We began our Lenten journey this year by going straight to the end, where Jesus, in his dying moments on the cross, uttered a single word “Tetelestai” (no idea if that is the correct spelling but that will have to do). This word translates into English as “It is finished”.
But what is finished? Several things, which we are currently in the process of unpacking. If you’ve just joined us this week, it’s kind of like turning on a movie midway through. I won’t try to catch you up on the earlier posts in the series now; they are in the archives and will be there for ever and ever, or at least as long as there is an internet, so you can do that for yourselves.
This week: Division is finished.
Before we begin, I feel compelled to note that this is not about me attempting to get on board with anyone’s project of asserting that all Christians must come together under their particular expression of Christianity. The boundaries of the church of Jesus Christ do not begin and end at the boundaries of any particular institutional expression thereof.
There are thousands upon thousands of denominations, sects, movements, traditions, streams and expressions of Christianity all over the landscape. This is a reality both beautiful and tragic.
Let me direct your attention to a post at Alastair’s Adversaria from several years back entitled “The Denominational Church“, which has helped to guide my thinking on this issue. It is very dense and lengthy, and it will take some effort for you to wrap your head around what Alastair is saying here, but in the end it will prove to be well worth the effort.
Alastair’s jumping-off point is the Federal Vision, which was a very contentious issue in his particular branch of Presbyterianism several years ago. He begins by quoting a prominent denominational figure who seeks to warn those who disagree with his position that they are going against the visible church. Alastair pushes back, saying that this particular branch of Presbyterianism is not to be equated with the visible church. The rise of denominations (Baptist, Methodist, etc.) within the past couple of centuries has been a game-changer with respect to ecclesiology, and you cannot and should not equate the denominational (or non-denominational, as the case may be) congregation you happen to attend, with the Church at large in your location, which is the sum total of all denominational (and non-denominational) congregations in your area. Alastair then goes on to list several practical ways we can work toward greater unity in the present climate, of which the first and foremost is this: Don’t get too overly hung up on how your church/denomination/theological team expresses and formulates certain key doctrines and beliefs related to the Gospel. These are not the Gospel. Raising these things to the level of Gospel importance will only serve to insulate your particular team/sect/movement from all the rest of Christianity. Alastair likens it to a language with many regional dialects, in that you should not equate your own particular dialect with the language itself. In seeking unity, we should play up the features which our dialect has in common with all the other regional dialects and downplay those features which it does not. He concludes by suggesting that the present denominational climate is a messy but necessary part of the process God is using to bring about a future unity much greater and more glorious than anything we can presently imagine. This will happen in God’s time, and we should not rush the process by attempting to force unity where it does not yet exist.
Alastair makes the point that the Gospel message is much simpler than we think it is. Certainly it is much simpler than any of the theological systems and categories by which we formulate the Gospel message, or any of the doctrines which we attach to the Gospel message. Doctrine matters, but not nearly as much as you think it does. When your doctrine becomes an excuse to treat other believers for whom Christ died as outside the family of faith, you have problems.
Certainly there are times when it is necessary to divide over matters of doctrine. But your default setting should never be: “This issue is of such critical importance that anyone who disagrees with us on it should be treated as if they are outside the family of God.” While there are a handful of issues which rise to that level, you should never operate under the default assumption that the issue at hand is one of those issues. If that is your default assumption, then you have problems. That is why I reacted so viscerally to John Piper’s dismissal of Rob Bell a couple of years back. And that is why I reacted so viscerally to Owen Strachan’s attempts to anathematize those who disagree with his views on gay marriage.
There is an allure in this type of thinking. It is easy to get to thinking that you are purifying the Church by laying down the law as to what to believe and casting out all those who disagree.
The Pharisees of first-century Israel operated under a similar narrative. We think of them as laughably stuck-up, petty legalists akin to the Church Lady of SNL fame (kids: Youtube), walking around with their noses stuck in the Torah or else wrinkled in disgust at the perceived sins and transgressions of their neighbors while carrying around God-knows-what in the way of juicy, dirty little secrets under their sanctimonious robes. All of which is true, to a certain extent, yet it completely misses the point. You see, all those petty rules, legalisms, and ridiculous hoops they made people jump through to prove their worthiness to be part of the kingdom of Heaven served a higher purpose: nothing short of the national survival of Israel itself. They saw Israel as under God’s judgment, as evidenced by the fact that they had for centuries been in their homeland with pagan empires ruling over them and seeking to impose their unbelieving ways from afar. They believed that Israel needed to purify itself and get back to keeping Torah (as they understood it) in order to get out from under God’s judgment and regain God’s blessing, and they saw themselves as the vanguard of this effort.
So it is with many nowadays who seek to divide over issues of doctrine. I have, in many prior posts, highlighted the neo-Calvinist movement as a prime example of this. They see the Church as under God’s judgment for believing false doctrine and a false Gospel which has no power to save. In their minds, in order for the Church to get out from under God’s judgment and return to God’s blessing, the Church must purify itself by repenting of and renouncing false doctrine, and cutting off all disloyal, compromising believers who will not go along with this program.
When Jesus died on the cross, that changed everything. The old narrative of God’s people purifying themselves through faithful obedience, carried out with zeal against the pagans who seek to impose their will from without and the disloyal, half-hearted, compromised, capitulating believers within, is finished. Instead of God’s people versus pagans without and renegades within, the battle is God versus the forces of darkness and death in our world. That battle has been won through Christ’s death on the cross, and we are part of making that victory a reality throughout the universe. There is now no longer any place for the old narrative of God’s people versus pagans without and renegades within–all people are people for whom Christ died.
Allow me to close with a quote from C. S. Lewis which I believe is relevant to today’s subject matter. In the introduction to Mere Christianity he likens the Christian faith to a large guesthouse. The hall is a common space where Christians of all stripes can interact freely, while the rooms represent the various churches and denominations inside the Christian faith, places where one can find deeper fellowship and closer agreement. No one is saying here that anyone has to give up their room or choose a different room, but it would behoove us all to spend some time in the hall, interacting with Christians of other stripes, seeking to understand and learn from them. And when you return to your own room, take these words of C. S. Lewis to heart:
When you have reached your own room, be kind to those who have chosen different doors and to those who are still in the hall. If they are wrong they need your prayers all the more; if they are your enemies, then you are under orders to pray for them. That is one of the rules common to the whole house.