division-in-church_620

As is often noted, the polarization of American culture is steadily increasing. The abyss between the “left” and the “right” is growing deeper. The propaganda we launch at each other like mindless zombies is muddying the waters of news stations, social media, and personal interactions. The filth of hatred, blame, and scapegoating suffocates and stifles our ability to make peace and think rationally.

I would love to say that Christianity stands “as a light to the world” by not engaging in this venomous polarization. But I would be wrong to promote such a thing. Churches are drawing their borderlines, putting up their walls, and dropping our anathema bombs on the “heretics” who disagree with us. The ability to open our hearts and once again embrace our brothers and sisters in Christ – and reach out in love to those who are part of humanity with us – seems a difficult task. However, it is not impossible. After all, we “can do all things through Christ who strengthens (us)” (Philippians 4:13).

In this article, I will provide a foundation and common ground where Christians can once again come together, and I will map out the ways in which I see Christians deviating from this foundation. My goal in this article is to help us focus more on the person of Jesus, understand and love our fellow Christians, and increase in humility. Notice, furthermore, that I am not specifically claiming all positions mentioned as my own.

First of all, and a rather obvious point, the surest foundation for all Christian life must be the person of Jesus and the Spirit of Christ that resides within all of God’s children. God’s self revelation in the person of Jesus must be first and foremost what every Christian seeks to proclaim and imitate above all else. The church is the “body,” with Christ as the “head,” and we must learn to think of ourselves in such a way.

Second, it is vital that we adopt C.S. Lewis’ brilliant insight. The term he used as the heading for his most famous work aptly describes the common ground upon which Christians can stand: “mere Christianity.” Essentially, we must take as the core of our doctrine the earliest creeds of Christianity – such as the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed. I will admit upfront that I am not an expert scholar of the ancient creeds. But I’ve attended a Methodist church for quite some time now, and we say the Apostles Creed every Sunday, which has given me time to reflect upon it. The creed is as follows:

“I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth. And in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried; he descended to the dead. On the third day, he rose again; he ascended into heaven, he is seated at the right hand of the Father, and he will come to judge the living and the dead.

“I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and life everlasting. Amen.”

The creed is short, but it captures the core of Christianity. It can be put into the following points one ought to believe:

  1. The existence of God (which I believe should be defined as a maximally great being, even though that is a modern, post-Anselmian stance on the matter. I believe such a definition is the best means by which we can understand God, and it accounts best for the Jewish and early Christian understand of the nature of God. However, the MGB doctrine may be reasonably disputed).
  2. The divinity of Jesus.
  3. The virgin birth.
  4. The death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.
  5. The “ascension” of Jesus (i.e. he is not on this earth anymore).
  6. The future, second coming of Jesus (i.e. the new understanding of the Hebrew idea of the “Day of YHWH,” where God overcomes evil, but is now centered around the person of Jesus).
  7. Belief in the Holy Spirit.
  8. Commitment to the Christian church.
  9. Belief in the interconnectedness of all God’s children.
  10. Belief that God forgives our sins.
  11. Belief in a future, resurrection of the body, resulting in eternal life.

Anyone who accepts these 11 points ought to find solidarity with the church as a fellow brother or sister in Christ. Unfortunately, this is not always the case. Just as American culture is becoming polarized, so is Christianity in America. (Christians in other countries will have to examine their culture and see if this phenomenon is happening to them as well). We are gravitating toward two different ends of the spectrum: the “Deflators” and the “Inflators.”

The Deflator group has a history of denying some of the core doctrinal beliefs listed above. It is from this movement that we have the philosophies of “Christian Atheism” or “process Christianity.” To put it bluntly, if one denies the existence of God, one should no longer use the name Christian, because Christianity is chiefly concerned with how we might relate to and worship God, who is alive and blessed forever. A “Christian atheist” seems to me about as contradictory as the term “married bachelor.” If one wants to maintain the philosophical positions often associated with Christian atheism, one ought to create a new title.

