Card Games and Witch Hunts: On Unity and Purity in the Church

Unity and purity, a la “truth in order to goodness” are two principles that are supposed to be part of a package deal. Yet, amidst our current crises of post-Christendom (or post- whatever the latest -ism is) , they often stand opposed.  Depending on your particular Christian sub-culture, you likely either find yourself within a group of people who wants to celebrate “unity” no matter how much doctrinal impurity, moral compromise, open hostility, or willful (but seemingly blissful) ignorance there is, or you find yourself within a group that has excommunicated somewhere in the neighborhood of 98% of world Christendom in the name of “purity.”

It needs to be stated clearly that unity matters – a lot. It is, in my view, the fundamental principle of new creation, when God joins together heaven and earth by joining together his Son and his bride, the Church. This is why division is such a scandal in the New Testament;  division within the body of Christ is essentially a rejection of God’s promises, God’s mission, and the eschatlogical reality that has burst into the present in Christ. This is why the major divisions across world Christendom are so heartbreaking; they suggest that Christ’s body can be divided. If unity and catholicity isn’t on your radar, and if it isn’t playing a formative role in your theology, doctrine, and ethics, you might want to make sure that the Bible and the teachings of Jesus are still a bleep on your radar.

But lest we forget, purity matters too.  Settling for the lowest common denominator between equally weak divergent views doesn’t count for unity. In the Church, it counts for laziness and doctrinal apathy. If anything, the lowest common denominator should serve as a common ground from which two divergent groups can begin pursing true unity. I’ll never forget when a college student said to me, “My church is so inclusive that I don’t know what it is we’re including people in anymore.” This was a simple but indeed profound and rather damming observation. What a daunting prospect (and present reality), that the church would no longer offer any alternative to the latest cultural whim, the most popular versions of political correctness, or a watered down religious therapy.

Scripture as a whole, and indeed the history of redemption, does an incredible job of keeping unity and purity together. And no, I’m not going to list a bunch of bible verses. “Whole” is the operative word, and thats why I used it.

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Ok, so lets look at two ends of a spectrum. And yes, there will be exceptions to the rule. Feel free to gripe about your “exception” in the comments section.

In most struggling mainline denominations, “unity” is the trump card thrown for the sake of every agenda imaginable. Unfortunately, folks throw this trump card without any regard for the rules of the game. Its like calling out “uno!” while playing Texas Hold’em. Sorry, in the words of Walter Sobchak, “This is not ‘Nam – There are rules.” The bottom line is that orthodoxy matters – doctrinal, theological, historical, and moral orthodoxy –  and thus scripture, creeds, and confessions matter (I adhere to Robert Jenson’s argument that the Creed and Canon are basically symbiotic). As Christians, we do not have the luxury of standing over our sacred texts and making them say what we want them to say. Our task is to discern God’s will and authority in and through his word, not to make the text and thus our theology in our own image. We are not some sort of “enlightened” generation that has somehow figured it all out. We still need to know that a flush is better than two pair and that we’re not allowed to redefine things like the death and resurrection of Jesus in order to make it more palatable for “reasonable,” “enlightened” people of the 21st century.

It is of course a cruel and sad irony that most efforts for “unity” and acceptance across western mainline denominations (not least my own) have in fact resulted in a deeper fracturing of the body of Christ around the world. In the name of openness and progressivism, many maninline Protestant denominatoins have simply alienated themselves from the rest of world Christendom. In some cases, it results in quite bizarre behavior, such as the official reinstatement of 5th century heretics (as if to say, “see, we still care about theology!”).  Such agendas and efforts constitute, oddly and ironically enough, a sort of fundamentalism that is just as sectarian and destructive as the fundamentalism that mainliners claim to reject. The aims, too, are strikingly similar to the therapeutic gospel of “God just wants everyone to be happy” that tends to pop up from the more conservative televangelism outlets. “Fundamentalism” thus knows no bounds. “Liberals” and “conservatives” are sometimes on opposite sides of the same fundamentalist coin.

