Tuesday, August 04, 2015

At What Cost?

Peace within the church and unity of the brethren is not a "nice to have", it is a fundamental requirement, a non-negotiable commandment from Christ. Psalm 133:1 speaks of the joy when the brothers live in unity. We are commended to be one just as the Father and Son are one ( John 17:11-23 ) in Christ's prayers. Peter and Paul both urge us to work to a unity of Spirit, faith, knowledge and love (Ephesians 4:3; 4:13 , 1 Peter 3:8). I cannot help but believe that Christ is grieved over the divisions in His Church, especially since so much of what divides the church is due to disagreement on important but secondary questions. For example, I can drive to at least five different conservative Anabaptist local churches in less than 15 minutes that would look to the casual observer to be almost identical and yet they are distinct from one another and in some ways in competition for the same pool of members. It really bothers me that this is the case.

On the other hand, there is an awful lot of division that is unfortunate but also proper and necessary. The church in America is in the midst of a seismic event in the form of sexual ethics, especially the attempted normalization of homosexual behavior. The church has to address it and there really isn't a way to "live and let live" on this question. Either homosexuality is, as has been understood in the church for 2000 years, an aberrant and sinful behavior (assuming one identifies as homosexual based on taking action on urges rather than struggling with them in a celibate lifestyle) that must be repented of or it is a special category of specifically named sin that really isn't a sin at all. We are all sinners, even and especially those in the church, but for those with a new heart we cannot wallow in our sin and even celebrate it. You won't see, at least for now, "'Men Who Look At Women With Lust' Pride Parades". We either turn from sin to Christ and receive redemption or we remain under condemnation, turned away from Christ and embracing sin. There is no middle ground. If we had such a structure it would be a good time for a Council of Nicaea type moment so the church can go on record about this issue. Unfortunately, due in large part to the aforementioned division in the church, that is not feasible, leaving the issue up for debate from the level of large denominations to local churches and individual Christians.

I was reminded of this in a news story I saw recently relating to the Mennonite Church USA. By any measure the MC-USA represents the left-wing of the very diverse Mennonite community and is dealing with the homosexual normalization issue like the rest of the "progressive" wing of the American religious community. One regional conference, the North Central Conference of Mennonite Church USA, is stepping away from the MC USA. A representative of the very small (less than 400 total members in 10 churches), Fred Kanagy, said the following
“The NCC has come to recognize and identify ways in which MC USA has moved away from what we understand to be traditional, orthodox interpretations of Scripture from an Anabaptist perspective,” he wrote in an email. “ . . . The movement of many in MC USA in thinking, discernment and practice has created a separation, and the trajectory seems to indicate a widening divide, which we feel requires of us that we either change our convictions or change our affiliation.”
That is really the proper way of putting it. It is not the stodgy conservatives who are bringing disunity, it is those who are straying further from orthodoxy with each passing day. You might say, so what, it is only a few hundred people but they aren't the only ones. Also announcing their departure is the venerable and much larger Lancaster Conference with over 13,000 members , which according to the Mennonite World Review amounts to a loss of 14% of the total membership in MC USA. That is a major loss and I expect others to follow as Christians and local churches "vote with their feet".

This is not an unusual or rare problem. Many other "mainline" Protestant denominations have seen splits, especially in the Episcopal church in America which was the first to put forth a divorced (now twice divorced) open and unrepentant homosexual as "bishop". Individual Christians, local churches and groups of local churches alike have declared that the direction some have taken has led to an unequal yoking and they cannot maintain their affiliation. Rightly so. If we are not to associate with or even break bread with the unrepentant sinner that claims to be a Christian (1 Corinthians 5:9-13), we certainly cannot remain yoked with an entire group of people who " give approval to those who practice" sins such as homosexuality (Romans 1:32 and preceding verses).

There is a place for denominational unity I suppose but in many cases what we are seeing are local churches and individual Christians who are stepping away from denominational unity in order to remain in unity with the broader church. What seems to be occurring, as someone who identifies in many ways with Anabaptism but on the outside of the MC USA, is the same thing that happened in any number of "mainline" Protestant denominations. As their denomination moved further away from orthodoxy, they were forced to choose between unity with a denomination or unity with the broader church. In these cases they chose the more difficult and less popular route of choosing loyalty to the church universal, Biblical orthodoxy and Christ Himself rather than denominational ties. Rightly so. The path of following Jesus is pretty much never the smoother, easier path.

HT: Tim Challies
I generally have little use for denominations, even though they sometimes work powerfully for good. This issue of sexual morality is going to be one that more and more denominations are going to be forced to address. Even "conservative" denominations like the Southern Baptist Convention and the Presbyterian Church in America are going to have to deal with individual churches who flaunt their disobedience from Scripture and their challenge of the broader denominational norms. We are already seeing a lot of this. There are many Presbyterians and Baptists who differ on church governance and the question of baptism that nonetheless have far more in common with each other than they do with fellow Presbyterians or Baptists. I think we will continue to see the rise of cross-denominational, "para-church" cooperative efforts in the years to come, if for no other reason than simple survival.

Unity is critical and the church needs more unity and cooperation but that can never come at the expense of truth.

1 comment:

Neil Braithwaite said...

So how can one say that Satan is prevailing against the “church” when Jesus clearly said that the “gates of hell would not prevail against it? The simple answer is that what we know as “church” is NOT what Jesus said He would build. Jesus said he would build his Ekklesia – a community of followers who rely solely on HIS teachings and the direction of the Holy Spirit, whereas today's "church" is an institutional organization built by man on a hierarchy led by men who appoint themselves as leaders over the subservient people. Subsequently, Satan DOES have power over "man’s church,” but not Christ’s Ekklesia. Anything built and led by man is of Satan (See Matthew 23), and subject to the influence of Satan. Man's "church" is doomed to failure and destruction - just as Jesus called it in Matthew 23 about the Jewish church. People need to wake up soon before it's too late. Christ’s Ekklesia is built by God and led by Jesus and the Holy Spirit who indwells each and every disciple of Christ. It's not a building or an organization and it's certainly not paid preachers - it's Christ in us and with us all. And the word Jesus used is Ekklesia - NOT church. How about we begin by calling it what Jesus named it - Ekklesia!