Process Christianity is perhaps a step in the right direction away from Christian atheism. However, to replace a personal and maximally great creator with a Hegelian and mystic abstract force – which cannot interact with the world, has little to no providence, and should not bother being worshipped – is to move away from the Christian faith.

In contemporary times, the core doctrines often debated or denied are the virgin birth and the second coming. Personally, I find the arguments against the historicity of the virgin birth – such as it being based on a mistranslation of Isaiah, and the arguments that neither Paul nor the Gospel of John mentioned the event – are rather unconvincing. First, I agree with Mark Goodacre that the virgin birth is not based on a mistranslation of Isaiah [1]. Also, given that Paul’s focus was as a missionary and Jewish theologian, and that he said little about the historical Jesus, I do not find the denial of the virgin birth based upon Paul’s silence convincing. After all, Paul did not mention Jesus’ baptism by John the Baptist, and I am unaware of any respected New Testament scholar who would deny that event’s historical authenticity. In the case of the Gospel of John, in the opening chapter, the author focuses on the ontological identity of Jesus as the pre-incarnate Son of God, and then starts the narrative at Jesus’ baptism. We cannot make claims about the historicity of the virgin birth based on a gospel that contains no birth narrative. Admittedly, the Apostle’s creed was written many years after the earliest Christian authors, and the early authors were not as focused on the virgin as we are now. However, I still do not find any overwhelming, convincing argument for me to abandon my stance.

Concerning the doctrine of the Second Coming, I can understand why modern man would take issue with this belief. First of all, in our day and age, the Left Behind book/movie series theology has influenced the doctrine as the only acceptable interpretation, which in my opinion is an erroneous phenomenon. An increasing number of New Testament scholars and historians – even evangelical scholars – reject such readings of Revelation and Paul [2]. Second, American culture has been riddled with “doomsday preachers,” who claim that the Apocalypse will happen at such and such a day – like 2012 or Y2K. These two points must be moved out of the way in order to have serious discussions on the nature of the Second Coming.

I am not an expert in eschatology, so I will not promote a detailed account of the doctrine of the Second Coming. The statement: “There will be such an event as the Second Coming” is not a statement one can prove the denial or affirmation of. However, given that I believe God revealed Himself definitively in the person of Jesus, I accept the surrounding texts as divine revelation (i.e. the New Testament). If the New Testament teaches that Jesus will return to earth – and the interpretation of this claim is correct and meant to be taken literally – then I will accept it even if I cannot prove it (I don’t know how one would prove or disprove such an event anyways!).

While the Deflators want to take away from the core doctrines of Christianity, the Inflators want to add to them. This also has quite negative effects on the church.

One area the Inflators are quite keen on promoting is the idea that in order to be a Christian, one must believe in a literal, six-day creation, and reject all theories of Neo-Darwinian evolution. The only acceptable interpretation of Genesis 1-3 is a strict, literal one, so it is said. Or, it is often argued that to reject the existence of a historical Adam (for whatever reasons) could quite possibly result in the loss of one’s salvation or the proof that one was never saved – even if one believes Jesus is the resurrected Son of God.

The problem with this belief is that the necessity of the existence of a historical Adam and taking all scripture to be literally true is not found in the earliest creeds. One can very well believe in Jesus without believing in a historical Adam (I don’t have time to prove this point, but I’ve seen several ways it can be done). And evolution is not a subject addressed by the creeds. We believe that God created the heavens and the earth. The specifics of how He did this are welcome to vary in scientific theory.

Another point the Inflators mistakenly add to necessary Christian doctrine is the belief in Extreme Inerrancy of scripture. Jessica Wilson defined Extreme Inerrancy as follows: “The doctrine may be stated this way, letting ‘AI-content’ be shorthand for content (in scripture) as fixed primarily by authorial intent: For any proposition p, if p is part of the AI-content of Scripture, then p is true.” [3] It is the belief that when the original “autographs” were written by the authors, they “contained no errors whatsoever, neither regarding theological/religious matters nor regarding points of history, science, etc. which form even incidental constituents of the content of the text.” [4]

Of course the idea that – to some extent or another – what we call the Bible contains a revelation of God to humanity is pretty basic to Christian thought. However, to see Extreme Inerrancy (or the beliefs like it) as the only acceptable stance on the inspiration of scripture is mistaken and not necessitated by the creeds. In fact, there are plenty of Christians who hold to alternative models of inspiration, such as: scriptural infallibility, moderate infallibility, narrative theology, dialectical theology, neo-orthodoxy, Molinist theories of inspiration, etc. A sincere Christian can hold to any of these models. I do not agree with all of these models, but that will not prevent me from embracing someone who does as my brother or sister in Christ.