Simply put, if your aims for “unity” are at risk of dismantling relationships with people who are serious about the Lordship of Christ and the basic tenets of Christian Orthodoxy, you probably need to seriously rethink your aims and your understanding of the Body of Christ.

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Ah, but the “conservatives” (or whatever hip label you’re using in order to avoid generational faux pas), are in no way off the hook.

“Truth” (if you’re into that sort of thing) be told, I follow church politics in denominations other than my own, including more conservative denominations. It is deeply troubling to me that quite often these supposedly more “theologically responsible”  communions do not appear to have unity on their radar.  Some of these denominations will spend an inordinate amount of time and energy on witch hunts (burn her anyway!!!)  in order to root out the supposedly diseased %5 of a denomination which makes up less than %1 of world Christendom. Uh…. yeah. Do the math.

I’ve had conversations with folks in more conservative camps who are unable to distinguish between doctrinal essentials and non-essentials, between the Apostle’s/Nicene Creed and their respective confessional traditions (if in fact creeds and confessions matter to that tradition), and even between the Bible and the person of Jesus Christ (yes, there is a difference, actually). I am appalled and saddened by “conservatives” who would essentially excommunicate the rest of world Christendom. Reality check – if your “unity” is with less than %1 of world Christendom, its not unity, its sectarianism. If we (Protestants) aren’t grieving over disunity with other traditions, including Roman Catholics and the Orthodox,  we’re not grasping the gospel. Are there reasons that I cannot find unity with Rome? Yes. With the Orthodox? Yes. But I am indeed grieved by this, and you should be too.

If you consider yourself more “conservative,” would you still be willing to take communion with a Nicene-affirming Christian who has a different view than you concerning women’s ordination? Baptism? Charismatic gifts? Justification by faith (calm down)? These are all important issues, and admittedly fun to discuss, but they’re not top tier.

I can work with anyone who can (1) affirm the basic tenets of the Nicene Creed (and I mean really affirm these tenets – literally and propositionally), and (2) sincerely seek to love their neighbor as themselves.  That’s pretty much my criterion. While I am guided by a collection of Reformed confessions, this confessional tradition does not warrant a divide between me and others who can humbly – with faith, hope, and love – proclaim that Jesus, the second person of the Trinity, is God Incarnate, that he died for our sins, rose from the dead, and ascended at the right hand of the Father (but that doesn’t mean we should simply avoid discussing other theological, doctrinal, and moral issues!)

To paraphrase a friend of a friend, just as some of us are theologically diverse to the point of heresy, some of us are theologically narrow to the point of heresy. The slippery slope goes both ways, I’m afraid, and I’m guessing that none of us is perfectly perched at the top (except me of course).

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  1. #1 by Stephen on November 22, 2011 - 3:55 am

    I personally believe that a huge piece of the puzzle is humility. And I don’t mean it solely in the “He doesn’t glorify himself” sort of way. That’s a negative definition, which I’ve come to find irksome (oh yeah, check out my vocab). I like how the ANE viewed humility – as someone who knows his place and fulfills that role, and doesn’t try to move outside of it. They have that negative part, but they also have the positive of “knowing” and “doing.”

    It seems to me that we should take that mindset when we discuss theology, philosophy, and the Christian life. On the one hand, we ought to recognize that we are not God, and do not have all the answers. We’ve got what we’ve got and we need to make the most of it, while at the same time realizing that there might be somewhere we are at fault. On the other hand, we ought to recognize that we have a role as revealed by Christ, to “teach all things which [he has] commanded,” and that this isn’t limited just to His words while on earth, but the God-breathed scripture. So we should fight to preserve the purity of all that God has revealed about himself through Scripture and the life of His Son and the witness of His Spirit, because anything less would be to fail at our responsibility.

    So we have a responsibility to fight for the Truth, and that will bring about conflicts and disagreements between us. But we also have a responsibility to recognize that we are not God, and should be very slow to cast judgment. Not that we should avoid recognizing and labeling those who stand opposed to what Christ has taught, but these kind of things happened over years and years of dialogue, wrestling, and debate. They weren’t easy decisions in those days. And unfortunately, it seems that they often are in our time, on both sides of the aisle.

