within (orthodox) Christianity thinking outside the lines

I was recently musing with someone over the thought that it would be nice if there was just one church in the world which let people disagree on a host of things, but was intact and centered in what the Bible is centered in: the gospel. The problem would end up being over matters related to the gospel, including specifics about it, and its scope. But that would be alright, if people would just get a grasp of the richness of the faith both in scripture, and in the tradition of the church, particularly in its early centuries.

Yes, lines have to be drawn. God is Triune, something like one Being in Three Persons. Jesus is human and Deity (divine in an equal to God sense, unlike the rest of us). Etc. We have been taking our grandchildren to an evangelical megachurch and have been pleasantly surprised on a number of scores, including both their passion for truth, and their indifference over nonessentials, and I take it, in letting believers disagree over a number of matters.

I get in trouble over accepting evolution and believing in creation and the Genesis account at the same time, and probably on other matters, too. At this stage in my life, I prefer to avoid debate, and trying to influence others that way, so was finding our time at the new church refreshing, because like where I work, they major on what unites us in Jesus, and not on what divides us.

But now Greg Boyd’s Cross Vision, the book adeptly setting forth the message from his massive work, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God sets me up for once again getting into something I prefer to avoid: controversy, and in this case downright disassociation from some, I suppose. And yet if people would read the work, they could choose to disagree, but see that it is not at all departing from the faith, including the truth that the Bible is the inspired, breathed out word of God, it is God’s word written.

Never should teaching like that be made a test of orthodoxy, except where it either departs from the gospel, or puts its teaching in jeopardy. Those who make some new suggestions out of the richness of scripture, and with due consideration of tradition (both very true, in Boyd’s case) should not be automatically dismissed as heretics.

I do see value in churches which emphasize this or that, and I don’t see the end of the world over the diversity of churches, like some people do. We are one in Christ by the Spirit, with one faith (Ephesians 4). While we must contend for the faith in a world of lies and blatant as well as subtle unbelief, we must also hold to it in all its wonder and glory. In the beauty revealed at the heart of it: the good news of God in Jesus.

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simply Christian

I appeal to you, brothers and sisters, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that all of you agree with one another in what you say and that there be no divisions among you, but that you be perfectly united in mind and thought. My brothers and sisters, some from Chloe’s household have informed me that there are quarrels among you. What I mean is this: One of you says, “I follow Paul”; another, “I follow Apollos”; another, “I follow Cephas”; still another, “I follow Christ.”

Is Christ divided? Was Paul crucified for you? Were you baptized in the name of Paul? I thank God that I did not baptize any of you except Crispus and Gaius, so no one can say that you were baptized in my name. (Yes, I also baptized the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I don’t remember if I baptized anyone else.) For Christ did not send me to baptize, but to preach the gospel—not with wisdom and eloquence, lest the cross of Christ be emptied of its power.

1 Corinthians 1

It seems like it holds true to the present: there are a number of Christian denominations and traditions which remain essentially divided over this and that, sometimes what appears to be significant matters over the gospel, and yet in the end, they would acknowledge that the ones they are dividing from are likely in Christ.

What if we simply got rid of the idea that we have to be united over this or that nonessential? But for many, unless one believes that the bread of Holy Communion becomes Christ’s body, and the wine is blood, then they can’t be in any kind of fellowship and working relationship. Or churches remain divided over this or that. It seems impossible to break the division.

We need to center on the gospel, and live with our differences around that. Maybe challenge each other in the process, but make it a priority to be united, insofar as we possibly can for our witness to the world, as well as the good of our own faith.

Reports from China years back said that the church was growing exponentially until they began to get divergent directions from different Christian bodies in the free world. The simplicity of the power of the gospel, and God’s grace in that was disrupted by human made rules and tradition. The work of the Spirit was thus undermined, if not thwarted altogether.

When it’s not the gospel that is central, or when there are certain aspects of our participation in the gospel which end up dividing us, we have work to do. We need to make provision for all who are in Christ to be united as one in faith and practice.