The belief that Moses wrote the Pentateuch is also not necessitated by the creeds. God could very well have brought the Pentateuch into existence by whatever means He wanted or whatever means was available to Him (which is what many scholars today believe).

Equating Christianity with one particular political group (be it Republican or Democrat) is a phenomenon that I find quite damaging in today’s church. I often hear statements such as “I don’t understand how someone could be a Christian and support the Democrats (or Republicans)!” We must be honest with ourselves: the American government is not the Kingdom of God. It is a specific political institution governing a certain region of a rock that is floating in a really big universe. The Kingdom of God belongs to the creator of the universe, not the United States of America. Both political parties – and the American government as a whole – believe, promote, do, and have done things that are not in alignment with the Gospel. I am not saying we should hate the USA. Rather, we must acknowledge that Christianity is not identical to one particular political party. In fact, it can be dangerous to do so, because it opens the door for a political party to manipulate its Christian followers to support a certain political stance that is against Christian ethics – all because the Republican or Democratic Party said so.

Closely related is the issue of Christians equating capitalism or socialism as essential to their faith. There are aspects of each socioeconomic philosophy that align with Christian, ethical teachings. However, this could be said for almost any socioeconomic theory. Furthermore, associating Christianity with one political party or socioeconomic theory has, I believe, negatively affected the American church.

Why? Because Christianity views itself as trapped within a “culture war.” We are the “faithful conservatives” trying to save the country from the “evil liberals.” Or, we are the “loving progressives” trying to save the country from the “fundamentalist bigots.” If you are fighting a war, it means you have enemies. In this case, the enemies are whatever group does not align with our personal political and socioeconomic theory. Thus, we wage war by scapegoating our “enemies,” who – even if they claim the title – are probably not Christians (so we think).

This is evident in the way that when many pastors or Christian spokesmen want to address a social phenomenon, they will start by attacking Obama – perhaps the face of the “new liberal” movement. Or, when the other side wants to critique certain systems of violence or oppression, they lash out against anyone who takes anything in the bible to actually be literal.

The idea that the Gospel is in tension with a world that continually rejects God in favor of hatred, violence, and selfishness is nothing new. It merely evolves and takes different forms as society changes. But we Christians must not view ourselves as fighting against our fellow humans. To do so is to withhold the Gospel from them. We cannot share the Gospel with our enemies if we do not first love our enemies and even allow our enemies to love us. Of course certain immoral things within society ought to be resisted. But we are fighting for people, not against them. We are trying to save others, not condemn them. “For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12 ESV).

Another area where Inflators are negatively affecting Christianity is in terms of the LBGTQ community. I know this is a controversial subject, but please hear me out. I do not believe that heterosexuality ought to be considered a prerequisite for allowing an individual to come into our churches and attend with us regularly. I want everyone possible to attend my church on a regular basis: gays, straights, whites, blacks, businessmen, godly individuals, prostitutes, drug addicts, gang members, those struggling with mental illness, etc. Our churches need to be places where everyone can come and hear the Gospel.

I am well aware that, currently, theologians and scholars are going back to various passages we once assumed to address homosexuality and are asking whether or not we interpreted them correctly. Scholars are reaching different conclusions (as they do with most everything). However, the issue of whether or not homosexual/transsexual matters are sinful needs to be an “in-house” discussion. We need to be having these conversations with our homosexual and transsexual brothers and sisters after they have accepted the Gospel and want to follow Christ with all their being. It is only then that we will be able to have honest, loving, and reasonable conversations with one another.