    That said, I believe I have a responsibility to fight for what I understand is the truth of scripture, but also be willing to consider other perspectives that disagree with me so that I don’t become “cloistered,” so to speak. After all, we should “not neglect to meet together” with other believers in Christ.

    Just My Thoughts,
    Stephen

    • #2 by borno on November 22, 2011 - 2:44 pm

      Excellent comments Stephen. I’ve actually made a couple of minor edits based on what you’ve written. Providentially, our discussion last night revolved around these issues, as we read about the “unity of the spirit and the bond of peace” in Eph 4.

  2. #3 by Michel Phillips on November 29, 2011 - 12:53 pm

    I second Stephen’s emphasis on humility.

    Marcus Borg’s “The Heart of Christianity” pretty much sums up the end point of my theological journey. (I’m a layman.) That may well put me in the over-inclusive camp. I’m OK with that. When in doubt, you can’t go wrong with love.

  3. #4 by Lisa Powers on November 29, 2011 - 3:18 pm

    Thank you. Expecting big things from you.

  4. #5 by Bob Borneman on December 1, 2011 - 1:07 am

    I struggle as well with denominational differences in beliefs. We all seem to forget that there is only one Truth (not several, relative truths). If there is only one truth, and I believe that my truth is that one truth, then by logical, absurd extension, all other denominations are adhering to un-truth. Would that make them reprobate? Obviously not. In my mind, that one Truth is only known by God, and our minds are too limited to figure out how that one truth accomodates all denominations.

    Take for example the issue of freedom of the will. My mother, a catholic will say with complete conviction that we all have a free will to do what we want, and therefore her religion is filled with anxiety about ‘doing more’. Conversely I am convinced that God guides my will, and I cannot control my will. Do I believe that my mother, and all catholics by extension are damned for their belief? Am I betting my soul that my belief is correct? No to both questions. Better we join together and search for the one Truth.

    Having said that, I do believe my mother would say that all non-catholics are in fact going to hell, me included. (Just kidding mom ;-) )

    • #6 by Jason D. Wood (@Wood_JasonD) on December 5, 2011 - 2:36 pm

      One thought pattern that has helped me is that the one Truth is personal, before it is propositional. That is, Truth is found in Christ. This statement, of course, leads us to a new (or old?) set of questions:

      Who is Jesus?
      What has He done?
      What will He do?
      Do I trust HIm?

      When Truth is personal before it is propositional, the important question is not “do I believe it,” but “do I trust Him?” I think this is a nuance that needs to be pointed out. There are lots of people who believe the right propositions, who call out “Lord, Lord,” but will not enter into His eternal kingdom. Why? Because they don’t trust Him as their only hope for a relationship with God. [Adam, feel free to insert Nevin's responses against revivalistic thinking] Yet, that doesn’t mean that we can eliminate the importance of propositional truth. We still need to know who this Person is that we trust.

      The first three questions above deal with the propositional issues. Conveniently and providentially, they have been answered by the standards of orthodoxy like the Apostles’ Creed and (perhaps especially) the Nicene Creed. In these creeds, we find ourselves with a good standard for orthodoxy, for which Adam has advocated.

      Solid standards for orthodoxy eliminate the “need” to ostracize and vilify those who disagree on what would be non-essentials of our faith. Each is free to believe in the charismatic gifts, the ordination of women, or even transubstantiation within the bounds of orthodoxy. As long as we are joined to the Christ of the Bible (and the Creeds), because we trust Him, we are a part of one very diverse, global, timeless body.

      So anyway, I’m sure I’m just preaching to the choir here. But I thought it would be a helpful rubric, though, to think of Truth as personal, rather than propositional.

      • #7 by borno on December 5, 2011 - 3:25 pm

        Thanks Jason, that’s helpful. Also, the EPC called – they want your ordination back.

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