20 “I am not praying only on their behalf, but also on behalf of those who believe in me through their testimony, 21 that they will all be one, just as you, Father, are in me and I am in you. I pray that they will be in us, so that the world will believe that you sent me. 22 The glory you gave to me I have given to them, that they may be one just as we are one – 23 I in them and you in me – that they may be completely one, so that the world will know that you sent me, and you have loved them just as you have loved me. (John 17.20-23)
Let me be perfectly clear: I do not believe that Jesus intended for the splintering of His Body. How, then, can we reconcile this passage with the multitude of denominations and theologies that exist in the world today within Christianity? I think that there are some good reasons and some bad reasons for the variety of denominations.
In many ways, we work best in community. Clearly, Jesus intended for this kind of unity and commitment to the mission. We can likely agree that there is much for the Church to do. Bonding together with others focused on the same mission and call to advance the cause of the Kingdom of God. Some denominations arose from a desire to band together on a mission to reach a certain type of people or address a certain need. While this does not require the creation of a new denomination, it does provide a good reason for a group of people to move off from the main body in a direction. At McBIC (Mechanicsburg Brethren in Christ, my church), we have several groups that have banded together in this “missional” sense with a definite goal that is their passion. However, these folks have not left our congregation, nor has their passion been a cause of division. In fact, we celebrate their calling and seek as a church to support and empower them to achieve their purpose. In other settings the mission may require a “break” of sorts, but while there may be a new direction, there should be room to call each other family through this.
As we read Scripture and study the life of our Messiah, we may come to various conclusions about the issues of doctrine that may not be completely and clearly laid out in the Bible. At times, this may be due to seeming contradictions in the text. At other times this may be due to different readings of how the original languages should be translated into English. At other times, we may debate whether the admonitions in the Old Testament or the Epistles are intended for all time, or simply for the people to whom they were originally written. We debate in what ways the coming of the Messiah alters our reading of the Old Covenant and how it applies to the Church. Were some of the teachings of Jesus intended only for the disciples while He walked this earth, but not for us in our day?
I believe that there are correct answers to each of these questions, but that we in our limited human nature must admit that “now we see through a glass darkly”. None of us can know that our theology is perfect. While we must hold this humility in mind, we also should wrestle with these questions and come to our own conclusions. From these thoughts, it is logical that we will tend to band with those we find who come to similar conclusions to these questions. I don’t believe that this “clustering” with like-minded believers is necessarily evil, but it certainly can be used for evil by our Enemy.
As an example, I wouldn’t feel comfortable worshiping in a Reformed church. The image that reformed theology casts of God is inconsistent with my reading of Scripture and looking at the words, life, death, and resurrection of Christ. I think it is perfectly healthy for the body to have a church for people who see that in Scripture, but for there to be other options for Christians, like me, who see the Scriptural image of God differently. Issues like baptism, eschatology, non-violence, and the like provide some explanation for the dividing of the body into many sub-parts.
On these issues, it is understandable, and perhaps healthy, for us to gather with others like us. Then it is even understandable that we would want our gathering (church?) to connect with other gatherings of like-minded individuals in other areas, leading to denominations. This can be healthy and wholesome, but not all schisms are as healthy.
Where this turns into an unhealthy division is when we begin to look at others in the Body of Christ as less Christian, or even un-Christian. There are good reasons to think that some who call themselves Christian don’t have any right to associate with the Name of Christ (Westboro Baptist comes to mind), but this is the exception, not the rule. I don’t agree with reformed theology. In fact, I find it a major turn-off. Still, I consider those who hold this view to still be my brothers and sisters in the Body, and those with whom I should have fellowship in the Kingdom.
If we use our own grouping (church) to define others as outside the church, we are on dangerous ground. If we further attempt to suggest that being outside of our church/denomination necessarily implies being outside of the Kingdom of God, we are making decisions that are God’s purview. I can acknowledge that others with whom I disagree, have something to teach me, even if I never accept their theology. We are all a part of Christ’s Body, and therefore we must work together, in spite of or through, our differences to advance the Kingdom. If we turn our attention, as we are so often tempted to do, to attacking each other in front of the world, we will never accomplish our mission.
Growing as Family
Within the Body, there is room for disagreement and discussion. We must be able to listen to those outside of our particular denomination if we are to see our own blind spots. This does not mean that we all need to become theological clones. Nor should we deny that there is Truth, which we are all striving towards. I can tell you that you are wrong without condemning you as outside the family. Likewise, you can point out my flaws or holes in my theology without condemning me to hell. I have this funny feeling that we’re all going to find our notions pretty funny when the Kingdom does come in its fullness in the new heaven and earth. As I said earlier, none of us are God, thus it is exceedingly unlikely that any one person has flawless theology. I also think that it is safe to say that all of us have plenty of work just to live out the theology we have, without worrying about how well others are living out theirs (or worse, judging how well they are living out ours!). We do, rightly speak to each other on the theological level. However, none of this is worth anything if we don’t then go out and serve the Kingdom together as family!
Hmmmm…. maybe there’s another post in the series embedded there.
As a side note for those interested: Bruxy Cavey and The Meeting House (BIC Church in Toronto, ON, Canada) had a wonderful series during the summer of 2011 where Christians from other faith traditions were invited into their service to explain their theology from the stage, and then offer a short sermon. The differences were clear, but The Meeting House took it as an opportunity to learn from others. Their core theology remained unchanged, but what a great way to model for us all that we are truly one Body. The sermons in the series can be found in audio or video format in their teaching archives and a podcast interacting with the differences in the faith tradition can be found in their podcast archives (this link was correct at the time of this post, as podcasts are added this might become outdated). I’m personally addicted to The Meeting House podcasts, as well as podcasts from Greg Boyd’s church Woodland Hills.
For the whole A Disembodied Head? series, check out this page.