This [fill in the blank] means the end of Christianity!
If you are a Christian, you have probably heard or read some version of this statement. So, what is it this week? I don’t need to write the list, do I? You can fill in the threat of the week/month/year as well as I can. Sigh…
Before we become too distressed about our current sad state of affairs, it might be good to review a little church history.
If you read “Acts” and Paul’s letters in the New Testament carefully you will discover that a unified, “like-minded” church never existed. Right from the start there were differences of opinion. How can gentiles believe in the Jewish messiah? Can gentiles receive the Holy Spirit? Do gentiles have to follow Torah? Do Jews who believe Jesus is the Messiah have to follow Torah? Who can eat what and with whom?
The first Christians began with their experience of the risen Christ and then spent the rest of their lives trying to understand what that meant. It wasn’t easy. It wasn’t without conflict.
Most Christians will affirm that Jesus is, as the creed says, truly human and truly divine. What we forget is how difficult it was for the church to agree on this. It took centuries, yes centuries, before factions of the church stopped fighting about this. And they literally did fight about it. And tangled up in the theological debate were issues of power and authority(political, military, and theological). People were exiled, excommunicated, anathematized, declared heretics, and even killed. Bishops and emperors were deposed. It is a confusing, messy and not very pretty time in Christian history. It took a long time for clarity and consensus to emerge.
Christians have been worried about the end of Christianity since the beginning. Yet we’re still here wringing our hands with worry about the end of Christianity.
Now I’m not saying that what we believe doesn’t matter. It does- although some things are more important than others. What I am urging is a little perspective and a little humility.
You and I are not in charge of the church. God is. We, of course, have our part to do. But really, what arrogance to think mere humans can destroy the church.
Decisions of the PC(USA) General Assembly won’t destroy the church.
Neither will decisions by the Anglican Communion.
Or Saddleback Church. Or Mars Hill -in Seattle or Grand Rapids.
Neither Mark Driscoll nor John Piper, nor Rob Bell, nor John Shelby Spong, nor Pope Benedict, nor radical nuns will destroy the church.
Can we screw things up? Sure. And we should try hard not to do that. But we should also take a deep breath, recognize our small part and God’s big part and gain a little perspective. Let’s ratchet down the rhetoric. Let’s take the time to listen deeply, think carefully, and speak humbly.
Because (as Karl Barth wrote) God does not will to be God without us, we are involved in God’s redemptive enterprise. And because we fallible and frustrating and stubborn humans are involved it’s a messy project. Fortunately ours isn’t the last word on the subject. Our task is to grow together in faith and in faithfulness and in understanding and actions.
We need the Holy Spirit and we need each other to do this. All of our different ideas and opinions are attempts ( admittedly some better than others) to discover the Truth.
Philip Jenkins puts it like this: “A religion that is not constantly spawning alternatives and heresies has ceased to think and has achieved only the peace of the grave.”*
So friends, whatever our disagreement is this week, it is not the end of Christianity. It’s more likely a step shrouded in confusion and sometimes seemingly endless, aimless wandering into the holy mystery of God.
*In Jesus Wars.
If you want to read some church history, I’d suggest these books as a starting point.
Jesus Wars: How Four Patriarchs, Three Queens, and Two Emperors Decided What Christians Would Believe for the Next 1,500 Years. Philip Jenkins (HarperOne: 2010) This is a history of the early church councils and the debates over the nature of Christ.
Turning Points:Decisive Moments in the History of Christianity Mark Noll (Baker Academic: 2001) Historian Mark Noll examines crucial events in Christian history.
The Lost History of Christianity:The Thousand Year Golden Age of the Church in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia–and how it died Philip Jenkins ( HarperOne:2009) A history about Christianity apart from Europe.
The Story of Christianity Justo L. Gonzales (HarperOne: 2010) A very readable three volume series.
America’s God: From Jonathan Edwards to Abraham Lincoln Mark Noll (Oxford University Press USA: 2005) This is a big (600+ pages) serious book, but you will understand the United States and why we do what we do much better after reading it.
What would you add to the list?