However, if Christians want to say that homosexuals are not allowed in our churches and should not be considered truly saved, then these Christians ought to maintain the exact same stance about divorced and remarried couples, because the Bible says this is adultery (Matthew 19:9). Furthermore, if it is necessary that in order to be a Christian one must first be completely secure in their gender identity, then I suppose many men just coming of age need to leave the church. So many young men are still trying to figure out what it means to truly be a man in the image of God. Often, certain kinds of men are naturally drawn to the John Eldridge kind of masculinity. They enjoy hunting, fishing, climbing mountains, etc. The danger is when the church adopts that definition of what it means to be a Christian male as the God-inspired version. That completely alienates a large percentage of males who are naturally drawn to other pursuits and have absolutely no interest in the former. Getting to the core of masculinity is a messy business full of entangling insecurities along the way. Then again, I don’t know anyone, male or female, who is completely secure in their gender identity and what it means to be truly masculine or feminine. And I hope that I can have the compassion, patience, and courage to share the power of Christ with those whose struggle in identity is worse than my own.

To quote Greg Boyd (who actually believes homosexuality is a sin):

“[There] is absolutely no justification for the way many Christians today make homosexuality out to be worse than other types of sin. Judging from the way certain Christian leaders have publicly crusaded against homosexuality, you’d think it was the number one sin in the Bible and the most damaging sin to society. Yet, while we have at most six verses in the Bible that mention homosexuality, we have around 3,000 passages that address greed, gluttony and the need to care for the poor. Not only this, but if there are any sins American Christians are most guilty of, they’re greed, gluttony and apathy toward the poor. And if there are any sins that demonstrably kill people, it’s these ones. Yet Christians go after gays. Why? One can’t help but suspect it might be because it’s one sin they can feel self-righteous in condemning.

“[And] closely related to this, there’s no justification for the way many Christians make homosexuality a ‘deal breaker’ sin. That is, many seem to think that it’s impossible to be a Christian and also be gay. You can be Christian and be greedy, an overeater and never sacrifice for the poor, but you can’t be gay? You can be Christian and be divorced and remarried, gossip and judge others — all mentioned in the Bible more than homosexuality — but you can’t be gay? Why?” [5]

And because I am already on a controversial roll and probably have lots of people rather upset with this article, the final area where Inflators miss the mark is claiming that – in order to be a Christian – one must believe in a literal Hell of eternal torture. Of course, the notion that everyone would be granted eternal life without any consequence to his or her actions without repentance seems immoral. To maintain that there are no consequences of any kind to our actions renders morality arbitrary.

However, theories about Hell may vary from Christian to Christian. Many believe in Hell as eternal torment. Others believe that the punishment aspect of Hell is meant to be temporary punishment that eventually ends, which results in universal salvation. Others maintain a view called “annihilationism” or “concordism,” which states that those who do not find justification through Christ are ultimately put out of existence (like what atheists believe happens to us when we die). And others still maintain various ideas about the nature of an eternal Hell. Some theories and interpretations of scripture are better than others, but we must be willing to talk honestly and reasonably with our fellow Christians about the nature of Hell without condemning them if they do not share our view.

As I said earlier, I hope this article causes us to focus once again on the core essentials of the faith. Of course, the other details are incredibly significant, but we must not elevate them all to the same status of importance. As Karl Barth said, “Now, if believers can pray together, they should also be able to take Communion together. For then doctrinal differences can only be of a secondary nature.” [6] My prayer is that we would find stronger unity under the Lordship of Jesus Christ and be willing to talk about these issues with humility, respect, love, and reason.

 

 

[1] http://podacre.blogspot.com/2012/12/nt-pod-64-is-virgin-birth-based-on.html,

[2] http://www.christianitytoday.com/gleanings/2016/april/sorry-left-behind-pastors-end-times-rapture-antichrist.html

[3] “Narrative as Philosophy: Methodological Issues in Abstracting from Hebrew Scriptures” by Jessica Wilson in Journal of Analytic Theology

[4] Ibid.

[5] http://reknew.org/2008/01/is-homosexuality-a-sin/

[6] Prayer, Karl Barth

Advertisements