A Note to My Readers -
I've decided to remove my Sunday posts from the weekly cycle. Although I hope they've been of benefit to some of you, they are necessarily secondary to my regular work of sermon preparation each week. I've found that having that extra post to write simply added to the burden of my work. For those readers who would still like access to my weekly work in Scriptural exposition, I would ask them to access the podcasts of my sermons (available through a link in the sidebar), since that remains the primary form of my Bible teaching each week.

Saturday, January 23, 2016

95 Theses, #70-72: Church Unity and Denominationalism

To see the introduction and disclaimers for my 95 Theses, first go to: 95-Theses-Introduction

(Painting: "The Triumph of the Church over Fury, Discord, and Hate," by Peter Paul Rubens, c.1625)

70.) The Unity of the Church - The church, then, is the renewed humanity through Jesus Christ, the main thrust of the Kingdom-of-God-in-history, and it has existed so long as there was anyone willing to look toward Christ in faith (even if chronologically before Christ) and who, by means of a freely-willed Yes to God, entered into the new humanity created in Christ. It was only after Christ, though, that the full nature of the church as the community of God became known. Because the church is united in Christ mystically though the renewed human nature, the church is always “one”; it is, and always will be, “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic.” This is true even despite the multiplicity of denominations and was true even before there were any visible institutions to designate the church. It is one because Christ is one, and Christ is its head, and all Christians everywhere are mystically united in him. Even in NT times, there began to be distinctions between groups of Christians—if not in institutions, at least in culture and theological focus—to the point where we might be able to call them “denominations” of Pauline Christians on the one hand and Jewish Christians on the other; to say nothing of later denominations like the Montanists, who in retrospect were probably more like modern-day Pentecostals than heretics. These denominations shared a common core of doctrine which was made clear in Scripture and attested to in the mainstream tradition of the early church—the full divinity and humanity of Christ, the oneness of God even within his plurality of persons, and the salvific meaning of Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. Beyond this common core there were a number of aspects which differed among denominations—cultural practices of piety, stronger focuses on different aspects of theology (while not discounting the theological foci of other denominations, rather simply a change of emphasis from one denomination to another), and different methods of organizing the offices and institutions of the church.

71.) Denominationalism: The Body of Christ as Broken and Beautiful - How, then, can we account for the fractured nature of the Christian church? As suggested above, this is simply the way it has always been. Though the Kingdom of God is a divine movement, the church is its human-institutional expression. As such, it is subject to error, sin, and broken relationships, and too often the denominational splits within Christianity, which have been present in every stage of its history, have been tragic, even rancorous. But through this brokenness God has wrought incredible beauty. This process within the church is a microcosm of the whole creation—just as the brokenness and pain of natural-developmental processes throughout the history of our world has resulted in the creation of many beautiful forms; so the brokenness of the church has continually opened up new vistas for thinking about theology, experiencing God in worship, and redeeming human cultures as part of the Kingdom of God. Is it any surprise, given the symbolism of the Eucharist, that “the Body of Christ” should be both broken and beautiful? Much like the mathematical enigma of fractals, showing endless creativity and beauty through the brokenness of their forms (as in the famous Mandelbrot set), so also the brokenness of our denominations has spawned a multitude of differing and beautiful forms in theology and worship. All of these orthodox Christian denominations, from Eastern Orthodoxy to Pentecostalism, show hard-to-deny signs of the fruit of the work of God among them. As such, I feel that I must affirm that all of them are indeed true manifestations of the Christian church, and no one of them can lay claim to being the one and only true church to the exclusion of all others. All denominations have Christ as their head, so even though they may not be institutionally united, they are mystically and ontologically one in Christ.

72.) Pursuing Absolute Truth in Doctrine - But, a skeptic might object, they can’t all be right. The Roman Catholics and the Baptists cannot both be right on the subject of the sacraments, because their views are contradictory. Quite so—they can’t both be right. But, surprisingly, it doesn’t seem to matter much to God. Otherwise, we might expect the matter to be more clearly laid out in the earliest authoritative sources of our faith—the teaching of Christ and the NT epistles. It is not; thus allowing for differing perspectives. If God did care deeply about the finer points of our wider doctrinal systems, one might expect him to be spurring large movements of sincere God-followers among the Baptists towards Roman Catholicism, or, if the truth is the other way, from RCs toward the Baptists. Rather, what we do see is many pious, thoughtful, God-led Christians of both camps remaining in their camps and at the same time trading some numbers relatively equally back and forth among each other. Based on this experiential evidence, we can infer that although one set of beliefs about sacraments must be right and the other wrong, it is not a topic of sufficient concern to God to persuade all of his followers to pursue the theology that is closest to true in all its points. What he seems to be doing is to be convicting his followers toward the common core of basic doctrine while allowing a great many differing opinions in peripheral theological matters.

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