That is what I’m coming to now. We might want to bring a believer along to understand and practice or even not think they have to practice certain things, arguably, but as long as they have faith in Christ, that should be enough for them to be fully united to us in our church body and witness to the world. The New Testament doesn’t know any believer who isn’t baptized, at least not as a rule, but differences there should not cause us to exclude each other.

What we need to press for is to maximize our oneness in Christ through the gospel. That needs to take priority over other matters. In spite of what differences we have, we ought to make provision for that. In the grace of God in and through Jesus.

the oneness of all who are in Christ and therefore his church

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one— I in them and you in me—so that they may be brought to complete unity. Then the world will know that you sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.

John 17

When I read or hear of the divisions within Christendom, or I mean the traditions of Christianity, then I want to think of it as something less than Christianity. Conservative Lutherans within a denomination which ironically is a member of the National Association of Evangelicals don’t consider themselves in full fellowship with Reformed people, since the Reformed supposedly divide Christ in their view of the Eucharist, not accepting the body and blood of the Lord in it. And therefore they won’t participate with them publicly. The Eastern Orthodox Church won’t seriously consider uniting with Roman Catholics, even after the overture for such from the latter. I wonder if all such in reality are the ones who are sinning against the Lord in not discerning his body (1 Corinthians 11).

I might hold myself to something of what Anglicans hold to in Holy Communion, that according to the teaching found in 1 Corinthians 10 and 11, something of the body and blood of the Lord is present in the Eucharist. And I might especially like John Calvin’s explanation of that more in terms of the Spirit’s presence in it, of course the Son and the Father also then being present by the Spirit. So that this presence is indeed spiritual, as opposed to physical. Hence I suppose the Lutheran charge that the Reformed reject Christ’s humanity in the Eucharist. I see Holy Communion myself as a sacrament, and more than just a symbol, and wish the Bible church where we’re taking our grandchildren, and where we’ll probably become members would hold to the same view, and practice Holy Communion once a week rather than once a quarter.

But regardless of our views on the Lord’s Table, all who are in Jesus by faith are one with him, and with each other by the Spirit. We are one, period. How dare we deny that oneness for the sake of tradition, or our interpretation of scripture? I notice that churches like the one we’re attending do not at all deny the oneness of all who are in Christ, and would fully participate with such, or at least let any professing believer participate in Holy Communion with them.

Also while I understand the view by which neither the Lutherans mentioned above, nor Roman Catholics (and I’m guessing neither the Eastern Orthodox) don’t allow Christians who don’t hold to their view of Holy Communion to participate with them in it, I am with the Christians who believe this is a case of tradition gaining the upper hand on scripture, and actually nullifying the word of God. Or what do the Lord’s words in the prayer quoted above mean?

This leaves me with an empty feeling as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation when Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door of the Roman Catholic church in Wittenberg. And it makes me less apt to want to attend a Roman Catholic service. And in some ways even less interested in attending an Eastern Orthodox one. And I feel sad over all of this. Because I believe every person who by faith, and we might add baptism (the New/Final Testament essentially does not divide the two, but I would settle for by faith) are one with Christ, period. And therefore ought to be treated as such, especially in the sacrament in which this oneness is celebrated, remembered, and in a sense renewed, Communion. Christian traditions ought to figure out how to lay aside their tradition in honor of that oneness, yes, during the Eucharist, so that all in Christ can participate in that. The only explanation needed would be the reality of the grace of God in Jesus.

Until they do, I for one have a hard time taking them completely seriously. They see other Christians as sinning against the body and blood of the Lord, when the great sin in 1 Corinthians 11 was the failure on the part of some Christians to act as if other Christians were members of Christ’s body. Enough. Christ is not divided, period. Nor his church. They should adopt grace as overriding the letter of their tradition, even while they still hold to it. Are traditions set in stone? I believe in the gospel, and in the written word of God. I’m sure some Christians would pick at that statement. Regardless, let’s quit doing this, would be my plea, and let’s fully accept all who name the name of our Lord Jesus, and hold to that gospel as given to us in scripture (example: 1 Corinthians 15). Otherwise we fail to live according to our Lord’s words in his great high priestly prayer prayed on the eve of his crucifixion and death.

the inclusivity of the gospel

Therefore, remember that formerly you who are Gentiles by birth and called “uncircumcised” by those who call themselves “the circumcision” (which is done in the body by human hands)— remember that at that time you were separate from Christ, excluded from citizenship in Israel and foreigners to the covenants of the promise, without hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far away have been brought near by the blood of Christ.

