passionate about this doctrine and warn others not to compromise, but are at least willing to openly discuss their reasons behind doing so. I was surprised by Mr. Ham’s comments about Dr. Enns, partly because he has long been committed to open dialogue. I hope that despite recent events, he may remain committed to such.
Overall, I am more grateful now for others that are willing to engage in discussion—not simply to make their case but for the sake of truth and the hope of the kingdom. Despite my lengthy criticism of Roger Patterson’s published work, I sincerely believe he maintains a healthy balance between obedience to the Word and compassion for others, and so I welcome his comments here. On a similar note, I am encouraged by posts like this one from Dr. Jay Wile (and again here). There, he demonstrates how we can still learn from those with whom we disagree.
Beginning and ending with Christ for the sake of the church
I will end my discussion anecdotally. Last week, I was listening to N.T. Wright’s presentations at the Wheaton Theology Conference from last year. In his discussion on Paul, Dr. Wright lamented that in modern Pauline scholarship, very little is said about Paul’s theology of the church. Whether or not you agree with Wright’s view on Paul, this stinging point must be dealt with: Paul writes much about justification, election, the cross, etc., but his letters are everywhere saturated with the church and Christian unity. Even where he addresses justification at length (e.g. Romans, Galatians), it is done in the context of Christian unity.
Now I understand better a bit of pastoral advice I once heard: “Unless we are constantly reforming our ecclesiology, the rest is for naught.” On that note, I hope you will consider my thoughts on resolving divisive controversies within the church (or how my abstract picture can better be put into practice). I am eager to hear your feedback, as well, for this post is hardly meant to be assertive and overbearing.