For he himself is our peace, who has made the two groups one and has destroyed the barrier, the dividing wall of hostility, by setting aside in his flesh the law with its commands and regulations. His purpose was to create in himself one new humanity out of the two, thus making peace, and in one body to reconcile both of them to God through the cross, by which he put to death their hostility. He came and preached peace to you who were far away and peace to those who were near. For through him we both have access to the Father by one Spirit.

Consequently, you are no longer foreigners and strangers, but fellow citizens with God’s people and also members of his household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone. In him the whole building is joined together and rises to become a holy temple in the Lord. And in him you too are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.

Ephesians 2

I am a Bible person, and therefore am prone, especially when I’m at a loss as to what to post, to find some passage from scripture, and usually share just enough of the context along with the point embedded to write the post. I knew what part I wanted to land on today, but the entire text is so rich and meaningful, that I decided to include it in the actual post as well, and not just in the link as I ordinarily do. So if you don’t read anything else, make sure you read the above text from Ephesians.

The cross of Jesus brings the reconciliation of humanity to God and to each other. There can be no more out and out hate, or simply seeing different people as others with whom we have no part. Through the cross in Christ’s death, all are reconciled to God and to each other. The hostility put to death is both our hostility toward God and toward each other.

Therefore this change is through the gospel grounded in the work of Christ, his death and resurrection, and through the work of the Spirit which not only accompanies that, but is the Amen of God through that death in which we find the new life. We no longer live in the old barriers which divide us– not only Jew and Gentile, but white and black, along with all the other divisions within humanity which often put people at odds with each other.

Is all of this easy? Of course not. Read the entire book of Ephesians, along with the rest of the New Testament, and you can easily gather that it’s not. Old habits of thought and action can set in, and undermine the new life in Jesus, contradicting the salvation that is in Jesus. We in Jesus together must be a demonstration to the world of the truth, reality and power of the gospel. Helping others from all sides into this same love, and in so doing begin a healing process for many.

In and through Jesus the church should be the demonstration to the world of God’s intention to bring all of humanity together as one. It’s again, through the cross. In God’s love in Jesus.

the blessedness of unity and the kind of unity that is blessed

How good and pleasant it is
    when God’s people live together in unity!

It is like precious oil poured on the head,
    running down on the beard,
running down on Aaron’s beard,
    down on the collar of his robe.
It is as if the dew of Hermon
    were falling on Mount Zion.
For there the Lord bestows his blessing,
    even life forevermore.

Psalm 133

God seems to put a priority on unity. In Jesus’s high priestly prayer of John 17, that is front and center in his petition for all believers, that God’s people would be one and be perfectly united, even as he and the Father are.

This begs the question just what kind of unity we’re talking about, the answer being self evident already, and especially so when we consider our Lord’s prayer in John 17, along with the context of Psalm 133. Unity is not merely for unity’s sake, as good as that may be. That can definitely be dangerous as well, in a world in which deception and following the crowd, or simply keeping in step with custom is either sacrosanct, or else expected, or at the very least what helps a person fit in and not stand out like a sore thumb.

There is a unity that God brings his people into through Christ, and which God blesses, and is indeed delighted in, and in which we should delight. But it’s not a unity of this world, let’s say some political unity, whether Democratic or Republican, or whatever it might be. Probably many of us are united in things like that, maybe not. But that’s not the unity referred to here. In fact many of the unions of this world are broken down, and shown to be suspect, I think now of such things as reactions to evil which may not be good, and may even end up evil themselves. We have to beware of the human tendency to unite in a way that ends up being in opposition to God, not in harmony with the unity of God, and what God is bringing about in and through Christ.

Only through the gospel, the good news in Jesus, can we enter into this blessed unity of God. This is a Jesus thing. But just because we have entered into it, doesn’t mean that it’s automatic, and we can coast from there. Ephesians 4 makes it clear that our oneness is evident and rooted in a number of ways: one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father. But we’re told in that exact same passage to make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. We are one body already. We’re to live out what we already are in Christ. And scripture makes it clear that this is an important and even vital part of our witness to the world.

We are already one in Christ. We’re to live that out, through all the complexitites and different circumstances and perspectives we find ourselves in. We each have our part in this in working toward a harmonious whole, which is both a witness to the world of the truth of the gospel, but is also central to who we are and what God is making us to be in and through Jesus.

the gospel breaks the color barrier

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.

Galatians 3

Maybe my biggest disappointment with the church as I’ve seen it for the most part, with notable exceptions, is just how monochrome, or segregated most churches are on any given Sunday. It is understandable, yet sad at the same time, in my view. God’s grace covers us, and there’s a history behind it. And it’s not like churches who are white or black want to be segregated. There are different cultures involved, and people are at home in different places.

But the gospel is meant to bring together those who likely would never do so apart from it. What is true concerning Jews and Gentiles being reconciled to God as one body (Ephesians 2:11-22) is also true of all peoples, bringing for example Palestinians and Jews together through the cross, through Jesus’s death, along with blacks and whites, Protestants and Catholics, everyone. The reconciliation to God extends no less to each other through the good news in Jesus, and the Spirit who makes us one in him.

As a witness to the gospel, and the saving power it brings, we need to show the world how we can work through the barriers, whatever they may be. How our unity in God through Jesus by the Spirit in the love of God in Jesus supercedes all distinctions, breaks down all animosities and hostilities, through Christ’s death, and our repentance and faith, and brings the promised healing and shalom. This new world is now present through Christ in his body the church. As a witness to the world, and as part of the salvation we ourselves need, in and through Jesus.

one church

There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called to one hope when you were called; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.

Having churches that differ according to the cultures which they inhabit is one thing, and actually surely quite alright and even necessary. And even back in New Testament times there appears to be churches which were quite Jewish in their orientation, going out of their way not to offend the sensibility of fellow Jews, while proclaiming the coming of the Messiah, Jesus. While other churches apparently had no such orientation. So churches have been different from the outset.

But in spite of all the differences, the fact remained and remains that in Christ we are all one body. There is actually one church, and its headquarters is not in Rome, or in any other location on earth, for that matter. Its headquarters are in heaven in Jesus. He is the head, and his body continues on earth by the Spirit.

Does that mean we should get rid of all denominations, and just call all our churches Christian, period? Not necessarily, though it’s a nice dream. What is true is that we are all one body, regardless of all our differences. So that means the Baptists, Pentecostals, nondenominational, Reformed, Mennonites, Presbyterians, Anglicans, Methodists, Lutherans,  Catholics, Orthodox, etc., etc., are all actually one body in Christ. That does not mean we shouldn’t take seriously our doctrinal differences. It does mean we should be united as much as we possibly can in this world. Not easy, but if we remember where our unity lies, then we can begin to practice this, even if it seems an exercise of naked faith at times.

No denomination is perfect, or the one, but I appreciate the Evangelical Covenant Church of which we are a part, and for this very reason (among other reasons). I think the way we are church, and the way we do it is more oriented to a responsible witness of the unity we have with the body of Christ in the world, with all churches and denominations. For example, while the pastor has to know where they stand on these issues from scripture, they baptize infants (after all, our roots are Lutheran) and dedicate other infants, waiting to baptize them upon profession of their faith. We have the tradition of both just war and pacifist adherents. We love good liturgy, and practice something of a sacramental understanding of the faith, while also practicing something of the concrete, down to earth nature of the body, or what we’re called to be for each other now in Jesus by the Spirit.

And so by an act of faith, let’s seek to put aside our differences. Not an easy task at times, but let’s look beyond our differences to the essence of our faith which is found in Jesus. That by our united witness in love, the world might see Jesus.